Posts Tagged ‘curriculum’

Keep Reading Aloud !!!!

My school is a “Teacher’s College Project School”, which means that we are all following the strict interpretations of Lucy Calkin’s reading and writing programs.

That wouldn’t be so bad, given that Ms. Calkins knows what she’s talking about, believes in the wonder and magic of the written word, and used to have great respect for actual teachers.

In the world of “TC”, though, we are reduced to such inanities as, “We teach reading strategies, we don’t teach BOOKS.”


As an old lady teacher and a long time speech/language specialist, I firmly believe that children learn to love great books when they hear them read aloud with passion and excitement.

When my own kids were small, I remember reading “The Hobbit” out loud to them.  They loved it, and couldn’t seem to get enough.  When the book finished, we went on to “The Lord of the Rings”.  I remember, very clearly, closing the book so that I could make dinner.  When I came back into the living room a half hour later, my then 9 year old was reading the rest of the chapter out loud to her little brothers.  “We couldn’t wait”, they explained when I came in to ask what was going on.

I once had a student tell his mom that he wanted to improve his reading skills, “Because someday I want to do “read aloud”.

It’s the best part of the day.  The kids forget the class hierarchy of coolness for those twenty precious minutes. They forget that they are trying desperately to be mature.  Instead, they curl up like a pile of puppies on the rug at my feet.  They listen with such rapt attention that I can’t look away from their sweet faces. They lie still, so unlike their usual bouncing selves.  They plop down together, a head on a stomach, a leg stretched over a leg. They are a beautiful woven fabric of childhood imagination, and my voice is what animates them.

I am nearing the end of my teaching days.

I have only so many “read alouds” left in me.  I have begun to make a list of those books that I simply MUST read to my class.

“The Liberation of Gabriel King”

“Granny Torrelli Makes Soup”

“The One and Only Ivan”


But what about “Tiger Rising”?  And “The Hobbit”?   What about the beauty of “Mr. Lincoln and His Boys”, such a poignant portrayal of war and power?

There are so many wonderful books.  The library is the same rich treasure chest that it was when I first discovered it at the age of 8 with my best friend, Sue.

There are so many beautiful, touching, moving, powerful books.

May every child hear at least one of them read aloud by a loving and attentive adult.

May every child find himself falling in love with the sound of the sounds of the language, and my ever one of them think, “I can write a story, too.”


Why do people DO that?!

Get ready.

Rant alert.

Last night was the first night of school vacation.  The day before I had cleaned up my classroom and packed up the math book (to spend vacation on lesson plans), the Narrative Writing Rubrics (so I can score the 24 Mystery Stories that my class finally finished) and Book One of the Lucy Calkins Reading Program (so I can desperately try to figure out what I’m supposed to be teaching in my “mini lessons.”)

I had woken up yesterday and decided to try to just relax; it was a beautiful New England spring day, and I raked the garden, turned the compost, walked the dogs.  Aaaahhhhhh.  My knotted neck muscles began to relax.

My husband had gotten us tickets to a concert at one of our favorite venues, and we headed for dinner, drinks and great blues with some friends.  And my cousin, whom I’ve known my whole life, but have rarely seen socially.

We chatted about music, our kids, beer.  We had some apps.  We had a great time!  Then someone mentioned the teachers in Atlanta who will spend 7 years in jail for cheating on the State tests.

And we were off.

My cousin, who last set foot in a school in about 1980, launched into the usual attack on public schools and teachers.

You know what I mean, right?  People who haven’t ever, ever taught anyone anything are suddenly experts on curriculum.  It doesn’t matter that I’ve been teaching for 30 years, have a Master’s Degree and 25 years of graduate courses beyond it. Nope.  Everyone feels totally comfortable lecturing me about testing, discipline, teaching math, handwriting and the use of technology.

“Teachers should” are my two least favorite words.

Last night’s diatribe started when my friend asked if I had heard about the teachers in Atlanta. I expressed my shock and outrage at the sentence, commenting that it wasn’t surprising  to find people cheating when they’ve made passing the tests the most important part of teaching.

In the next ten minutes, my cousin, the guy who doesn’t teach, made these brilliant comments as I talked about my objections to the standardized tests.

“They should throw out the tests of the kids with disabilities.”

“They shouldn’t count tests for any kid who has been in your class less than half a year.”

“They shouldn’t depend on one test a year; they should give a standardized test every 30 days.”

“If teachers don’t like the tests, they should say something.”

That last one was the one that did it.  I slammed my fist on the table, shocking the hell out of everyone sitting there, then I jumped up, said, “You don’t know that the fuck you’re talking about!” and ran out of the room.

Seriously?   SERIOUSLY, folks????  WHY does every asshole on earth feel like its OK to lecture teachers about teaching? They don’t try to lecture doctors about medicine, or engineers about bridge building, or baseball players about hitting.  So why the HELL do I always end up being talked down to by people who know literally nothing about what I do every day?


And how can I avoid them the next time I decide to give myself a tiny break from the pressures of teaching?

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.”


“Heart of the story”?

Ah…..they’re ten.


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.


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.


So stupid.

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


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.


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.

That famous pendulum

I think I’ve found a real benefit in being an older teacher.  Finally.

I had my revelation at one of those big teacher meetings the other day. You know the ones I mean, where the Curriculum Coordinators try to explain the new standards and new testing that we will all be faced with soon, and where all the classroom teachers moan and complain.

We looked at the switchover in math first.  If you aren’t a teacher you might not realize that the federal education department has created National Standards for our curriculum, and states are being “encouraged” to adopt those standards. In other words, the feds will take money away from schools that don’t teach what they tell us to teach when they tell us to teach it.

These new standards are a bit amusing for some of us, because about a dozen years ago when we were introduced to the brand spanking new “Massachusetts Curriculum Standards”, we all reacted by saying that the math standards were far too rigorous and not nearly deep enough.  We knew that it made no sense to try to teach fractions in the second grade, knowing that we would need to reteach them in third, fourth, fifth and sixth grades before they could be fully understood by young minds.  We explained our concerns to those in charge; we answered surveys, we wrote letters, we participated in various round table discussed.  We were ignored.

For the past ten or so years, we have used a strategy called “spiraling” to teach math concepts. Introduce it, talk about it, practice for three days, then move on to the next idea. But don’t worry if you don’t understand it, honey.  You’ll see it again next year. And the year after that! We were told that “research” supported this approach to math. Our fear that the curriculum was “a mile wide and an inch deep”  was brushed aside and we were given nice shiny new math books.  State testing reflected the state standards, and so every year we desperately tried to cram in number sense, multiplication of whole numbers and decimals, positive and negative integers, graphing, measurement, adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing fractions and decimals, long division, probability and measurement.  Teachers called it the “fly by” approach.

Now here we are, after having spent thousands upon thousands of education dollars on teacher training, new books, new materials and those damn tests, and guess what?!? 

New research shows that our curriculum is “a mile wide and an inch deep”.   The suits in charge have apparently researched the educational practices of countries that routinely score higher than America on standardized tests, and found that those countries move more slowly and make sure that the children fully grasp each concept before moving on.

Kinda sorta EXACTLY like what we did before the introduction of the Massachusetts Curriculum Frameworks.

Bear in mind, this is only the math piece of the school day.

Want to hear about reading? We’re being pushed hard by those in charge to teach reading only by using texts which are at the instructional reading level of the students.  Kids need to read material that is just right for them; it must stretch their skills but not frustrate them.  Logical, right?  AND, there’s “research” to support the idea!

But…..a lot of us seasoned teachers also realize that sometimes kids need to stretch their wings and just read what everyone else is reading so that they feel accomplished. Some students feel a sense of failure when places in leveled reading groups. Sometimes a child learns a huge amount by taking part in a full class discussion of a book that is either below or above his “instructional level”. I have seen struggling students make powerful inferences and connections to great books like “Number the Stars” or “The City of Ember”.  They probably didn’t understand every word or phrase, but because they took part in whole class activities, they learned about strong imagery, point of view, symbolism and historical context. We know that this is good teaching practice, but we won’t be allowed to do it any more.

I realized at the meeting, as I listened to the explanations about all of these changes, that all of this is nothing more than the swinging back of the educational pendulum.  When I was a young teacher, I often heard the older troops complaining about new ideas, and then lamenting when we were returned to the older ideas.  This was often the point where the older teacher felt compelled to retire, or when she would sink into quiet rebellion and earn a reputation as “not a team player”.

For me, though, the pendulum has created a sense of amusement and freedom.  I remember when everyone was taught in “groups” based on skill level.  I remember being in the “Gemini” group and looking down on the poor souls who were relegated to the “Apollo” group.  I remember when homogeneous groupings were considered passe, and everyone embraced heterogeneous and flexible groupings; no more levels! Now we’re back to the levels.  Back and forth, forth and back.   The same goes on with the math, broader curriculum vs deeper understanding.  Back and forth, forth and back.

And here is why I feel that this is a gift.

I’m old.  I don’t care!  The truth is, there is no one “right way” that fits every child, every teacher, every classroom, every school.  There will be kids who thrive most in one model, and kids who thrive more easily in another.  I will take the new books, use the new materials, use the new buzzwords, but I won’t go into a panic over any of it.   I know, you see, that good teaching means adjusting everything every day. It means being flexible, explaining in new ways, and having a shifting pace.

I know that teaching is about encouragement. Its about challenge and support.  Teaching is about igniting a spark of curiosity and giving kids the tools to satisfy that curiosity.  I can spiral or not spiral, level texts or not level texts, speed up or slow down.  Call them frameworks, strands, clusters, goals or gobbldygook.  I’m going to keep on doing what I do best. I’m going to keep having fun with my class and I’m going to keep on reaching each child the best way that I can, pendulum or no pendulum.

It’s good to be old!

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