Posts Tagged ‘teachers’

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.

 

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.

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.

How to tell if you’re having a bad day.


There’s nothing like the lift that I get when one of my colleagues is having a worse day than mine.  I mean, it isn’t that I want my friends to be miserable. Its just that I like it when they show me that my problems aren’t quite as huge as I thought they were.

Take today, for example.

My class is a really great group.  They are! They’re just very, very energetic. As in, they have enough kinetic energy to power Hong Kong for a week.  Being in a room with them for an hour is like being buried alive in a giant pit of Mexican jumping beans.

This has been a particularly challenging week, because one of my most hyperactive little guys (who was taken off of all medications last June), is heading for Disney World tomorrow morning.  You can only imagine what it looked like when I tried to teach him anything.  During our writing block, he bounced out of his seat at least fourteen times in ten minutes. To get a drink, to pick up a dropped pen, to ask me a question, to grab a snack, to throw away the wrapper, to get a drink, to sharpen his pencil, to get a drink, to get another snack, to put the snack back when I barked at him, to get a bandaid for his sore finger, to get a drink, to sign out for the bathroom after having had so many drinks………

In math, he filled a big red cup with water and proceeded to hide from me by sticking his entire face into the cup, at one point blowing bubbles into the cup and giggling maniacally as I tried to refocus him on adding decimals.

Don’t even ask me about science, when the fish had to be netted and added to the tank along with a pipette filled with algae. Suffice it to say, I did some pretty quick googling to find out how dangerous it can be to get algae in your eye.

So I was feeling pretty worn out and beaten down by the time I got to lunch time today.  I walked the kids to the cafeteria, got them settled, then slowly headed back to my classroom, my shoulders rounded with fatigue.

On my way back to my room, I ran into my young colleague, a first year teacher who is the same age as my sons. Her big blue eyes were wide with wonder, and her dimples were showing as she grinned. “Wait till I tell you about my morning!”, she called.  I thought back on the three hours of “Whack-a-mole” I had played all morning, thinking that she couldn’t possibly be having a rough a day as I was.

Then she raised her arm, showing me a curled fist.  “Take a look at this!”, she said, opening her hand.  On her opened palm, I saw an inch of curled, golden hair, clearly cut off by a sharp pair of scissors.  “It’s hair”, I said, dumbly.  That’s about how tired I was feeling; all I could do was to identify the substance in her hand. “Yep”, she said. “Its MY hair.”

I blinked.  “Why is your hair falling out?”  My exhausted brain was trying to make sense of what she was telling me.  “Well”, she said, “It didn’t fall out.  It was cut.”  She went on to tell me her story.

She had been working with one student on the math lesson for the day.  Suddenly she saw that several hands were raised, the kids were whispering. “What is it?”, she asked the kids. “There is hair on the floor!”  My colleague, frowned at them.  “Just leave it”, she said, turning back to her student. “No, no!”, the kids called.  “You have to see this!”  So my young friend looked down and saw the golden lock of hair on the floor. She quickly scooped it up.  It looked mighty familiar, in color and texture.

This young woman is a natural teacher, smart and organized, with great instincts.  “OK!”, she barked, holding the curl of hair in her fingers. “Every blond kid, stand up!”  She went from head to head, looking for the match, but none were quite right.

At that moment, one of the girls in the class nodded her head wisely.  “Yup”, she said firmly, “That is definitely your hair.”

She had no idea which of her impulsive little munchkins suddenly decided to lop off a piece of her long hair.  She decided to just let that question go, and got everyone back into the math lesson.

When she told me the story later, I immediately felt better about my own day.

Now that’s how you know you are having a bad day in the classroom; when you look down and see a big ol’ chunk of your hair lying dead on the floor, you know its time for the weekend.

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.

Right.

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.

 

 

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