Archive for the ‘children’ Category

No Fingerprints for Me


An amazing thing happened today.

I was given a “Get Out of Jail Free” card.  By my district.

This is a win-win-win.  It really is!

The District gets rid of an expensive older teacher who absolutely refuses to drink the Kool Aid and simply follow the nice shiny boxed kit.  They relieve themselves of the frustration of having to deal with an unhappy teacher who keeps pointing out that the Emperor is buck naked.

The Principal gets to stop living in fear of one crabby old lady.  He gets to carry on his campaign to insure that our school is staffed with the very youngest and least experienced candidates possible.  He gets rid of the thorn in his side that just won’t go stop sticking him.

And me?

I get to let go of the anger, the frustration, the fear.  I get to walk away from a place that gave me intense joy and a sense of accomplishment for 18 years, but now gives me only a sense  of sorrow and failure.

I get to give up the rubrics, the testing, the formative and summative assessments. I get to stop trying to choke down the Kool Aid.

I get my pension, far far less than what I’d once hoped for.  I get my sense of peace back. My sense of myself. My ability to once again love my days.

I get September days.  The beach when it is quiet.

I get peace at last.

And what is lost, in this oh-so-common maneuver where the old educators are pushed and prodded aside?

Well.  My District loses me.  And that is a lot.  They lose a smart, eager, dedicated, loving and very skilled teacher.

My school loses five years of classes that know how to work together. Five years of kids who can cooperate and share and show respect.

They lose the love and the laughter that fills my little room.  My school loses at least five years of having one strong teacher who can handle and support and encourage those angry/defiant/anxious kids who need a special hand.  My school loses me.

And me?

I lose the love of 125 kids who I will never know. I lose the chance to teach about the American Revolution.  I lose the laughter, the hugs, the smiles in the morning. I lose the birthday cards, “To an awesome teacher!” and the little gifts and the sweet emails that tell me “You were funny in math today.”

I lose Read Aloud.  And morning meeting.

I lose my identify as a teacher.

I lose the sense of worth that I got when I rode on the bus to a field trip, and the parents were awed by my gentle control of the crowd.

I lose years of learning and growing and improving my craft. I lose professional development.

I lose.

But the time has clearly come.

I can’t stay, and they can’t keep me.

I move toward my retirement from teaching with a sense of hope and relief.

Let the next adventure begin.

They’re only little kids


I had an amazing and unexpected surprise yesterday.

I was cleaning up my classroom, after the kids had gone. I had turned the compost, recycled the history notes, written the next day’s schedule on the board. I was about to wash out a bunch of paintbrushes when I heard a tentative voice calling me,  softly saying both my first and my last names, with the gently rising intonation that indicates uncertainty and nerves.

I turned around, not sure of who to expect. Standing before me was a tall, beautiful young woman with a familiar shy smile. “Do you remember me?”, she asked.

And it hit me like a wave of sunshine.  I knew her! I knew those pretty blue eyes and that sweet smile!  But the last time I had seen them, they had been on the face of a fluffy haired, disorganized, learning disabled little girl with a serious speech disorder. Could this lovely, articulate young woman really be my former student, all grown up and all smoothed out?

I said her name, the name that I thought might belong to her. “Cara?”  Now it was my voice that was tentative and unsure.  Her face lit up, and she reached toward me.

We hugged, and I was swept with memories. I had known this girl when she was only 5, a tiny, cheerful sprite in kindergarten, needing my speech therapy services five days a week.  I remembered her in first grade, and in second, struggling to read, struggling to hold a pencil.  I remembered her in third grade and in fourth, working on improving her pronunciation, working on her writing, her organizational skills.  Working on how to be a student.

Mostly, though, I remembered her as a fifth grader in my classroom. I remembered how I needed to chase her every day for homework. I remembered how she struggled to express herself in speech or on writing.  I looked at her gently smiling face and I thought about how gently I had teased her, trying to find a way to get her to remember her homework every morning.

We chatted for a bit, and I learned that she is now a Junior in our very competitive, driven High School. I learned that she was “shadowing” my colleague in special education, because she herself would like to be a sped teacher one day.

She had come to say hello, and to thank me for our time together. I was incredibly touched and so pleased with her visit!  What a perfect and wonderful gift for a teacher! At a time when we are being asked to constantly prove that we are doing our job, that we are helping children to grow and learn, here was a living, breathing, beautiful example of what “success” means in the eyes of a teacher. We hugged, we smiled at each other, we hugged again.

It was only after she left that I thought about the real gift that I’d been given with her visit.

It is sweet that she thanks me for helping her, but that isn’t the most important lesson to be taken from our visit.

What really matters is this:

My beautiful young friend had been a disheveled, disorganized fifth grader who could barely write a single sentence. She struggled to spell, to capitalize, to understand what a sentence was.  She wasn’t able to remember the steps for long division or the way to find a common denominator.  She regularly worked with the Learning Center, the Speech/language team, the OT and the PT.

I know that she didn’t do well on her state testing that year.

And yet.

A mere 6 years later, she is polished, articulate, ambitious, successful in school.  She is lovely and she is mature.

And she has reminded me of two key points that I wish every public school educator could grasp.

1) Children are only children. They think like kids, they write like kids, they feel like kids.  No matter how hard we push them, how “rigorous” our instruction may be, they can’t write or learn or speak or do math like adults.

And that’s because they are kids.

2) They will come back to thank us and to hug us, not because we gave them the rubric for informational writing, but because we made them feel loved and supported.  Because we believed in them.

My lovely young friend told me, after she hugged me for the third time, “You always made me think I could do it.”

Thank you, dear Cara!  You’ve reminded me of exactly why I’m here every day.

Snow Day as Validation


Well here we are, all safe and sound after the “Historic Storm” of 2015.  I mean, I get it. If I lived on Nantucket (God……in my dreams………) I’d be thinking this was a huge deal.  But for the rest of us, it was a fun and awesome storm and we were happy to have a day at home.

I baked.  I got some math lessons ready and found a few great sites of math games and science activities.   I responded to 22 reading response journals, and I wrote a report for a student who is being evaluated for special education.  Thank goodness for this extra time!

To be honest, I also did laundry, walked my dogs in the woods and spent a couple of hours with a very hot…….um……very interesting novel.   I perused Facebook more than I should have, and texted my teaching pals a whole bunch.  We were being silly.  It was FUN.

But here’s the best part.

Late in the day today, I got an email from the mom of one of my students. He is a pretty anxious guy, with a long history of school troubles and oppositional behaviors.  He and I have formed a great friendship this year, and I know that he is having a really good year.

So the Mom of my student sent me an email today, to tell me that he was very anxious this afternoon. He is afraid that there will be no school again tomorrow, given the 30 inches of snow on the ground.  He told his Mom, “Karen will be really mad if there’s no school tomorrow!  She hates for us to get behind, and she misses us!”  The Mom told me that she tried very hard to reassure him, to tell him that I wouldn’t be upset to be home.  She told me that he looked up at her then, and said, “I know. But, Mom, I hate the days when I don’t see her!”

What more validation could a person ever have than that?  If ever I feel down, if I let the teacher evaluation system get to me, or let my administrators make me feel down, all I have to do is think about this little boy, with his bright eyes and his mischievous smile, telling his mother that he wants school to be open so that he can see me.

Wow.

A Speaker to Motivate


Our District, like so many others in this country, has an annual Professional Development Day. It usually starts off with a motivational speaker who will theoretically get us all revved up to get back to our classrooms.

Honestly, at this point in my long career, I feel as if I’ve been Professionally Developed to within an inch of my life. What motivates me most are the weeks where I just get to teach the kids, instead of sitting in a room full of other adults.

But guess what?

This year’s speaker really did Motivate Me.

His name is Lester Laminack, and he is a force to be reckoned with. He is a Professor of writing, a well respected author of children’s books and a teacher of teachers.  He talked to us about teaching writing.

Actually, he didn’t “talk”.  He marched up and down through the audience, getting in our faces, forcing us to pay attention.  He impersonated little kids, jumping up and down as they would, his lanky adult frame somehow perfectly mimicking a five year old. His thick Southern drawl and affected sarcasm made him impossible to ignore. He talked about passion.  He talked about inspiring passion in the kids.

“We are so busy raising standards that we forget we are supposed to be raising human beings.” He told us that we have to encourage kids to write what they know, to write what they love. He told us that “the topic doesn’t matter!”, that kids can write over and over again about one favorite topic and can still cover all of the mandated genres. He told us that “good writing takes time!”, that we need to help the kids to carefully craft their work.

Part of me wanted to stand up and cheer.  “Yes, yes, yes!” I wanted to scream. “That’s exactly the way I used to do it before I was handed the big box of Lucy Calkins lessons!”

Part of me wanted to put my head down and weep.  “Oh, my God”, I said to my colleague of many years. “He’s talking about the way we always taught writing before the damned Common Core hit us and we got the boxed lessons.”

My heart was hammering as he spun and jumped and shook his fist.  Was this the most demoralizing speech I’d ever heard, a condemnation of my teaching, now that I have begun to follow orders?  Or was it the most exciting and freeing speech I’d ever heard, giving me permission to go back to what I know is right?

I left the auditorium confused and upset.  Why was I being encouraged to do what the district won’t actually let me do?

I sat in a quiet spot, alone for a minute.  I thought about Lester, about what he had said to us.  And I realized something interesting.  He has spoken non-stop for 90 minutes.  He talked a lot about how children think, what they feel, what they need from us.  And not once, in all that time, did he ever use the word “rubric”.

I’m stepping away from the box.

Boxed Set Teaching


Oh, holy professional development………

Why is it that every teacher on earth is subjected to “professional development”, no matter how developed that professional might be?

Don’t get me wrong. I love the idea of continually growing and learning.  I love the idea of talking to other professionals in order to shape our craft.  But when it becomes necessary to subject us to unbelievably chirpy “facilitators” who are crammed full of buzzwords, I just kind of want to scream.

I have spent the past two mornings with just such a cheery little woman. This person actually referred to us (on numerous occasions) as “beautiful teachers” or “lovely ladies”.   Gag me.

This woman, the hired representative of a major University and the Co-Author of a big old shiny boxed set of literacy lessons, actually used words like “noticings” and “wonderings”.  As in, “Wow, Beautiful Teachers, those are some powerful noticings!”     In normal human-speak, this mean, “Hey, good observation.”

This woman, who came to teach us how to implement the big old shiny boxed set of lessons that her university is marketing, used phrases like, “Good morning, beautiful readers! Today we are going to learn how to use text structure to enhance our reading work!” She said things like, “We can use our jottings to help us to hold onto the new learning that the text has shown us.”

WTF.

I am NOT going to start speaking to my fifth graders this way.  No Way. Uh-Uh, ain’t happening.

The number of eye rolls that happened during her lesson would have derailed any teacher who was, you know, actually listening to the kids.

Luckily, that was not the case with our “professional developer”.  She had her eyes on the prize (ie, selling more updated shiny boxed sets) and so she gamely plowed on.

“As we do our reading work, let’s focus on enhancing our noticings of the ideas that the text is teaching us, so that we can hold onto our new knowledge!”

OK.  Let me just say this about that.

I have loved to read since the morning when I was four, and I worked out the word “m-i-l-k” on the carton. At no point in the past 54 years have I ever noticed my “noticings”.  Nor have I ever tuned into the “story arc” or the “author’s purpose” or the “text structures”.  Even so, I have managed to earn a Bachelor’s degree and a Master’s degree.  And, most importantly, I love to read.

I. Love. To. Read.

For pleasure, for humor, for excitement, for information, for opinion, for escape.  For all of these reasons, I read.

I want my students to read for all the same reasons.  I want them to pick up a book and fall into the incredible world of the past, or the future, or an island far away or a dream or a magical kingdom or a football team or a romance or a small town with an orphan dog…….I don’t want them to stop their reading to identify the author’s purpose or to make text to text connections. I don’t want them to put down the greatest story of their lives to pick up a stack of sticky notes and do some “jottings”.

When did we decide that it is the height of teaching to reduce the most enjoyable and pleasurable parts of learning to cutesie little labels? Seriously? We want the kids to think about “jottings” that show their “noticings”?   What child in his or her right mind is going to want to read to learn when its all presented in this annoying, Pinterest-cute format?  What writer on earth would want to create in this environment?

Here is what I have “noticed”.  The people who so cheerily sell these programs are uniformly motivated by money. They write the shiny boxed sets, they train the rest of us in how to use them, they make money every time one of us orders the latest update on “mentor texts”.

What a pile of horse shit.  Teacher’s College of NYC, you will NEVER convince me that it is a good idea to teach a ten minute “mini-lesson” on a reading strategy that moves too fast for 80% of the kids in the room.  You will never convince me that as long as we assign a catchy name to something, the children will grasp it (“Jot Lot”? Seriously?)

I may be old, and I may be outdated. None of my beliefs will fit in a box. None of them have an adorable name.  But this old teacher lady will tell you this:

Children learn at different rates. They learn by doing, not by having an adorable teacher show them adorable charts. Children need time to think. They need time to wonder.  Children need time to process the strange new ideas that the teachers are teaching.  The vast majority of them need more than 5 minutes of teacher talk to understand a concept based in metalinguistics.

Children need to read for PLEASURE.  Otherwise, they will never read for pleasure.

So I sat through two days of incredibly expensive professional development where the cheery woman from Teacher’s College taught us all about the Reader’s Workshop Model.

And I came away with one firm conviction: I will NEVER try to teach 24 kids a meaningful strategy in less than ten minutes. I will never assume that all 24 of my kids can master a concept at the same time.

And I will never, ever, ever, for any reason, refer to the people in front of me as “beautiful readers”.

Gag.

Tick, tick, tick……


This was a really long vacation.  Two days before it started, I was sure that it was going to last at least a decade.  Ah, sweet freedom……..Those long, lazy, restful, boring, relaxing, mindless days of winter vacation stretched out before me like a mirage. As if there would never be a spring testing season. As if Persuasive Essays existed only in my darkest nightmares.

Ah……sweet freedom…..

And yet, here I am, perched on the cusp of the Return To School.

So anxious.  So fretful.  So restless.

Last night I dreamed that I wanted to reorganize the desks in my classroom, moving them from a horseshoe shape into table groups. In my dream, I talked, and argued and ordered and ranted.  In my dream, I was completely ignored.  No one listened, no one moved a desk.

In my nightmare, the kids were all talking happily, and not one of them could hear my voice as I tried to shout.  In this awful dreamscape, one of the kids in my class came into my room wearing glittery gold makeup, with her hair sprayed and teased. She tried to explain why she wasn’t in the classroom during indoor recess, but I was too mad to listen to her.  (For the record; she wasn’t a real kid, although she was kind of cute).

As the dream went on, and no one would listen to my voice, yelping and arguing and trying to get their attention, a bus pulled up outside of my classroom, and I suddenly realized that I was supposed to have taught my kids a song and dance.  I was embarrassed and horrified and teary; they didn’t know the song! They hadn’t been taught the dance! Crowds of people were gathering to watch them!  I was sure that I was about to lose my job, and my career.  My throat actually ached from the accumulated tears.

But in my dream, my students all gathered together, and worked out a little song and dance. In my dream, they rallied around their friendships and without any guidance from me, they managed to sing and caper and laugh so that the audience broke out in wild applause.

I felt weak and limp and relieved in my dream.  I looked at my kids in awe.  I smiled at the suddenly scary authority figure who for some reason stood beside me, and he was charmed.

My dream ended with me hugging and smiling at my students.  It ended with me wondering, “Wow! Why on earth did I think they’d need me to create a song?”

I woke up with the feeling of the clock ticking.  Vacation is ending.  I have a list of rubrics and scores and mini-lessons that I am supposed to create.  But I woke up with the realization that if I just let go, and relax, the kids and I will come up with everything that we really need to teach our literacy and history units.

I need to trust my dreams. I need to learn how to let it go.

Oh, fifth graders, how I love you!


The best part of teaching fifth grade is the fact that I am continually surprised when the kids act like fifth graders.

I always think, in my silly adult way, that if I simply explain things better, they will grasp them in a more mature way.

Clearly, I don’t learn as well as my students do!

Our fifth graders study the Colonial American period, and then go on to learn about the American Revolution. As part of this unit of study, they are assigned to work with a partner, researching one of the original thirteen colonies. I’ve been having children do this project for eight straight years.  We used to have them look in actual books and put their information on that old fashioned material known as “poster board”.  Back in those early days, the children used to include information like “there are lots of bees in Georgia!” and “New Hampshire colony had lots of places to hike”. They didn’t seem to understand that we were asking a few (very few) key questions about the colonies.  Questions like, “Where did the original settlers come from?” and “What did they produce and trade in the colony?”

As the years have gone by, I have gradually refined my structure around the colony research project. I have been more direct and more explicit about the information required.  I have been very, very clear about what NOT to include (cartoons, silly jokes, Taylor Swift references, etc).  We gradually moved the projects into PowerPoint Presentations, and worked very hard to teach the children, even more explicitly, about how to write like historians. We taught about “primary sources” one year.

That was the year that one of the kids put in the image of an original 1932 postcard from South Carolina.

So we began to be even more direct and explicit. We showed the kids actual examples of what NOT to include in a history presentation (like said postcard).

That year we got one slide that was devoted entirely to the Virginia pig war (?) complete with adorable cartoon pig.

We gave them a rubric. We showed them other presentations, made by students and made by actual historians. This year I decided to give away the conclusions that we want them to draw.  I compared the three colonial regions on the smartboard. I talked about trade, and we acted out the “Triangle of Trade” by marching around the classroom and handing each other cards marked “iron”, “rum” and “slaves”. We looked at maps of the thirteen colonies and compared them to climate maps.  We used Google Earth, for God’s sake, in the fervent hope that after all this careful leading by the nose, the kids would actually create simple slideshows with key information about each Colony.

We have moved to Google Drive now, and the presentations are made with Google Slides, and are shared with me so that I can check on progress.

Even when I’m home sick.

Like a was today.

I reviewed the Google Slides Presentations which are due in two days (after three weeks of carefully guided study).

Holy Fifth Grade Sensibilities.

Even though we did an entire half hour lesson on “scholarly language”, one slide included an indecipherable map of Colonial Delaware, complete with the caption, “Trust me, Delaware’s in there somewhere!”

In spite of an entire two lessons about the concept of economy and trade, one presentation included a slide labelled, “Government of South Carolina” and pictures of sugar (in a modern paper package), rice (in a Carolina Rice bag) and “indigo” ( a picture of a purple iris).

One group included little side notes like, “Oh, yeah!” and “You know it!” in their slideshow.  One group included a photo of white farm laborers from around 1900 in a slide labelled, “how the slaves dressed”.

I should probably be horrified, and I should probably make everyone go back and make it better, especially since there is a “rubric”. But I’m not going to.

I’m going to laugh in private, and guide them when they present their work in public. I’m going to make them feel like historians and hope that they learn just how exciting it can be to learn from the past.

Most of all, I’m going to let them keep on thinking like fifth graders.

At least for a little while longer.

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