Tag Archives: words

My Little Wordsmiths


This has probably been the most challenging start to a school year that I’ve had in my six-year career. Challenges are waiting on all sides: a new teacher evaluation system and its components, push-in and pull-out services in flux due to demands on the providing teachers’ time, failure by the city to provide supplies in a timely fashion, and for me, a class that doesn’t quite seem to be jelling behaviorally.

Despite it all, there is incremental academic progress. We can now round numbers to the nearest ten and hundred (at least with more consistency than there had been). We are better in our routines. And we are having discussions about books that are way way WAY above our reading levels (Common Core and the whole one-size-fits-all deal, amiright?)

The most exciting development in my class has, in actuality, come about due to those Common Core texts. As part of our new evaluation system, we were asked as to identify a couple of goals for ourselves. One of mine was to increase students’ vocabulary through reading “grade-level” and “rigorous” texts. So starting with our first book of the month selection, I began pre-teaching rich and wonderful vocabulary words, pinning them up in the room, using them in my speech, and encouraging my students to do the same, as well as in their writing.

I am definitely a word nerd. People often ask me what words mean and admonish me for, “always having to use SAT words.” So it is particularly splendid to hear and watch my little darlings expanding their vocabulary with some legit words.

Some of their favorites: superb, efficient, error, the idiom “dark day,” scribble, gasp, and overwhelmed. They are using them in unexpectedly accurate and creative ways. Some examples:

  • Upon showing me completed math work and me checking it, “Is it superb?” followed inevitably by, “Can you write superb?”
  • Upon noticing a mistake made my be, a peer, or themselves, calling out, “Oh, error!”
  • Upon me having to erase something I wrote because it was sloppy, “That’s scribble! Error!”
  • Upon noticing someone is upset or struggling, or just that the general mood in the room is not as chipper as we’d like, “This is a dark day.”
  • Upon searching for ways to describe the detectives in the book we’re reading, “They’re really efficient at solving problems.”
  • And just today, during the heat of a particularly aggravating series of moments during which all the math we’ve done for six weeks seemed to vanish into thin air and I pretty much lost it, “Mr. Ray, you’re overwhelmed.”
  • One more. As we lined up to leave today, it must have been obvious how exasperated I was. So one of my wittier boys said, “Mr. Ray, you look exhausted.” “I am,” I said. His reply? “And overwhelmed. Overwhelmed with anger.” How can I not smile? One of my colleagues heard it and cracked up.

It’s truly amazing to be a part of this. We’re talking about kids reading and writing 2 and 3 years behind grade-level. But they’ve added a repertoire of words to their vocabulary that they’re learning to use appropriately. It’s been slower to get them to use the words in their writing, but when I suggest it, they’re overwhelmed with excitement. They love it. One girl came up to me during reading today to show me that she found the word “gasped.” It was for her, like, The. Greatest. Thing. Ever. She even felt the need to shake my hand to congratulate herself.

Oh, and by the way, since everything now needs to be tested – because what better way to spend our time than with tests? – I am administering pre- and post-tests before and after we read the chapters from which these words are pulled. As I get the hang of teaching the words and making them commonplace, I am finding that most students know none of the words prior to me exposing them to the class, and that when I administer the post-test, most students know all or most of the new words.

A class of word nerds may be just what I need to keep myself afloat. That’d be superb.

I’m Finished with “I’m Finished”


My intriguing mix of students this year includes a bunch of boys who feel it absolutely necessary to complete a task and then announce it to the class.

As such, throughout the first few months, nearly every task – from the mundane act of taking out a book to the serious work of completing a math test – has been punctuated by these boys with a loud, “I’m finished!*”

*Or, “I did it!” or “I’m done!”

To be frank, it’s annoying. I told them (maybe not in the most sensitive or kindhearted way) that it really wasn’t necessary to say “I’m finished!” every time they were finished. In fact, I eventually told them, “I don’t want to hear you say ‘I’m finished!’ anymore!!*” Yeah, it definitely got my goat.

**I said this while standing on a chair. I wasn’t sure how to make it any clearer.

The night of the day during which I climbed upon a chair to announce in my own way that was finished with “I’m finished!,” I contacted my para. I told her this nonsense needed to stop. It was bothering me and in turn making me angry at the kids.

Of course, I knew they were doing it because they were excited to accomplish something properly and they wanted validation. But they weren’t understanding that calling out, “I’m finished!” all day long was not the way to go about things.

With this in mind, I asked my para to talk to each of the offenders and figure out some kind of secret signal among them. When they gave her the signal, it would be like saying, “I’m finished!” only it would be quiet and not interfere with the other students*.

***Or with dear old teacher’s sanity.

The next day, unbeknownst to me (wink, wink), my para did have a conversation with the boys. She told them she thought them calling out like that was bothering me, so that maybe they should just tell her when they’re finished. But instead of saying it, they should just make a checkmark in the air. (She told me the plan privately and said the kids were pumped about it. So was I).

As the day went on, I noticed a quieter room when tasks were completed. I pretended not to notice the “air checks,” but all the same I did remark, “Wow, I don’t hear anyone saying, ‘I’m finished!’ today. That’s great.”

It went on like that all day, until finally, one boy couldn’t stand it any longer. He had to tell me that it was a secret they had with their para that they were keeping from me, but that they all agreed on a signal to use instead of saying, “I’m finished!”

I feigned amazement. “You mean you’ve been keeping a secret from me all day?” They had, they said. “Hmm,” I said. “Wellllll, it is working, and it seems like you’re still saying you’re finished even if you’re not saying the words, so I think maybe you should keep doing it.” And so they did.

Last week, my quietest girl raised her hand to tell me something. When I went over to her, she said, “I’m finished.” And wouldn’t you know it, the formerly loudest boy, the leader of the “I’m finished!” movement, said, “No! You’re not supposed to say, ‘I’m finished!'”

When kids say it now though, it’s okay because it isn’t incessant. It’s only for the major tasks – like publishing a writing piece or indicating their ready for me to collect their tests. The verbal, “I’m finished!” has stopped, and so has the silent one.

Finally, we’re finished with “I’m finished!”

 

I Shaved My Head. What Do You Think?


A couple of weeks ago, I finally did something I had toyed with for a few years. I went to the barber and had him give me a buzz cut all the way down to a 1. That’s pretty short. It’s 1/8 of an inch. It was a scary and exciting experience sitting in that chair, but once the deed was done, I knew it was the right call. Even the previously hesitant barber had to admit my new look wasn’t all that bad.

One of the worrisome parts of lopping off your hair is wondering what kinds of reactions it will bring. Well, it turned out, family, friends, and colleagues all had nothing but love for the buzz. But what about my students?

When I saw them the first day with the buzz, the boy closest to me let his jaw drop to the floor, stood up, and pointed to my crown and said, “I LIKE THAT!” You little bucket filler, you. Throughout the day, kids smiled widely as they seemed to be saying and thinking, “I can’t believe he did that…Wow!” It was kind of fun to watch the reactions of students current and former.

Just when everyone had gotten used to the new look, I decided it was finally time to go all the way. So the day after Thanksgiving, I got out the shaving cream and razor, lathered up, and shaved it all off. I looked back in the mirror at my chrome dome and said, once more, “Yes, this was the right move.”

Again, I had to anticipate reactions. It turned out most people were far less shocked by the shave than they were the buzz. But it was the students who, by far, said the most interesting things.

When I picked up my students in the auditorium yesterday, I sat behind them quietly so they could have the surprise of my shiny head.

One spotted me and did a double-take. His eyes grew wide as he looked from my eyes to my head and back. He was flummoxed. He must have been wondering, “Am I really seeing what I think I’m seeing?” Finally, when he could summon the words, he said, “What…what did you do?” Not exactly a resounding affirmation of my smoothness, but the reaction is worth remembering.

I had a lot of, “Ohhhhhh!” when former students saw me. Others had nothing to say but showed their surprise in their not-so-discreet faces.

One student today, kind of out of the blue, as if he was first noticing a change on my skull, said, “Why did your hair stop growing?” Haha.

And then of course, there was my other student who, in the middle of a reading assessment, had to stop just so he could ask, “What happened to your hair?” I said, “What do you mean, ‘what happened?’ I shaved it off!” He thought about it for just a moment, and before I knew it, his hand was giving my head a pat just to see what it was like.

But, I think the best line came from one of last year’s students – the boy with the paper clips – who spotted me in the lunchroom today. Last week, when he saw the buzz cut, he said, “IS THAT YOU, MR. RAY? WOW.” This time, though, he was a bit more shocked although no less determined to ask me about the look.  I had to laugh when he questioned me, saying, “Hey! Mr. Ray! You got…YOU GOT NO HAIR?!?”

Ah, kids.

My Eyes Are Opened


This weekend, a colleague texted me to say she just discovered a bunch of my old posts and was reading and enjoying them. She figured those were the only ones she ever missed. Then I told her there were close to 500 posts on this site and she’s probably missed many more than she realized. I chuckled at her reply: “Great, now I’m going to be up all night.”

I am always touched when a real-world colleague makes it a point to talk to me about my blog. Considering that this space was once underground and only one person in school knew I was writing it, it’s still something of a surprise when the blog is referenced at school or by a colleague. Most every time, people have something nice and supportive to say, and I appreciate it.

At my most sentimental and honest, I write about my educational values in very clear terms. Or, I write about certain anecdotes about students that have made a mark on me.

I realized yesterday why this blog speaks to so many colleagues in the real world and in the virtual world.

It’s because so many feel the same way I do about certain ideals. This blog is a way for them to connect emotionally when they otherwise might not. I’ve learned that I’m not the only one who believes in ideals such as the importance of respecting our students and believing in their abilities. But I may be the only one articulating these ideals in writing in a way that inspires people.

I’m glad my colleagues feel a connection here. In the past, I wrote many of them off as passionless, disinterested, and out just for the paycheck. As I’ve gotten to know them better, and as they’ve talked to me about this blog, I’ve learned that quite the opposite is true. They’re more passionate and interested in their work than I ever gave them credit for.

People may be thanking me for my blog, but I’m thanking them for opening my eyes.

Related: I Inspire Others, and That Inspires Me

I’m So Much More Than Just a Teacher


A colleague sent this to me. It gave me goosebumps. It left me wondering, “If only all these know-it-alls could read this and understand that it’s the TRUTH.” Enjoy.

A Note on Appreciation


I find myself writing a lot of cards lately. Father’s Day is Sunday, of course. So let’s see, there’s my dad, my grandfather, my uncle, and of course the two newest fathers, my cousins. They’re all getting a card (and I won’t tell you what they cost, even at the half-price store!) Of course, I hope the words I wrote provide them with much joy and effectively signal my appreciation and/or hopes for them.

In that spirit, we’re into the single digits now as far as days left in the school year, so that means it’s time to, in a small way, return the many favors certain people at school have blessed me with since September.

I make it a point to write thank you cards to a lot of folks at work each year. There are secretaries, aides, paras, colleagues, administrators, and support personnel who never say, “No,” to any of my requests. Often there’s little I can do to repay them – except be friendly and pleasant – so I feel a handwritten card with carefully chosen words of appreciation goes a very long way.

In a school like mine, which is GINORMOUS, it is easy for people to get lost in the shuffle. Sometimes people are left feeling unappreciated, and no one should have to feel that way.

It’s appropriate to acknowledge the efficient, dedicated work of people who don’t stand out until they’re not there, like the custodians. We have many people like that in my school who are just good at what they do. They perform essential services that we would sorely miss if they weren’t there, and they ought to be recognized.

I enjoy giving these cards. Though I’ve never seen someone’s reaction, as I usually leave them in a mailbox, it is my hope that the little note I leave them reinforces their worth and makes them realize how very much appreciated they really are.

A Difference of Opinion


You say, “You can’t do it,” and I say, “Do your best.”

You say, “You’re bothering me,” and I say, “Everything okay?”

You say, “I give up on you,” and I say, “Come on, let’s figure it out.”

You say, “You are so annoying,” and I say, “You are so special.”

You say, “I hate this job,” and I say, “Aren’t I lucky?”

Just a difference of opinion.

Disability Be Damned


I have a student for whom one of the running academic stories since I’ve known her has been her glaring difficulty with writing, spelling, and reading. She frequently reverses letters and numbers (b/d, 6/2, 9/p). There are loads of struggles with vowels both short and long. These issues have negatively impacted her writing (to the point where she often has trouble reading what she wrote, and in spite of her perfect handwriting). They’ve also made a major influence on her reading (because of her decoding, her reading level has budged only twice all year).

Today, I sat with her to guide her through the process of publishing her New York City question and answer book. I could see, for sure, that she has made major improvements in the letter reversal department. She checks her writing often and knows her own weaknesses.

Those darn vowels, though…

She had to sound out the word “holidays.” She uses a short vowel chart to compare sounds she wants to sounds she sees on the chart. So she’s sounding out the first vowel sound in the word and looks at me, confidently asking, “E?” I ask, “Does it sound like the e in ‘bell’?” “No,” she replies, asking now, “U?” “Does it sound like the u in ‘cup’?” “No,” she replies. We do this for each round of the guessing game, and unfortunately, her answer to my question is always, “No.”

Here’s the thing, though. Despite my obvious frustration and concern as we do this dance through phonics that are expected to be mastered in kindergarten (I don’t have much of a poker face), she never allows herself to become frustrated. She doesn’t let herself get down. When I point out that she wrote, “Hom” instead of, “How,” she smiles, puts her hand to her head with an, “Ohhhh,” fixes it, and we’re on our merry way. I’ve never heard this girl stress out or allow her self-esteem to dip. She never says, “I can’t”.

While I know, conventionally, this student is focusing at an academic level two years behind where she “should” be, I also know that I have given her some strategies to address her needs independently. Most importantly, I know that her positive attitude will sustain her and she will go on to be successful in the ensuing years.

When You Know Something’s Wrong


In our minds, we like to think kids will be forthcoming about all their issues, willing to confide in us the problems they’re dealing with just because we tell them we care. Some kids are comfortable doing this, but in my experience working with the elementary-aged set (as a teacher and camp employee), most are not.

I don’t advocate pulling each child aside and asking for their entire life and home stories, but when it seems that something is bothering them and they don’t want to open up, I do feel we have a duty to help them through it. Here are some ideas that I’ve found encourage kids to open up.

  • Silence is golden. This is from my journalism days. Silence makes most people uncomfortable, and their desire to have someone say something will cause them to talk. If you have the luxury of sitting quietly with a child after saying something like, “You can let me know what’s bothering you,” then chances are they’ll open up because the silence makes them.
  • Encourage note passing. Lots of times my students are too scared to say something out loud, either because of embarrassment or because they fear retribution. I always offer kids the option of writing me a note letting me know what’s up. Sometimes they won’t discuss the note with me under any circumstances, and other times, we will write to each other back and forth trying to work toward a solution. Either way, the child is unburdened of thinking they have to deal with something alone. The words on the page are less scary than the words coming out of their mouths.
  • Choose your words carefully. We want the message in a difficult situation to be, “It is safe for you to talk to me. You won’t get in trouble. I can help you if you talk to me.” Unfortunately, sometimes our impatience masks that message in a harsh tone: “Just tell me already! Can we get this over with and get back to business? Ugh, you know I’m just trying to help you!” We need to tread lightly around kids’ emotions if we want them to be able to trust us.
  • What’s minor to us is major to them. I remember one year in camp, one of my campers was upset about something at least once a week. Usually, his issues were ones most adults wouldn’t give more than a second’s thought. But for this kid, the issues felt huge and all-important. We have to acknowledge these feelings while helping kids keep them in perspective, too.

Sometimes Testing is Funny!


Quick story that, in the middle of testing season, made me chuckle…

Today my kids copied into their agenda: Math test Wednesday, Thursday, Friday.

They were all copying when one kid came over and showed me her agenda. She said, “Mr. Ray, is it okay if I just write it like this?”

I looked.

She had written: Math Test WTF.

“Sure,” I said. “That works!”