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

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


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.”


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. 


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.

running like Phoebe...

How many of you used to watch Friends? Admittedly, I was a huge fan. My brother had videotaped the first and second seasons from the television and given them to me for my birthday one year. Friends was such a happy place for me for a long time. I still find moments in my life will remind me of something from a Friends episode, and I often continue to share quotes with my brother.

I was reminded of it again this morning, by the first graders. Did you ever see the episode where Phoebe wanted to go running in Central Park with Rachel? Where Phoebe ran all out, arms flailing and screeching when necessary? Here's a little clip as an example:

When my students get to the gym, our (amazing) P.E. teacher always has a poster up, greeting the children and telling them what to do for their warm up. Often they are directed to jog around the gym as they were this morning.

Well, Phoebe had it right on, let me tell you. That is exactly how my students run: all out, arms flailing, screeching and laughing, stopping and panting to catch their breath, and then starting all over again.

It's awesome. I think I may go join them the next day we have P.E.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

what do the earrings say?

I love my students.

I also know this is not news to anyone reading this.

This week I have been just reveling in their six-ness: delighted by the way they look at and interpret the world. I have several different examples, so I'll try to write them up over the next couple of days and post them.

Story the first:

Today my students were lined up at the Morning Message, reading together and waiting their turn to answer the question of the day. I was talking to a few at a time, marveling at their sheer level of awesome and chatting about various things.

Then Warner said, "Where are you going today, Miz F?"

"What do you mean?"

"You're wearing those," he said, pointing at my earrings. "Where are you going?"

"Ahhh," I said, understanding. "Here." I gestured around our classroom. "This is where I'm going. I thought I'd dress up for the amazing first graders. What do you think?"

"It's good." he said. Then he grinned. Enormously.


What a wonderful interpretation of why I was wearing earrings. I'm sure he's seen people in his family getting ready to go out somewhere special, wearing earrings or other fancy things. He saw my earrings and assumed I was doing the same.

And, for those of you that don't know me in person: I am not one of those put together, well accessorized human beings. I get by and all; I'm not hideous to look at. But I am not winning any best dressed contests. A sweater, trousers, ponytail, and danskos or keens (depending on whether my sweater goes with the red danskos or not)... that's about it for me. Well, and every third Wednesday or so I wear eyeliner. So, his interpretation was a pretty good one.

I just love that the special occasion for which I was decking myself out in earrings? Was a Wednesday with my brilliant first graders. ♥