Posts Tagged ‘teaching’

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.

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.

Tick, tick, tick……


This was a really long vacation.  Two days before it started, I was sure that it was going to last at least a decade.  Ah, sweet freedom……..Those long, lazy, restful, boring, relaxing, mindless days of winter vacation stretched out before me like a mirage. As if there would never be a spring testing season. As if Persuasive Essays existed only in my darkest nightmares.

Ah……sweet freedom…..

And yet, here I am, perched on the cusp of the Return To School.

So anxious.  So fretful.  So restless.

Last night I dreamed that I wanted to reorganize the desks in my classroom, moving them from a horseshoe shape into table groups. In my dream, I talked, and argued and ordered and ranted.  In my dream, I was completely ignored.  No one listened, no one moved a desk.

In my nightmare, the kids were all talking happily, and not one of them could hear my voice as I tried to shout.  In this awful dreamscape, one of the kids in my class came into my room wearing glittery gold makeup, with her hair sprayed and teased. She tried to explain why she wasn’t in the classroom during indoor recess, but I was too mad to listen to her.  (For the record; she wasn’t a real kid, although she was kind of cute).

As the dream went on, and no one would listen to my voice, yelping and arguing and trying to get their attention, a bus pulled up outside of my classroom, and I suddenly realized that I was supposed to have taught my kids a song and dance.  I was embarrassed and horrified and teary; they didn’t know the song! They hadn’t been taught the dance! Crowds of people were gathering to watch them!  I was sure that I was about to lose my job, and my career.  My throat actually ached from the accumulated tears.

But in my dream, my students all gathered together, and worked out a little song and dance. In my dream, they rallied around their friendships and without any guidance from me, they managed to sing and caper and laugh so that the audience broke out in wild applause.

I felt weak and limp and relieved in my dream.  I looked at my kids in awe.  I smiled at the suddenly scary authority figure who for some reason stood beside me, and he was charmed.

My dream ended with me hugging and smiling at my students.  It ended with me wondering, “Wow! Why on earth did I think they’d need me to create a song?”

I woke up with the feeling of the clock ticking.  Vacation is ending.  I have a list of rubrics and scores and mini-lessons that I am supposed to create.  But I woke up with the realization that if I just let go, and relax, the kids and I will come up with everything that we really need to teach our literacy and history units.

I need to trust my dreams. I need to learn how to let it go.

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