Boundaries Can Push Us Too

I have one little darling this year who loves to throw a football around at recess every day. Unfortunately, he doesn’t love lining up and going in with our class. So the deal, lately, is that if he doesn’t line up and I have to send someone to get him, he can’t play on the field the next day. He has to stay in the playground area. It’s a lot harder to pretend he doesn’t know we’re lining up when he’s in the same space as most of his classmates.

Today was one of those days he was stuck on the playground. Every time I looked at him he seemed to be having a great time. In spite of that fact, I’m sure he’ll be back on the field throwing a football tomorrow, but I was glad to see him enjoying the playground today.

It got me thinking back to a session on inquiry I did recently. I’m a big believer in inquiry. I try to do it in my classroom often. But not always. I’m not that good, for one thing. But, also, I think we need parameters, prompts, or other things that push us in a different way sometimes. That may be exactly what we need to discover a new passion or strategy or story that we never could have imagined.

from Roger’s flickr

My kiddo on the playground was, for the majority of the time, involved in some serious imaginary play today. Entire worlds were being created around the jungle gym and slides. That’s not happening on the field with the football. Neither is better or worse than the other, but I’m glad he’s having time and opportunities for both.

Lessons Learned

This weekend I managed to get to a soccer game and see a few of my students play. With only one game left in the season they are undefeated. They are doing so well, this 10 and under team, that they are often beating their opponents by more than five goals.

from TheKilens flickr

Some years ago I played on a co-ed softball team with some colleagues and others. I don’t remember the exact rule in that league (as I’m not sure it ever impacted one of our games) but there was a slaughter rule. If one team was up by a set number of runs after a set number of innings, the game ended. That was it.

For this 10 and under soccer league they handle ‘slaughters’ a little differently. Once a team is up by five goals, they pull a player off the field. The dominating teams plays down one player. After a set number of more goals, they pull another player and play down two. That way the kids still play a full game but it levels the field a bit rather than have young kids deal with losing by double digits.

I heard some parents grumbling that this regulation was teaching kids that if you’re really good or skilled you’ll get pulled out. That seems absurd for a few reasons. First of all, I doubt any coach is pulling their most skilled players from the field first. Second, I think there are plenty of messages kids will get from the policy before they get that message.

But it got me thinking about the concerns adults have about what decisions, policies, and regulations are teaching kids. We do need to think about this and do so deeply and critically. It’s a pretty constant focus of reflection for me to consider how my actions, expectations, and such are sending kids very clear messages. And often not the messages I want to be sending.

I worry, though, that the adults in kids lives are far more likely to think carefully about the messages kids are getting from adults other than themselves and not enough about the messages they are sending. We restrict so many things in children’s lives without considering what messages that sends to them. The messages about how we don’t trust them. The messages about how they are not fully functioning humans.

We should be as thoughtful about the messages we are sending to children as we are about the messages they are getting from others.

Resources to Match the Needs

When I was ready to start teaching more than 20 years ago*, my now-husband was working on his PhD at Johns Hopkins University. I knew I didn’t want to teach in Baltimore City, even though I loved living there. This is not so much a failing on the city of Baltimore as it is on me. I knew if I began my career in such a challenging setting (a school system with as many difficulties as that one has) I would likely not have lasted as a teacher. I would have given up in the first few years. I have immense respect, so much respect, for teachers in school districts with serious challenges.

I convinced my now-husband to move to Northern Virginia once he was ABD (all but dissertation) so that I could teach in my current district. (In my defense, once he was ABD the research for his dissertation was all in Washington, D.C., Richmond, VA, and Pittsylvania County, VA so living in Northern Virginia definitely made at least as much sense as living in Baltimore.) I substitute taught and began to get to know where I might want to teach.

While I hadn’t wanted to teach in Baltimore, because I didn’t feel I would be successful there and kids deserve successful teachers, I wanted to serve students that really need strong teachers. Not that I was a strong teacher in the very beginning! Being in my current district seemed like the best of both worlds: we have plenty of students who need strong teachers in a district that has the resources to support teachers and kids.

My school district has more than 200 schools. Many of them are full of kids who come from financially stable homes. Kids whose families know the dominant culture and can navigate the schools on behalf of their kids. Which isn’t to say those kids don’t face challenges, as many of them do. It is simply to say they have advantages over kids whose families are not financially stable and don’t know how to navigate the system.

For my first 21 years of teaching I taught in schools that were mostly populated by students who were first or second generation immigrants. These students were mostly learning English, facing financial challenges, and had families that are still learning how to navigate systems in this country. Students who definitely needed teachers who would advocate for them in the system and do everything possible to ensure they had the knowledge and skills to be successful in the society in which they live.

This year, for the first time ever, I am teaching a class of students who have all grown up speaking English. (I have all of their last names memorized already and that has never happened because the majority of my students in previous years have had two last names as they were Latinx and it would take me longer to get them all down. Only one last name per kid is a new thing for me.) My school is not a Title I school, which would suggest that my students are in more financially stable families (although that’s a bit misleading, I believe). My current students definitely have advantages my previous students lacked.

That said, my current students are all in military families, with all that entails. Frequent change is definitely one thing that is true for them. Many of them move regularly. Many have parents who have or are deployed. And even if they aren’t moving, friends move away quite often. (In addition, right now lots of our students are displaced because their housing on post has mold. So just one more change in their lives.)

Many of my students have noticeable needs that go beyond and impact their academics. I am again grateful to be in a school district with lots of resources. We have three counselors provided by the school district. We have two instructional coaches. We have three assistant principals. (We do have nearly 1,000 students, so that is a factor in some of this staffing.) We have wonderful support from our central offices.

This means that my students have so much more than just me. In many school districts I’d be navigating a lot of these challenges in far more isolation. It is an absolute gift to have the people and tools available to me to help my students.


*I didn’t begin teaching directly out of college, although that had been my initial plan. Instead, I played the harp on a cruise ship for a bit. Before getting hired and between contracts on the ship, in order to have some income, I substitute taught and worked in a bookstore.

Today’s Celebrations

I met with a couple of guided writing groups today. This week I’ve finally been doing some serious writing conferences and meeting with targeted guided writing groups. That alone has been exciting. Talking to kids about their writing is such fun.

One group had done some great writing of personal narratives and I wanted to help them do some revising. They each picked the piece they want to publish and looked for dialogue in it. On the whole they didn’t find any because it’s not a natural thing for most kids to include in their writing. So we talked about what dialogue they could add and where in the story it belonged. They then wrote on post it notes to add these parts.

Also during our writing time I heard two students remark, not to me, on how they had used contractions in their writing. Fitting any kind of word study exploration into our day is a constant challenge for me but I put some in our morning messages every day. This week we’ve had contractions. And it’s clearly sinking in with some kiddos. Yay!

Knowing Kids is Critical

After my first five years of teaching, all in fourth grade, I looped with my class to fifth grade. Many people asked me if I was worried about learning all that new content. I know learning new content can be challenging but the other choice is to learn new kids. That is, in my mind, equally challenging.

I believe it takes me half a year to get to know my students really well. To know their strengths and challenges. To know how to support them when things are tough and when things are going well. To know when to push them forward and when to step back. To know how to ask them questions to figure out what’s going on or what they are thinking.

It’s one of the many things I love about being an elementary school teacher. I have 20-25 kids in my room, all day, every day. I have lots of opportunities to get to know them. I don’t know how middle school and high school teachers do it.

As we near the end of the first quarter of this year I am beginning to feel I know my students. Yesterday was a tough day for several of them and I felt like (by the end of the day, anyway) I had met them where they needed to be and supported them in the way they needed to be supported. All three of them. In addition, there were several other students I helped in individualized ways (helping one find the perfect book in the school library, helping another get back in the swing after a few days out sick, etc.).

This kid is super into Shakespeare. She wasn’t going to check anything out yesterday and we found this book together. She’s been devouring it ever since.

It wasn’t a perfect day by any stretch of the imagination. It was, however, the first day this year in which I felt I knew my students and was able to help them in the way they needed.

A Physical Reminder

For the first 16 years of my full-time teaching career I taught in a school that hosted a New Teacher Shower every spring. We actually included anyone who was new to the building (including pre-service teachers who were working in the school). It was a surprise and all of us who had been in the school before brought teacher goodies (some food, some school supplies,etc.) and new teachers walked away with a treasure trove of stuff. Plus we had food and a chance to just hang out and enjoy our time together. It was wonderful. I tried to get it going at my second school and we did it one year, but I couldn’t do all the work on my own to make it happen every year. Someday I hope to bring it back in whatever building I may be in at that time.

My first year, I was one of five new teachers to the building. (That was not the norm. Most years we showered a LOT of teachers.) A third grade teacher who was a close friend of mine made little flower pots for all of us with our names on them, decorated beautifully and filled with candy. Every year thereafter (at least for as long as I can remember) the fourth grade team (my team, at the time) continued that tradition.

My flower pot has held pens in my classroom for 21 years. I’ve had nine classrooms since then, five different grade levels, hundreds of students. It’s been a reminder to me of where I started. Of the fabulous people who supported me as a new teacher.

On Friday I tried to rearrange some things in my ‘desk’ area. I don’t have a teacher desk anymore, haven’t had one for quite a few years now. So I have a two-drawer filing cabinet, some drawers, and a bookcase to serve as my desk. I’m continually tweaking the space to maximize it and keep it as well organized as possible. In this process my flower pot full of pens ended up on a couple of small plastic drawers that were leaning at an angle, on top of a floor lamp that sits on my filing cabinet.

As my students were arriving, eating breakfast, responding to our morning message, and reading or drawing or chatting, I heard a crash. I turned to see all of the pens and highlighters scattered around the floor and my flower pot in pieces. A couple of students immediately headed over and began picking up the pens and highlighters.

I fought back tears as I thanked them for their help and picked up the pieces. I put the flower pot on my table, debating whether or not it could be glued back together. Remembering my friend Jill and how she had started a tradition that meant so much to me with these flower pots we all had. Flower pots that are now in classrooms all across my school district and neighboring districts.

I’ve been reading books in the Maisie Dobbs series lately as I walk on the treadmill at the gym. The title character was born in poverty around 1900 in London. She is in service to a wealthy family as a young girl and learns to read and has a hunger for learning. Due to many fortuitous circumstances she gets the opportunity to go to college. All of the servants with whom she works pitch in and buy her a lovely bag to use there. She uses it through college and for many years thereafter. In a book I read recently it is stolen and ends up recovered by the police but covered in blood and ruined. She lets it go.

I thought of that Friday morning as I looked at these pieces lying on the floor. I’m not good at letting go of things. I really wanted to rewind and start again. I wanted to glue the pieces back together. My students were so helpful and so kind. I didn’t want them to see how much this upset me. Finally I took the pieces and dropped them in the trash can beside my table. I could learn from Maisie and let this go.

The people who helped me in my early years of teaching aren’t going to change because I no longer have that flower pot. The students I taught will continue to do well (or not) regardless of whether that flower pot is in my classroom or not. The lessons I learned in all the years that flower pot was there beside me will still reside in me.

I don’t need that physical item to make all that true. I will remain the teacher I am with or without it. But I will miss it.

Moving Foward

Today was hard. Really hard.

Upon reflection, things are definitely better at school than they were in the first two or three weeks of the year. We have definitely made progress. And yet…

In some ways, this year so far, has been like seeing my teaching life under a microscope. Everything seems magnified. Everything is at its extreme.

At recess I had a conversation with a colleague and I said that I have never worked so hard to build relationships and still had kids not seem convinced that I’m on their side, that I’ve got their back. I don’t know if this is just this specific group of kids or if this is related to the fact that I teach military kids. It could be that these kids have so many people moving out of their lives regularly and that they move frequently and so they are less willing to invest in others. I could believe that but I don’t know that it’s true.

Regardless, I am working far harder than I ever have before. In many different ways.

I truly believe that kids don’t misbehave because they enjoy it. I truly believe that kids don’t misbehave just to annoy us. (At least not the majority of the time.) In general, I truly believe that kids misbehave because there is something going on, something making things difficult for them. They need our help to deal with whatever is making things harder for them.

Image result for lost at school

So, this weekend I’ve got some copies of the pages from Lost at School to help me think through what I’m seeing with a few kids. Hopefully this will help me think through the ways I can approach them to do some problem solving together around the challenges they seem to be facing. It won’t be some magical fix, I can accept that. But I need to know that we’re moving in the right direction.

Being Kind to Myself & the Kids

This morning we were in the final stages (at least I need to believe it’s the final stages) of sorting books in our classroom library. One of my precious little boys was super excited about the piles of books he was creating. He was so proud of his work.

Our classroom library needs to NOT be under construction anymore.

Another student told him those piles wouldn’t work because we need more than just a few books in each basket (an idea I have to keep reiterating). She was right but he got super upset. He started crying and saying how he’d messed up and done it wrong. Of course, what he was doing wasn’t wrong. It was a first step. Every basket starts with a few books. If we find enough that go together, we make a basket. If not, we find a basket for those few books.

But he couldn’t hear me saying this. He was too upset. I kept repeating that he hadn’t done anything wrong, that this is exactly how we started every basket. Once he had calmed down enough to hear me I told him again that what he was doing was right. I also told him that it made me sad to see him be so unkind to himself. I told him how much I like him and how I don’t want anyone, him included, to be mean to him.

It was a conversation we had to come back to later in the day when he got frustrated during math. I’m sure it’s a conversation we’ll come back to again and again all year.

As I was leaving school today my internal conversation was a conflict between the satisfaction I felt with things I had done well today and the frustration I felt with the things I had definitely not done well. I found myself trying to celebrate the positives but unwilling to let them overshadow the ways in which I felt I failed kids.

I can accept that I can’t be everything for everyone. I may not like it, but I can accept it. That I will fail sometimes is a given. In fact, I believe it’s often where the best growth happens, at least for me. However, lately I feel like I am failing a few kids because I am not showing them the patience, the care, and the love they need and deserve. I keep thinking about it. I keep being frustrated by it. I keep wanting to do better. And I keep failing.

This is the one place where failure is absolutely unacceptable to me. I am the adult in that classroom and if I am unable to rise above my own emotions and issues then I can’t possibly expect eight year olds to do so.

Over the next few days I’m going back to Lost at School. It’s time to try something new in the hopes of doing better by these kiddos.

Change is Hard

I’m thinking a lot these days about the challenges of change. I changed schools this year and I was prepared for it to be difficult, but I underestimated how hard it would be. There are so many things about change that make it hard. In this instance, there’s not knowing my teammates, not knowing my student and family population, not knowing the norms and traditions of my school, not knowing anything about military life (something that would be super useful)… There’s so much more I don’t know that is a result of this change. I signed on for this, I knew it would be rough, I’ll be fine.

My students, on the other hand, are adapting to change constantly. Possibly it’s change like the girl who moved to Germany two weeks ago. Possibly it’s change like for my two (at least) students who have a parent who deployed this month. Possibly it’s change like for the three students who are living in temporary housing because of mold in their homes. That just skims the surface of the change in my students’ lives.

I actually believe in the benefits of change. There’s a reason I’ve taught five different grade levels in three different schools. Lack of change can be stifling. That doesn’t change the fact that change is hard.

Blood Donation as Metaphor

Several years ago I participated in my first Invitational Summer Institute with the Northern Virginia Writing Project. There are many things I still hold on to from that four week experience but the one that struck me yesterday was a model lesson from a high school English teacher. She shared about a unit she does with her students around profiles. They read a bunch of profiles of different people, some famous and some not, published in newspapers or magazines. Then they choose a member of their community, interview them, and write a profile of them. Those profiles are shared at a public event one evening at the end of the unit. It is inspirational and brilliant.

It came to mind yesterday as I was giving blood. I was donating platelets so the process, once the donation actually got started, lasted about an hour. Plenty of time to read and think.

At one point I glanced over at the monitor and noticed my blood type, B+, in the midst of all the information there. I can remember my blood type because I’ve always felt it fits me. Being positive is a goal in my life.

Sitting there, squeezing the little stress ball every few seconds until the monitor told me blood was being returned to my body and I needed to relax for a bit before squeezing again, I thought, “If someone were to write a profile of me they could start it with this.”

I sat there, mentally composing the beginning of that profile. The idea of having B+ blood as a metaphor for my personality and my regular blood donation as a spreading of that positivity to others.

from Howard Lake’s flickr

If you can give blood, please do. There are many reasons people can’t give blood. So if you can, your blood is much needed.