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

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

awesome is... walking down the hallway with leis

There might be nothing more awesome in the world than buying a tonne of (fake) leis in Hawai'i, bringing them back home, greeting every student in my class with an Aloha! and a lei draped over their neck, then watching them all walk lei-adorned down to the lunch room with big grins on their faces.

Even better when six of them wear their leis to school today, just because they love them so much. ♥ I might still be wearing mine, but I'll never tell.

Friday, April 11, 2008


"Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It's hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It's round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you've got about a hundred years here. There's only one rule that I know of, babies -- 'Goddamn it, you've got to be kind.'"

-- Kurt Vonnegut, "God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater"

Sadly, I've not yet read this book, though I've read at least two others by Mr. Vonnegut. It's interesting to me how I've held onto that quotation for years now. I read it at some point in college; it was probably on a poster or t-shirt or other inspirational wearable/hangable they sell in college bookstores.

I dutifully wrote it down in the quote book that my boyfriend and I used to pass back and forth, sighing and whispering at each other in the tone you can only use in those long distance college relationships when you've still got to wait another thirty-four days before you see each other again and so you [censored for my mother's eyes] on the phone to each other, and this is the height of intimacy.

The boyfriend, the quotebook, and the desire to do naughty things over the phone are long gone, but the quote remains. It's a bit tattered actually; it took me a while to find it because I'd misremembered some of the language and I didn't know the original source.

When Kurt Vonnegut died a year ago today, I really got thinking deeply about this quote.

Particularly in the world the way I see it sometimes nowadays, both in the rush of in person and the craziness of the internet and the lure of reality TV, it struck me recently that kindness doesn't present itself in current culture to be much of a virtue. Insults, sarcasm, pointing or sharing blame come up so frequently in what I see.

And yet, what do I remember?

I remember a teacher that I didn't know very well see me burst into tears in the hallway after saying good bye to a student that was moving away. She came over immediately and hugged me. We didn't know each other very well -- let alone well enough to hug each other -- but she did.

I remember a woman I'd never seen or met before in my life offer to buy my entire first grade class an $18 bag of peaches that they were dying to eat, just because she was so impressed with the way they handled themselves in the store.

I remember watching one of my students give up the chance for a coveted job in the classroom just to help another student feel a little bit better on a morning when he could have fallen apart.

I remember so many of you. So many little, tiny infusions of kindness that fill the spaces inside me and seep out as reminders when I'm feeling distraught.

Always, always, I remember kindness.

The word "kindness" in my mind is almost inextricably linked to Vonnegut's quote, so I think of it on a pretty regular basis.

I have thirty-some years in this job. At roughly twenty students per year, I figure I've got 600 students to connect with and 180 days with which to do it.

And if I can't help to infuse the very essence of why it's important to be kind... well, then I really shouldn't be doing this.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

I went to Walmart with my mother...

It really amazes me, sometimes, the way children write. Or can write, if given the chance to be inspired.

And time.

What I've noticed over my years of teaching is that First Graders are prone to writing stories like this: I went to Walmart. I got a game. I went home. The end.

With practice and support, they start adding details... not always interesting details, but details. Like: "I went to Walmart with my mom...

Six year olds tend to think in a forward linear path with lots of "ands" that start when they wake up and end when they go to bed. A day is an important, large -- but finite -- period of time, and their writing shows this.

So, for a couple of years now, I've always enjoyed Writing Workshop, but I've also felt like there was something that I wasn't quite doing to push them further, to really support them in developing more deeply as writers.

About two months ago, through a short class I took, I read a book that I just may buy 400 copies of, just to give to my closest friends: About the Authors.

One of the biggest "a-ha" moments for me in reading this book was learning the way they recommend using children's literature as "mentor texts," the way they explore, with the children, the way different writers choose to write something (looking at one page or one passage) or a style choice (using ellipses or repeating a certain phrase) or something as simple as writing LARGE words for something that is said loudly.

I thought, Of course! I do that, myself, as a writer. I notice the way other writers write and I think about that sometimes when I'm writing. Why wouldn't that be the same for children?

Often, I sit down with the basket of my students' writing folders and read what's in there: what they have in progress, what they're working on. I notice some of their mechanics, make notes about what to talk to them about, but I also just read to get an overall feel for my class as a group of writers. I do this because, no matter how much time we have for Writing Workshop, I rarely sit down with more than four students, so there is a lot of writing they do that I miss.

In the past, this process has always been good. But, again, their stories tended to follow a similar pattern to what I mentioned above, sometimes with interesting word use. Or dialogue. But not generally things that really stood out to me.

My friends, over the past several weeks, sitting down with their writing has been amazing. Yes, there is still a lot of "I went to Walmart with my mother..." but probably 40% of it isn't like that. I have been genuinely surprised and pleased by what is coming out of my students these days -- and not the same few students over and over. Every single one of them has written something recently that really captures their voice. They're writing stories about themselves, but also writing their own versions of folk tales that we've read together, writing informational books, writing something to teach someone else.

I'd like to share two small pieces with you...

This first piece was written today. It's still a work in progess. When I sat down with Ryan today, he looked pained. He said, "Ms. F, I want to write about my dream, but I don't want to think about it. It was a bad dream."

I thought for a minute and said, "Could you write that?"
"That I don't want to think about it?"
"Yeah. Do you think anyone else has ever felt that way?"
He was quiet. "Probably, yeah. I know other kids have bad dreams sometimes."
"So then, if you wrote that, a lot of readers might connect with that, they'd understand what you meant."
"Yeah." Then he said, "Do you think that would help me talk about my dream?"
I said, "Well, if you start with what you've told me, maybe see how you feel as you're writing. Sometimes once you get started you figure out what you want to say."
I touched his nose and he grinned at me.
"I'll come check on you later then, yeah?"

Okay, so this is the title and the first two pages...

[I don't want to think about my bad dream.]

[I don't want to tell you because it was scary.]

Tell me that isn't a powerful start to a piece of writing. ♥

This next piece is from Alejandro. His brain is amazing. I'm forever talking about him with other teachers and he is constantly on my mind because of the sheer depth of how he thinks about things. This boy is a freakin' philosopher. In sneakers.

So, Alejandro has regularly incorporated interesting elements into his writing. In fact, he's famous in our class for using: Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhh!! to describe the sound of someone yelling as they rode a roller coaster. In bold print.

This is what I found in his writing folder today (from a piece he wrote last week):

[I went to my cousin's house.]

[We ordered a pizza.]

[I said in my brain...]

[It is the best day ever.]

Seriously. What voice! And the details in his illustrations -- did you catch the "hot" word on the pizza box? And the fact that the final page is a drawing of his brain, showing what he was thinking in that little thought bubble?

The thing that was the most telling in my read-through of my students' writing today was this: they're really not amazing with punctuation yet (remembering periods instead of just using "and", etc...) but every single one of them knows how to use elllipses. Well.

First graders are amazing.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

slightly imperfect, as is

In my classroom I have a feeling board. It looks like this.

It serves many purposes for my First Graders. It allows them to recognize and name feelings (some, for the very first time), to see that one can feel a strong emotion and still manage self-control, to notice that feelings can, and do, change -- sometimes within moments.

It is an imperfect system, at best. Space allows for only six feelings listed with no crossover. But feelings don't come that way. They're multi-layered, confusing, and sometimes defy simple definition. I know this. We talk about it in the classroom. We discuss how it doesn't always quite work, about the need to change our card during the day, about talking with others, about taking down the feeling board altogether (goodness knows we could use the wall space!). Interestingly -- or perhaps, importantly -- enough, no class of mine has ever wanted to get rid of it. We have made changes, we've added and removed things, written books to supplement this need, but have never taken it down.

Ultimately, though, it is a flawed system. No matter how we may want it, emotions don't fit themselves into neat, handy little packages.

This has been on my mind, more frequently than normal, all week long.

A friend of mine, a dear friend that I have never seen in person, never touched or hugged or bumped her shoulder with glee, was killed in a car accident on Sunday.

So far this week I've been through denial, anger, acceptance, sadness, frustration, gratitude, disbelief, and about three other emotions that I don't think have been invented yet. With each one, I keep expecting it to be the last, that I will somehow choose this feeling and it will be the one that sticks, so then I can move on.

Except it persists in Not Working That Way.

Then I walk into my classroom in the morning, find the feeling board with my eyes and wonder (again) why what I've learned and discussed and known through twelve years of teaching doesn't somehow penetrate my own adult consciousness. Why is it that I know and understand the sheer magnitude of emotion for every single one of my six year olds and can't seem to find it for myself?

I keep saying: I'll get there. I will. But, where, exactly, am I trying to get? What am I trying to achieve? I don't want to forget Anj. I'm not going to disregard or push aside the joy of being her friend, of what I've learned from her, what I've admired and loved and aspired to. I'm not going to overlook how she loved me, how she somehow found inspiration from stories of my own, how we connected, over and over, through our sheer faith in the power of children.

I miss her. I know that. And maybe if I keep telling myself that I don't actually need to find some 'answer', maybe at some point I'll believe it.

I don't know the answer, but then... I'm not sure I know the question either.

♥ to all of you. You are truly a blessing. Please know that.