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

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Creating language [the Alejandro train, part 2]

One of the things that amazes me about children is how much they want language. They like to know words. They like learning words. They like naming things. They like naming things so much that they do it wrong alot, they generalize and make connections or associations that we as adults see as incorrect, but are generally quite intelligent in their path.

The other thing that I've noticed, that has been driven home to me again and again this year, is that if children don't have the language they need to describe something, they will make it up themselves.

In first grade, we've been focusing on Geometry. A lot. We've found shapes, we've touched them, we've played with them until our minds are so steeped with triangles that we see them everywhere!

And, yet, six year olds don't typically don't have the words that we all find later in life: equilateral, isosceles, acute, hypotenuse. Yet, they are holding in their hand actual examples of each of these things, and they need to find words to describe them. It's fascinating to watch.

Alejandro described (an equilateral) triangle to our class not too long ago. He touched each side and said:

"It goes: corner, slide side, corner, slide side, corner, slide side. Then that's the end."

Several of the students nodded, several just looked at him, and six more were already raising their hands to share their own ideas about a triangle.

I didn't pay too much attention to Alejandro's definition at the time; I had also nodded at him (encouragingly, of course), but I hadn't understood what he meant and didn't take the time to probe further. I should have.

Well, Majid did that for me instead.

The next day, Majid was using our Power Polygons and touching each of them, paying particular interest to the triangles. I went and sat down next to him, just watching what he was doing. At the time, he had an isosceles and a right triangle in front of him.

"Are those the same?" I asked.
"They're a little the same," he said. "But they're also different."
"How are they different?"

He took the isosceles triangle and said, "This one goes: slide side, slide side, slide side." Then he picked up the right triangle. "But this one goes slide side, straight side, then straight side again."

The straight sides he talked about were the two sides that formed the right angle.

"Why are those 'straight sides'?" I asked.
"Well," he said without hesitation, "see that part?" He pointed to the right angle. "It's different than the other parts because it makes the sides straight."

During this time, I noticed that he used the word straight to describe something and wondered if he also knew the difference between curved and straight (ie, was he choosing the word "straight" because he didn't have another word to use it -- or was straight v. curved something he didn't know yet). I made a note to ask about the curved vs. straight thing later, but didn't want to interrupt the flow of the conversation.

"So this corner," I said, pointing to the right angle, "is different than the other corners?"
"It does have a special name, actually, do you want to know it?"
He nodded vigorously.
"It's a right angle, or a square corner."
"Oooh!" he said. "Square like a square!"
"That's right. Can you find a square?"
He did.
"Put the square on top of the triangle and match up the corners."
He did and noticed that the right angle of the triangle was the same corner that was on the square.

Then Majid started looking for other right triangles and matching them up with the square. He tried other triangles, but realized that the angles didn't match up.

So, the thing that struck me -- apart from just the brilliance that children can have when they're allowed to just mess about with something -- is that Majid understood Alejandro's use of "slide side" from days before, then made his own interpretation of it and put his own name onto another kind of side on the triangle -- the "straight" side.

Now, other students haven't messed about enough with the shapes to be able to really see and describe the difference between the other triangles, but Majid not only saw it, he wanted to name it. He took the language that someone else had given him, and then added his own. What I see is our class developing our own vernacular to describe what we're learning. It's such an interestingly organic process to be a part of.

I have an amazing job.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

the Alejandro train... [part 1]

I am totally riding the Alejandro train right now.

My husband knows this. In fact, he generally hears all of this first. Then third, ninth, eleventh, seventeenth, and so on... (poor man hears stories more times than probably anyone should)

I get on various "trains" when I'm just amazed, inspired, or intrigued by something one of my students does. Sometimes this fascination lasts a day and sometimes a lot longer. Naturally, I'm fascinated by all of my students, but sometimes I learn something from one of them that really sticks with me.

Here is what Alejandro has taught me, probably more than any student I've worked with in years:

Children understand and think in concepts, even if they don't have the vocabulary to describe it. If they don't have the language, chances are they'll make up their own language to do so.

Now, this probably isn't really a new thought to any teacher, but I've been shown this in a very profound way recently.

Two weeks ago, we started talking about the idea of the Past and the Present. The very next day, during Morning Meeting sharing, another student finished his share and asked for questions and comments. Alejandro raised his hand and asked:

"Was that in the past or in the present?"

I made a strangled noise of glee because of the turnaround on those words and the fact that he was using them correctly. Throughout the next two days I watched Alejandro talk and share and ask questions and I realized that he had been thinking in those concepts for a long time -- they made sense to him. He just hadn't had the language to describe them. I imagine for him when we finally started talking about this, he thought:

Dude. Thank you. I have been waiting for these words! What took you so long?

I have more to say about him, but I'll save it for a few days and keep you all on tenterhooks.

Have a lovely Sunday. ♥

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

grey areas?

Almost two years ago, a friend and person with an amazing soul asked me about 'this teaching thing.' She asked about the grey areas between the YAY!teaching group of teachers and the embittered, hateful group -- because neither group necessarily talks about the other part: the doubts for the first group, and the love for the second group.

I answered her privately, but... well, I think people do see me as part of that first group -- the group that sees teaching as an amazing thing and seems to have no doubts, no grey area about the whole thing. But I do question. A lot.

Anyway, this is what I told her, posted here in case it's helpful to anyone else considering teaching...


You asked me about this teaching thing, about the grey areas between the shiny, happy teachers and the embittered group that is counting days resentfully until retirement. You asked me if I'm going to tell you about less thinking and more doing, to get out there and do it and figure it out.

I tell you this:

I promise, no. I'm not going to say that. In fact, I do so much thinking about teaching and who I am as a teacher and what right do I have as a white woman to (unintentionally, sometimes) foist my beliefs/values onto these children, and can I ever be truly, amazingly effective and do I even want to try and can I possibly have the type of success that the county/state/country expects me to have when the standards are generally wrong and unrealistic and judged by horribly flawed criteria?

I spend a lot of time -- a lot of the school day, even -- reevaluating as I go along. It's really, really hard.

And this is my twelfth year of doing it... well, doing it and and getting paid. This doesn't include the year I spent in an internship during my master's degree. Or the two student teaching stints I did when I was in college getting my initial certification. I guess, technically, this is my fourteenth year, yet I doubt myself regularly.

Sometimes I just want to get a job at Crate & Barrell or as a computer guy or go into curriculum development/writing, etc... Sometimes I want a job that doesn't keep me up until eleven figuring out what in the blazes I'm going to do to help my student over this writing hump she's having, and oh holy crap, is it my fault she's having this writing problem?

Because I'm pretty sure it is.

Sometimes I want a job where I don't end up in tears at the end of a day because everything I taught fell into a gigantic flop and I have to revamp everything and I just don't have the time, because I'm human, too, and there are only 24 hours in the day and I still need to go to the store and cook dinner and clean the kitchen floor because it's been two weeks and its so dirty I could cry! And I don't have any clean underwear and I haven't paid my bills and I haven't had a real conversation with my copilot in three days that didn't involve, "Have a good day, love you, will you be home for dinner?"

Sometimes, though? I don't.

Sometimes I know, deep in every bit of my soul, that this is absolutely where I belong. When I have Ryeanna trying to ask me so many questions about reading/writing, etc... that she's interrupting time with other students and I know that she's not doing it on purpose, because she really, really just wants to know them. So, I develop a system where we have a small little index card with a big ? on it. She puts it up on the desk when she has a question and then I come over when I can. That way, she keeps doing her work and allows me to spend time with other students, too.

It works so well that now my entire class each has one.

You know what? Sometimes I do leave to go home at 4:15 and don't do any work at all in the evening. Sometimes I even cook elaborate meals, go for runs, visit my nieces and nephew, make love, write fanfiction, and complain about the traffic on the beltway.

But, no. It is by no means as easy as some of my posts may make it seem. I only stayed with teaching for the first couple of years because I'm stubborn and too chicken to quit something that I've started.

I stayed, and after a while, I started to figure out that there were places where I wasn't completely awful. I can't tell you what a relief that was. One day, there was something going well and I stepped back and just watched, dumbstruck. I thought: 'Wow, I don't suck any more.'

That was a momentous occasion, let me tell you.

Over the months, and so on, I started to feel more comfortable in other areas, too. Interestingly enough, it took me seven years to finally admit to myself that I was good at teaching... that I'd finally tipped the balance from: I don't suck to I'm pretty good at this.

Seven years.

That is a long time. And I do still question it. Regularly.

Something occurred to me recently, though: this a journey. A long one. One full of twists and turns and ups and downs and tornadoes and storms and the most glorious sunrises ever seen anywhere. I'm on it by choice. I choose to teach; I choose to see it as a gift. I choose to go to work every day and work with the puzzle that is the six year old mind.

I choose it because it's really hard. Most of the time.

But, I choose it because the successes… the moments of "this is going well?" do happen, and they are worth working for, even through the days where I just want to tear my hair out and light it on fire.

For me.

Because I do believe that it's also okay to choose not to do this. It doesn't imply any sort of weakness, any sort of lack of character to choose something that points in other directions. There are places in our lives where we find joy and passion and so many forms of heartache that it makes our eyes bleed. The way all of our lives have gone help us to make these choices, and to know what we can and cannot realistically expect ourselves to do.

I do think that it's okay not to choose this. Or to choose to take some time away because sometimes you need perspective. Or a break. Or the chance to go pee whenever you want to. I certainly do.

So, that's my answer. Long-winded, because it always is when I talk about teaching. But, I promise, there are always grey areas for me. Always. I think teaching is a constant series of choices that don't get easier with time – just different. I will never think less of someone for choosing to move away from this path, or questioning the reasons they're not enjoying it.

And, I am always here to talk about it. ♥

Monday, November 5, 2007

philosophy statement...

This is a draft of a Philosophy statement I have to send in to a nomination committee. People at my school have chosen to nominate me for Teacher of the Year. I was totally overwhelmed to find out (there were tears) and I feel so blessed to be working with people that I connect with well. I'm putting this here because: 1. my amazing mother in law keeps poking me to blog more, 2. people can be free to give me feedback, as this is not the final draft. ♥

I've always imagined that my ultimate philosophy of education statement would be concise, well-worded, and succinct. Over the years, I have failed at this over and over. I think I have finally realized why.

Teaching is not always concise and well-worded. It can be. Often, though, it's messy and loud and interesting and real. That's how I like it. If I did have to pick a single statement to describe my own philosophy of education, I would say this:

I have unshakeable faith in children.

Words will fail me, computers will stop working, batteries will run out, but my belief in children will never wane. As long as I watch them, as long as I listen to them, they always, always show me the way.


I am one of those frustrating people that always knew what she wanted to with her life. It caused a great deal of stress for my brother. Seriously, how must it have felt for him to be around someone who always seemed to know what she wanted to do?

Yet, I have never been able to explain why I wanted to teach. I just did. It was like trying to explain why purple is my favorite color or why I like to swim. I just do. It's a feeling and while sometimes I question it, I never doubt it.

Teaching is one of the biggest gifts of my life. When I think about it from an outside perspective I know that I am doing something meaningful and worthwhile. It's hard for me to imagine a more worthwhile job to have. But it's more than that.

It's learning more about myself day in and day out.

It's seeing the small microcosm of my classroom running the way I believe the world should be run. It's seeing everyone knowing and caring about each other because they are part of our community. It's the children realizing things and making changes in the way they learn and are with others because of the modeling and discussion we do regularly.

It's the amazing gift that I discovered a few years ago:

I will appreciate every child that I have the luxury to work with. It won't always happen right away -- that's not realistic. However, the more I get to know them, I find that point with every child where I love them for every bit of who they are, even the things that may drive me crazy. Those little idiosyncrasies make the relationship more important. I know their little foibles and I love them for it.

They also know mine.

My students know that if they ask me for something and I say, "Yes," they probably need to write me a note because I might forget, but if they write me a note, then I won't forget. They know that when someone has just said something and I have tears in my eyes, it's probably because someone has done something very kind or smart and I'm overwhelmed. They know that I collect frogs. They know that I love Harry Potter. They know that I care deeply about them and I don't hold grudges.

You mess up. You fix it. It's over. Let's get back to work.

I often have wished that the leaders of the world and my country would come and watch my students solving problems. Years ago, when I was teaching Kindergarten, during our April break, there was a horrible experience at Columbine High School in Colorado. When my students came back after the break, we were discussing what they'd seen on TV and discussing very scary images and thoughts. Then one of the students brought up what was going on in Kosovo and one of the students asked,

"Miz F, What is war?"

When I tried, very inarticulately, to explain that it was something that countries did when they'd tried everything and couldn't figure out how else to solve a problem (and, honestly, how do you answer that question -- even for yourself?), one of my students said:

"Well. That's not very smart. We solve everything in here. They just need to come to our classroom and go sit in our Conflict Corner and work it out."

"Yeah," said one of the other students. "And we can help them if they get stuck."

I thought: We leave the world in charge of adults why?

I teach because there is nothing that challenges me and makes me think every day in the way that this job does. I teach because I never learn more than when I'm discussing or investigating something with a child.

My students have taught me a little bit about what it is to be a white teacher teaching in a school that is primarily non-white. They've taught me that they will take on every responsibility I think of for them and some that I have not. They've taught me that it's okay to show emotion in the classroom - but to talk about it. They've taught me the value of beginning with a lot of structure and then taking it away little by little until we have a much different feeling in our classroom. They've taught me that every person is worthy of listening to, even those that I don't agree with.

Sometimes especially them.

Over the years, many people have told me how pleased they are that I am a teacher and other wonderful and respectful things that have truly humbled me.

I'll tell you a secret, though: I think that being a teacher is one of the most selfish things I could do. I trust that I am a good teacher, I know I get better year by year, but, it still feels selfish. I do this just as much for me as I do it for them. Nothing makes me feel the way it does when I'm in the classroom.