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

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


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?"


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.