Lemme get this straight……


Ok.  Let me just get this straight.

If I want to be a classroom teacher in the United States today, I have do do a few things, and I have to accept a few realities.

If I want to spend my life teaching children to read, to write, to understand math, to become educated voters, I have to go to college.  OK.  Then I have to get a Master’s Degree. Oh..Kay….(lots more cost, lots more debt, but I get it.  They want me to be well educated.)

After I finally get my Master’s Degree, I have to take and pass several exams that theoretically qualify me for the job.  I have to pay for these exams myself.

If I pass, I get to apply for teaching jobs.  Fun!

And once I get a job, I have to submit to a CORI check (just to make sure that I am not a pedophile or anything.)  AND I have to be fingerprinted.  In case I passed my CORI check but somewhere in my past I committed a crime.  I have to get in line, pay out of my own pocket, and go through the very same process that purse snatchers, rapists, drug runners and murderers go through.  I have to swallow my embarrassment,  push down my discomfort and submit my fingerprints to the local police.

Even if I’ve been teaching for 25 years already and this is coming far too late to do anyone any good.

After all that, when I have finally achieved my dream and gotten a teaching job, I have to accept the fact that people who have never, ever , ever taught one single child one single skill will be the ones who pass laws that define my job.

I will have to come to terms with the fact that giant corporations intend to make millions of dollars off of my students, my classroom and my school.

Once I have become an actual, real life elementary school teacher, I will have to find a way to work 22 hours a day, 7 days a week in order to score every rubric, plan every lesson, follow every teaching guide, gather every bit of data and make sure that every student meets every standard.

I will have to accept the fact that if I actually follow the “Teacher’s College” reading and writing program, I will be losing all of my language impaired, learning disabled, hearing impaired, emotionally impaired students.

And I will have to grin and bear it when my administrators follow the state guidelines on teacher evaluation and pop into my classroom for ten minutes at the very end of a Friday afternoon and then write up a scathing report on how our students are “failing to work toward a uniform goal.”

All of this for the chance to earn an average salary with average benefits.  All of this so that you can check the news every day and see some airheaded politician referring to “our failing schools.”

So I have to ask:

How stupid do you have to be to want to be a teacher today?

It was the bed head.


I don’t always feel like I am doing this the right way.

I have the big boxed sets of Lucy Calkins reading and writing lessons, but I haven’t actually been able to make sense of them yet.

Our school is a “Teacher’s College” pilot school, or lab school, or something. I’ve watched the TC lady teach two “mini lessons” but I still don’t know what exactly it is that I’m supposed to teach them.

I have my big binder of rubrics, but I don’t use them very effectively. Or very often.  Truthfully? I’m still not sure what is means by “The student develops character, plot and setting through out the story, especially at the heart of the story.”

Um.

“Heart of the story”?

Ah…..they’re ten.

Yeah.

I mean, I sort of feel like I know how to help kids develop a sense of themselves as writers. I feel like I know how to help them think about the plot and all that.  But…..see……I look at them, and I see little ones. Kids.  Wicked young kids.  I don’t expect them to produce more nuance in their writing that I can manage in mine.

So last week, when my “evaluator/administrator” popped into my classroom for the first time in ten weeks, my heart sank.  We were in the middle of “writers’s workshop”, where kids were working on various pieces of writing, depending on what they had already completed.

It didn’t fit the kit.

Gulp.

I pretended to be calm, but I hated watching that man talk to my kids, asking them about their work.  I hated watching him take notes on his stupid iPad.

See, the problem is that when your “evaluator” doesn’t like you, its kind of depressing to know that he is popping in at a time when you have already set everything up, and have already done your lesson, and the kids have already gone on to work independently.  You know his view will be sort of skewed. He won’t get it.

How could he?

He hasn’t been here in WEEKS. Now he expects to evaluate my teaching in ten minutes.

I wasn’t feeling very happy or very confident when he asked me to meet with him the next day to go over his observations.

Gah.

So stupid.

He had talked to two of my students, and had a lot of concerns about their writing skills.

Really.

One of these boys goes to the Learning Center 7 times a week to address his learning disability in writing and math.  The other sees the ELA specialist twice a week because of his low reading/writing scores.  My boss didn’t bother to check in with the kids who have above grade level kills, of course. He only checked with my strugglers.

Gag.

So the day after I had my “evaluation/observation” meeting, I sat down with my struggling writers.  I sighed, feeling defeated because I had obviously failed these kids.

The first little guy sat beside me, chewing his lip as we looked at his “Mystery Story”.
“OK,” I began, “how are you feeling about your story?”    He shrugged.  I turned my eyes to his computer screen and began to read.

Wow!  Punctuation, capitals, dialogue marked by quotation marks.  I read about the crime in his story, saw how he described his detective and his criminal.  I thought about the first piece of writing he did for me in September. The one with no punctuation, no breaks in paragraphs and no actual logic to make it understandable.

I was thrilled with his progress!  Wow!    I thought it was probably the work of the learning center, but I didn’t care. Good boy!  Good work!

And I kept going. I reviewed story after story, comparing progress from September in one child after another. And I saw improved syntax, improved mechanics, improved story line, improved word choice.

I wasn’t sure what to think, but it certainly seemed to me that these kids were learning to write, in spite of my inability to figure out the boxed kits.

Finally, I called up a sweet little boy who is one of my favorites. He is gentle, funny, smart but not a scholar. He is good at math, but makes those tiny mistakes. He reads a lot, but doesn’t always think hard about the themes or messages of the books. As a writer, he is what we call “a minimalist”.  Why use a complete sentence when one word will do?  His writing thus far had lacked organization, clarity, sequence. It was rudimentary at best.

I called up his story, with a little sigh.  And began to read.  And my mouth fell open.

“No I won’t!”             

“Why won’t you, we could strike it rich?”

“I already told you, we’d get caught.”

“We won’t get caught.”

“You are planning to kidnap Liam Smeel, lead singer of ‘The Kings’ right before his performance. Do you think you’re not going to get busted?”

“Are you questioning my magnificent plans?”

“Yes, as a matter of fact I am. If you think I’m going to help you with your stupid plan, I’m not. Count me out.”

What???  My little guy had written this introduction to his mystery? Seriously?   I read on, following the events of the story, recognizing the “red herring”, wondering myself who did it. I got to the end, the logical, interesting, funny conclusion to the 5 page mystery story.  I looked at my little student, and I was speechless.

“I….wow…..I…..”  I took a deep breath. “Honey, this is fantastic!  Your introduction is amazing!”

He looked up at me with his gentle sky-blue eyes.  He was twisting his fingers with nerves.

“What do you think of this?”, I asked him, curious to see if he was aware of just how far he’d come in these few months.

He shrugged, his thin shoulders looking fragile as birds’ wings in his blue T shirt.  I wasn’t sure what to say to him.  I looked at his face, his elfin features and nervous smile.  I looked at his head, so close to my shoulder as we both peered at the computer screen.

It was his head that got me.  The swirls and tufts of little boy bed head that formed the delicate halo around his face. My eyes filled with tears as I realized just how young, and how tender, and how fragile he is.  I put my arm around him, at a loss for words. I gave him a gentle hug, my eyes still resting on the golden crown of his head.

“I’m so incredibly proud of all of you guys today!”, I said to my class as I struggled to control my voice.  They looked up in some surprise as they did their everyday work.

“You are my heroes”.  My voice was a little bit thick, so I took a drink of water.  I checked off the boxes in the rubric, and got ready to meet with the next little tiny literary hero.

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.

I had a dream


Last night I had a dream.   It wasn’t a typical teacher dream (I was fully dressed and the kids weren’t screaming and ignoring me).

But it was a dream that embodies my teaching life right now.

I dreamed that I was in our school conference room (where I have been trapped far too often this year) with one of the “literacy coaches” who have been hired to train us in teaching kids to read and write.  Just like in real life, I was seated at the table, faced with a cheery, young, fresh faced woman who spoke to me in a high pitched voice with a distinct rise in intonation at the end of every statement.  You know what I mean, right? Like this, “Readers need to learn a variety of robust skills? Like learning to identify text features?”

Anyway, in my dream, just like in life, I felt my frustration mounting.  In my dream, I sat there as reading was described as a series of discrete, separate skills to be taught in isolation.  I started to steam as I heard that I was supposed to teach kids the most complex task of their young lives by cramming a lesson into ten minutes and then making them practice what I had preached.

But here is where the dream diverged from reality.

In my dream, I sat up straight and I asked to see the research behind the method.  In my dream, I spoke eloquently and clearly.  I talked about my background in speech and language development and my 30 years of teaching children to communicate.  I expressed my feeling that young children learn best when they are allowed to wonder, to inquire, to test out their own theories.  In my dream, I asked how it could be the best practice to tell the children exactly what skill to practice as they read. I pointed out the fact that it seemed forced and inauthentic to assign children a partner to talk to, and then to impose a topic on them.  I questioned the value of those conversations.

In my dream, I expressed my belief that children need to try things out, including books. I talked about the fact that I never, ever tell children their “Guided Reading Level” because in my experience, children take labels very much to heart.  They hold themselves back when I tell them that a book is “above their level”.  I talked, in this dream, about my experiences with children who challenge themselves and who read wonderful books that capture their hearts and minds, even if they don’t understand every word or phrase. Even if they don’t full grasp every nuance.

In this wonderful dream, I told the “coach” or “facilitator” that reading is the most neurologically complex task that my students are attempting. I tell her that I can’t parse it down into separate tiny skills.  I also tell her, somewhat firmly, that I find it nauseating when I hear the cute phrases and buzzwords going around our classrooms. “Jots” instead of notes? “Wonderings” instead of questions? “Noticings” instead of observations?

What did the English language ever do to you, I asked in my dream. Why torture it this way? How can it help children to encourage them to use inaccurate, made up words to describe their thinking?

Furthermore, I said in my dream, it seems completely ridiculous to me to have us teach the exact same minute skills in every single grade from k to 6.  How efficient is our teaching if we have to do the same lesson seven times in seven years?  And how on earth could it be useful for us to all use the exact same “mentor text” for every lesson?  “I believe,” I said in my firm, assured dream voice, “that it is supremely disrespectful of children to act as if they need to see the same book five years in a row.  And I think its wrong to limit kids exposure to good books. There are a million books out there that could teach us to notice the story arc. I refuse to pull out the same book they’ve seen in the past two years.”

And here is where my dream really differed from reality.

In my dream, the cheery coach and my school administrator allowed me to express my thoughts.  And in this fanciful dream, they listened.

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.

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