Meaningful Engagement

I’m justifying using this photo, which I took on a walk yesterday, by saying that I’m getting at the root of some issues. Really, I just wanted to use this photo.

I teach 3rd graders. Twenty of them, at the moment. Nothing I do is going to genuinely interest all of them at any time. Some will stick with me because they’ve been trained to behave that way. Others will stick with me because they don’t want to make me feel bad. Some will stick with me because they are actually interested in what we’re doing. And who fits into which group can be constantly shifting. (This could also be said about my undergraduates.)

I’m okay with that. I’m not striving for constant attention from twenty eight-year-olds all the time. I also know that there are many distractions at school, whether school is in our building or in their homes. I just don’t see or hear many of the distractions when they are in their home and I’m in my home.

Of my twenty kiddos, I’ve noticed two who seem to be checked out often. They don’t speak up often (although they do speak up some) and I notice they don’t always click on links to interactive slides or such. So this morning I scheduled some one-on-one time with each of them. (Monday mornings are designated for small group time in my district.) I told them each that I had noticed they seemed distracted some and I wondered if they had noticed it too. Both told me they had.

One shared that there are days when both parents are at work outside of the home and the older siblings are in school too. They all have different daily schedules and this student is finding their movements around the house to be distracting. I inferred that when dad is home, he helps keep everyone on track too.

The other student said that the family dog and the younger sister (who has special needs) both cause distractions. This student also mentioned how distracting it is when certain students turn on their mics to talk because their homes are quite loud.

I then asked each of them what I could do to help them or if they had any ideas of strategies they could try to help themselves. The first student felt it would be helpful if I checked in regularly. That might be me asking that student for their thoughts more frequently or sending private messages in the chat to check in. Just more frequent reminders to engage.

The second student asked that everything be repeated three times because it can be hard to hear. I pushed back against that, as it seems a bit unreasonable and boring for those who are constantly engaged, but we agreed that directions and big ideas could be added to the chat to be sure no one missed them.

These two, short conversations with kids were so helpful for me. I hadn’t really considered (and it pains me to admit to it) that some students may not be hearing everything for a variety of reasons and not want to ask for things to be repeated. I can be far more proactive about that.

My goals this morning were two-fold. I wanted to problem solve with these kiddos in the hopes of increasing their engagement and building their strategies and I wanted to check in with them and remind them that I care about them and am invested in them.

I didn’t anticipate learning as much as I did. I should have, but I didn’t.

Controlling My Responses

After eight years of teaching fourth and fifth graders I made the move to teach our local level IV fifth grade class (my district has four levels of advanced academic program services, otherwise known as gifted services and level IV sends students to special centers to be in special classes all day – some schools have opted to offer local level IV classes rather than have those students leave their neighborhood school and go to a center – I have many thoughts on this). It seemed like a new challenge and I was in need of that.

In my 7th year of teaching I had the phenomenal opportunity to coteach language arts with our literacy coach. We managed to finagle things and coteach together again the following year, my first year with the level IV class. On the second day of school, our literacy coach came in and did an interactive read aloud with the class. At her first stopping point they all immediately turned to a neighbor and began discussing the text. She waited. And waited. And waited. I finally leaned in and whispered, “They’ll just keep talking.” Our experience had been that we could wait for a natural pause in the conversations and move on. That wasn’t so true with that group of kiddos.

Another difference I found was that I had to repeat directions more frequently than in the past. I don’t know if my kiddos didn’t feel they needed to listen to the full set of directions, if they got distracted after the beginning with their brains going off on tangents, or what it was. But I had to repeat directions frequently. I eventually got smart and made notes on the board to help remember directions.

Right now, in a fully virtual environment, I am repeating directions a lot. I’m not giving complex sets of directions, by any means. But kids are asking me again and again what they are supposed to be doing. I will admit to finding it frustrating.

At the same time, I recognize that there may be many distractions for my students that I can’t see or hear. A parent or sibling may have asked a question or needed help with something. They may have needed to run to the bathroom or grab a drink of water. Maybe they were just distracted because they’re human and we get distracted. I have no idea why they missed my directions. But I get to decide if my response is one of patience, assuming they had a reason I’d see as valid, or annoyed because I’m assuming they don’t. No matter how annoyed I may be feeling, I am working to keep that emotion out of my voice and of my face as I repeat directions. As many times as necessary.

It has also occurred to me that in our physical classroom space, kids have another option when they’ve spaced out and missed directions. They watch their classmates. They look around to see what they should be doing. Or even quietly ask a friend what to do. They have strategies for problem solving in those moments that don’t exist for them right now.

Sometimes the calendar one of my students gave me last Christmas really hits home. This is a reminder to myself about my students, my family, and me.

There truly are some things about this moment that are wonderful but there are many things that are challenging. I am trying to remember that it is not only challenging for me, it is also challenging for my kiddos. (And I say all of this thinking of my third graders and of my undergrads. We’re all facing so many of the same challenges.) I would rather show too much patience to a student who is goofing off and not being responsible than to not show enough patience to a student who is working hard in the face of many obstacles. I want to err on the side of care.

Opportunities Flying By

This moment is such an amazing opportunity to rethink things, shift the way we do things, and really try new ideas. The opportunity is right there.

But instead I find myself drowning in trying to figure out how to do what I’m used to doing, just virtually. Pausing to really question and innovate isn’t happening. I can’t figure out how to make it happen. I need brain space and I need time when I feel like I can slow down and think deeply. I don’t have either of those things right now. It’s as if I am in a batting cage and balls are flying at me. I know there is a better way for me to hit the balls but they just keep coming and I don’t have the chance to plan for something different.

from Gunther Hagleitner’s flickr

I am feeling all of the emotions these days and feeling them all so strongly. I’m trying to remember to see the positives, because they do exist. Even now. But I’m also immensely frustrated by the lost opportunities.

Maybe there are teachers, leaders, schools, and districts who are doing this. Who are taking this moment to reconsider what they’ve always done. Maybe. I hope so because I want to be able to learn from them.

Finding Humor

As teachers we aren’t supposed to have favorites. But let’s be real, we’re human. I have taught hundreds of kids over the past two decades and I have loved (most of) them. There are definitely kids that have stuck out and stuck with me though. Four weeks into this school year I can already identify two that I think will fit that category. I have a delightful class this year. I know it. I hear it from the special education teacher and instructional assistants who support my kiddos and me. I hear it from the music and art teachers my kids see. My class is awesome.

One of the ones who really sticks out is one I got to meet in person when we did laptop distribution. She’s new to our school, as our many of kids because we’re on a military post. She’s an only child and she’s an absolute hoot. Last week, during one morning meeting, we did a movement greeting. (Coming up with fun, meaningful greetings for virtual morning meetings is not one of my favorite things.) In a movement greeting, students say good morning and share a movement they are doing. For example, “Good morning, I’m jumping.” Then the rest of us copy them. (Or don’t. It’s virtual. We can’t see everyone. It’s all good.) This specific student, when greeting us, said, “Good morning! I’m sinking into despair because of this virus.” It was said in a upbeat, cheery tone. I had to mute myself while I lost it.

This morning I had to take my students through the process of logging onto our district’s site for online assessments. The number of reasons I hate this are more than I can count. I hate it when we’re in school together and I hate it even more right now. My 13 year old had an assessment that was complete but could be retaken so we worked together to make a screencast video of the steps for logging in. There are quite a few. Then we went slowly through the process this morning as a class. It was not fun. I went super slowly because some students have iffy internet and I didn’t want to lose them as their devices loaded.

The student I mentioned above raised her hand at one point. I asked if she had a question and she said (in an upbeat, cheery tone that I’m beginning to think is just how she always sounds), “Ms. Orr, I got bored waiting and I was playing around and now my screen is turned sideways.”


from Pesky Librarians’ flickr

Fortunately, when my 17 year old was a toddler she managed to hit hot keys on my dad’s laptop and do the exact same thing. He was amused and frustrated. The frustration came from the challenge of trying to navigate his mouse to do an online search to figure out how to fix the problem as this was before smart phones and that was the device they had. It was quite entertaining to my mother and me.

I told this poor kiddo to hold off for a bit (read a book, take a bathroom break, grab a snack, whatever to kill a bit of time). I got the rest of the class through the absurd process of logging on and taking a quick three question thing I’d created to give them this practice (it was full of silly, stupid questions). Then I had them start a new math activity and went to a breakout room with this little one.

I walked her through finding the crtl and alt keys on her keyboard and holding them down. I told her to click an arrow key. I don’t think anything happened quickly enough so she clicked a few times. Then her screen was spinning. She was laughing as she explained it to me. Then we were both cracking up. Finally I told her to wait, hold ctrl and alt, tap the up arrow once, and then WAIT! That fixed it. She squealed with excitement.

If we’d been in person we would have solved that problem so much more quickly but it would have been so much less entertaining. I say that with confidence because I’ve had students run into this problem multiple times in the past decade or so.

There are so many things right now that are hard and sad and awful. It’s easy for me to get completely caught up in the negatives. There are still a lot of positives and I am working to be sure I see them.

Looking for Any Wins

We’ve been teaching and learning online now for nearly four weeks. I’m working harder than I’ve ever worked in more than twenty years of teaching. And I feel like I’m doing a worse job than I’ve ever done. I’m actually not beating myself up over it as I do recognize the challenges and limitations. That doesn’t stop me from wanting to do better.

In light of that, it seemed worth taking a moment to notice the things I am doing well. I’m trying to give my students as much control and ownership over their learning as possible. For my third graders that means they are now in charge of the daily pledge (which I hate) and morning message and choosing our exercise/dance/breathing breaks. Starting Monday they’ll be in charge of our morning meeting too. It also means as much flexibility as I can figure out how to manage when it comes to the activities they’re doing. For my undergrads it means lots of choice in their assignments and lots of small and whole group discussion.

For my third graders, I was feeling really frustrated by how much they wanted time to just chat together and how I couldn’t figure out what to do to make that happen. This week, on Tuesday and today, I opened up our classroom space for most of our hour lunch and recess time. I was there but working on other things, just as I likely would be if we ate lunch in our classroom as a whole class. Not that the whole class was there, of course. But about a third of the kids were. On Tuesday there was a lot of joke telling. Today they took turns (completely on their own) sharing things like a lost tooth and a ‘fully functioning’ Ironman mask.

On a daily basis there are things I hate about what I’ve planned and how we’re spending our time. But every day it’s getting better. Every day is more driven by the students and less by me. That alone is hopeful.

On a side note, fostering this one isn’t making this easier. He’s cute but he has no respect for boundaries.

Didn’t Know I Needed It

This semester I’m teaching two sections of a children’s literature course at a local university. I’m still teaching third graders full time and I’ll admit to feeling a bit overwhelmed lately. Tonight was week five for my Wednesday night section and the students participated in their first literature circle, reflected on that experience in a journal, and then we explored poetry. I prepped for tonight over the weekend and had decided that I wanted to kick off our poetry exploration by listening to some poets read or perform their poetry. Hearing poetry, especially when read by the poet, is powerful. I wasn’t assuming my students have any great love of poetry or even a ton of experience with it and I wanted to pull them in.

So I started with some poems that wouldn’t fit in the category of children’s literature. I greatly enjoy Billy Collins’s poetry so I began with his Introduction to Poetry. At the end, one of my students said, “Ummm…I thought poems were supposed to rhyme.” We had a brief discussion about how many poems for children do rhyme, but that much of poetry does not. (For the record, I so appreciate students who are willing to speak up and share their confusion. I’m confident most don’t feel comfortable doing so and therefore I’m unaware of it. Especially in the virtual setting.)

Next up, I shared Langston Hughes’s I, Too.

That was awesome. Having the text there as we listened to his voice was fabulous. The chat in our virtual classroom was flying with students responding to this poem.

Finally, I offered them Maya Angelou performing Still I Rise.

I had watched it before. I wouldn’t have shared it if I hadn’t. But tonight? Tonight I listened to it from a position of just an hour earlier having listened to NPR with stories about the indictment, and more importantly, lack of indictments in Louisville and about RBG. I haven’t been listening to NPR much because it’s normally an in-my-car activity and I am not often in my car these days. I listened just before class began and, until sharing these poems with my students, hadn’t realized how much it had hurt to hear those stories. Then Langston Hughes and Maya Angelou literally shared their voices and the power and strength of them was exactly what I needed.

After those poems, the same student said, “I don’t think I know what poetry is at all.”

What a gift that was for me tonight. Maya Angelou and Langston Hughes and students who were open to new learning.

Exhausted and Lifted

Wednesday’s are a long day for me. I teach my 3rd grades from 9-3 (with an hour break at lunch during which I respond to parent emails and try to do some planning and reflecting), then a team meeting for an hour, followed by teaching undergrads from 4:30-7:00. That’s a standard Wednesday right now.

Two Wednesday’s a month I then go on to join in an anti-racism study group from 7:45-9:15. For this week we’d finished reading White Rage by Carol Anderson. That book shook me. I’m married to an historian of US history. I read relatively widely. The amount I didn’t know has knocked me over. I had not realized how much the history I learned, formally and informally, was exceptionally white.

On these Wednesday’s now I question whether or not I have it in me to join the group call. The day feels like it’s been six years long already. How can I possibly muster the energy to focus on and participate in discussions about race? Then I pull myself together and log on. I have not once been disappointed. I always feel there is so much more I could and should be doing. While also feeling energized to do this work.

I am immensely grateful to the women who organized this group as well as to all the others who join in twice a month and commit to learning and growing. This work is hard and as a white woman I have to be doing it. Doing it with others helps so much.

Bags of Goodies

Year 23 starts with kids on Tuesday. Last year was super hard. This year looks to be as hard or harder for various reasons. The difference, in my mind, is that I think it’ll be hard for everyone. Teachers, students, families, and all school personal.

Last week I had listening conferences with almost all of my students’ families. It was an absolute gift. I got insight into my students’ interests, strengths, activities, and needs. Sometimes the student was there too, but not always. And families were overwhelmingly supportive. There are clearly concerns about how this year will go and whether or not their child will get what they need, but they could not have been more supportive of me.

Yesterday I created goody bags for each student. I included a bookmark (because I had some left over from sending them to last year’s kiddos in June), crayons (I’d ordered these when I still expected to be in person and they’re fun shapes so I thought kids would like to have a set to use), window markers (I’d read something about these being great for learning from home and I found them for super cheap), little containers of bubbles (just for fun), a cute pen, and some books.

Once our public libraries opened again in the spring, I contacted some of the ‘Friends of’ various branches near me to see if I could buy some books. I knew they wouldn’t be hosting any book sales for a while but I hoped they could find boxes or bags of kids books and I was willing to buy them without going through them. Instead, two different volunteers responded and pulled a collection of books for me to peruse. Between the two branches I ended up with a great collection of books (168 when I made my 13 year old count them). After listening conferences and a reading survey I posted on our google classroom (a few kids filled it out) I picked five books for each kid. I wrote each one a note explaining why I picked those books for them.

I included a note for the parents with a magnet for their fridge that has a picture of me (I’ve never included that before but it seemed like a good idea given that they’ll only see me virtually) and my contact information.

We (I dragged my kids with me) dropped off bags at 17 houses (one house has twins so two bags went there). I was able to talk to someone at almost all of the houses. It is amazing how meaningful it is to see someone in person. Again, such a gift.

The Roller Coaster of School This Year

from Andrew Bowden’s flickr

In my district teachers have been back on contract for nearly three weeks. Kids will start on Tuesday. Other than laptop distribution last week, everything has been online and will continue to be for at least the next couple of months.

Kids haven’t even started and this school year has been such a roller coaster. That may have a lot to do with my own personal emotional state, but I don’t think I’m alone in feeling this way. I’ll figure out how something works or have a great meeting or conference and feel like I’m on top of the world. Then I’ll contemplate my to do list and want to curl up and cry.

This is my 23rd year as an elementary school classroom teacher. While I get nervous at the start of any school year, I don’t usually feel like this. Right now I’m feeling as though I have no idea what next week will look like. I’m not fully confident in what to prioritize when it comes to helping my students become independent members of our classroom community. I’m not at a total loss, but I’m at maybe 25% of where I’ve been in recent years at this point.

The one thing those previous 22 years did give me is confidence we’ll get through this. I know that in a few weeks we’ll be in a routine and we’ll on our way to being a strong learning community. I just don’t see the path to get there as well as I would like.

The Gifts and Challenges

In chatting with my colleagues yesterday I was talking with one about the year starting. She mentioned that she’s planning to go in to the building to teach each day (an option we have available to us). She has a one year old and laughingly mentioned that her husband said, “But aren’t you enjoying this moment?”

She went on to say how much she has loved having time with her little one over the past few minutes. How it has been a gift to watch that cutie grow and change on a daily basis. At the same time, her little one needs constant attention which can become draining.

My kids are much older, but I feel similarly. I know I’ll look back at this time with such fondness for the opportunity to just be with my kids. No rushing to rehearsal or volunteering. No need to pick up supplies for a project or order a book one of them needs ASAP. We’ve been able to have conversations and laugh and cry and just be together. I am truly grateful for that.

At the same time, I said to my colleague, “You should say to your husband, ‘I am enjoying this moment but I’d like to enjoy some other moments too’.”

I adore my kids and we’ve mostly all been getting along. (We’ll see what happens when the stress of school truly kicks in for all of us…) and still, I would like other kinds of moments in my life too.