Books to make teachers cry

I have to give a big shout out to the guy at Phoenix Books in Burlington, VT who told me about the Dorothy Canfield Fisher Book Award and pointed to the little note cards on the book shelves indicating this year’s nominees. That’s how I found the book Ms. Bixby’s Last Day by John David Anderson.

Let me preface this by saying I am having one of the worst teaching years of my career. No, I mean it, the worst. Just to give you an idea, last week my principal said to me “Well, at least we got through 163 days without anyone setting anything on fire.” Yeah, we had to restart that clock on day 164.

img_0082.jpgAnyway, this book revolves around the relationship 3 boys have with their 6th grade teacher, one of “The Good Ones.” And this year, I feel like I may never reach that coveted title and become one of the Good Ones myself, so I wasn’t sure I wanted to read the book. But, the cover art showing the three boys peaking through a little window, and the burning need to figure out what happened to Ms. Bixby and why this was her last day, along with the high praise by Vermont’s librarians pushed me to buy the book.

Now that I’ve wiped away the tears, I can tell you that I’m glad I bought it.

This book is an adventure story that tells what happens when three 6th graders skip school to go see their teacher in the hospital. Each chapter is told by one of the boys, so we slowly get their back story and find out why Ms. Bixby is important enough for them to spend their allowance and risk getting in trouble. There are times we think they won’t make it, like when Steve has to face the shark in the toilet at the bookstore or when George Nelson double crosses them and runs off with their money (you are going to have to read it yourself) but you kind of know all along that they will make it, it just won’t be quite what they expect.

I see several of my students in these boys. They come to school and I have only the most basic understanding of what they live with. They bring their anger and sadness and neediness with them and make themselves hard to love. But like Ms. Bixby, like just about every teacher I know, I do love them.

Teachers should read this book. Parents should read this book. And middle school kids should read this book, because John David Anderson captured our love and dysfunction in this story and we should always take time out to look at our lives.

What would you do with your last day?

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Kneeknock Rise

It seemed right to pick up a Newbury Honor winner for my next Book A Day Challenge. I’ve read Tuck Everlasting but I don’t think I’ve read anything else from Natalie Babbitt. Knee knock Rise is a short book, which will make it appealing to a few readers in my class, and a bit of a mystery, which will appeal to a few others.

The Megrimum has been a part of Instep for as long as anyone can remember, a moaning spirit that is delightfully spooky and keeps everyone on their toes in town. The feared monster is the highlight of the annual Fair where folks hope for the bad weather that will wake the beast and send him moaning down to terrorize townsfolk and visitors alike.

Teased by his cousin, Egan decides to climb Kneeknock Rise (a delightfully descriptive name) and defeat the Megrimum once and for all. The results of his adventure are not quite what he expected, nor what I expected, which makes it a good read.

At a level S, and only 118 pages, this is an easy sell to even a reluctant fourth grade reader.

All of the Above

My second read for the Book A Day Challenge, which, yes, took me more than a day to read, is All of the Above by Shelly Pearsall. I picked up the book because of its Math theme. Though fiction, the book is based on the quest of a Cleveland middle school to break the world record for constructing a tetrahedron. A misfit group of middle schoolers, led by what on the surface (and that’s all we get in the book, is the surface) seems like an uninspiring Math teacher, decides to start an after school club to break the record.

The team succeeds, though that there was a book written about it makes it pretty much a forgone conclusion that they would, but they do face some obstacles along the way. Each chapter is told by a different character, including parents and other grown-ups drawn into the project. That’s the part I like most – different perspectives were given without repeating the same scenes from different views. Every character is flawed, another plus, without being pitiful or caricatured.

The book is level U which makes it a reasonable independent read for half of my class at the end of fourth grade. The urban setting, the struggles of living in various levels of poverty, and the picture of school as a sometimes boring place that kids long to escape all make the book relevant to my students. The short chapters will appeal to some, and the sketches by one of the characters will attract others. This is a good example of realistic fiction for classes that don’t want to add yet another Holocaust book to their selections.

Starting Book A Day with Magic

IMG_0018I am drawn to titles that include a reference to magic and even more to book jackets featuring a dragon, so Susan Cooper’s The Magician’s Boy seemed the perfect way to start out the Book A Day Challenge. Granted, that it is a particularly short book weighed in as well, since my last day of school is still a month away and I have miles to grade before I read.

The Magician’s Boy also features another literary device that I usually enjoy. Cooper takes familiar stories and characters and places them in a slightly new context. The Boy, nameless through most of the story, is apprenticed to a magician who will not teach him magic. But he is given the responsibility of the puppet theater, telling the story of Saint George and the Dragon.

Margaret Hodges’ version of the story was a favorite of my daughters. We often included it in our “book festivals” until the pages started falling from the binding. But I did think it odd to include this as the central story for this jump into Story Land since it didn’t seem like a well-known tale in our day. Cooper summarizes just enough so her readers know what’s going on.

When the Saint George puppet goes missing from the boy’s performance case, the magician sends him into the story to look for him. That’s when things get weird for me. The boy meets the Old Woman who lives int he shoe, and her too many children; the Pied Piper who tries to lead the children away; Jack and his Giant; and even Little Red Riding Hood. The stories didn’t seem to go together for me, though I suppose once upon a time, children would have been familiar with all of them.

I wonder if my students are? I don’t think most would have ever heard of the Pied Piper though they likely read Little Red in school. Teaching 4th grade, I haven’t been reading the old fairy tales they way I did with my 2nd graders. My students, mostly born in the United States of immigrant parents, have not had the same exposure to tales as I once had. My childhood was not filled with books outside of school, as theirs is not, but somehow we seemed to base more of our popular media on traditional tales than happens now. It was as if we know Little Red Riding Hood as a neighbor, never having been formally introduced, she was just always there.

So, how will my students take The Magician’s Boy, or any of the many books based on fairy tale characters? Should I take the time to survey the class about their familiarity with traditional literature at the start of the year?

There is so much material to cover in 4th grade. But, it wouldn’t take long to read a fairy tale now and then. It would make a few books make a bit more sense.

Check out Miller’s 8th Annual Book A Day Challenge here.

classroom technology fail

Professionals in all fields have to deal with technology failures now and again. It’s a fact of life that we all find ways to work around. But, the significance of a technology malfunction varies with circumstances and deadlines. If my husband’s conference call won’t connect he may blow a lucrative deal or miss a crucial deadline that throws a whole project off kilter. It’s awkward to make people wait while you try to fix a glitch. When my interactive board won’t connect I risk losing the entire learning day, if I’m not prepared.

I’m lucky enough to work in a school with a commitment to the effective use of technology in the classroom. My principal does not just want to see teachers and students using technology to complete traditional tasks, he wants to see us creating with technology. Our students participate in coding exercises, they create slide shows and webpages to share information, they program robots and design solutions for everyday problems like how to feed the fish over the weekend (we haven’t figured that one out yet).

And in our district we have a responsive IT department and a team of educators dedicated to supporting technology’s use in the classroom. I have ample opportunity to take classes and workshops on technology use and a team mate who has been patiently coaching us on projects. I recognize that I have in place what I need to enrich my classroom and stretch my learning and teaching.

But IT serves the whole district and they are not housed in our building. So, when something goes they can’t just pop on over to my room and fix it up for me. On the 2nd to last day before April vacation, my Promethean Board lost the ability to connect to, well, to anything. It was a hardware problem, something off with the cord that prevented it from staying snug. I fiddled with it for my entire prep time and still could not get it to work. At the end of the day, I submitted a ticket to IT. I hope they get to it over break so I return to a working board.

One of the simplest things I do with that board is to post the morning work. I still posted the work last Thursday, but it looked a little different. At least I could use the board for something.

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sassing back with purpose

April and I looked at each other over the desk when the assistant principal came into the room.

“I saw that you called, sorry I missed it. What do you need?” she asked, surveying the room of off-task students.

“Please take her,” I said, pointing to April. “We need a break from each other.”

Without hesitation, or question, the assistant principal took April with her to the office. I am so grateful for her reaction. I didn’t feel judged, either positively or negatively. She came to do her job, so I could do mine. That reaction from an administrator, I’ve worked in enough schools to know, is rare and precious.

April and I had reached a standoff after a day, after days, of struggle. She wants to be anywhere but in school and in her frustration she constantly disrupts the class. This bright girl with a quick mind has made little to no progress in the past month because she is painting her new persona as a tough girl who doesn’t need these silly old ladies telling her she has to understand fractions. She sees her future and it requires  well coiffed hair and stylishly off the shoulder dresses, not organized paragraphs with correctly punctuated sentences. She is becoming proficient in girlfriend loyalty and well-timed insults and the art of choosing the right clique.

I don’t think these are unimportant skills. As she betrays one friend to support another, as she makes decisions about who to share her secrets with and discovers the dangers in those decisions, April is learning some valuable life skills. She is deciding who she is, who she wants to be, and who she wants to associate with. I’m impressed by her fierce support, giving compliments when she thinks a friend needs to hear she looks good, asking questions about how a friend is feeling and really, really listening, and yes, doling out verbal retaliations against any who cause her friends hurt. April is someone you want on your side.

But she hasn’t been on her own side.

April constantly disrupts the class by talking to friends both near her and across the room. She easily, often without effort, encourages the other girls, and quite a few boys, to join her in making noise over which no learning can happen. She rolls her eyes and sasses back and tosses her hair in reaction to every reminder or reprimand. She knows just what to say when you bring her out in the hall for a talk and even adheres to rules for a little while after claiming a desire to avoid “the drama” and focus on her own learning.

I figured she was just telling me what I needed to hear to let her back in to class. But maybe something else is going on.

My assistant principal came to talk to me at the end of that day and said, “So, I made her cry. I asked her who in the class helps her make the right choice, thinking that maybe we could move her closer to a positive role model, but she said that person who helps her make the right choice is you, Mrs. L.A. So I asked her “Then why do you treat her so badly?” That’s when the tears started.”

Yeah, that’s when my tears started as well. (OK, started again, because it had been the sort of week where my tears were ever present.) I went home to think about April.

A counselor I worked with a while ago said that she thinks some kids feel the freedom to act out their anger and frustrations at school because they feel like they will always be able to come back, no matter what. They trust us to give them another chance. They trust us to love them even when their ugly side shows. I tried to think of April with this theory in mind. April is trying to find her place in the world but that’s not an easy thing to do when you’re ten. I guess she really was participating in those hallway talks not just enduring them.

After seriously considering a career change earlier this year, I’m newly inspired to keep moving forward in teaching. I’ll continue reading about adolescent behavior and collaborating with my team to find better ways to support my frustrated students. And when I think I can’t take anymore of the disruptive behavior, I’ll toss my hair and turn to April and try again.

sick leave

I’ve been looking up information about paid sick time in my state, happy to note that most employees are eligible to earn and build up a bank of sick time. There’s a lot to like about Massachusetts. Still, though the law requires payment, many employees probably still feel reluctant to take time off, even for a sick kid.

As a public school teacher, my paid sick days are regulated differently. The reason I’m thinking of this law today is that I woke up with a massive headache and promptly puked my guts out. I suspect that my darling student shared his germs with me. When he arrived at school yesterday, it was clear something was wrong. “I was up all night throwing up,” he told me. Um, so why are you at school? “Mom said I had to come.”

Yeah, anger at Mom was my first reaction. Grabbing some spray cleaner and a rag to try to control the germs was my second. It took two trips down to the nurse and throwing up into the trash can before I could get him sent home. Not soon enough, apparently.

Though, as a privileged middle-class Mom with a husband and extended family to share the sick-care burdens, my first reaction is to think less of this Mom, it only takes a moment’s reflection to remember that not everyone is as lucky as I.

Massachusetts Law requires most employers (those with 11 or more employees) to offer paid sick time, I know that it’s not that simple. Parents who need to take time off for sick kids, for doctor appointments, for school events, for household emergencies, and for their own illnesses can face sanctions at work including loss of the job itself. There were plenty of times I kept a kid home from school only to have them running around fit as a fiddle by 10:30am. It can be worth the risk of sending in a sluggish kid, hoping for that miracle cure instead of that dreaded phone call.

My student’s Mom took the risk. I am annoyed at being caught in the crosshairs here, but I know she didn’t declare the war, she’s just soldiering through the best she can. It’s time we took serious care of our children and their working parents and put some safeguards in place to make sure Moms don’t have to send in their sick kids.