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

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.