Posts Tagged ‘learning’

Kids today

I’ve been a teacher for about 25 years now.

That’s long enough for my first round of students to have become the parents of my latest round of students.

And the funny thing is, for all of those twenty five years, I have heard adults bemoaning the terrible shortcomings of “kids today”.

I have heard adults insisting that “kids today” are selfish.  They are undisciplined. They are demanding and whiny and defiant.

I’ve heard it all.

But the funny thing is, as a teacher who has actually spent the last twenty plus years in the company of real flesh-and-blood kids, I completely disagree.  For the past twenty five years, I have found children to be funny, sweet, unrepentantly honest, thoughtful and vulnerable.

And they really haven’t changed in all these years.

Let me give you a great example.

I am teaching two half day, weeklong summer camp classes this week. I have two groups of children, one in the morning and one in the afternoon.  Each is a collection of kids between that ages of 8 and 14.  None of them know each other. The kids have signed up for a summer camp called ‘Drama, Start to Finish’.  We have created, written, produced and will perform a short play.  All in five half days.

In case you think this is an easy task, try to imagine yourself guiding children along a story line that includes Darth Vader, Barbie, Miley Cyrus and Harry Potter.  And then imagine yourself helping kids to write and act out a logical but funny story that includes all of them.


So we are now halfway through our week, and both my morning and afternoon plays are beginning to take shape. Neither one is completely lucid (Darth Vader bakes a pie and Barbie and Harry Potter steal it away? The children of Goldilocks, Snow White & Dopey, Sleeping Beauty & the Prince and Red Riding Hood have to fight of the child of Hades to save the world?).   There are costumes, props and very rudimentary sets.

All of this is pretty cool, and fairly impressive.  But none of it is the part that has me feeling so hopeful.

Here is what makes me feel so proud and so humble.

My morning class consists of 9 children, aged 8 through 14.  None of them knew each other on Monday.  Two have significant learning disabilities, and one has a cognitive delay.  They came together knowing nothing about each other, but willing to take on the risk of performing together.   My afternoon class consists of one anxious and slightly awkward Caucasian boy and four Chinese children who are either acquaintances or siblings.  None of them has any experience with theater, and all were signed up by eager parents.

Both classes could easily have been disasters.

Neither one is.

What I have seen for the past three days are groups of kids who are open, kind, welcoming and warm.  I have seen socially savvy teenaged girls working calmly with hyperactive eight year old boys. I have seen older kids talking earnestly with younger ones about books, movies, games and music.  I have seen distracted little ones being gently refocused by older, more settled friends.

I have worked with thirteen children who don’t know me at all, who don’t go to my school and have to reason to think that they might ever be in my class.  They didn’t have to be nice to me.  But they were.

Now I don’t think that every child today is a perfect child.  I teach in a public school. I know better.

All I’m saying is that over the course of twenty five years, I can say with certainty that kids have not gotten worse. They are not crazier, angrier, more out of control, more inattentive or less intelligent.  They are kids.

And over the course of twenty five years, I haven’t found parents to be more demanding, less respectful, more overbearing or crazier than they were before.

Here is what I think:

Kids are all growing at different rates.  They all mean well, but they are as insecure as the rest of us. They do their best to please us, but they can sometimes get upset or frustrated or scared.  They are kids.  They are not perfect.

And parents all over really truly love their kids, in a way that no teacher ever can.  They want to protect those kids and do right by them, and be the best parents that they can manage to be.  They all mean well, but they are as insecure as the rest of us. They do their best to please us, but they can sometimes get upset or frustrated or scared.  They are young moms and dads. They are not perfect.

I think that anyone who thinks that “kids today” are worse than kids twenty or forty or ninety years ago is someone who doesn’t spend time in the company of real live kids.




Feel good stories

About twenty years ago a very wise colleague of mine advised me to keep a “Feel Good File”.  She said that I should keep notes from parents, students, colleagues or administrators if they were complimentary and if they made me smile. She told me to keep any item that touched my heart, that made me feel proud of my work or of myself.  So I did.

I’ve had a lot of need for that file this school year, and I eternally grateful to my friend.  I have some of those thank you cards on display on my desk right now.

As this year has gone on, I have found myself truly struggling to stay positive about my work.  Five years ago, every day at school was a joy.  A year ago, the thought of retiring made me cry.

This year, I find myself wondering how much longer I can hold on.  I feel marginalized, disregarded, outdated, obsolete.  I question my expertise every day, and sometimes I even feel sorry for the colleagues who have to deal with me, and for the kids who have to endure a year of my crabby old fashioned teaching methods.

So I’ve decided to use this blog as a place to record some of my “Feel Good” stories.  I’ll try to write one every few days, just so that I can reassure myself that I have done some good.

My first story took place 18 years ago.  I had a little boy on my speech/language caseload who was very, very special.  He had been born prematurely.  His lungs were severely compromised, so he dragged around an oxygen tank all day.  He was profoundly hearing impaired (which is where I came into his life) and had fine motor deficits.  But he was the most cheerful, upbeat, funny little guy in the world, and he never, ever complained.

This little one came to our school when he was in kindergarten.  I worked with him five times a week, helping him to speak, to eat, to understand.  He was a joy.  Toward the end of that year, his audiology team recommended that we get an FM transmitter unit for him.  He would wear a little receiver on each hearing aid, and his teacher would wear a small microphone around her next, attached to a battery powered transmitter.

I spent weeks ordering the unit, learning to use it, meeting with the audiologists to insure that I knew how to use it correctly. My job, in addition to teaching my student and his teacher how to use the system, was to trouble shoot and maintain the parts. All went smoothly until about a week before the start of first grade.  The first grade teacher was a veteran of the classroom.  She seemed like a great match for the little guy when he was placed with her.  But when she found out that she would be required to wear the transmitter pack all day long, and to turn the microphone on and off during the day, she immediately resisted.

“The district can’t mandate that I wear a piece of electronic equipment!!!  I never wear anything around my neck!  I will need to buy clothes with pockets, because I don’t want that thing clipped to my waistband!”

Even when I weighed the unit in front of her (8 oz), showed her how easy it was to switch on and off, reassured her that I would be there to help her, she out and out refused.  She filed a grievance with the union.  She complained to everyone on staff about the pressure that she was feeling.

I knew this woman. I knew her as kind and loving.  A very good teacher.  A pro.   I knew that she was scared of this new technology, and I suspected that her fear of failure was the real issue.  I worked with her for hours, pending the grievance meeting, and convinced her to give it a try.

At this point it was about the third week of September.  My little student, with his hearing aids and his oxygen tank, had been a member of her first grade class for about three weeks.  On the morning in question, I had put on his FM receivers, adjusted the settings on his hearing aids, and helped the teacher to put on her transmitter. As usual at this time of the morning, the children were seated in a circle on the rug, gathered around the teacher.  I watched as the teacher carefully turned on the microphone and began to speak.

“Good morning, boys and girls, today we are going start with……”

Her voice was interrupted by a loud shout, and a crash.  “KAREN!!!!”  It was my little student, jumping to his feet as he called my name, his oxygen tank crashing over behind him.  I turned back into the room, imagining the worst.  “What is it?!”, I asked, rushing to his side.

He looked up at me, his face glowing with amazed joy.  “Karen!!! I can hear my teacher!!”

I gave him a hug and sat him back down with his friends.  I looked at my teacher friend. The tears on her cheeks matched the ones on mine. I left her to her lessons, and walked back to my office.

The grievance was withdrawn that day, and the FM stayed with us for the rest of the student’s elementary school life.


The little boy is now 24 years old.  Six months ago he had a double lung transplant and took his first walk without pulling a tank.  The other day he sent me a message, telling me that he had signed up for a zumba class, and was hoping to get his first job.

Let’s get rigorous!

So I’m not all that up to date with all the latest Pearson Inspired Common Core Standards Based education.  Ya know? I’m old.  When I’m teaching math, I use words like “multiply” and “sum”.  When I teach reading, I use phrases like “Do you like the book?” and “What’s gonna happen next?”   So last decade. So uninformed.  I know nothing, I tell you, nothing.

But I’m a good sport!  I am studying a whole variety of shiny boxed kits that tell me how to teach.  These kits were written by people who obviously know WAY more than I do about teaching.  They’re being paid by Pearson Corporation! They MUST be brilliant!

So the other day when I was forced to sit through yet another workshop on how to teach reading and writing, lead by yet another perky little girly on the Pearson payroll, I did my best to Talk the Talk.  I want to fit in! I do! Just listen to how well I slung the shit… I mean “engaged in meaningful dialogue about the latest trends in enhancing literacy.”

Perky: ‘So, have you found that the rubric is helping you to guide students toward a more rigorous approach to the standards?’                                                                                                                                                                                      

Me: ‘Totally! I find that when I facilitate a close reading of the mentor text, the rubric gives me so much information about which student is approaching grade level on which strand of each standard!”                    

 Perky: ‘So don’t you find that when you confer using the guidance of the rubric and the checklist both you and the student can find common ground for generating next steps?’                                                                              

Me: (nodding wisely) “Well, naturally, we continually refer to the anchor charts generated during each mini-lesson to identify the key areas for continued growth.”                                                                                                    

Perky: So don’t you think that its imperative to continually develop more rigorous assessments to insure comprehensive student growth across all domains?”  (Perky seems to start every sentence with “So”.  I think its in the Perky Standards and noted on the Perky Rubric.)                                                                                                  

Me: “While I’m totally sure that you are right, I’m having a little bit of difficulty decoding the main idea of the body of your thesis, given that your supporting details were framed using non-specific word choice.  I mean, from the voice in your persuasive comments I can infer that you support the idea of more rigorous assessment, both formative and summative, to inform our teaching, but I am not sure that your transitional phrases led me toward the correct conclusion.”                                                                                                                      

Perky: (blinking rapidly): ‘I, ah……’                                                                                                                                                  

Me: (giving my most warm and engaging smile) “I’m sorry! What I meant to say is that I believe in the intrinsic value of self-reflection as students dig deeper into the texts to infer the author’s purpose, and I know that it is essential for me to adhere to the best practice of providing models of grade level comprehension strategies, but how do I maintain a focus on authentic assessment while attempting to integrate cross-curricular units while continually providing the correct individual reading level for each student? I mean, gosh! (I widen my eyes and grin) how many just right books on the Articles of Confederation can there possibly be in one classroom?”                                                                                                                                                    

Perky’s mouth opened and closed, but no sound emerged.

See?  I did my best!  I tried to sling the shit, but the truth is none of it actually means anything and no matter how I try to hide it, I know that.   Fifth graders fall in love with great books when teachers read them out loud with passion, and then talk about them with interest and knowledge.  They learn to write when they are inspired to say something.  Truth? They don’t need to be told what their reading level is: they need to be surrounded by books and they need to play around with them.  Truth? They don’t need a rubric to learn how to craft a story where “the dialogue moves the story forward on the story arc” (Seriously? Whoever wrote this crap never read Vonnegut).  They know that a story is good when their friends tell them, “This was great!”

I did my best with Perky Girly. I don’t know if she accepted my nonsense, but I wouldn’t be surprised if she did.  All you really have to do to appease these folks is to use all of the latest jargon from the latest shiny box of    up-to-date curriculae.

How sad is that?


I have been a teacher for almost 30 years (wait, what?!).  I have been to a thousand team meetings at least. I have reviewed test results, planned IEP’s, talked about progress, planned for the summer. In 90% of those meetings, the feelings of the parents are understandable, reasonable and touching.

Even in the few cases where I have felt that parents were being unreasonable or illogical, I could almost always empathize with them.  After all, nearly every parent is acting out of love.  Nearly every one is motivated by a desire to protect and support and provide for her child.  I understand this motivation, and I feel enormous sympathy for parents of children who are struggling to fit in, to succeed, to learn, to grow and thrive.  I almost always find a way to reach out to those parents, to offer my help and support and to let them see that I am truly on their team.

But once in a while, once in a very rare while, there is a parent who’s motivations are too bizarre to earn my support.

I never refer to parents as “crazy”; that is just too easy an out, too glib a comment in nearly every case.  In 99% of cases, I just don’t think that parents are “crazy” .

But every once in a while, like once every 20 years, I meet a parent who is clearly and unquestionably mentally ill. And perhaps so angry and so disturbed that he or she is acting in a way that is very nearly evil.

I have a meeting with a mother like that tomorrow.  And I am feeling sick at the thought of being enclosed in a room with her for two hours (or more).

And I wonder why I feel such angst?

This woman is not a physical threat; she will not hit or kick or throw rotten tomatoes at us.  She will not curse or rant or storm out of the room.

So why do I feel actual fear?

Because this woman is cold to the point of iciness.  She is rude and loud, talking over every expert, speaking in a tone that is loud and forceful and absolutely unyielding. Her eye contact is challenging and her facial expression is a permanent grimace.

She is, in a word, rude.

So why is that so scary?

I guess its because for those of us who are sane and civil, it is a shock when someone breaks the rules of common courtesy.  We fumble around, we blush, we try to remain calm.  And I wonder why.

I would love to have the internal fortitude to challenge this woman, to treat her as if she were a child in my class. I would love to say, “Excuse me. You are being rude. You may not talk over others. You may not interrupt.”

I wish I could challenge her anger, and ask her “Why aren’t you happy that your child has made a good transition into my classroom? Why can’t you celebrate her success?”   I would like to ask her, “When was the last time that you told your child that you were happy for her?”

I wish that we could call a spade a spade, and that we could identify the mentally ill person in this family; the mom wants us to believe that it is her child who is unwell, but I am sure that it is the mother who needs the psychiatric help.

I wish that the rules of civility would allow me to be uncivil.  Maybe then I wouldn’t feel so afraid to go to an educational meeting.

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