Archive for the ‘elementary education’ 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.

This Old Teacher


Sometimes it gets a little bit tiring to be an old teacher. Sometimes you look at the pile of math papers, the writers’ notebooks, the science journals, the 57 emails, the field trip forms, the Puberty Movie letters and the Lost and Found socks, and you just want to give it all up and go sit on a beach in a muumuu.

Sometimes it just seems so futile. And relentless. And so incredibly frustrating. You think you’re done.  You can’t go on.

But sometimes you get to work, and you see your colleagues.  And you look at how much energy they still have. You see the one who is really excited by a new art project, and you remember when you used to feel that way. You see the one who is carefully planning an amazing science lesson, and you feel a little buzz of excitement.

Sometimes you get to school, and you peek into the classroom next door, where the colleague-who-is-younger-than-your-children is getting ready for her day.  And you look at her for a minute.  You see her bright spirit, her love of learning, her crackling joyful energy.

And you feel a little bit renewed.

Sometimes, just when you feel like all of this hard work is a big farce and nothing much is going to change for anyone, you spend a few minutes listening to your young team-mates as they plan the next writing unit.  And you smile inside, thinking of what a huge difference these two will make in the lives of dozens and dozens of kids in the future. And you give yourself a tiny little hug, way down in your heart, because you know that you are watching two teachers, two honest-to-God teachers, as they spin the silken spider web threads that will weave themselves into a love of learning for the little ones in these classrooms.  And you’re happy just to be there, watching. And you remind yourself of all the faces and names and hearts that you have touched over all these years.

And you realize that it doesn’t really matter which curriculum is used in which year. It really doesn’t matter if you teach the 6 + 1 traits or the Lucy Calkins kit or the “Write Out Loud” book.  As long as you love the kids, and share your joy and passion with them, as long as you keep telling them that you believe in them, they WILL learn to write.  And read. And calculate those damn fractions.

And you understand that the art of teaching is just that: it is an art.  Just like children, it cannot be measured or quantified or reduced to a data point. Teaching is an art.

And you are pleased with yourself, because you understand that fact.

Even if those in positions of power don’t.

Teaching is an art.  And you suddenly realize how lucky you are to be one of the artists, and to be in the presence of the artists who will both follow and surpass you.

 

What I KNOW to be true


Good God. I have just about had it.  I am at the end of my rope, the last bit of my patience, the final smidgen of my compliance.

I am being forced to teach my kids to read using a slick for-profit kit, written by the much admired Lucy Calkins of Teacher’s College.  This kit tells me that I have to reduce the great glory of reading to a series of minute, thinly sliced “skills” like “recognizing text features”.  I’m supposed to sit the kids down and overpower them with a “mini-lesson” where I cleverly explain/show/demonstrate/advertise the target skill.  In TEN minutes.

Then I’m supposed to have the kids “turn and talk” about the topic that I just taught at warp speed. Next in the script, I tell the kids “off you go!” and they are supposed to happily and successfully employ the teeny little micro skill as they read on their own.

Um.

I’ve been reading since roughly 1963 and at no time in my life have I ever stopped myself to ask if I am recognizing the story arc.

I believe, with every fiber of my being, that reading is a complex and wondrous human skill that evolves differently in every young child.  I believe that at the very same time that we are decoding, we are also making inferences, wondering about the motivations of the characters, recognizing the conflict and predicting the resolution.  I believe that children slowly and hesitantly grow into each of these skills.  This complex web of cognitive and linguistic processing skills is a marvel.  It should NOT be reduced to its smallest parts.

I believe, I truly do believe, that none of these “skills” will mean a thing to a child until the moment where he or she has fallen completely in love with a story.  If the child isn’t walking home from school while picturing himself as the hero of the adventure, no “mini lesson” on earth will get him to care about reading.  If the child isn’t soaking in a bubble bath and holding the book above the water to see what the bad guy does next, it doesn’t matter how carefully I follow the cookbook reading program.  If that child isn’t dying to know what happens next, all the “turn and talk” in the world won’t get her to really truly read.

I do understand that Lucy C is a reading guru.  She is clearly smarter than me, and I am sure that she’s done tons of research and is a major player and all that crap.

But here is the simple truth.

She has come up with a product that matches the “Common Core” and she has found a way to sell that product for a whole boatload of money by marketing the entire Teacher’s College pre-packaged literacy kit.

I’m not a guru. I’m sure as hell not an educational entrepreneur.  There is no shiny, glossy, expensive box of lessons with my name on it.

But I know kids.   I know language development, and I know reading.

And I know, beyond the slightest shadow of a doubt, that you CANNOT break a complex neuropsychological task like reading into the tiniest threads and try to teach those threads as discrete lessons.  It makes no sense to do it this way, because unless the students go on to synthesize those skills, they won’t be reading.

Or writing.

Or learning.  Or thinking. Or problem solving.

When my babies were little, they learned to walk.  I helped them.  But I didn’t try to separately teach them to flex their calf muscles and then a day later teach them to relax those muscles. When they learned to talk, I didn’t show them how to make the sound “b” and then wait a day to teach them “a”.

Complex neurological tasks cannot be reduced to their component parts if they are going to be mastered.

And that’s why I am frustrated beyond belief by the lessons I am being forced to teach.

 

 

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.

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.

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.

%d bloggers like this: