inspiration – vs – low expectations

When I was a little kid, I was inspired by the science fair project of a kid who actually knew science and tried to create something of my own. His project used battery power to light up parts on a plywood board. I used poster board and paper and glue and no understanding at all how to generate the light. My brother laughed at me. I’ve been thinking of that project a lot since starting to read The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind (Young Readers Edition). Everyone called William crazy while he scavenged through the scrapyard and welded pieces of junk together. He, too, was inspired by other scientists, but in his case he knew what to do with the inspiration.

William Kamkwamba made a windmill to generate electricity for his village.

In this story, the kid lives through famine and the disappointment of being kicked out of school for not paying his fees. He works for hours each day on his project, while at the same time reading to learn what needed to be done – reading in English, not his first nor his strongest language, which meant constant translation to really make meaning from the text. If nothing else, this is the story of perseverance.

William was not put into one of the elite schools, his exam sores were too low, so he was not one of those “smart kids” you would expect high achievements from. But he never let that stop him. When he was accepted to the less prestigious school, he excitedly prepared to further his education. When he was sent home for not paying the fees, he started going to the library to read on his own. He didn’t just accept judgement from others to determine his fate. He stepped up.

For teachers, this story is a reminder of the harm of low expectations, and the amazing potential of effort. When I cut my kids some slack because they have a hard life, I limit them. They do have hard lives, with more stress and adversity than I could ever truly understand. But that can’t determine their fate. With effort, with time, with a compassionate environment, with some focus, each one can accomplish what they want to, whatever that is. In my room now I should expect to see future engineers, carpenters, filmmakers, web designers, business owners, parents, teachers, and whatever else strikes their fancy. I need to show I value their passions and help them learn how to work toward them.

I gave up on my cardboard electricity without ever trying to find out how a battery could light it up. The mockery certainly had an effect, but the truth is the science didn’t excite me enough to pursue it. My inspiration would come later, in words, in stories.

I cringe thinking of the time it will take to get to know each student well enough to sort through short lived fascinations and get to the sparks of lifelong passions. What is it about MindCraft that Maddy loves? How can I use her obsession to push her writing or her scientific observations? What will this lead her to and how can I help? And once I figure it out, when in the learning day to I do the same investigative work for the other 43 students I work with?

For today, my inspiration comes from William’s story, from a short meeting with my teammate about our Social Studies curriculum, from how rapt my students were by a video of a dancing robot, and by the thought of becoming a literacy coach and a teacher of teachers. With that end in mind, I have a lot of work to do today.



Yesterday my husband and daughters attended the rally in Boston against the hate groups who had planned to meet on the Common. They went to speak against the divisive rhetoric of the president over the past week. They made their way into the city because they thought it was important to stand in solidarity with others who believe in this country’s democratic ideals. They went because America is great when we recognize that we can always do better; it is great when we take the lessons of our past and strive to build a society that includes all voices. They stood on the common, they joined in the occasional chant, they chatted with others about the good feeling that comes from seeing so many people stand up for love.

I was on the campus of American International College for orientation to my new graduate program. While I wanted to be with them, not least because I was worried for their safety, I felt like we were engaged in the same work to live the best American values.

I am a public school teacher and I firmly believe that public schools are crucial to a strong democracy. In our schools, we welcome everyone. Everyone. And once they are in our building, we do our best to give everyone what they need. That’s different from giving everyone the same thing. An oft stated value of our country is that we give equality of opportunity. We don’t, in practice, but that’s our goal. And equal opportunity means to genuinely support people with what they need to succeed. A simple example is that popular meme showing three kids looking over a fence, each supported by a different sized box to stand on because the kids are different heights. If we gave them the samne box to stand on, one of the kids would be able to see over the fence, but the other two would not. Why give a short person a short box? And why give a tall person a box at all if they can already see over the fence? That’s the difference between fair and equal.

The job of public schools is to find out what size box each student needs and help them secure it so they can see over that fence to their best future. I joined dozens of other teachers at the AIC orientation because we all want to learn to better do that job.

Because my family, along with 40,000 or so other New Englanders, gathered around the State House, my colleagues and I will have more success, and our students will have more success.

Activism comes in many forms. When I can, I join those demonstrators and hold signs and shout slogans and make my voice heard for peace and justice. Sometimes I post writing to my local newspaper or answer a journalist’s questions. I spend my money to support local business as much as I can, and educate myself about the environmental and social impacts of corporations before choosing what to buy. But my main activism comes from my employment. Everyday I am tasked with making visible the highest democratic ideals of equality of opportunity. I give Michael extra time to think through a basic Math problem while I give Rhonda a challenge above her grade level. I meet with Chavvy five times in a reading group each week while checking in with Juan only twice. I sit next to Junior during a test while watching over the others work alone at desks.  I work hard to understand each student and find what they need. And then I bust my ass to get it for them.

Looking around the auditorium at my orientation, I was buoyed up by the number of people there, most of whom could quietly continue in their job without this added burden of coursework. While we are certainly responsible for continuing our learning, and the state holds us accountable for professional development hours, there are easier ways to fulfill those responsibilities than in taking on a complete graduate program. We were there to learn how to be better, how to fulfill this awesome responsibility of providing equality for our students.

My husband and daughters felt a similar elation looking around at the crowds on Boston Common. It was a beautiful summer day, one of the last before the routines of the school year take over. Everyone in that crowd could have been elsewhere – at the beach, at a family cookout, at work, visiting a grandmother, watching a movie, taking a hike. But they all chose to do the work necessary to keep our democracy strong.

I want to thank all of the people who work to keep America strong, especially the teachers and the demonstrators who took the time yesterday.

privilege in the new school year

In 2 weeks I will start a learning  journey with a new group of 4th graders. My students represent the United States in their ethnic backgrounds, socio-economic class, family make-up, and personalities. We are America. But, at the head of the class, I am a very particular American.

My European heritage, white skin, and upper middle class lifestyle is pictured as typical. Despite rhetoric celebrating our multicultural heritage, we still put up a picture of someone like me when we want to show “American”. And, because I fit that image, I have a privilege in this country that most of my students do not. I need to keep this privilege in mind as I plan for our year together. So, I’m going to start (and hopefully keep up with) a series with the theme “white teacher” to give me a place to think about my role in perpetuating white privilege and my responsibility as a teacher of less privileged people.

It’s going to get uncomfortable for me.

It already is.

My instinct is always to point out that I didn’t always have it this good. As the youngest of 10 kids, I learned early on how to share and what it meant to budget. But never in my life have I gone without the essentials – food, shelter, education, healthcare. Never. In fact, I have taken a few risks in my life knowing that there was always someone I could turn to if I failed, and my family was always there when I fell.

So, my life is little like the refugee students who have left their extended family and social network behind to start over. It’s nothing like the child who is taken from a parent unable to work through her own struggles enough to care for the kids. I don’t know what it’s like to visit your father in jail or suffer through the conflicting emotions when he is released. I’ve never had to make the choice between feeding my kids or paying the rent. No one ever glared at me because they thought I didn’t belong in this country. I’ve never been followed around in a store. I always knew what schools expected of me, how to behave on a job site, how to interact with government agencies to get what I needed, and where to find information. My neighborhood is well-lit, my house is wired for high speed internet. I have enough money in my checking account so that I don’t have to pay additional fees and can cash as many checks each month as I want to.

Fourth grade isn’t exactly the place to talk about all of the social and government policies that create my white privilege, but it is certainly the place to begin to make observations about how the world works and reflect on how we each engage with the community. My morning meeting, Social Studies, and literacy lessons will all support this critical observation work. My goal is to become a better teacher for every student who walks through the door. I’m looking forward to connecting with teachers around the world doing the same work.

becoming a reader

I started to love to read right around 5th or 6th grade. There were no big readers in my house, no bookshelves stuffed with titles. I remember my mother telling me once that she struggled to be able to read at all because she needed glasses that her family could not afford for a very long time. She never developed the habit, she said. Her brother did. I remember visits from Uncle Cliff. He was usually the first one out of bed and I would often find him at the kitchen table with morning coffee and a book. Fantasy and science fiction, I think. (Fantasy is my favorite genre.)

The first book I remember loving was Elizabeth’s George’s The Witch of Blackbird Pond. It was assigned reading for school and I was as surprised that the school assigned the book as I was that I enjoyed it so much. I don’t remember any other book from that time, but I have vivid memories of sitting on the swing in the backyard reading this one. It wasn’t until high school, when I had more freedom to wander into a school library, that I really developed my love of reading. I still read sitting on the back swing, and also on the front stoop, and in bed, and sitting in the back of Dad’s pickup truck parked in the driveway during the week, and at the park, and . . . well, you know.

My delayed start as a reader reminds me of the importance of giving kids access to books. I think this year I’m going to be more willing to lose books from the classroom library. Last year I set aside a box of “take home” books but there were so many great titles in the library that kids wanted to savor. I want kids to know they can borrow books, take the time to fall in love with them. So, we’ll set some time right at the beginning of the year for lessons on how to take care of books, how to find them and reshelve them so others can find them, how to put them in your backpack to minimize damage to the cover, how to budget time to finish a popular book to give someone else a chance with it. And I’ll brace myself to deal with torn covers and lost titles.

If I truly think kids should read self-selected titles, if I want to develop a reading culture where kids anticipate getting a copy of a popular book at least as much as they anticipate Pizza Friday, then I need give them access.

I want one of my students to have a memory of savoring a great book while swinging in their backyard.

Heads up to my DonorsChoose community, I may need to request a lot of new books next year.

Same Sun Here – fiction that helps us understand the world

This spring my fourth graders learned a little bit about energy sources used in the United States and started to think about the consequences, both positive and negative, of each. I was dissatisfied with the unit, feeling like the kids were not able to connect well enough with the information to gain a good understanding of those consequences.

IMG_0132My mistake in the unit was to neglect fiction. I wish I had read Same Sun Here by Silas House and Neela Vaswani before teaching that unit, but at least I’ll be ready next year.

Fiction introduces us to new friends and can help us to gain empathy and understanding in a way that nonfiction might not. (Though a good narrative nonfiction would do the same.) After reading The Tales of Despereaux as a class, the kids seemed to understand well why the little mouse who set up household in our classroom acted the way it did. Our Despereaux also stayed to the edges, ran when people approached, but crept out seemingly to better hear the stories during read aloud. Because of the valiant Despereaux of the story, they did not want to harm this little mouse but rather to find it a better place to live.

River’s experience with the coal industry in Same Sun Here might help kids better understand the consequences of this particular energy source. On the one hand, River’s family, like most of the families in his Kentucky home, depended on the coal industry for income. We see the disruption to family life when the coal jobs moved away and his dad had to go away to find work. The coal industry means jobs, means funded schools, means that people can afford to stay in their homes. Later, when mountaintop removal begins, the consequences become dire. The stream is polluted and can no longer be fished and then a rock slide puts kids in danger.

Stories like this can help kids see the consequences of such usually invisible decisions like where our electricity comes from.

Even without the connection to our energy unit, this book is a good read. It shows us long-distance friendship between two kids who on the surface are completely different. It reminds us that people are the same: we love our grandmothers, we want to fit in without losing ourselves, we want our families to be together, we want to know there is something we can do to fight injustice, we make mistakes, and we need a friend who lets us be our true selves.

Meena’s story reveals the struggles of many immigrant families to find their place in the United States, through the bureaucratic hoops and the economic realities. Her description of life in New York City would sound familiar  to many of my students who also have had to lie or hide to keep their family safely housed, who have seen family and friends move away because they could not afford to stay, who find joy in a trusted community despite the difficulties.

And, in their friendship, River and Meena teach us that stereotypes and prejudices only serve to keep us apart when a good friend could found instead.

Same Sun Here is told through the letters these pen pals exchange. We get to eavesdrop on their friendship and see how it grows and this format helps readers connect to the characters. We see how they each draw strength from the relationship, we see their kindness for a person they never met face to face, and we learn something about how to find common ground.

Read the book. Read it out loud with your elementary school students. Read it with a small book club, as part of an energy unit, as part of an immigration unit, or to launch a pen pal writing project. Or just read it because it is a good story, well told by kids who are a lot like ours.

Marty Pants

I spent my last week of school sneaking in time between paperwork deadlines and cleaning chores to read the first in Mark Parisi’s Marty Pants books, Marty Pants: Do Not Open. The book was recommended to me by one of my fourth graders who read it after talking to one of her third grade friends about it who actually got to meet Parisi during a school visit. (Parisi’s sister-in-law is a third grade teacher at my school.) Marty certainly helped make light of a stressfully busy week.

Marty Pants is one of those boys who seems completely oblivious to the world around him, functioning in a universe of his own making. It’s great to hear the story told by Marty himself but hilariously unbelievable to think that any boy – real or fictional – could survive long with his particular way of seeing the world. And yet, I think I’ve had a Marty in my class every year I’ve taught. Throughout the story he misinterprets just about everything that he sees and hears and gets into some trouble with grownups on a daily basis.

Though not a graphic novel, Parisi illustrates every page and parts of the story rely on those pictures. One of the rising 4th graders that I met on Move Up Day asked if I would let him draw his comic strips and we had a short discussion about the many ways to show learning and tell stories, including comics. I can’t help but think Marty Pants was a big inspiration to him.

You can tell by the dinged corners and grimy cover of the edition that I borrowed that lots of kids have already enjoyed this book. You will too. It’s a quick, easy read, especially if you don’t have cumulative folders to organize and report cards to finish.

who gets the hat?

IMG_0108Jon Klassen’s We Found a Hat is his least dark addition to the hat series. I fell in love with Klassen with This is Not My Hat and I have not met a kid who didn’t agree with me that it was one of the best picture books around. They love that the thief gets it in the end, though they always hope they will get away with their own transgressions. How will the kids react to We Found a Hat? The friends in the story ultimately put their friendship over a hat that only one could have. It’s a love story, it’s a story about characters acting the way society wants them to act. Klassen’s other stories don’t follow the traditional kindness model we often see in picture books. And I think that’s why we love it.

We Found a Hat is pleasant. I still love the way Klassen tells a story, relying on his sparse  illustrations and short sentences, requiring his readers to pay attention to the connection between the two. But, I found myself wishing that one turtle ended the story wearing the hat.