Posts Tagged ‘schools’

Back from the woods

Just came back from three days and two nights in the woods of New Hampshire with my class and two other fifth grade classes.

This trip was a lot of fun, but it was also a huge amount of work for the fifth grade teaching team.  We spent almost a year organizing, collecting money, running parent information nights. We scheduled activities that tied in to our curriculum on the aquatic ecosystem. We signed up chaperones, we carefully made up cabin groups and activity groups.

Each fifth grade teacher handled at least 50 emails and phone calls from anxious parents and nervous kids. We made lists of who needed medicine, who needed an extra hug, who had a food allergy.  We encouraged kids and reassured Moms for weeks before we left.

Then the day of the trip dawned, and we piled onto sweaty school buses filled with excited kids. We bounced over the mountain roads and once we got there, we got every child settled into a cabin. We ate breakfast with the kids. We brushed our teeth at the sinks beside them. We supervised the morning showers and the evening bed time rituals. We checked in on every cabin, reminding the kids of school rules and letting them know that we were close by in case of any problems (like really missing Mom).

The weather was warm and wet, with downpours on and off for the entire three days. We dealt with mud and floods and pelting, driving rain. The bunks were damp, the socks were damp, our shoes were coated in mud.

Finally, it was time to wrap it up. We piled all seventy children back onto the buses, damp sweatshirts and all.  We bounced our way back through rush hour traffic, with everyone screaming camp songs for the full three hours.

We got home safe, and tired, and feeling very satisfied.

And today I had a conference with the Mom of one of my students. She summed up the entire experience, through the eyes of a ten year old girl.

“Mom!”, my student said to her mother, “It was amazing!  The teachers……they……Mom!  The teachers word pajamas!”

So there you go.  I guess it was a complete success.


Judging and being judged.

So I started thinking, as I reviewed the new descriptive writing rubric that I’d created to meet my mandated professional goal. I looked at the rubric. It was very detailed and very specific.  I have been told that kids need to see very clear guidelines so that they can judge for themselves whether their best efforts have earned a 1, 2, 3 or 4 in organization, word choice, detail and editing.  I was picturing my ten year old students, especially the ones who keep telling me how much they hate to write.  I started imagining myself in their shoes, knowing that every effort I made would be judged in minute detail, first by themselves, and then by me.

I thought about the Science Notebook Rubric that we use, and the Scientific Inquiry Rubric.  I imagined myself as a ten year old, trying to come up with a “focus question” and some “objective data” as I wondered what would happen if I put a bug in a tank with a frog.

That sort of got me thinking about the math open response rubrics.  And the history research paper rubrics.

And, Heaven help me, the “narrative writing rubric” that is in place in my classroom.

I tried to picture myself sitting down to write a story. Or a blog post.  I imagined my excitement as I thought about my wonderful new idea.  I pictured the little zing of adrenaline that I always get when I start to write.  I can just see myself, smiling and nodding as my fingers fly over the keys and one idea slips into the next.

Then I pictured myself being doused in ice cold water as I came to realization that despite my very best efforts, the dialogue between the main characters in my short story “did not move the story arc forward in a meaningful way”.  Would I be able or willing to rewrite, reframe, reshape my story in such a narrow way in order to raise my “2” to a “3”?  Would I ever dare to hit that “publish” button on my blog posts if I didn’t feel sure that my words would be worthy of a solid “4” in all of the rubric categories?

And it suddenly hit me: we keep reading about “education reform” and how the goal of all of this “Common Core” and “21st Century Learning” stuff is supposed to be about encouraging kids to take academic and intellectual leaps. It is supposed to be about freeing them to think in new and exciting way, to ask great questions, to dare to pursue their own answers.


How creative and innovative would YOU be if you thought that every single attempt you made in any area would be judged according to someone else’s idea of “the best” effort?  How many intellectual risks would you take if you knew that your supervisor would be measuring your work on a scale where the expectation is that most people will fail to meet the top score?

I thought about my lovely rubric, all crisp and clean and typed into its little boxes.  Then I thought of JRR Tolkein, and the courage it took to come up with “In a hole in the ground there lived a Hobbit.”

I said a silent prayer of thanks than young JRR never saw a “narrative rubric” in his life.  Then I carefully clicked the button on my computer which placed my lovely rubric into my “professional goals” folder.

Where it will stay, unused, for the remainder of the year.

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.



A brief time out

I know that I recently committed to writing positive, uplifting stories from my classroom.  I continue to believe that we need those stories to carry us forward.

The very best part of writing about those moments, when I know that I have changed the life of a child, is the realization that I am nothing special.

ALL teachers have the same impact. We all change lives. Every single day.

But today I need to take a side trip, back to the frustrations and anger that come from the current push toward the Common Core and the PARCC tests.

This morning I watched Fareed Zakaria on CNN.  I generally avoid all of CNN’s programming, given that I don’t want to watch wall to wall coverage of bad weather, ignorant celebrities and missing planes.

But I have always found Mr. Zakaria to be thoughtful, knowledgeable and interesting.   I turned on his show this morning expecting to see a good discussion of the impending civil war in Ukraine.  Instead, I was shocked and saddened to hear Mr. Z talking about the problem with American education.

To be fair, I did agree with him when he said that the key issue in the US is the increasing income disparity and the large number of children being raised in poverty. But then he started to talk about those damned test scores; the ones that attempt to compare “The US” to other countries.  The ones that fail to take into account the fact that it is the poorest states that drag down our national scores. The one that fails to report that states which adequately support funds for public education (Mass, NY, Conn) score well above the world average.

He went on to talk about the “misguided” push back against the Common Core, which he called “a tragedy”.

You can find Mr. Z’s comments on the Washington Post, dated May 1st.

When I heard his comments, I put aside the giant stack of essays that I was planning to correct and I grabbed my laptop to reply.  This is the email that I sent.  I would love it if others would join me!

Dear Mr. Zakaria,

I am a long time viewer and have always been impressed with your thoughtfulness and your careful research.  I am in general agreement with most of your views, and will continue to read and watch your work.

However,I have been left  feeling angry, hurt and enormously demoralized  by your comments this morning on CNN, and your recent article in the Washington Post .

I teach fifth grade in an upper middle class public school in Massachusetts.  I have been teaching for more than 20 years, and have been ranked as a “Highly Qualified” educator.

I oppose the Common Core State Standards and the upcoming PARCC tests for several reasons, none of which you have considered in your opinion.

First: The standards no doubt are an attempt to create a uniform set of expectations for all students in the United States.   While I applaud the idea of setting standards for our children, I disagree strongly with the idea that all students in all places MUST reach them on a given day. The current system punishes schools and teachers for each child who fails to reach the standards, disregarding issues of ability/disability, native language and (most crucially) poverty.  The standards are being used as a bludgeon, rather than a goal.

Second: The CCSS were created without the input of a single elementary school teacher. Not ONE. Instead, representatives of major corporations (Pearson, Microsoft, Apple, to name a few) were part of the original consortium.  

Third: The CCSS and PARCC are funneling hundreds of millions of dollars to the above named corporations.  Dollars that could have been spent on decreasing class sizes, training teachers, building safer, cleaner, new schools or providing services to children who live in poverty.

The pushback against the Common Core is hardly a “tragedy”.  It is, in fact, a reasoned, thoughtful, powerful reaction to the corporate takeover of our public schools and the government’s failure to address the true needs of our students.

I would encourage you to research ACHIEVE, Pearson Corporation,, Diane Ravitch and the true story of the Common Core State Standards



I had a student a year or so ago.  She was sweet, pretty, funny, creative, shy, warm and wonderful.  She was a kid.

This girl’s heart was in creative arts.  She wanted to be a fashion designer.  She came to school every day in the most inexplicably adorable combination of leggings, colorful shoes, off the shoulder sweaters and hair bands.  As a person with absolutely no fashion sense whatsoever, I was intrigued and impressed every time she walked into my classroom.

This girl was not a strong math student.  Her mom was in a panic, fearing that her child was showing a learning disability or a lack of motivation or a character flaw of some kind. I did my best, all year long, to reassure the mom.  I told her that I found her daughter to be absolutely cognitively and mathematically competent, in spite of her shaky test grades.  I thought that the little girl was slightly intimidated by the math, but I also told her, honestly, that her daughter just didn’t consider fifth grade math to be a huge priority.

I told the mom, as I told the girl, “Math isn’t a goal in itself. It’s just a tool.  If you want to be able to figure out the cost of clothes on sale, you’ll need math. If you want to calculate how much you will pay every month for a new computer, you’ll need math.”  The child began to relax, and the mom seemed to take a deep breath.

It was at the very last conference of the year when I realized that this traditionally very anxious Momma had begun to trust my judgement.  As I finished my description of her child’s academic achievements for the year, she leaned forward and smiled.  “Lily learned so much this year!”, she said, putting her hand on my wrist. “She taught me so much!”

I wasn’t sure where she was going with this thought, but I smiled in return. She seemed pleased, so I was happy!

“I love what you told her about mistakes!”, she said.

I frantically searched my memory, trying to recall what I could have said.  I knew that as a “big picture” learner myself, I often overlooked little details like the operation sign or the carried digits.  As a child, I was often accused of making “careless mistakes”. I found this to be enormously frustrating: it didn’t seem to matter how much I “cared”, my mistakes were still considered “careless”. I wondered if I had passed on the same message to my  not so mathematical student.  I waited with some trepidation as the mom leaned back in her seat.

“She told me what you said about math mistakes!  You said, ‘ There are no careless mistakes. There are only mistakes that you know how to correct’.  She feels so good about her math skills now!”

She beamed at me as I sat there, my jaw agape, my mind a blank.  Did I really say that?  Jeez, I hope I did!  What a wonderful thought to pass on to a kid!


I don’t know if I was really that wise, or if this lovely little girl simply interpreted my words this way. I don’t actually care! She went on to sixth grade, and did very well in math.  


Back to school

April vacation is over.

The kids have rested, gone to Disney, travelled to Europe, slept late.

The teachers have planned the rest of the math lessons, read and scored the essays, created the next writing prompt, chosen the book groups, made the class lists for next year, ordered the new book bins and science materials, set up the end-of-year conferences and commented on the kids’ stories.

And now its time to go back to school.  This is the last push, the final segment.  This is the time of year when we will take our state tests and will move on to the true curriculum.

This is the time of year when I will let the children create, write, produce and perform a play.  They will have to learn how to work to to consensus. They will need to compromise if they want to do the play. They will negotiate with each other, solve problems together, work as a team.

It will be REALLY hard for them.  There will be tears, and hurt feelings and anger.

I will be absolutely resolute in my  determination to Make. Them. Solve. The. Problems.

I will listen, guide, facilitate.

I will NOT make the decisions.

Every year, at this time of year, when the damn tests are finished, I watch my students learn how to be creative and cooperative and sensitive and caring.  Every year, when I can finally stop feeding them answers, I am allowed to watch them as they find those answers for themselves.

I am excited.

I love this time of year, because this is what true teaching is all about.  This is the time of year when I will be amazed as I see which quiet, awkward child emerges as the director of our play.  This is the time of year when I will see the athletic superstar stepping back to the let the nerd come forward as the star of the show.  The sensitive math brain might become our technology expert, creating the backgrounds and soundtrack for our play.  The silly goof-off might become the primary writer of a show that is based on fifth grade humor. The silent observer just may end up with the funniest ten seconds of acting in the entire production.

This is the time of year when my hardest job is to stay out of the way, to let the kids take the reins.  This is the time of year when I believe, with my whole heart, that the best and most meaningful learning will take place.

Without me.

Which is exactly as it should be.

Process or Product

We used to have a saying here in our school, “Learning is a process, not a product.” It was based on a quote about art, actually.

“Art is a process, not a product.”

We used to display student art as it was being created, not only when it was complete.  We displayed all of it; not only the best ones.  We didn’t let children throw away art and start over; we encouraged them to talk about the parts that didn’t go as planned, and to problem solve ways to make them better.

Back in the days of yore, we used to consider writing to be a process, too. We didn’t believe that the purpose of writing a story in the second grade was to generate a polished piece of work; we thought that the goal of writing was to learn how to write and to fall in love with the power of self expression.

I recently had two conversations that have left me yearning for those innocent days.

Both were discussions with young, talented, dedicated teachers who have a burning desire to do this job to the best of their ability. They are the products of current practices in teacher education.

One conversation was about a math unit.  We are moving very quickly through some very complex math concepts.  The state tests are looming and so we fly by the ideas, pushing the kids to master everything on the first or second go round.  My colleague had completed a unit on multiplying fractions, and had been working with her students for several days.  When she felt that they were ready, she gave them the unit test.

They did terribly, and she was really distressed. She was almost angry at them.  “What do I do?”, she asked me.  “What does it mean? Do you think they just didn’t take it seriously?  Should I make them retake it?”

“Why?” was my response.

“Well, because I KNOW that they can do this!”

“So what’s the point of testing again? Isn’t the point of testing supposed to be to show who still needs work and who has mastered it?”

We’ve lost our focus on the process, and are all about the product.

The second conversation was about reader’s notebooks.  I have used these notebooks for years, as a way for kids to jot down their reactions to books, to share thoughts, to start little stories themselves.  Kids used to draw in them to help them visualize and remember the characters.

My young colleague was upset that her students were producing journal entries that were not organized, long enough, grammatical enough or as polished as she expected.  She was planning to attach a writing rubric to the journals, with specific expectations about the number of lines required in each entry.

Her intentions were great!  We want to be teaching children to write well.

But here’s the question that I asked her: “What is the purpose of the reader’s notebooks?”

She wasn’t sure how to answer that, which was pretty telling.

“See, to me,” I began, “The purpose of the notebook is not to produce a notebook.  The purpose is to learn how to think deeply about books.  The purpose is to learn how to share your interesting questions and ideas and predictions about those books.”

She nodded her head.  “I get that.”

I smiled at her.  “You know what they say, right?  Education is a process, not a product.”


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