I have unshakable faith in children. They always show me the way. ♥

Sunday, October 21, 2012

bystander behavior...


Last weekend, I had an experience that I was so happy to witness.

But before I recount it, let me give a little history:

I've been reading an extraordinary new book by Caltha Crowe, called How to Bullyproof Your Classroom.  Not only is it a wonderful resource for teachers about the definition of bullying behaviors (and gateway behaviors), but it also provides proactive strategies for use in setting up one's classroom community, as well as lessons (with wonderful children's literature) to use with K-2nd grade students, and 3rd-5th grade students.

Her book is well researched and one of the points that really stood out for me was that much of the anti-bullying work that's been done up until now was teaching the person experiencing bullying behavior how to stand up for oneself, but that that is not always possible -- or even safe -- for someone to do.  Instead, it focuses on the bystanders, on building community where children use empathy, on what people can do when they witness bullying behavior.

I've already used one of the lessons with my first graders, and we're really investigating and discussing what it means to be kind: what it feels like, what it sounds like, what it looks like.

It is very much on my mind these days.

Last weekend, I was at Target with my daughter (trying very hard not to buy every adorable onesie that I saw) and saw some teenaged boys hanging out, talking, and laughing across the way from us in the sporting goods aisle.

One of the boys called another's name, then tossed a basketball pretty hard toward him.  It missed him completely and almost hit a woman in a wheelchair who was passing by.  The teenager who threw the ball saw what happened and took off.

The woman called out to him angrily, wondering why he would leave and not apologize.

But one of the boy's friends called him back, "You apologize, you idiot!"

It took several long seconds, but the teenager did come back, went to the woman, and apologized.  She accepted his apology and went on, and he went back to his friends.

He was laughing nervously and explaining to his friends that it surprised him and that's why he ran.

But one of his friends said, "Dude. You're a dick.  You don't do something like that and take off."

The others echoed that: "You are a dick."

I stood there, happy beyond words.  I was so glad that his friends had called him on that incident.  It very easily could have become a situation that escalated, or his friends could have laughed along with him and taken off, but at least one of them didn't.  He recognized the situation for what it was, and called him back.  (also, I apologize for the language used, but it's authentic, and I think it really illustrates the power that friends and bystanders have)

As I stood there, I thought: "this is what I want for my daughter.  As she gets older I want her to be able to recognize behavior that is not okay, and say something about it to her friends.  Similarly, I want her friends to do the same for her if her behavior is not okay."

More than anything, I wanted to go talk to those boys.  I wanted to tell them that I noticed.  That I appreciated it.  That that is the kind of behavior I think we need more of in the world.  But I couldn't think of how to approach them in a way that wouldn't seem corny, or trite, but instead would really just reinforce what they'd already done.  By the time I said, "just get over yourself and go say something!" they'd already moved on and I didn't see them anywhere.

Lesson learned.  

When I see something like that, probably the most important thing is that I do say something, even if it's not as eloquent as I might like it to be.

And to any teenagers out there reading... if that was you?  I think what you did was pretty awesome.  Keep it up.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Secret talents?


So, I have this dream.  I hold out hope that I have secret talents that I don't yet know about, that I am secretly amazing at something and it's a complete mystery to me what it is.  It might be for something that exists that I haven't yet tried: badminton, robot-building, flying a helicopter.  Maybe my secret talent is in a sport or game, possibly one that hasn't been invented yet, like sky-dive speech-writing.  Or lawn-mower food preparation.  Perhaps blind-folded tree climbing.

When I try something new, I sometimes wonder: "Is this my secret talent?"

For over a year, I have been undergoing the certification process to become a consulting teacher for the Responsive Classroom.  With this certification, I will be able to teacher Responsive Classroom Level 1 to other educators.  As someone passionate about the Responsive Classroom approach, this has been a welcome and exciting challenge.  It is an intense and rigorous process involving a lot of being observed in one's own classroom practice, a lot of writing and reflecting, which then culminates in a lot of practice presenting to other adults.

Apart from being excited at the idea of becoming certified, in the back of my mind, I thought I might find my secret talent.  Armed with my homework and bags under my eyes (I'm a first time mom of an infant), I arrived at part one of our adult seminar in May, really raring to go.

During those busy three days, we learned a lot, read a lot, and had the opportunity to give a very short presentation.  We all left that seminar with a lot to read and a lot to prepare.  In part two of the seminar -- in July -- we had four presentations to give.

I spent a lot of my sleep-deprived hours at the end of June and beginning of July working and reworking my presentations.  I practiced on my 4 month old daughter, who thought I was quite funny.  I practiced in front of the mirror, which told me nothing.  I practiced in the shower, in which I sounded amazing (of course, I also sound amazing singing in the shower and you'll notice that I'm not a famous singer...).

I arrived at part two of our adult seminar in July, laden with binders and books and notecards and posters and markers, even painter's tape.  I was exhilarated and nervous, excited to see the other members of the seminar again.  It was great to be back together again, to catch up, to hear about how everyone's summer was going, to learn more about each other.  We also began our many presentations on Monday and Tuesday of that week.

As it turns out, presenting to adults is not my secret talent.  Alas.

I don't mean that I lack skills in teaching adults, but rather that I was not instantly and immediately a Master of All Skill.  In fact, I'm not even bad at it.  I'm just not quite as amazing as my secret fantasy had imagined.  After that realization, I had a bit of a mourning period.  It can be disappointing to discover one isn't quite as good at something as one had (secretly) hoped.

Once I got over the initial mourning period, the time I had with my coach was absolute gold to me.  In fact, I got so focused on being given the gift of feedback, of places to improve, that I almost didn't want to waste any of that valuable time on what was going well.  I remember feeling a little bit like: "Okay, cool.  Yes, okay, but FIX ME!  How else can I get better?"

This got me thinking about my students (as many things do), and I wondered if any of them have similar experiences.  Six year olds often jump into things with enthusiasm and gusto, for them it's about the process, the beginning.  They often lose steam partway through, or when they realize that something is hard.  For me, as their teacher, their coach, this can be a rich opportunity to reinforce their enthusiasm, to help them see what they are doing well in this new learning.  Maybe I can help them through any mourning period they might have so that they can then reapply themselves with the same enthusiasm I had when I realized that my new endeavor was as rich with opportunity for new learning as theirs is for them.

And as for me...?  Well, I've still yet to discover my secret talent...

Sunday, June 17, 2012

packing traditions...

I was just reading this post on the Responsive Classroom's blog and it got me thinking about one of the parts of the school year at which I continue to fail spectacularly: packing. Oh, man.

I have a close friend and former colleague (are colleagues really "former" if you still talk to them and are inspired by them regularly?) with whom I share many traits. Two of which include:

1. We both have a lot of stuff.
2. We both take a long time decluttering and packing up.

Years ago we both discovered some commonality in the fact that it took us days to pack up our classrooms for the summer, while others seemed to take almost no time at all. (I always used to imagine they had some sort of magic power or secret animal helpers that scurried around and did the packing for them at night when no one was looking) For whatever reason, my friend and I are good teachers, but slow packers. I almost wrote "bad packers" but I believe that's incorrect. We pack in an organized and useful way; it just takes a while.

After a particularly difficult day of packing and stress, one of us went to the other in tears because another well meaning colleague had unintentionally sent us over the edge by saying, "Wow, you still have a lot to do." So the other one (and I'm not being intentionally vague here, I honestly don't remember who said or did what -- just know that this story is highly indicative of our relationship) walked into her classroom, looked around and started pointing out all of the things she could see that already were done.

It was a moment of clarity, a moment to take a breath and realize that, yes, a lot had already been done. It was exactly like the reinforcing language I strive to use with my students on a regular basis.

It worked.

That was probably more than thirteen years ago, but it started a tradition between the two of us. Every June (even though we no longer teach at the same school or even in the same state), sometime during the last week of school, one of us contacts the other one (via email, text, or phone) and says, "Wow, look at your classroom! You've gotten SO MUCH done; you're nearly finished!" Whether it's true or not, it always puts a smile on my face and gives me that little push to keep going. It reminds me of the reinforcing language from way back then and reminds me to look at everything I already have done and lets me take that deep breath and jump back into what I haven't.

I kind of love it. :)

How about you? What sorts of traditions do you have with other colleagues that pump you up?

Sunday, January 8, 2012

knowing young children...

One of my students had surgery while we were on vacation. She came back to school last week with two casts on her lower legs and a really big story to tell.

Naturally, we had her share at Morning Meeting. She talked about the surgery a little bit, talked about her casts a lot and asked for questions/comments. Many of the questions were about her crutches (were they hard to use, what were they called), how did she come to school on the bus (she didn’t), and did she need some help (she told us that she would ask for help when she needed it).

She brought several tools from the hospital to share with us: the air mask she used when getting the anesthesia (she called it the “strange air”), her identification bracelets, and her stuffed bunny from home with two casts on the legs as well.

Here’s what I couldn’t stop thinking about as she was sharing: there are some pretty brilliant people at that hospital.

First of all, I'm still thinking about what a wonderful idea it is to have a child bring a favorite, cuddly toy and affix it with the same casts. It allows for a feeling of solidarity, for play, and for sharing with others. Then the fact that they allowed her to take the mask from her anesthesia home as well pleases me greatly. Again, she has something with which she can share, and it allows for more play after the fact to process the entire experience.

It was weird enough for me, as an adult, to go through anesthesia the two times I’ve had to deal with it, but as a child, it must be a vastly different experience. Anyway. Not a lot to say about all of this, just that there are some pretty amazing people out there that do pretty amazing things for children when they go to the hospital.

I am so thankful that they exist.

Monday, February 21, 2011

adapting and balancing projects...

I have an ongoing struggle that I imagine a lot of teachers face: how do I teach the curriculum the state tells me I need to teach, but make sure I'm doing it in an age appropriate way?

Believe me when I tell you this is a constant struggle. It's one that I probably fail at a good portion of the time. I had some success with this particular one, and hence, I'm putting it here. Plus, I regularly help children focus on the small successes, those that build up to larger ones, so why not afford myself the same support?

My state's standards tell us that first graders need to be able to tell a story about each of five famous Americans. About each one, there are particular facts that they are required to know. There are 5 things they are required to know about George Washington, and we are studying him now. There are so many ways to teach it, and I'm always looking for new ones (please feel free to comment with any ideas if this sparks ideas of your own or you have ideas to share).

This is a project that developed out of one of those premade projects in resources like The Mailbox and various books with multiple blackline masters. The project had the children cut out puzzle pieces that had various facts about George Washington printed on them, then the children would cut out and put the puzzle together, and, voila! the Washington Monument!

So, sort of a cool project. Definitely something first graders would be highly jazzed about. But, the preprinted puzzle pieces didn't relate to the required knowledge that my state expects. So, I adapted it. My kids now receive a paper with the empty puzzle pieces and they draw representations of what they're supposed to know about Washington. Then they cut, arrange, and glue it, and still, voila! the Washington Monument! But with their own personality and their own work.

I like this way better. It connects to the children's learning; it meets the six year old desire to do projects with their learning, and it allows them to add other things that they know (either about Washington himself, or the monument) onto their picture. It also really helps me informally get a sense of who is integrating this learning into their schema and who needs more support from me about ways to connect it to their own learning.

It's not a perfect project, but three years worth of children have appreciated it, and they typically hold onto the knowledge (and more than just the expected 5 facts) rather well.

Plus, look how cool... [note: click on any picture to make it bigger]


This student is drawing and using words.


Some students just draw -- this is showing Washington as a leader of soldiers.



A work in progress.



This student used pictures and words to show what she remembered.


This I love because she put her own personality right into it -- see the steps inside the Monument with people going up? And the speech bubbles? Priceless.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

being "on"

It's amazing what being "on" for several hours in a row will do for my subconscious. For people that might not be teachers, I define being "on" as: managing a classroom, observing kids all the time, intervening when something is about to happen, teaching lessons, asking questions, handing someone a squeezey ball just before they're about to flip, adjusting the rules to a game to make it more accessible for a student, writing a word upside down to model for a child who needs it, and about a zillion and one other things that a teacher does in a single day (sometimes in a single hour).

Being on for a full day is exhausting and awesome and awful in lots of different ways (and I have another half-written post about it), but for this post I've been thinking a lot about some of the positive aspects of it.

Here's one: over the past week or so I've been dealing with something really difficult in my personal life. It's big and sad and I think about it a lot at night and on the weekends. But during the school day I just don't have time. My students walk through the door with stories and smiles and when they're there I kick right into teacher mode. I don't even mind teacher mode -- I like it! I like hearing these stories, laughing about someone's dog getting out when they're trying to give him a bath. I like pulling groups for guided reading and watching my students read and work on fluency and expression. I like conferencing with young writers, marvelling at how their handwriting and spelling can change in such a short period of time, laughing at glorious word choices, and watching them think seriously about how to make their book clear enough for another person to read. I like watching them wrestle with math concepts and try things that don't work and then try again and again.

I like teaching.

Then, at the end of the day, when I'm exhausted and smiling with a new student story from the day, I realize I haven't spent any time obsessing about what's bothering me. I realize that these children have given me an amazing respite from difficulty.

For that, I am overwhelmingly grateful.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

language empathy...

Teachers can turn anything into a learning experience.

My husband and I were recently in Mexico for four days. It was a trip he earned through his job and believe me, we were well aware that we'll probably never get this opportunity again, so we tried to make the most of it.

On one of the days, we signed up for a bus tour that took us to some important sites, through a Mexican town, and ended up at Chichén Itzá, Mayan ruins that were built during the 500's. It was a wonderful trip; we learned so much, and the ruins were some of the most spectacular things I've seen in my life.

NOTE: The wee tiny little spot in front of the steps is me.


During one of our stops we disembarked for lunch; it was delicious. We sat at a table with people from all over the world: England, Mexico, India, Colombia. Our closest seatmates both spoke Spanish, and my husband and I each have a passable ability to understand and speak some Spanish. One of my very favorite things from the day was talking with a woman from Mexico and a man from Columbia and learning about them through their beautiful and our (very broken) Spanish. Several times we were trying to explain something and had to talk all around the idea in order to get to what we were trying to communicate.

On the bus trip itself our guide would give part of the lecture in Spanish and then would translate it into English. I had to pay close attention to the Spanish, and even then I missed probably 50% of what he was saying, and that which I understood I'm sure I only understood at a very rudimentary level.

The whole experience got me thinking about what so many of my students go through daily when they come to school. They are listening as best they can, but it's not their native language, so they are understanding as much as they can, as best they can.

If those few hours were exhausting for me, I can only imagine what it's like for them, day after day. It renewed my empathy.

Like I said... teachers can turn anything into a learning experience. :)

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

pushing through...

I've told this story over and over again. In fact, some of my colleagues have heard this story numerous times (and three of them heard it again today when we were at a workshop). So, if you are one of my colleagues, I apologize in advance.

This story happened in my class about three years ago. I noticed that the children were having real difficulty when putting away the materials for our Poetry Workstation. This station is basically the poem of the week, but each word is individually cut out, laminated and stuck with a small square of velcro. The children then put the words back in order to form the poem. [note: a picture and more detailed explanation of this station is here]

The words are all kept in a ziploc bag, but for some reason, my class was having a very hard time putting the tools away. Words would get lost, they'd spill out into the bucket or the floor, and I was regularly having to clean them up.

So, I posed it to the children: "I've noticed that the Poetry Workstation doesn't get put away as well as our other stations. Sometimes the words get lost, and they spill out of the bag and get mixed up with the other words."

The children offered some thoughts: "we should put things away carefully." or "we need to be better at cleaning up..."

I remember having a little mental debate with myself right there about whether to support their suggestions and close the meeting, or to try to push further. I knew that it wasn't that they needed to "clean up better" -- because they were.

So I told them: "I hear what you're saying, but let me tell you what I notice: you are being careful and safe when you put things away. The Big Books are organized and ready to be used. Our classroom library almost always has the books put away in the right baskets; the magnetic letters are put away in the right letter spaces and the top is closed...

"You take a lot of responsibility with our learning tools, so I wonder if there is something about the poetry workstation that makes it hard for you to put the tools away."

There was a long pause while they thought about it.

Then Lisa raised her hand. "Miz F? Could you maybe get those bags that have the zipper on the top that you do with your fingers?"

I didn't know where she was going with that, but I knew which bags she meant. "Sure, of course... can you tell me why, though?"

"They're just so hard to close!" she told me.

My classroom exploded at that moment: murmurs of agreement, the physical connection sign, and then Lavender stood up and said, "I know! I have to put the bag down on the table and use my whole hand to close it! And sometimes it doesn't even work!"

I was dumbfounded. I remember thinking: seriously? That is the problem... the wrong bags?

"Okay," I told them. "We can absolutely do that. I'll try to get them tomorrow or over the weekend and we'll make sure to replace the other bags with the ones that have the zipper on top."

You should have seen the relief on their faces.

The funny thing? It was exactly what they needed. We had very little trouble with that station for the rest of the year. And I've learned to use those bags now in the station.

But I guess what it really taught me? Was to trust my instincts. I knew there was something that was making that station hard. I almost left it halfway through the conversation, but I'm so glad I tried to push a little further.

Of course, not every solution is as easy as just getting a different kind of bag -- but it's still a good reminder for me to try to push the kids a little further. They always know a lot more than they think they do.

And they teach me so much, too. ♥

Monday, January 10, 2011

meta titles...

One of my students is writing a How to book entitled: How to Write a How-to Book.


I know.


Have I mentioned lately how much I love my job?

Monday, January 3, 2011

egocentrism...

For four years I taught Kindergarten and loved it. This is my ninth year teaching first grade -- which completely blows my mind sometimes (but that's a reflection for another day) -- and sometimes I have experiences that illustrate some of the difference between 5-turning-6 year olds and 6-turning-7 year olds.

One of my students, Tarak, has been away visiting family in his country since late November. It was a wonderful moment this morning when he walked in and we got to see him again for the first time in over a month! Well, his birthday was in December, and even though he was not there to celebrate with us, we still made a huge card and got out the birthday pencil for him to save for when he got back.

To be honest, with all of the busyness of starting up again, it had slipped my mind.

This afternoon during activity time, we were working on a card for a January birthday friend and when Tarak signed it, he told me: "My birthday passed, but we're still gonna celebrate it here." I nodded at him. "Yes, your birthday was December 8th, right?" He beamed at me, and then went back to signing the card.

That conversation had triggered my memory, so I went to get his card and pencil and brought it over to him. I put it in front of him and waited for him to notice (and, yes, sometimes I do have an overdeveloped sense of the dramatic). He looked up, saw the oversized card, read his name, and then looked inside to see detailed drawings and signatures from everyone in our class.

"Wow." He looked up at me, genuinely surprised. "You guys made me a card."

"Of course we did! Just because you weren't here didn't mean we weren't thinking about you."

And then, this question: "Do I get to take it home?"

"Absolutely."

I loved this. Loved it. Because, at the very basic level, it showcases how six-seven year olds are starting to move out of some of the more self-focused egocentrism of 5 year olds (not to imply anything negative about 5 year olds. They are incredibly kind and thoughtful and I think each one of them ought to be consulted by the government when they try to make laws.) and into the appreciation of the fact that people would make cards! When he wasn't even there! That out of sight doesn't mean out of mind.

And that, damn, it was really good to have Tarak back in school today. ♥

Sunday, January 2, 2011

our community...

Recently I was talking with my brother about coming to visit my classroom. He tries to visit at least once per year and gets a kick out of meeting the six year olds (they often have lovely questions for him).

He said, “Let me know when a good time is and I’ll try to figure it out.”

My response was, “Well, any time would be good to visit, really”

Which is actually true. But it got me thinking: why is any time a good time, now? The more I thought about it, I realized it’s because we have our routines and procedures set up, the kids know what they’re doing, they know what the expectations are, they’re learning how to keep learning and working during each learning period and are practicing it each day, even if they don’t quite have it down pat yet. It’s because we now know how to take better care of each other, how to take out all of our tools and put them away carefully, how to make connections, how to handle conflict in a (mostly) respectful way. We know how to laugh together now, and we do it quite often.

We’re now a community.

It’s very different than where we start at the beginning of the year: a group of individuals with a lot of excitement, apprehension, and curiosity.

This isn’t a journey that has an end point. We’re not going to get there, per se, because that would mean that we wouldn’t have any more growing or learning to do. Throughout the year we have new things to navigate, obstacles that throw us off course, times when we need to step back, re-center ourselves, and get back on track.

I think when I told my brother that anytime would be a good time to visit it’s because I have confidence in the strength of that very community relationship, that I can help guide us – when needed – through new and different things, and trust that while it won’t be perfect, it might not even be good at that moment. But it will be real. And it will make us stronger.

This year has really made me reflect on the importance of the first six weeks of school (and how hard they are), but also on how those weeks are the building blocks that get us to the point of -- well, not relaxation, because with the ever-increasing standards for learning, there’s always more being added to our plates -- but to the point of confidence in the children.

Which is a wonderful place to be.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

six weeks in...

One of my very favorite things as a teacher happened yesterday.

The beginning of the year is so exhausting and so full of practice and routines and procedures and getting to know each other and building our classroom community. It’s a lot of work; it’s a labor of love. Sometimes it’s hard to remember that the moment will happen – the moment when we feel like a community, rather than a class of a different people in the same room. The moment when I know who they are and I love them for all their little foibles and idiosyncrasies and I imagine all of the amazing things they are going to learn (and teach me!) this year.

It took more than six weeks – it was the 29th day of school. And yesterday? Yesterday, I fell in love with my class.

I sort of feel like if I wanted to, I could fly.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

I don't even have eight arms...

A close up of the alphabet that we finished today...




I made the octopus as an example to show the children. After we talked about how to make it really big and color it so people could see it from far away, I showed the octopus.

The students were so lovely about the picture:

"Whoa, that's so good."

"I like the colors, Miz F."

Then Mahan said, "It looks like you."


Um... ?

What now?

So, I've been working with young children for a really long time. I've heard a whole lot in my years. But I've never actually had that happen. I knew his intent, though. He was being a glorious, positive first grader. Trying to be empathetic, to give me a compliment.

So I said, "ooh, like I have big eyes like the octopus?"

"Yeah," he said, and smiled.

We moved on, made our fantastic alphabet, and had a good day.


But to set the record straight... I do not look like an octopus.

Just so we're clear.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

sadness...

Some days I am just floored by the empathy of my students.

Yesterday my aunt died.

It was not a surprise -- she's been sick for a while -- but it doesn't make the reality any less difficult for me. I was on my lunch break when my father called to tell me, so I had a minute or two to myself before I had to leave to pick up my class. I had it together on the walk down the corridor, but as soon as I walked into the cafeteria all my emotions got the better of me. I teared up and knew that if I opened my mouth to speak I would break down. Several children saw me and watched me take some deep breaths to try to get it together.

I believe very strongly that it's a positive thing for children to see adults show emotion (I've mentioned this before), but I also don't think it's appropriate for me to break down and sob in front of them.

It's a good thing my class and I have so many routines and use so much sign language with each other; I knew if I started to talk I would start to cry in earnest. So, I was able to use my hands to signal what to do. After they lined up and we started back to the classroom I saw our math specialist and asked if she wouldn't mind walking them back to the classroom so I could take a minute to myself. She jumped right in to help out (♥). I went to the restroom and cried for a minute and then felt ready (and eager, really) to get back to the students, so I headed back and thanked her profusely for helping out.

The children wanted to know why I was so sad (of course), so I shared my reason, and told them that I was really sad, but that I was also okay and I was so glad to be with them. After our closing circle, we line up for dismissal. As we say goodbye I always ask each child if they'd like a "handshake, a high five, or a hug" before they leave. Most of them choose hug every day, and each one of them did yesterday.

I'll tell you this: each one of my students held me a little bit more tightly, and so many of them -- so many -- looked me in the eye and said, "I hope you feel better soon."

That's my class.

I couldn't have asked for a better way to soothe some of my sadness. My students are incredible. I am so lucky to work with them.

Monday, June 7, 2010

general inspiration...

Apparently I'm not quite done linking back to a quote that inspires me. I keep finding more and more ways in which it's good advice for not only writing, but for teaching in general. I'm starting to wonder if it's not an appropriate metaphor for my view of teaching with my students.

For years I've been a very strong believer in the Responsive Classroom approach. It fits so well within my philosophy of education -- in the way I think about children and teaching -- that it's really only natural that I find it such a good match.

Over the past two years, I've been thinking a lot about the language I use when I communicate with my students. The RC approach talks about three kinds of language to use with children: Reinforcing, Reminding, and Redirecting language [for two useful articles, go here and here]. There is a wonderful book that discusses teacher language in great detail: The Power of Our Words by Paula Denton.

Of the 3 R's in teacher language, I think the Reinforcing piece can be one of the hardest of the three to build facility with. I've been thinking about it recently and wondering if it's so difficult because for many teachers it involves breaking old habits. Instead of praising, we're naming specific behaviors and allowing the children to construct their own meaning and self-control with our guidance. We're not saying, "I like the way you're walking in the hallway," which praises and implies that they're trying to please me. We're saying, "Your mouth is quiet and your feet are walking. You're showing respect to the other classes." which names the specific behavior.

Naturally, there are so many more things I could say (and probably will) about teacher language and the Reinforcing piece in particular, but as my mind is really quite stuck on my Lucy Calkins connection from last week, it was with this that I began this blog post and connecting these two teaching elements in my head.

When Lucy Calkins encourages the teacher to Find the good in the classroom... isn't she doing just that? Reinforcing what is already there, allowing children to see that and then guiding them forward. She's naming specific writing behaviors, giving the children information about what is in good writing, not just giving general praise.

Specific feedback is so powerful. It names expectations without any grey areas. There is no guess what the teacher wants, but instead gives the information to everyone. Every student has access to the information they need, instead of just the ones that are good at reading the teacher's mind.

So, while I have copied the quote and taped it to my writing clipboard, I wonder if it's something I should be carrying around all the time, advice that I should be heeding any time I'm talking with a student. No matter how much I relish moments when I'm in front of the whole class being dramatic and engaging, it's the small moments from Writing Workshop, from Reading or Math Work Stations that I treasure the most. For me teaching is, at its very core, the guidance and encouragement of learning.

And isn't that exactly what Lucy Calkins is talking about?

Thursday, June 3, 2010

first grade artists...


This is absolutely my new favorite picture drawn by one of my first graders. Just look at the happiness in their faces! The doubles! Each mini person has their own unique personality... some are using one hand to hold up their joyful sign and some are using two.

Sometimes First Grade artists are my very favorite kind of artists. ♥

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

everything is cyclical...

Yesterday I wrote about a quote from Lucy Calkins that inspires me and reminds me to step back, to see what is going well, and go from there. Today I was reminded (by my students, of course) of how cyclical the whole teaching and learning process really is.

We're working on non-fiction writing and some of the different elements of non-fiction that the children can put into their work. I sat with one of my darlings as he read his book to me. It was one of those moments where I was doing a lot of mental berating of myself. This boy is clever, gregarious, and so empathetic.

And he didn't have any spaces between his words.

I had to take a couple of deep breaths. He can use spaces between words. He knows to use spaces between words. But here it is, June 2nd, and there aren't spaces between his words. Of of the many thoughts that went through my mind there were few that painted my teaching in a good light, and some of them might have even involved expletives. I was a little heartbroken, reflecting on my shortcomings.

This was all internal, of course. As I smiled and took a breath to gather what to say, I heard this from the next table:

"When you used the ellipses, it really made me want to turn the page!"

I glanced over to see Seth reading his story to Hyung for feedback before he got ready to staple it and call it done. Hyung's comment had sparked a fire in Seth and he was showing her the other punctuation he'd used and telling her why he'd chosen to put it where he did.

It was a 25 second conversation at most, and fizzled out shortly after what I'd heard, but it still left an impression on me.

Lucy Calkins' advice had taken root, not just in me, but in my students. By regularly noticing the good in their writing, by modeling how excited I was to see writers trying new things and making interesting choices, the students took that as the norm during writing workshop and started doing themselves. In fact, they were doing it so well that they were bringing me right back in when I was about to fall off the wagon.

So, I turned to the waiting writer and smiled again. This time I pointed out real things that I saw in his writing (he was labeling pictures in his diagram, spelling many quick and easy words correctly, he'd even included an inset in one of the pictures to give more information). He nodded along with me, and then when I asked if I could hold one of the pages to try to read myself, he watched as I tried to figure out some of the words, and he said, "maybe on the next page I can make my spaces bigger."

"That sounds like a good plan," I told him. "I look forward to reading more of your story tomorrow or Friday."

I can't stop thinking about how important it was for me to have overheard the mini exchange between Hyung and Seth today; it helped me put things back into perspective, and because of it, one student was able to figure out for himself that he needed to be more cognizant of spaces, rather than me freaking out and going crazy over something that, in the scheme of things, is really quite minor. And tomorrow, I can wink at him from across the room and mouth, "Don't forget those spaces!" I imagine that he'll wink right back.

It was good that Hyung was there to talk me down today. Even if she had no idea she was doing it.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

wishes for writing

In Small Moments: Personal Narrative Writing, Lucy Calkins writes this:

You will have read through your children's work and, in your mind, you'll have a long list of wishes for your kids.  You'll wish they'd
  • Draw more representationally
  • Write more focused narratives
  • Write more in addition to drawing
  • Use their time wisely
  • Focus on writing more than handwriting

You are wise to wish these things for your writers, but don't show children your feelings if you are discouraged.  For now, instead of tackling all the problems, immerse the class in rich examples of what you hope they'll do.  Act as if all is going splendidly, even if it isn't yet.  Find the good in the classroom even if you know you are overlooking the problems that are really there.


I love that. I love it not because it's super peppy and positive, but because it's real. With young writers (perhaps with all writers), there are always so many places to improve, always so many places to go, to teach. As a writer, there are so many things to remember (audience, voice, showing, not telling, and etc...) . As a kid... there are even more. They're still developing control over their handwriting, they're learning to match letters and sounds, and then remember how to spell words correctly, how to put spaces in between words, and even what that crazy "experlation mark" is for.

Then, their teachers pile even more on: we talk about zooming in, about writing about just one thing, about using interesting punctuation (ellipses and quotation marks); we talk about choosing the right word, about thinking about how to write a good lead that will capture the reader and make them want to learn more.

It's no wonder that reading over children's writing can be overwhelming. There are so many things for them still to learn! And what about the punctuation, didn't I teach that already?

But Lucy Calkins is right on.

Reading this advice a few years ago really freed me.  Teaching writing had been 20% joy and 80% something else entirely.  This advice helped me remember to do what I like to do best:  notice what the kids are doing.  Notice it out loud.  Individually.  In pairs.  To the whole class.  Point out the good writing going on.  Children want examples; they want to be examples.  Holding onto the wishes for my students as writers was important, but finding it within what they were already doing was more important.

Everyone who studies child development studies Lev Vgotsky and his Zone of Proximal Development -- this is the idea that the best learning place for something new is something that's slightly harder than what that person is already doing. They need to be able to challenge themselves, to reach up just a little to grasp the new learning, but not too far that it's out of reach and creates frustration. This is highly oversimplifying all of Vgotsky's work, but bear with me.

It's different for everyone and it changes. Sometimes daily.

Isn't that exactly what Calkins is getting at in her statement? Instead of presenting my class with a list of things that they need to start doing, we examine and notice what we are already doing. Then we build little challenges in to learn more, to see more, to do more. Instead of a list of things they need to be doing, but aren't, children are recognizing what they are already doing well, and eagerly anticipating learning even more.

I've shared this quote often with colleagues, usually paraphrased, and then I have to go dig through the book to find it again.

I think tomorrow I'm going to print out that quote and tape it to my writing clipboard to keep under my fingertips.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

how to laugh...

My students and I laughed so much today. So much.

It started in the middle of writing when I was visiting tables, listening to various students share their work (we're writing How to stories at the moment). Hyung shared her story with me. It's title: How to not get sprayed by a skunk

If that's not a useful story, then I don't know what is. Also, I can say with complete certainty that this is not a story that has been written by any first grader I've ever worked with. It's a complete original.

Also, she was quick to point out that one of our strategy mini-lessons (namely, getting a friend to act out your story while you read it aloud to see if there are any things you left out or anything that just does not make sense) was very useful to her writing process. She showed me the page where it had said, "If you see a skunk, move."

Well, when she read it aloud to a friend, Annie pointed out that Hyung hadn't shared with the reader which way to move -- what if the reader thought that meant you should move TOWARD the skunk?! That just wouldn't do!

So, Annie saved Hyung's story (and many potentially skunky-smelling people) and Hyung added to that page "If you see a skunk, move back and away."

The best thing? Hyung has a sense of humor about the whole thing. She gets that it's a pretty funny topic to be writing about. But she still wants it to be the best it can be. And every grin or giggle (from student or teacher) just makes it better.

So, that was first thing this morning. Then we were working on a book about Symbols and the kids were at tables illustrating their books. One table got talking about what would happen if the Statue of Liberty came to visit the Washington Monument, and what it would look like and what they would say (and could the Washington Monument even talk, really?) Then they got giggling about what all the people around would say if they saw the whole thing going on!

I... I don't even have words.

Plus, it turned out to be a nice day, so when we went out to recess we all tossed our coats on the ground and ran around like crazy and made up crazy titles for games that I'm not sure I could spell.

All in all, a really good day to be six. (or several times six, in my case)

I wonder what sort of How to story I can look forward to tomorrow...

Monday, March 1, 2010

what else can I say...

Reason #8764658977 why I love my class:

I'm trying to do less. More spefically, I'm trying to do less with my left arm. It is so easy for me to carry piles of paper, pick up baskets of color tiles, and continue just doing everything in the classroom by myself (believe me, there is always plenty to be done!). Except, as you may remember, I have a broken arm. So, I really shouldn't be doing all those things. The doctor told me not to. My husband keeps telling me not to. Everyone keeps telling me not to.

It's so hard to keep asking for help, over and over and over again.

And while I'm significantly older than I was when I was in school and really good at doing everything my teacher told me, I am (mostly) capable of learning new things. I think.

I'm trying.

Last week I told my class that I had a goal: I was trying not to use my broken arm, even though I wanted to. It wasn't good for helping it heal, and I didn't want to hurt it again. I asked them if they could help me remember my goal if they saw me forgetting.

Later on that day, as we were modeling a project, I remembered my goal and kept asking various students to help cutting out different things for the project. Of course, I hadn’t realized how much there was – I should have had more of it prepared. After asking the third or fourth child to help cut something out, and feeling totally exasperated with myself, I burst out, “I’m so sorry you guys. I shouldn’t be asking you all to do all this cutting; this is not your job.”

Well.

There was this absolutely genuine outpouring of support from them: “We don’t mind!” “Of course it’s our job!” Miz F – you have a broken arm!”

It was as though they were all showing me, “Dude. We’ve got this one.”

I looked at all of them, sort of overwhelmed and didn’t really know what to say. And really, what else is there to say in a situation like that other than thank you?

So I did. ♥

Friday, February 19, 2010

growing humor

With all of the recent snow, we've had a lot of indoor recess. My class has been wondering when we can go outside for recess again. Our playground is somewhat cleared off, but I've been worried about bringing them out because it's really slippery. I told them:

I don't want to go outside when its slippery and have someone slip and fall and break their arm. Like somebody in this class. Then I grinned knowingly at them.

They all laughed and nodded at me.

Isn't it amazing how children grow and their humor matures? Several months ago they would have been tripping over themselves to say, "Look! You broke your arm!" and point out the connection to what I'd just said. But now they get the joke.

How cool is that?

Thursday, February 11, 2010

everything is fixable...

note: I just found the writing below in a folder of half-written teacher posts. Since I wrote it in November, I've thought a lot about this moment and other moments when I have not been my best self, and at the expense of one of my students.

One of my teacher mantras is this: Everything is fixable.

I do believe that. If I didn't I don't think I'd be able to teach because I'd be too worried about inflicting irreparable damage on my students. Daily. But I do believe things are fixable - and that oftentimes it's the fixing that can do some of the most profound social teaching.

It's humbling -- and not in a good way -- to put this out here. With a blog, I get the chance to showcase my successes: the moments of awesome that I see in my students every day. But, and particularly in a profession so emotion-laden and isolating as teaching, I think it's important to share the less than stellar moments that we all have.

Here's one of mine...


11 November 2009

Last Friday I was not my best self.

We were getting ready to go to PE:  bookbags out and ready in the circle for when we return, the line leader, door holders and caboose in line and ready.

Emma asked if she could call the kids to line up (her job is the "announcer" and that is one of the announcer jobs if we have time.).  I reminded her to go quickly; we didn't want to be late.  She assured me that she would. I went to stand next to the line and grin at kids.  The clock ticked ominiously at me; we had only a few minutes to get there and the gym is really far away.

"Emma," I called.  "Let's go quickly, sweetie."

She kept calling.  But apparently not quickly enough for my liking.  I kept looking at the clock; it was getting later and later. 

"Emma..."

She was calling them.  But slowly. Four were left.

"Emma, honey, come on..."

I looked again and there were still the same four children sitting quietly on the rug, ready to be called. Time was running out; we were going to be late.  So I called their names, quickly and distinctly. 

Emma absolutely wilted. She was crestfallen.  As I sent the line leader down the hall on the start of our walk to the gym, she said to me, "I just couldn't remember their names right then."

Emma knows everyone's face; she remembers details about people. Emma is always there with a friendly word when someone is upset and is one of the most enthusiastic members of our class.  She just can't always get people's names to come to her when she needs them.  Particularly in a tense situation.  Like when her teacher is saying over and over again to call the kids, call the kids, call the kids... 

Way to go, me.  I basically threw her disability right into her face and waved it around for good measure.

I was appalled at my insensitivity. 

As the class continued down the hallway, I took her hand and guided her out of line.  Then I kneeled down and looked right at her. I didn't know what to say other than: "Emma.  I'm sorry."

She teared up, and I teared up.  Then she gave me hug.  We walked down the hallway to PE together and about half of the way there, she reached out and held my hand.

Everything is fixable.

Except I think tomorrow I'm going to try for not having to fix something I should have been more sensitive about in the first place.

Monday, February 1, 2010

a broken arm...

Last week I broke my arm.

I broke my arm in a tap dancing class I take once a week. It was a rather spectacular fall (imagine, if you will, the craziest fall you've ever witnessed. Multiply it by four and then add a sprinkle of Chevy Chase. Now you're getting the picture.) and, naturally, I broke my dominant arm (I'm a lefty).

Apparently I just like to keep things interesting.

This has been interesting, eye opening, and rather annoying in some respects. One great thing about being a lefty is that I'm also pretty adept at using my right hand with a lot of things. You can't grow up in a right handed world and not absorb some of it. I can write passably well with my right hand. And by passably I mean that my writing looks like a very shaky first grader's writing.

Do you see where I'm going with this?

It's weird how writing, for me, has gone from something that I did all the time before to a very cognitive process now. I have to think when I write with my right hand; I have to concentrate on forming the letters and keeping the sizes relative. I even have to think about capital letters.

As much of a pain as this is, it has really given me a new found empathy for what some of my students are dealing with when they write.

And isn't it just like a teacher to turn a broken arm into a learning experience?

Friday, January 22, 2010

love will keep us together...

In our classroom we listen to a lot of 60's & 70's music. (I know I've mentioned this before.) I play it during indoor recess, as the children come in in the morning, and sometimes during a work period when we need an extra little kick.

Well, today during a work period, children were working through their Task Sheet (a list of science/social studies work they are required to finish for the week), they asked for music, so I put it on.

As the kids were working, some of them were singing and the work was just humming along. Then, Love Will Keep Us Together by Captain & Tenille came on. This song has become a bit of an anthem for our class this year. We sang it at Morning Meeting one day in November, and they've since become really interested in learning some of the sign language to go along with the words. They love it.

As the song played, some kids sang quietly, but as soon as the chorus came on:

Stop! 'cause I really love you.
Stop! I've been thinking of you.
Look in my heart and let love keep us together... forever.


Every kid started singing.

They were all still working, some weren't even looking up. A bunch of them looked up and caught each others' eye or my eye and smiled. It was just this organic moment when music permeates something and makes it even better.


Okay, now I must confess that I have this fantasy...

Ten years in the future. My darlings are in High School. They're taller, gorgeous, and even more brilliant than they are now. They're at a dance and hanging out with their best friends in groups, chatting, dancing, watching others. They haven't talked about first grade in years. Most of them have totally new groups of friends. But then... Love Will Keep Us Together comes on (I know, I know, I'm not sure why some high school deejay is going to play this song at a High School dance ten years in the future, but just go with me on this!)...

Then... light dawns! A bunch of them click right back in. They remember the words! Some of them might even start singing (probably not), but they'll catch each others' eyes across all of the different cliques and grin with memories in their eyes: Don't you remember this song from first grade? Oh my god, I haven't heard this song in years!

And it'll be this lovely little moment where they realize how powerful music is. Well, and how awesome first grade was.

But that goes without saying.

Monday, January 11, 2010

writing epiphanies...

Sometimes a new tool or routine in the classroom works so well that I'm both overjoyed and embarrassed that I didn't connect the dots and figure it out earlier.

So, writing workshop. I love it. They love it. It's a regular festival of love and writing. Of course, there are issues. Issue number one: the stapler. Ahh, the stapler. The stapler is awesome. You put papers in, press it down really hard (showing your muscles) and then voila! Your book is stuck together. My students would probably list the stapler as one of their favorite tools.

Some of them love it so much they want to use it a lot. Every day. Multiple times per day, if possible. One of my little darlings even wrote four books one day (four books!), just so he could staple each one together. Of course these books consisted of a cover and a single sheet of writing paper stapled together. Fun, yes. Numerous, yes. But quality writing... not so much.

In December, I told the children that we were going to take a break from the staplers. Not because they weren't being safe with them, but because I wanted to spend some time really working on the content of their writing: making it better, more interesting, more compelling to other readers, and then after we spent some time doing that we would bring the staplers back.

Simultaneously, I was also trying to devise a way to get the children to talk to each other more often about their writing. They were talking, yes, but it was along the lines of: how do I write this word? Or: can you help me make a bicycle in my picture? Now both of those are valid and important questions, and I don't want to stifle that. I just want to promote more consistent interaction about writing. I had grand plans of this great and gigantic checklist; I had thoughts of a huge poster detailing how to conference and talk about writing.

Then, last week, as I was getting the staplers full and ready to be returned to our writing station, I had an epiphany:



Incorporate both of them together: before the children can staple their book, they have to reread the book and share it with three other people for feedback.

So. Guess how it worked out?

If you said beautifully, you win! Because it was. It was like... take the two things you want to see happening and squish them together and hope for the best. It was the best. I saw children offering real suggestions to other students about their writing. I heard them asking each other questions about punctuation and word choices. I heard laughter and funny voices being used for dialogue.

It was like winning the teacher lottery.

Granted, it won't automatically stay this beautiful. We will still spend time talking about ways to conference and discuss writing with others. We will need to model and practice and refine that. But as for a way to get the kids to focus on content and interact more? This was perfect.

I'm rather embarrassed that I didn't put the two together much earlier.