Archive for the ‘teachers’ 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.

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.

 

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.

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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