strategic absence

I have 4 very difficult boys in my class, a bad case of mean girl drama with 3, 2 who egg others on, 5 who are easily distracted and not all easily put back on track, 7 typical 4th graders and 1 “can’t we all just follow every last school rule 100% of the time” kid. So, you’ll understand when I admit that I did a little happy dance when M was absent today. One strategic absence, in this case one of the top 4, makes a big difference in my day.

Too many needy personalities in one place is exhausting. Take one away and the burden of the others seems so much less.

This may not be what the Dalai Lama means when he talks about shifting your perspective, but with just one of those stressors removed I feel like I’m better able to empathize with the difficulties of being a 9 year old living with all sorts of difficult situations at home and trying to keep it together at school. I can change the context in which I see their tough behaviors, and so change my reaction to them.

Thanks for the day off, M.

See you tomorrow.

teaching off a cliff

I’m not a rock climber. Even if I weren’t afraid of heights I have no strength in my arms and hands, partly due to old injuries and new arthritis and partly because, well, you know, I was focused on building other strengths.

But the image of rock climbing kept popping us as I thought about the start of this school year.

I was ready for a hike as I set off in a new school. There’s a lot to know about STEM education and I braced for a steep learning curve. I was ready for the challenge. But I quickly felt the curve bending in a new way and the work started to feel like this


It seemed like all of the hard work of the last few years to improve my practice fell out of my pockets as I tried to ascend the cliff. By day 12 of the school year, I knew I was a bad teacher, wondered if I had made a mistake transferring schools, considered maybe changing careers to something in retail.

Deep breath.

With the help of my teammates and the calm encouraging voice of my husband, I’m rappelling back down to a level spot to rest and regroup and pick up all my dropped supplies. I’m spending my weekend planning time looking at the big picture we worked on together as a team and mapping out each step we need to take to get there. It’s not starting over, it’s pausing to look around to see where the next foothold is and how we can reach it, using all I learned from the ascent so far to help me choose the best moves to bring me forward.

The learning curve is still steep, sort of inverted, and I suspect I’ll feel like I’m dangling dangerously by my fingertips at times. But I’ve got a strong team to belay me and some ledges on which to rest and regroup.

Here we go.

Classroom Library

img_4288As I was helping Harper locate a graphic novel to add to his book box, I kept fishing books out of boxes where they did not belong. Geronimo Stilton in a nonfiction box reserved for books on energy? What was the problem? Didn’t we spread the books all over the classroom and look at them and think about what genre they were and decide which books belonged where together?

No. We didn’t. Not really.

That was the plan, and the books were certainly in a mess everywhere. But I have several children with some pretty difficult to manage behaviors so our work dissolved into chaos and most children missed the point. The days started to get away from me and I made different decisions than intended. And so, with the help of only a few students, the library was put together. And I learned some tough lessons. Here’s my thinking for next year:

1.) Put some of the library together before the kids arrive. I realized I was feeling rushed since, without the library put together, we couldn’t work on choosing good books for ourselves. I hurried through the organization and the kids didn’t have time to think through their choices or try things out and then change their minds. So, I’ll pull out some basic categories and have those bins already set up. Animal books, graphic novels, poetry, biography – we can pretty much rely on these groups so it won’t stifle student thinking. And besides, they can always refine those categories – ocean animals, sport biographies. Before we tackle the library, we’ll think about how to choose a good book, what we need to work on as readers, and then what we want and need for the work.

2.) We’ll learn about different genres before we put books out. When they came up with the category “animal books” they lumped in books on the life cycle of frogs with books from the Humphrey series about a mischievous hamster. We had to back track and talk about the difference that I thought we had settled already. Quick reviews aren’t quite enough on the hot and humid first days back at school.

One half of the room is now settled as the nonfiction side, with Science, Math, and Social Studies books grouped together in their own areas. Next year, we can spend some time talking about each area of the room and what sorts of books would fit there, before we start putting books away.

3.) I’ll keep the boxes of unshelved books out of the classroom and bring in only one at a time. The mess of too many unorganized things in the room was a jarring beginning, and combined with troubling behaviors created an atmosphere of unsettledness that has been hard to overcome.

Monday will be our 12th day of school and we’ll go in with a library  sorted into categories the students created – for the most part. I’ve created a Library Scavenger Hunt to start off a conversation about how we find and return library books that I hope will be a useful review of the organization.

It’s a work in progress.


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.

A new start, a new balance

classroom-doorThrough this door is my next challenge.

Once I can figure out my end of summer schedule, which is mostly working out how to get the girls where they need to go, I will move in to this empty classroom in my new school. It’s there, waiting for me, calling to me at all hours to leave my reading (I’ve read so many great books this summer!) and the work for my online course (I’m nearly finished!) and the yard work (it’s too hot to work in the yard anyway) and the family history project (that I didn’t actually start yet). But I’ve continued reading, and working through the lessons for that course, and fighting the humidity for 20 minute work bursts in the yard, and tidying up the home office so at least I would have space to work on that family history project. And, I have not gone to my classroom.

I am thrilled to start this new job. I spend time every week sorting through ideas and writing up lesson plans. And I have met with my new team a few times since school let out. I’m nervous, but ready for this challenge. At the same time, I recognize that I need to start out this new position with an eye to balance. I can’t give myself completely over to the job. Teenagers actually want their mother around (they won’t readily admit that, but there are clues) and I want to be around them. I adore my husband and want to say “yes” way more often when he suggests a night out or a weekend walk. I just signed up for a Zentangle class with my sisters because I want to spend time with family and friends.

I love my job and I love my life. A lot of times, the two overlap. I enjoy reading the young reader novels that I’ll suggest to my students. I eat up professional development books and gladly pack one for my cafe reading (if you don’t know the joys of sitting in a cafe for hours reading and writing, try it). When I work in my garden, I’m also thinking of ways to create an observation garden for school. When I go for a power walk to improve my health, I can distract myself from the tedium by mentally planning a writing unit or a get-to-know-you activity. My girls gladly help me dig down to the bottom of the box to find 30 orange notebooks so we all have the same color for Word Study. I can bring my laptop to my porch or patio and write up lesson plans or update my webpage, readily available to chat with the girls or pause and drive them somewhere or mind the chili as it simmers in the crockpot.

It would be a lot easier to go to school and get everything in order now. I could focus for longer stretches on planning if I got away from the house. But, starting at a new school is a great time for me to start on a new schedule. I don’t want to live at school. I miss too much and I’m not willing to miss it.

My new assignment is a wonderful challenge that will stretch my teaching skills and demand a lot of focused time. It would be easy to get wrapped up in it to the exclusion of all else. The challenge I am setting myself is not to.

I am my work

I think that one of the reasons I like listening to TED Talks is that the people there unabashedly like their work. It can be tough, sometimes, talking with people about how we should not give over so much of our time and energy to work. It makes sense for some whose work is a paycheck, but to me, my work is a passion. I love what I do. I do more than I need to (though sometimes not what I need to at all) and willingly take hours of my own time to focus on it. I think about school when I’m shopping, when I’m reading, when I am out for a family walk. When I listen to the folks speaking at TED, I feel like I’m not alone, and that I don’t have to be ashamed. Lots of people love their work. They, we, are the lucky people who work in their passion, who have not just a profession but a vocation, a calling. I AM a teacher. Teaching is not just what I do, it’s something I am. That doesn’t have to take away from all the other things I am as well, but it is an important part of me. I am lucky to earn a living doing what I love.

I also know that not everyone has to work in their field of passion. Work is a paycheck and the joy of your life might not be centered in your job at all, without it being a drudgery. I know people who just have jobs, work they do to pay for necessities, but who ARE other things completely unconnected to work. Custodians who ARE gamers or athletes, sales clerks who ARE naturalists or inventors. We can go about the business of making a living without it taking away from our true selves.

But, as it is, I am glad my work and vocation are one and the same. I can talk about my work the same way an artist talks about her work. It is, in fact, work. There is effort and sweat and frustration. But I think an artist talks about work as practice and product. The work is the process of being who you are. The work of teaching and writing that I do is an ongoing process toward, not perfection but, hmmm, toward more work, more practice, more process, more discovery, more failure, more reflections, more experimentation, more work.

I am a mother, a wife, a friend, a reader, a gardener, a writer, a teacher, a sometimes crafter, a baker, a tender of children, a walker, a sister, a citizen, etc, etc.

And I am my work.

Using Math to solve problems

Friday’s Math lesson was an exercise in application. We had a problem in our class and we used Math to figure it out. It took a while. Students struggled, and argued, and, yes, whined a little. And then, we solved our problem.

It started with testing the week we returned from Christmas break. For two days in a row, the kids all had to take a mock standardized test so that we could collect some data and plan instruction. (No, we do not explicitly teach to the test, but I can explain that in a different post.) Then this past week we had three days of testing for our ELL students which meant that the majority of my class went to work in different classrooms for half of the day and other students filled the room to take the tests. What all of this meant was that every day our desks were moved into rows, then shifted back into groups or small clusters. To the kids it felt like they had to hunt for their seats every time they walked into Room 309. It was getting annoying. I didn’t want to just push they desks into a shape and call it done. The constant flux in the room had an impact and the kids needed to feel like they had a little control over the situation.

I paced out the center of the room to measure the area in the center that we use for desks. The edges of the room are filled with bookshelves, counters, worktables, and my desk and I didn’t think we should really tackle those messes at the same time. I marked off the space on grid paper, so they could clearly see the size and shape of the area we had to deal with. When I passed out the grids while describing the project, the kids surprised me with their exclamations. “This is gonna be so cool!” “Whoa, this sounds like fun Math.” Hooray for me – I planned a lesson they actually wanted to participate in!

We had 198 square feet of space to work with, conveniently marked for us by the square foot floor tiles, and figured out that each desk needed 8 square feet of space (which included room for the student to get in and out of her chair). When one student noted that our 20 desks only needed 160 square feet, the kids all said this challenge was going to be easier than they thought. But then they started drawing, and then erasing, and then begging for another piece of grid paper. “This can’t be done!” they wailed. I reminded them that our desks have always been in the center of the room so it must be possible. After about 15 minutes I stopped and shared a few design beginnings. We talked about what we liked about each one. Kids mentioned they liked that some desks got to be by themselves in one design since not everyone likes to be in a group. Others mentioned that one design left hardly any space for kids to move around, and how annoying it would be to be at a desk in the middle and have to maneuver through an obstacle course just to get a tissue. One design got them thinking of how I would need space to move around and help when they were working on Math.

Back to the drawing board, with this conversation in mind, they started using not only their understanding of area but also their understanding of the room. By the time we shared final designs, the kids had already debated the necessary characteristics of a good classroom design. Six students thought they had met the requirements of both space and use so we posted those, sorted them into groups with similar characteristics (horseshoe shapes, clustered rows, desk “islands”) and called kids up to vote. The “primary election” narrowed it down to two finalists. We discussed the merits of each and voted again. The clear winner had a few desk islands and four small rows of connected desks with a cross of aisles in between.

“OK guys, we have just enough time left in the day to put our design into practice. Let’s start moving the desks.”

“We get to make the design?” They all seemed surprised, which surprised me. Hmmm, I guess I didn’t introduce the purpose of the lesson well enough. I brought them back to the day’s objective, which I had read and talked about at the start of class. “We can use our understanding of area and perimeter to design our classroom and decide where desks will go.” I reminded them that people use Math every day to help them solve problems, just as they had just done. We moved the desks, then packed up to go home.

So, as I write this I have no proof that their design will work (other than that it is a pretty straightforward design that has been used in countless classrooms – don’t tell them). But I do know what did work: the struggle. I’ve been talking with my Math coach a lot lately about the value of struggle. We agree that kids need lots of opportunity to work out a problem that they’ve never seen before but that they can solve using the knowledge and skills they have learned. She had given me a few problem ideas that were fun in class. Though the content of this desk design problem was my own, my Math coach was really the inspiration. I felt safe leaving the Module for the day and knew she would support me. I can’t wait to tell her how it all worked out.