Why was today good?

The Friday before February break I had the best day I’ve had since the first month of school. I have a difficult class. The school clerk greets me in the morning with a cheerful “Thank you for coming to school today,” because she knows both how difficult it is to come to school everyday and how difficult her job is when there is a substitute teacher in who will constantly call the office for support.

I don’t want to go into the details of why my class is so difficult – it requires a heart-wrenching examination of poverty, a culture of violence, and my own failings as a teacher. What I’ve been thinking about ever since Friday afternoon is, what did I do to help it to be a good day? And, can I do it again?

Friday is a changed schedule for us in the fourth grade. The teaching team has a morning Common Planning Time, so we leave work for the students that they can manage with a substitute, usually a paraprofessional who knows them and their work. The morning block is usually Science, but on Fridays we switch to writing and give kids an opportunity to finish whatever writing project they need to get done from the week. This week, I was trying to have kids practice writing on a keyboard, using the space bar and shift key to reinforce conventions around sentence construction. On Tuesday mornings we have access to the laptop cart so we all got to start a persuasive letter at the same time. In our class on Friday morning, we have access to only 11 ChromeBooks, so I randomly divided the class in two with the plan that one group would spend 20 minutes typing while the other group finished up Math work and then they would switch. Twenty minutes should have been enough time for most students to put the finishing touches on their letters.

Our Common Planning time was canceled because there were not enough substitutes to cover for the whole team, but when a sub arrived at my classroom nonetheless, I took the opportunity to finish some one-on-one reading evaluations that are coming due. I got everyone started on their assignment, grabbed two reading folders and called my first students to join me at a table in the hallway.

And then I saw Michael.

Michael has trouble at school. He always has had trouble at school. He was one of the boys that teachers told me about when I was starting the year at my new school. And he has met or exceeded all of their descriptions, both positive and negative. He is a complicated boy who never sits still. And he takes it as his personal responsibility to misbehave for substitute teachers.

And he had been randomly placed into the Math group for that first block of time.

“Michael, grab you paper and pencil and come out with me. You’re not in trouble, I just think the hallway will be more quiet and a better place to work.”

And, instead of grabbing my next student for testing while my first reader was doing the independent part of the evaluation, I helped Michael with a problem on the worksheet that helped him complete the rest of the math on his own.

I walked my two students back to class in time for the switch, which put Michael safely (more safely, anyway) on a computer writing and put Junior in the more precarious position of working independently on his Math. “Come sit with me while I read with Max.” I told him. And he did and I replayed the balance of evaluating my reader and encouraging my mathematician.

So, by the time I finished my two reading tests, it was time for the sub to move on and for us to sum up the morning and prepare to go to Art class. And no one had gotten into trouble.

Not gona lie, the walk to Art had a few chaotic moments. Pete and Joseph were beginning to relive yesterday’s fistfight but I was able to separate them and to give the Art teacher a heads up to keep them apart. Junior wanted to run and dance through the halls, but agreed to stand by me and even let me hold his hand to help keep him steady.

We got back to class after Art and they quickly settled in with their snacks to listen to our read a loud. We have been reading a few chapters a day of Peter Brown’s The Wild Robot and were at the part (spoiler alert) where a fire burns down one of the lodges. We got through the tragedy, and snack time, and got ourselves ready for Science.

This is where it could all fall apart.

I had told them earlier in the week that if they were able to focus on the Science Reading and note taking projects we needed to gain an understanding of how light reflects and refracts they would have time for an Engineering Design Challenge on Friday. Thanks to another day when they needed a sub and a great idea from another teacher of letting them use the ChromeBooks to watch a video on the subject with a partner as a way to practice taking notes, they had been exposed to all of the vocabulary and scientific concepts they needed.

I took a deep breath.

“OK, you will work on teams of no more than 4 people.” Kids immediately start turning in their seats to point at potential teammates. “I will set the timer for 2 minutes and let you choose your team. Here are some things to consider. Choose a team that will help you get your work done, people you get along with but will not fool around with. And, if in that 2 minutes I see running or pushing, or hear insults, then I will choose the teams for you. If you have any trouble choosing your team, I can certainly help. Ready?” They took the threat of possibly being teamed with an unwanted partner to heart and quickly formed teams and stood together in their designated corners. Joseph, who had been having trouble getting along with others this week, came right over to me saying he didn’t know what team to join. Lilly and Devon saw him talking to me and invited him to work with them. I couldn’t have chosen a better team for him myself. I looked around the room and saw only one team that made me cringe a little. They had done a responsible job and had set themselves up nicely for the work.

The challenge today was to design a device that would allow them to see what was happening on top of a desk from a seat under the desk. The test was that one student would hold up some random number of fingers above the desk while the student using the device would be sitting on the floor. Each team got a small packet of identical materials (mirrors, cardstock, masking tape) and they also had access to our box of building supplies filled with cereal boxes, plastic pieces, string, etc. Before they could build, they had to sketch out, and agree upon, a design.

Everybody got to work.

Let me say that again. Everybody got to work.

You just don’t know how rarely that happens in my classroom this year. I was walking on eggshells, trying to monitor progress and learning while not interfering with this magic.

Here’s what the magic looked like:

  • One team disagreed on their design and instead of yelling at each other agreed to sketch out both and “eeny-meeny-miny-mo” to decide which they would build first.
  • One team floundered from the get-go, not knowing where to begin. After a quick series of questions form me about their past observations and experiments, their reading and video work, they all seemed to have that ah-ha moment in unison and started talking at the same time about their ideas.
  • Several teams built what they thought would be great designs, only to fail when they tested them. Instead of giving up, which is often the go-to reaction to failure in our room, they excitedly shared ideas for improvements and got back to work.
  • One team’s device kept falling apart, and they kept reflecting on the source of the weakness in the design and trying new fixes until they had a sturdy prototype to test.
  • When Joseph’s team finished before everyone else, they gladly showed their design to a struggling team.

Before it was time to clean up and get ready for lunch, everyone had shared a design and was able to say why it worked. Most even explained why they thought their first attempts would work and why they in fact did not. Every team showed an understanding of the concepts and ability to use their knowledge from reading and watching science videos in the practical work of constructing a device. Every team encountered some sort of roadblock – a design that didn’t work, a disagreement over construction, a mistaken idea of how the scientific concepts would play out in real life – and they all made it through.

I’m not gonna lie, I was beaming.

And then I left them for indoor recess (because of the wind-chill and snowdrifts) in the care of our principal (who does recess duty with my class for what, to everyone in our school, are obvious reasons) and I went to lunch with a bounce in my step that my colleagues mistook for joyful anticipation of the coming February break.

After lunch and a short independent reading time, which we use after lunch as a way to help the class settle back into the classroom, we skipped the usual literacy lesson and center rotations to continue with some of the science concepts. On Fridays our school allows for what we call Fun Friday at the end of the day, so our learning time was shortened anyway. It was a good time to fit in some work with solar cells that we didn’t get to earlier in the week. Because of the limited time, this would be more of an observation than the exploration I had originally wanted, but still allowed them to get a little hands-on. I demonstrated how the little motor worked when I attached it to a battery and challenged them to make it work when attached to a solar cell. They scrambled to find a patch of sunlight in the windows, stood on chairs to hold it close to the ceiling lights and even took the flashlights out of our Science Box, all trying to give the solar panels enough light to make the motor turn. We had mixed success, but were able to share ideals about why each attempt worked, or not.

Clean up, pack backpacks, and off to fun Friday.

At the end of the day, walking back to the empty classroom after walking my line to the bus, I kept thinking, what did I do today? Why did it work? How did so much learning happen today when the past 100+ days seemed so wasted?

Here are my ideas:

  • I recognized the trouble Michael and Junior might have sitting still with a substitute who did not know they can’t sit still and do a Math paper and I took them out with me. Michael stood while he did his math and Junior laid himself across the table to do his. Both positions would have unnerved a sub who knows part of her duty is to keep order, but reprimanding these boys for their posture even though they were doing work would have ruined their entire day. The simple act of taking them with me in the morning when I left the room to test, helped them get a good start.
  • I gave choice to the kids. There were parameters to their choices, but ultimately I think they felt like they were getting to do what they wanted to and the Engineering challenge was itself interesting and engaging and felt doable.
  • I didn’t but in. I monitored the room to maintain order and made notes about the academics, but I didn’t address any of the kids unless they asked me a question. And I almost never answered questions directly. I was a coach, in the background, trusting that their previous practice sufficiently readied them for the challenge. I’m still not sure how they adopted the assurance they could handle this challenge so I don’t know how to replicate that confidence for the next one. But I myself have more confidence that they can handle the next one, and maybe that’s the key after all.
  • I had told them what to expect from this day in my summary the day before. And at each step, I reminded them of the day’s plan. Knowing the plan, and having the plan followed, feels important. I post a schedule on the board but I think a more detailed plan than “11:40 – Math” is needed. I’ve been toying around with a combination objectives/schedule board that might help recreate some of this confidence in the day that I think helped out on Friday.

Today is Monday, the first day of our February break. And I do plan a break. My stack of fiction is ready and the coffee is hot. I have both quiet relaxing planned and extra time spent with my girls. But I can’t leave this fabulous Friday alone. I’ll be doing plenty of planning to help recreate this good day.

And, I’ll head to the drug store to get some purple hair dye. Oh, did I mention that I told the kids that if they each had a good day, with the whole class going up to the purple level on our clip chart, that I would come in on Monday with purple hair?



On NOT setting up the classroom library

Finally getting in to school to set up my classroom. First things first, the library. Done.


You might notice that this picture shows empty shelves and books in boxes (not the leveled book kits – those belong to the reading tutors). This is part of the plan for class this year that I am most excited about, and most stressed out over. I have decided to set up the library WITH my students rather than for my students.

No, this is not a strategy to keep me from working in my classroom too much. Trust me when I tell you that it would be way more simple to drag my girls in for a few hours and sort books into bins. All the biographies would be together, Kate DiCamillo would be given her own bin, science books on predator and prey animals would be safely separated and every box would have a label. I would always know where to find the latest in the Amulet series.

At the start of her book Teaching with Intention, Debbie Miller asks us to picture our perfect classroom. When I do this, I see a space that belongs to kids, that they worked together to create in a way that serves our collective needs and learning goals. I see students moving about on their own to get what they need, independently solving problems because they know what resources are in the room and how to use them. So I have to ask myself, what if Kate DiCamillo is not deemed important enough to rate her own bin? (I know, right? but it could happen.) What if what they need is a bin dedicated to books on the Underground Railroad because we read Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt, sparking a full on obsession with resistance to slavery?

In order for kids to create resource collections throughout the year to satisfy the demands of a project, they have to start with both a familiarity with the collection as a whole and a sense of ownership that allows them to manipulate and pull together texts that serve their needs. As Miller advises, I need to start with this goal in mind and work back to see how I can support children in reaching it. In order to give the students mastery over the library, I need to start handing it over to them on day one.

Thus, the empty shelves.

My plan is to start our first Readers Workshop by looking at the books. Each group will have a box of texts from all different genres. After first oohing and ahhing over cool titles, and maybe even squirreling away a few for their own boxes, I’ll ask them to start sorting them into categories. No guidance – I will try very hard to keep my opinion out of it and let them talk through ideas and come up with their own categories with only clarifying questions from me. After comparing how different groups sorted, we’ll launch into a review of genres and make some genre posters as reference tools for the library. Then, looking at these larger categories, and using their sorts and some of the “get to know you” data we collected in other activities, we can begin to subdivide books in a way that’s helpful to this particular class (which may, or may not, include a fan of Kate DiCamillo). Once we put the library together with labeled bins and sorted shelves I need to somehow instill in them that this is not a one and done sort of activity. As our learning needs grow and change, so must our library bins. The Writers Workshop section might contain some great narratives at the start of the year, but we’ll soon need some examples of persuasive writing there. Our Science bins might focus on animals and habitat to match the Fall lessons but by Christmas we’ll need to know about landforms and how they change over time. And our engineering challenges throughout the year will always need its own set of resources.

The initial organizing I described is a several day activity. Our first two weeks of school are only 3 days each (due to some weird primary election day interruptions, plus the Labor Day holiday weekend) so I imagine taking most of that time for the library work. It feels like a good way to spend those days.

I’m still pretty anxious about leaving so much “unfinished.” I took the cardboard book boxes I have home so I can cover up old writing and apply blank labels and I’ll certainly  tidy things up around the shelves. I’ve even decided to designate areas of the room for Science, Social Studies, and Writing since I have non-book resources to put away. And I will probably set the tall shelves aside as the fiction library but with a flexible mindset, ready to adjust my plans based on what the kids come up with.  The shelves in all of the areas will remain empty. I will have as many unlabeled bins as I can find.

Tune in next month to see how it turns out.

Bad teacher for one

I wanted to post this week about my struggle to find a way to help my second graders learn to revise. I want them to see that a writer goes back to a “finished” piece and adds new understanding or makes a sentence more clear for the reader, or even takes out a part that doesn’t serve the purpose. It’s not an easy concept.

I was also thinking of writing about my search for a way to make my Readers’ Workshop function for all of my students: my two newcomers who have little or no English, my two boys who are reading at a Kindergarten level, my two girls who are slowly moving toward grade level reading, my group who tested at grade level before I came to the school but who show serious lapses in comprehension, and my group that is ready to soar ahead and enter Literature Circles. I’m working on strategies that allow each cohort to work at their own level, and a schedule that gives me the time to push all of them.

But, neither of those were my focus this week. This week was all about finding a way to teach through behavior problems. I have been practicing deep breathing and pausing before I speak so I don’t yell at the children. It’s so hard not to yell. (And, of course I have yelled.) It’s one thing for a student to refuse to do his own work, quite another when he makes it difficult for others to do theirs.

This week, in our classroom, students have stolen items from me and from classmates, students have torn papers and broken pencils, students have wandered aimlessly around the classroom making incredibly distracting noises.

A little while before lunch Friday, the Vice Principal stopped by my class to check in with a student that we had been working together to help. She had already seen him that morning, when he had assured her he would turn his day around, and I appreciate her taking the time to visit. In a lucky coincidence, I had just had to set the class to 10 minutes of quiet reading at their desks so I could deal with this student. He had recently returned from a visit to our Buddy Classroom for a time out, but returned immediately to the same behaviors – refusing to do any work, pushing other students, making noises when they were trying to talk or listen, taking things away from a student and leaving them on the other side of the room. When the VP asked him to walk with her to the hallway to talk, he refused. I took the opportunity to have a one-to-one with another student about his stealing and fighting, knowing everyone else would be on good behavior with the VP in the room, so I could turn my back on them.

The VP was still with the misbehaving students when I organized the class for lunch. I walked them all to the cafeteria and the two were still in my classroom when I got back. I left to have lunch with my colleagues.  Eventually, the school counselor got him to the office and I was told Mom would come to pick him up. She never did.

At the end of the day, there was my student, down from the office to get his things for the bus. I got his papers from his mailbox, including a brand new set of the week’s homework with a note saying he had not turned any of it in, and I watched him put it in his backpack. He made a few rude gestures, and meandered to his bus group. I have little hope those papers will reach home. I got my students to their buses before heading back to my classroom to cry.

The other 20 students in my class should not have to struggle to learn through his ridiculous behavior.

Full disclosure: I am incredibly worried about my own daughter. She is having a rough time and has given me a lot to worry about. While I was sitting down to lunch that day, I heard the voice mail from her school nurse – an hour old –  saying she had been to the office twice and was not feeling well. By the time I was able to get a hold of my husband and the nurse, my girl was put on the bus. Had I not been dealing with that student, I would have gotten my own daughter taken care of. So, yes, I’m more than a little resentful.

I know that this boy has had difficulty in his life. I know his mother is lost and, even with good intentions, just doesn’t know what to do. Like all of us, she has made mistakes as a parent. I empathize with her. But. I’m also angry with her. Her son needs more and she needs to get it for him. I am not a behavior specialist. I do not know how to fix what is wrong here. Given an hour with him alone, with no one to show off to, no one to impress, I could teach him. Because that IS what I am, a teacher. But I can’t be his mother, his father, his counselor.

I’ve come to the conclusion that I can’t save this kid. All I can do is make the room a place of learning. If he shows signs he’s willing to try, I’ll leap and bring him in. But, until then, I focus on everyone else. I’d rather be a bad teacher for this one, than a bad teacher for all 21.

Yellow tags

ImageWhen I took over as the teacher for Room 102 just before Christmas, this behavior chart was on the wall. It is linked to the Behavior Plan for the whole school, providing a series of warnings for a student. After three yellow tags go up for a student, they need to take a break in the Peace Corner and write or draw a reflection sheet naming the bad choice and suggesting alternative behavior that would be more appropriate for the classroom. If poor behavior persists after that, we ask the student to take a break in a buddy classroom. If things go awry with the Buddy Teacher, she calls the office for support. The Buddy Classroom is designed to diffuse the tension between teacher and student and is usually the farthest it gets.

My students have been through a great deal of chaos and transition this year. After their classroom teacher had to unexpectedly leave her position in September, they had a few different substitutes. Each substitute did great work, but the reality is no two teachers are alike, so there was always change. Since second graders thrive on routine, this sort of change was obviously difficult.

Which brings me back to the behavior chart. I use the chart sparingly, and give lots of verbal reminders before a tag goes up. Still, tags went up every day. EVERY. DAY. It was disheartening. It was exhausting.

One day last week, we were having a good day. I felt well rested. There seemed to be a lot of work getting done. Near the end of the day, after we had just started to get packed up, one student called my attention to the empty chart. “Mrs. L. A., no one got a yellow tag today.” The joy and excitement in his voice was inspiring. I called everyone over to view the empty chart. I pulled out my phone to snap a picture. I showed them all the photo on my phone. I made a big deal about it, and so did they.

The chart has not seen another empty day since, but I have put a significantly lower number of tags up. And today, as one of students (who struggles most with behavior) handed me her agenda so I could write the daily note to her Mom, she said, “I must have had a good day, I have no yellow.” I smiled big at her, and said, “I’m writing about your good day right now!”

I don’t love this chart, and I am trying to focus more on noticing good behavior, but some good things have happened because of it. And I feel like we can build from here.

Professional Development: Violence in Writers’ Workshop

For many teachers, vacation weeks are a time to catch up on professional reading and to plan upcoming units of study. Having just jumped into this new job, I have double the work (or so it seems). During this vacation, I have been focusing on the Literacy block, since reading and writing and language is what I love most. Later today (or maybe tomorrow), I’ll begin to look at Math.

For literacy, we use the Daily 5, Interactive Read Aloud, and Writers’ Workshop. Before the break, my Literacy Coach arranged to have someone cover my classroom so we could sit for an hour and a half reviewing the district requirements and looking at the structure of my day. It was a great meeting. I now understand how to plan for groups, individual conferences, and independent reading. I am still uncertain about how best to incorporate Word Work for my diverse learners, but Readers’ and Writers’ Workshop both make sense to me.

In addition to the articles my coach gave me on teaching Character, I also read an article by Stephanie Jones, recently reposted on The Classroom Project’s blog, about recognizing poverty in literacy teaching. She looks at the pull between worlds that many of our young students struggle with as the sometimes messy reality of their lives is pointed out as wrong or deficient in many books. One example was a literacy-based lesson on bullying that had several students conflicted since many of the people they love would, by the lesson’s definition, be considered bullies. In another poignant example, she talked about students who were reluctant to write about family members during Writers’ Workshop because they were in jail.  

These are my students. They have family members in jail, older siblings or cousins in gangs. They see fights, hear arguments, and watch animation of violent acts I would not allow my 12 year old to see. Their parents have different priorities than I do, they see the world through a different lens. Yet, they all want the best for their children. 

I have to find a way, as their teacher, to validate their reality without compromising school rules and objectives. We do not want children to fight, but denying them the freedom to write about fights they have seen makes their reality invisible rather than one they can reflect on and make decisions about.

My big struggle is guns, so I was glad to see a title in Jones’ Works Cited list from J J Schneider, No blood, guns, or gays allowed: The silencing of the elementary writer. This will move high up on my reading list. After only a week and a half with them, I have seen my students bring up guns in may different ways: through hand gestures, made with blocks during recess, sketched in Writers’ Workshop notebooks. I know they see television and movies with guns and that they shoot with virtual guns in video games. It’s likely that many have seen real guns in their homes or while with extended family or friends. And many had watched news coverage of the Sandy Hook massacre. It is a part of their reality. It seems like it’s my job to give them the tools to think critically about the role of guns in our society. If I just narrow mindedly teach that guns are bad, I put students in the difficult position of choosing between school values and family reality. Instead, I need to find a way for them to use description, connect to characters, infer feelings, and make predictions based on the evidence. When they read and write, guns can be a prop in the story, like an alligator or a dump truck.

When the students were making holiday cards for the veterans in a local VA Hospital, I had a short conversation with a few about whether or not to draw guns. I said that these people were wounded or sick and had probably been in situations where they had to use their guns. Guns may have even been the thing that put them in the hospital. So, I suggested that they might like to see a picture that had no guns, because they might be sad about getting hurt. The boys I was talking with showed great empathy. Some invented some stories of how they thought a soldier may have been hurt, others talked about how they feel when they get hurt, but all agreed that what I said made sense and went on to draw different pictures.

I think my conversation worked because I didn’t say guns were bad. In fact, we talked about the big guns many soldiers carry and how they learn to use them in army training. More than half of the boys thought they would like to join the army and use those guns to protect America.

 Still, later that same day, they were building guns with linking cubes at recess and acting out violent scenes from video games. They weren’t protecting any one, just aggressively attacking. They are second graders, after all, and the empathy shown in one instance may not appear in another.

 I need to keep learning and reflecting about issues of poverty and violence in the classroom. I want to hold my students to the highest standards; to show them that I expect they can achieve great things. But, I need to find a way to do that while accepting their realities. They have to be able to see themselves in books and to have the freedom to write about their lives.

This will be an interesting balancing act.


Marcus and Sandy Hook

At the end of my third day as the new teacher in Room 102, I heard the news of the Sandy Hook shootings. My first thought was for my daughters, home after school, preparing for their big show. My second thought was for Marcus (name changed), the little boy I had struggled with all day long.

Marcus has “issues.” From what little I could tell in my three days with him, he has a mother who loves and cares for him and wants to see him succeed. He is well fed, properly clothed, and goes to bed in a warm, safe place each night.

Still, Marcus spent the day testing me. I was the latest in a long line of teachers his class has played host to this school year. Each teacher did her best to provide what these students needed, and by many measures, each did just that. Half of the kids are reading above grade level and their most recent Math benchmark tests showed good progress.

But, no matter how good their intentions, those temporary teachers couldn’t give them everything; they couldn’t give Marcus what he needed most.

My first day with Marcus was fine. He needed a few reminders, but for the most part, he was on task. Day two, however, a new Marcus walked in to class. He brought his attitude, and it was not good. He refused to complete work, refused to stay in his seat, refused to acknowledge rules even existed. He got on every one of my nerves, and I raised my voice more than once. I was glad to see that day end. But, the following day was worse. I was thoroughly annoyed with him.

Then, a crazy person shot up a school, and all I could think of was, “What have I done today to help Marcus choose a different path than that?” I did not like my answer.

I am a human being. I make mistakes. But, Marcus can’t afford for me to make too many more. I need to find a way to work with him, and he with me, so that his anger and frustration with school doesn’t turn violent.

Yes, it’s a long way from misbehaving second grader to psychotic grown up, but it was so clear to me that day how the little things can build up. Right now, Marcus is a troubled kid; the way I treat him has real consequences.

And yes, I understand that I am only one influence in his life; that there are many factors determining his future and many of them are much more influential than I. Still, I’m one. And that’s a responsibility I take seriously.

This week after the shootings wasn’t much better with Marcus. But I am slowly learning what I need to do; slowly building my patience and learning good strategies. My end goal for Marcus is that he see himself as a valuable citizen; see himself as a positive force in the world. What I do each day needs to support that goal.