demonstrating

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.

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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.

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?

 

his motivation grew 3 sizes that day

It was always clear that the Grinch stole Christmas in an attempt to find something good for himself, even though he felt he didn’t deserve it. When he was able to see beauty, and then to participate in joy by saving the stolen presents, he heart, and his strength grew way out of proportion. Really, the strength of ten Grinches, plus two? It was a rhyme-satisfying exaggeration.

Or was it?

It is no secret that I have gotten off to a tough start to this school year. 48 days completed, just over a quarter of the school year, and I feel like I am still setting up routines, still teaching expected behaviors, and not at all teaching content. Though I Grinch-like feel that I have not actually earned the right to it, I want to walk in to a well-run class full of 10 year olds acting like ten year olds and not like cynical gang initiates.

In the midst of the despair, M stepped up. For reasons all his own, he walked into the room with an aura of effort around him and worked hard to monitor his behavior and focus on learning. He raised his hand, he excitedly shouted out answers, he rushed to get in line, he asked questions. And this fog of effective effort was slightly contagious so that, even though, yes, there were two physical fights and a whole lot of talking back and ignoring work, there were these blissful moments of teaching and, dare I say it, learning happening in our chaotic classroom.

So, yesterday morning I took some time before school started and fished out the fun sea creature shaped papers left over from a project last year and wrote a short note to M and three of his fellow do-gooders. They were short notes to the effect of “Hey, I noticed your effort. You are fabulous and getting more so every day.” (Not at all those words, of course. I used teacher words like “you’re growing your brain” and “making great choices” but the intention was “Oh lord, it’s been a craptastic 45 days and I just want to say thank you so much for bringing some light into this dungeon.”)

I left the notes on 4 desks and let them be found.

My first surprise was when K started walking around the room showing off his note, then Y wondered out loud how he might earn such a note. But then, there was M. The boy who has a personal relationship with he principal, he’s spent so much time in the office. The boy who tells others he will beat the tar out of them and they (and I) completely believe he could, and would. The boy who can’t actually sit so his desk is in the back of the room to allow pacing space and who talks to himself near constantly. This boy, who’s “not afraid of anything” quietly picked up his note.

He didn’t smile. He didn’t look toward me. He didn’t share his note. He carefully put it back down on his desk, fished out his Math notebook and sat down to work on the morning problem.

And later, during a Math test that seemed designed to inspire a meltdown of self-confidence resulting in a display of tough-guy disinterest in anything school related, he took his time, he asked clarifying questions, he showed his work.

His motivation grew three sizes that day.

He grew the strength of 10 fourth graders, plus two.

And I learned, relearned, the lesson that we all need to feel like we deserve Christmas. We need to be noticed and appreciated for returning what we stole, for fixing what we broke. And we need to be a part of a community that lets us back in after we have intentionally caused harm, with the knowledge that we didn’t really want to cause harm but to be noticed.

Thanks M, again.

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

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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.

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.