Reasons I Am Awesome, #2

I’m lazy.

That may not seem like a reason someone would be awesome. It does feel counter-intuitive. However, there are definitely ways in which my laziness makes me a better teacher.

One of those ways is that I don’t want to do anything the kids can do for themselves. This has been true when I taught 5th graders and when I taught kindergartners. It’s their class and their space and they should own it. Plus, there’s plenty for me to do that they can’t, so there’s no reason why I should take on any tasks they can do!

I don’t use our overhead lights. Instead, I have a floor lamp in every corner and a couple of ropes of lights above my bulletin board and whiteboard. In each corner there’s a power strip for the lights. When the kids arrive in the morning, they turn them all on. They unstack chairs as they get ready for breakfast.

Every student has a job they applied for in the first month of school. They’ll have these jobs for the first quarter and then they’ll apply again for new ones. So they wash tables, sweep, stack chairs at the end of the day, keep our library organized, turn off the lights before they leave, organize all our materials (pens, crayons, scissors, glue, etc.), deliver our library books, return our breakfast coolers, take care of our Wednesday folders (folders with information from the school or classroom that go home every week), and tell me who is absent so I can take attendance. They run our classroom.

We also have jobs that change every day. Some are typical elementary school jobs: line leader and door holder. Jobs they love so they get to do them about once a month. Other jobs are less typical.

Our meeting manager runs the morning meeting. They choose the greeting, pick kids who want to share, choose our activity, and lead the reading of the morning message. I participate (most days) but they are in charge. Our personal trainer chooses which GoNoodle activities we do after lunch. I picked for the first few weeks so that we were familiar with a lot of different ones but now they choose.

Soon we’ll start the tweeter job (I’ve had trouble this year getting all the little things to fit into our schedule and this is one that isn’t a routine yet, sadly). At the end of the day someone will compose a tweet about our day. If we have time, others can add tweets or send tweets to authors we love. I’m not sure calendar is going to happen this year so that job may not exist. Photographer will depend on whether or not our class cameras are still in decent shape. In the past that was one student’s job for the day. They wore the camera on a lanyard around their neck and took pictures all day. They capture pictures that would never cross my mind.

As Gary Stager frequently reminds me, “Less us, more them.” He’s thinking far more broadly than I’ve discussed here, but the idea fits.

Reasons I’m Awesome, #1

Like many teachers, I think, I am hard on myself. I focus a lot on all of the things that I am not doing or not doing well or doing terribly. It’s a bit overwhelming and exhausting. So I’ve decided to focus on the things I do well. I’m going to step out of my comfort zone and write all about how awesome I am (in order to convince myself that I’m not as bad as it seems at times).

For several years now I have sent my students postcards. I try to send them one every quarter. Last year I managed to do that and sent them one for spring break and one in the summer. It was a good year. This year I’ve sent two postcards every week so far so I am definitely on track to get every kiddo a postcard every quarter.

I do this because I want to share with families the awesome stuff kiddos are doing. I write the postcard to the kids because its super fun for them to get mail and I’m sure their parents will see the cards as well. (Plus, it makes my day when kids greet me in the morning with, “You sent me a card!” as if I might not have realized.)

These aren’t actually postcards but they capture the same idea. The local library has an educator evening and invites teachers from the nearby elementary schools. We all get free kids books as well as snacks and other goodies. This year I picked books for each kid and wrote them a note about it. I used to let kids pick from the bunch, but a colleague told me she chooses for the kids and wraps the books. (I’m way too lazy to wrap anything.) But the more I thought about it, the more it made sense to me. There’s a personal touch to choosing a book for a student. So my kiddos all got a book with a note from me.

Anyway, one of my kiddos from last year brought me this note a few weeks ago.

I covered her name, but the first page makes me laugh. I am always amused when kiddos tell me I’m the best n’th grade teacher they’ve ever had. I’m the only one, but whatever!

The second page makes me smile and tear up. What a generous student. How lucky I am to still get to engage with her now that she is no longer in my class? What a gift.

Lists for Books to Read

Last year I was really good about doing book talks two or three times a week. It was built into our schedule and I planned for them regularly. I worked to share a wide range of fiction and nonfiction at a variety of levels. My goal was to do the same this year. Six weeks into the school year I am struggling to figure out where some things fit in our day and this is one of them. So book talks have been sporadic. I’ve done some, but not nearly two or three a week.

When I do one many kids want to read the book. So I ask them who wants to read it and we make a list on a post-it note. The note goes on the cover of the book and as kiddos finish it they pass it on to the next person on the list. Hands Around the Library: Protecting Egypt’s Treasured Books was book talked a couple of weeks ago and it is still working its way through our class, down the list.

We also have “Books To Read” notebooks, small memo books we can use for this purpose. We keep them in our book boxes and add books as we desire. If I book talk something (on those rare occasions) and you don’t want to wait for the long list ahead of you, add the book to your “Books to Read” notebook and take it with you to the school library. If a friend is reading something that looks interesting, add it to your notebook. If you read a book in a series and we don’t have the next one, add it to your notebook. There is very little that makes my heart sing as much as watching eight-year-olds look in the library catalog for the books in their “Books to Read” notebook. Joy.

Anyway, the post-it note plan for book talks worked well last year and has been effective so far, on the few books, this year. Last week I noticed something new.

I started seeing books like this in my kiddos’ book boxes. I didn’t book talk this book (although I love it). It is in our library along with hundreds of other books. Someone started reading it. Other kiddos either heard about it or noticed it or in some way became interested. They began their own post-it note list. There are two names here in green crayon that were likely added at the same time. Then one more name was added at the bottom in black crayon. They’ve created their own list of who wants the book next. Completely independent of me.

I am working myself out of a job or they’re moving on without me and I couldn’t be happier.

Our ‘Finished’ Classroom Library

For the first six weeks of school we were working on our classroom library. I wrote about it early on and then again mid-way through the process. The images here were taken when we were nearing the end of our sorting of books. I say ‘nearing the end’ but the fact is we still have books we haven’t sorted and I think we’re finished with the set up. We aren’t finished with the library. That won’t be true until it’s packed up again in June. It will be a work in progress all year.

On Friday we ‘finalized’ the library as much as we will ever do. The kiddos made permanent signs for the baskets and my daughters laminated them and hung them yesterday on the teacher workday. (They have strong  feelings about what it means to be the kids of teachers…) Our nonfiction baskets all have yellow signs and our fiction baskets have white signs.

In the nonfiction area we tried to group things a bit. For example, the basket of Brad Meltzer’s I Am books (really Ordinary People Change the World, but my kiddos call them I Am books) is beside the basket of Famous People books. The baskets for Mammals books, Reptile and Amphibian books, Dinosaur books, Mixed Animal books, and such are all together.

In the fiction section we have all the baskets of books by certain authors together, then the baskets of books by series, and then the thematic baskets. The thematic baskets are my favorites because they vary every year. We have Princess books (I’m pretending that’s okay with me because it’s their library), Scary books, Books with Problems, Friend books, Mystery books, President books (which are mostly books about voting and being good citizens but they name the baskets), and more.

Our library stretches across a good half of our room. It’s clearly an important part of our space and our community. They planned it, they created it, they made it happen. Two kiddos are our librarians who check our library in the afternoons to be sure it is neat and organized. It’s usually a pretty easy job because the kiddos keep it surprisingly well taken care of. Well, maybe not too surprisingly because they own that space. They are invested in it.

The time we spent on making this happen was significant. There are many things we didn’t do while we did this. I have faith that this investment of time and energy will pay off all year. I have faith their ownership over our library makes them more engaged readers. I have faith this six weeks will play a role in them being life-long readers. I have faith it was totally worth it.

Drop Everything and Read

At a minimum I have four tabs open (one for general use, one with my to-do list, one for tweetdeck, and one for my RSS reader). Right now I have 35. Some of those tabs have been open for weeks, waiting for me to do whatever it is I was planning to do with them. At some point this begins to cause low-grade panic on a regular basis because something could go wrong and I could lose all those tabs. They could just not show up when I open my browser one day! Then all that potential could be lost. I’m sure there are healthier ways to go through life but I know who I am.

This morning I am finally prioritizing sharing some of the pieces I’ve kept open for far too long. I won’t say I haven’t had time for this before now. Dean Shareski convinced me some time ago that we have time for whatever we are willing to prioritize. I haven’t prioritized this. I am now.

That face on the left? That’s me.

Nearly a month ago Amal Giknis wrote a piece that would have been more useful if I’d shared it then, at the start of the school year. Read it now and hang on to the ideas for next year, but also the bigger ideas of how much our identities matter and how we need others to truly see us. Being an elementary school teacher makes learning students’ names a little easier as I usually have about twenty to learn. By the end of the first day I’ve got their first names down, although I may still be working on pronunciation. (I’ll admit that with six weeks behind us I still don’t have their last names memorized.)

I tell them all about my name.
What it means and what it means to me.
Why my parents gave it to me, and how their story shapes mine.
How it’s pronounced and how it’s often mispronounced.
My conflicted choice to change my name when I got married.
And how I dreaded the first day of school when teachers would mess up my name.
About the same time, Leslie Doyle wrote White Power Signalling, and “Pretending’ to Take the Mean Pills. I’ve never seen the Casper the Friendly Ghost episode she references and I’m grateful for that. But her analogy is strong.She writes about the white power signal that has been seen in images and videos fairly often lately and how frequently the response is that it was just a joke.
But let’s think about that. What actually is the difference between pretending to flash a white supremacist message, and really doing so? Who would take ownership of that message who didn’t assent to it at some level?
I have never met Leslie in person but reading her words always makes me think I know her. She is a phenomenal writer so please don’t take my synopsis here on its own.
Nate Bowling is another I haven’t had the chance to meet in person but am so glad to get to know through his writing. I live in Virginia which is “Right to Work” state so strikes are something foreign to me. His piece, A Tacoma Teacher Strike Reflection, was a window for me into a world I don’t know but also a powerful reflection on our profession in many ways. He writes to the community (families, other public servants, and students. Nate sees the profession in the context of the community and society. He recognizes the reasons the strike challenges that and supports that.
Someday I hope to be in the same physical space as Sherri Spelic. Her presence on twitter is such a gift. She lifts others, she asks important questions, and she brings people into conversations. This piece, Anti-Racist Parenting While White: An Inquiry would have sat open in a tab even if I weren’t planning to share it in some way because I needed it to sit with me. I needed to go back to it again and again. The responses to her questions in this piece are fascinating and thought-provoking but the questions themselves are the real gut punch as a white parent. I should have them hanging everywhere around me as a reminder.
How do you talk to your child or children about racism? What led you to open or continue the conversation?
What have you learned from your child or children about their understanding of race and racism? Under what circumstances have they shared their experiences which involved racial aspects?
What have been the most challenging barriers you’ve encountered in attempting to lay an anti-racist foundation in your child’s life or children’s lives?
Please tell us a success story of anti-racist parenting.
Read those again. Let them sink in. Let them become a part of who you are and your daily thinking.
Be the Lighthouse from Julia Torres spoke to me for several reasons.
As they say, the devil is in the details.  For me, the most important detail is making sure children are not forgotten in all the shuffling, re-shuffling, and adult chaos that bubbles up at the beginning of the year.
Two decades into teaching and I have learned to recognize the people for whom this is true. The people who are ‘making sure children are not forgotten’. That sounds a little silly but it is amazing how easy it is for the children to be forgotten in the midst of everything it takes to do these jobs.
Changing lanes will force you to realize your limitations.
If you’ve spent many years teaching the same grade level, the same content, you will not understand this. Realizing your limitations is an important thing to do. Changing lanes forces you to be a better teacher.
And this idea of being a light-house, wow…
Being a teacher-librarian who needs to be a lighthouse for everyone to find safe harbor, rather than just a select few, is challenging….
I’ve also realized that as teachers we have academic content and skills to teach, but also social-emotional learning skills and content. When I work on the balance between the two I will always err on the side of the social-emotional learning. I just hadn’t realized my goal to ‘be a lighthouse’ for my students to find safe harbor and to help them become their own light-houses.
 Asking questions is critical, in my mind, to being a learner and growing. So it isn’t surprising that this post from Michelle Haseltine was one I wanted to reread. Her questions range from ones that seem fairly straightforward:
How can I find a way to better organize their notebooks?
to ones that really made me stop in my tracks:
Why do I do what I’m doing in the classroom?
Her questions about grading and tests are ones I think about a lot. As well as her questions about balance. I’m with her on the importance of asking questions, even if we don’t have answers. Yet.
Just this morning I read Zac Chase’s piece I Bet Killing a Mockingbird Wouldn’t Be So Bad. When I first began reading it reminded me of the work being done around #DisruptTexts on twitter. Brilliant work and a hashtag well worth following. Zac examines why we teach To Kill a Mockingbird and whether or not those reasons make it worth it. (Spoiler alert, they don’t, at least not if we’re requiring students to read it.)
These are not the lessons we would explicitly teach children. If this is so, then we must be more on guard against implicitly passing these ideas along as truths. What goes unexamined or is understood as condoned through silence shapes how our students understand and interact with one another and the world.
Read Zac’s post, but also jump on the #DisruptTexts hashtag on twitter and see how much more there is to think about and examine when it comes to the texts we are assigning students.
Finally, the past few weeks have been emotionally very difficult for me. For many of us. As a woman and as a rape survivor this has been demeaning, punishing, and disheartening. This morning Shanna Peeples lifted me up.
This is hard and it will get harder. It will break your heart over and over, like everything we love will do. But as Leonard Cohen reminds us, the cracks in our brokenness are how the light gets in.
The light has been hard to see. The reminder that it is still there, that we are the light, that together we can shine it brighter than before, was a reminder that I desperately needed.
I’ve had an RSS reader for more than a decade. But it still amazes me how much learning, thinking, and joy that tool brings into my life. None of the people here are in my day-to-day life in person. I do see some of them sometimes, but none of them regularly. Several I’ve never met. But they all have touched me and helped me through sharing themselves in their writing.

Capturing Facial Expressions

I take lots of pictures in my classroom. I post many of them on our class website so families have a window into our days. I also print some of them out to post in our classroom and to share with families. So I try to take pictures often, but I also don’t want it to take up a lot of my time or distract the students. Although, to be honest, by this point they’re pretty used to it!

Typically I go back through the pictures on the weekend and prep them to post (mostly by making them smaller but also making sure there aren’t any that I don’t want to share). When I do so I am often struck by what I see that I had totally missed as I quickly took the photos. These facial expressions are so great. (These pictures were all taken last week.)


Performance Patriotism

from Raul Luna’s flickr

Have you seen this story? A high school senior was expelled because she didn’t stand for the Pledge of Allegiance.

“School children cannot unilaterally refuse to participate in the pledge,” Paxton said in a news release. “The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly held that parents have a fundamental interest in guiding the education and upbringing of their children, which is a critical aspect of liberty guaranteed by the Constitution.”

A critical aspect of liberty? Treating a high school senior like a dangerous person and expelling her because she didn’t stand? Apparently Texas law allows parents to opt their children out of standing for the pledge but the children themselves can’t make that choice. What are we teaching them?

In Virginia we are required by law to say the pledge everyday and have a minute of silence (and it’s a minute, not a moment – some of us checked that at one point). Currently it’s a part of our morning news show so we do it everyday. In the years when my school didn’t have a morning news show, the pledge didn’t happen in my classroom. I don’t see a lot of value in having kids repeat words every day without any thought about them. I don’t think it has much meaning. Maybe not any meaning.

It’s one example of performance patriotism. It’s not about actually being patriotic, about actually loving this country, wanting to work for the best in this country. It’s about acting.

On September 11th I was chastised for not wearing red, white, and blue. If you want to wear red, white, and blue on September 11th or July 4th or any other day, feel free. But it doesn’t make you more of a patriot than I am in my jeans and green t-shirt.

Do a quick search on “American flag clothing” and see the options. Some of them are cute, some are even relatively classy, and some are just horrifying. I can’t unsee those items. Some of those clothing options don’t seem terribly respectful to our flag. But people don’t complain about that. They complain about a high school senior who doesn’t stand for the pledge.

I was lucky enough to be born in this country. It isn’t a perfect country. But that’s okay because perfect countries don’t exist. We should always be working to make this country even better. That isn’t done by waving flags and wearing red, white, and blue. There’s nothing wrong with doing those things. Nothing at all. But don’t stop there.

Write to your elected officials – at all levels – when they do things right and when they screw up.
Learn about your community and important issues there.
Support your local schools, libraries, police departments, fire departments, and more.
Be willing to be a ‘critical friend’ and recognize when we could be doing better.

And if you want, wave a flag and wear red, white, and blue. But please, please, don’t assume that someone who doesn’t do so cares less about this country than you do.

Adventurous, Wise, Athletic, Etc.

These are my daughter’s gerbils. The white one is Zoe and her sister is Dane (named after characters from books by Tamora Pierce). In recent months they have been quite adventurous. Zoe escaped frequently, once she was out for a week before we managed to catch her and return her to the cage. Dane seemed to stay put. We decided Zoe was adventurous and Dane was more of a homebody. Then Dane escaped one day. We got her back relatively quickly. Not long after we got home to find them both out. Over time we decided that Zoe is adventurous and Dane is wise. In their new cage (one that hopefully will actually contain them) Dane is using the exercise wheel, something neither have done before. So Dane is the athletic one.

We’ve given these gerbils labels based on what we’ve observed. They seem accurate to us. They fit what we know.

The problem is there is much we don’t know. Our knowledge and understanding of these little cuties is exceptionally limited. There are many, many hours in which we do not observe them. And our understanding of what we are observing is based on limited knowledge of gerbils.

Another problem is that once we have given Zoe and Dane these labels, it is quite possible that what we observe now fits those labels. We notice the things that make Dane seem smart but not the ways Zoe might be. We see what we expect to see.

This is even more true, I believe, when we’re talking about people. On a trip to Colonial Williamsburg a couple of years ago I took my daughters on a carriage ride. The oldest looked all around as we rode, checking out the architecture, the people, both tourists and historical actors. The youngest spent some time looking behind us and down. When I asked her why she explained that she was waiting for the horses to poop so she could compare fresh horse poop to the older stuff all along the streets. She wanted to be able to figure out how old horse poop is when she sees it. In that moment I decided that my oldest is a social scientist and the youngest is a hard scientist. I said that to them and they nodded agreement. When I shared it with my husband later he did the same.

Since then it’s come up on occasion and we’ve reinforced it. Not intentionally. But by noting examples that fit our labels as they happen. Maybe these labels are spot on for who our girls are. But maybe not. And they are still relatively young. Will these labels still fit as they grow? Have we set them up to grow in a specific direction?

This isn’t the first time I’ve felt a need to write about labels and how they effect people. Not even the first time this month.

I recognize that we need ways to ensure students get the support they need in order to make progress and learn and grow. I recognize that funding is limited and we have to justify our decisions. I just wonder how much damage we are doing to some students by labeling them.

Learning From My Former Students

A little after 5:00 this morning I was on my stationary bike and opening up my email. (I should have been at the gym, on the treadmill, with my book on my kindle, but that didn’t happen today.) Riding the stationary bike is a decent workout, but not a great one, but it does allow me to exercise and spend my morning time on email, twitter, FB, and my RSS reader. Which is how I like to spend my mornings before my kids are up.

This is my stationary bike. It folds up nicely when I’m not using it.

Anyway, in the dark, barely awake, I opened my email expecting the typical political spam that dominates my email. That was there. So was an email from a former student. She and I have been writing back and forth for the past few months, although I haven’t heard from her as often now that school has begun. She moved about an hour away near the end of the year she was in my class, a couple of years ago. I was thrilled when she called me at school one day last year and I gave her my email address so we could keep in touch.

The email this morning was short, as they usually are. It was also so hard to read that as soon as I read it I closed it. I couldn’t yet respond. She wrote about a significant challenge in her life and her frustration. I can’t do anything to help her with that challenge, other than be there by email for her. Which feels like nothing. So I closed the email and did other things while I rode.

I did go back and write to her. That wasn’t an email I was willing to let sit any longer than necessary.

It reminded me of one of my kiddos from last year who is having a rough time. She is still at our school and we have a notebook we share. We write to each other almost every day and pass it back and forth. Again, it isn’t much but I feel like I am doing what I can to help her. (She also has an awesome teacher who is doing plenty to help.)

Thinking about these two is hard for me because they are going through so much at such young ages and I feel powerless to help them. As an adult in their lives it feels like I should be able to do more.

But…what about all the other young people who are going through so much but don’t tell us about it? How many of my former students (and current students) are facing immense challenges and keeping them to themselves? How many am I powerless to help because I am blind to their needs?

I am grateful these two girls have advocated for themselves and let us know they are hurting and having difficult times. It allows us to support them in whatever ways we can. My heart breaks for those kids who haven’t shared, for whatever reason.

Pipsqueaks, Slowpokes, and Stinkers

In the next couple of days we will receive our ladybug larvae. Over the coming weeks we’ll watch those larvae become pupa and then adult ladybugs. It’s always a fun experience (if a bit stressful for me as I don’t like to be responsible for ensuring living things continue living). In preparation we’ve been exploring some things about ladybugs, including the physical and behavioral adaptations that help them survive.

This was perfect because it let me bring in another book I wanted to read for our Mock Orbis Award exploration. The book is Pipsqueaks, Slowpokes, and Stinkers: Celebrating Animal Underdogs by Melissa Stewart and illustrated by Stephanie Laberis.

It starts off with two tiny little animals and continues throughout looking at many animals that were completely new to me. There are familiar names (koala, armadillo, tortoise) but there are also okapi, Etruscan pygmy shrews, hoatzins, and zorillas. (Those last two are uncommon enough that my browser is convinced I misspelled them. I did not.)

The illustrations are whimsical, as you can see from the cover, and they match well with the writing style in this book. Melissa Stewart is such a skilled writer. She has authored titles for several nonfiction series that I know and love: Which Animal is Which? series, National Geographic Kids, and A True Book series. I didn’t even realize how many of her books I owned until I did a little research after reading this one.

The pages don’t have a lot of text on them, just a sentence or few on each one. It’s perfect. There’s enough there to give you some good, interesting, and fun information and to spark some great conversations. The very end of the book has just a little more about each of the animals, for those readers who aren’t ready to quit.

It was also perfect as a match to our work in science this week. Thinking about the physical and behavioral adaptations of all of these animals deepened my students’ understanding of those ideas. And they were having such fun with the book they likely didn’t even notice!