Category Archives: Teaching

Gov. Cuomo, Too Much is at Risk if We Reopen Schools


Dear Gov. Cuomo,

In your news conference today, you spent time empowering the voices of parents, and to some extent, teachers, with regard to the reopening of schools in our state. Incidentally, I am both a parent of students in Nassau County and a teacher in Queens. So is my wife. I bring a doubly anxious and concerned perspective to the idea of reopening.

While I certainly appreciate the logic behind opening schools as a way to get people back to work and the economy on the right track, I can’t possibly see past the myriad issues that are confronting my family and the communities we live and work in if in-person instruction is to resume.

You deserve credit for the way your leadership helped New Yorkers suppress the horrible crisis we faced this spring. Your messaging has been constant and consistent to the point it is ingrained in the minds of many New Yorkers. Thankfully, we are doing well. However, I do believe that if we reopen schools, we do so at the peril of ratcheting up the crisis once more, and there are many reasons why. You yourself have warned that New York will potentially suffer the effects of the many places around the country that are seeing a surge in cases.

I can’t wrap my head around the idea that, in New York City, as dense and populous as it is, indoor restaurants and bars can’t open, but schools can. A theoretical argument might posit that social distancing will be required, masks will be worn, plexiglass will be installed, filtration will be improved, etc. As it turns out, I am on the reopening committee for my school, and based on the information coming from the New York City Department of Education – or lack thereof – the prospect of reopening doesn’t only sound implausible, it sounds terrifying. The state and city budgets are decimated, and who knows when the gridlock in Washington might be broken to deliver us the funds we need?

My wife teaches kindergarten. I teach third grade self-contained special education. In neither of our classrooms is it reasonable to expect constant compliance from these young children. It isn’t natural, nor is it productive for their education.

You are a father, just like me. We have raised our children. As I reflect back on their younger years, I ask myself: When my children were in kindergarten, could they have reasonably been expected to wear a mask for 6 hours and 50 minutes? Could they have reasonably been expected to keep a safe distance from their friends at all times? Could they reasonably have been expected to make it through a day without a hug from their teacher? While crying? While having a nose bleed? While being scared of something? The list goes on and on. It just can’t be done.

As a parent, I can guarantee that task would have been impossible for my children, and even if it wasn’t, there would definitely have been children in their classes and schools for whom it was. My point is: it all sounds nice on paper, but in practice? I have no faith in it working. Many of my colleagues and friends share the same concerns and fears.

As a teacher, how can I perform my job at my best if I don’t feel I am safe, or that my students are safe, or that my family is safe? Covid-19 doesn’t discriminate. And if I’m back in a school building, with my wife also in a building, with our children in their separate schools, we are just running up our chances to get sick or worse. The domino effect that will be caused by any one person involved with a school (indirectly as a parent or directly as a student or teacher) will be catastrophic to the point that conceivably, schools will need to close, reopen, and close again the next day because of new cases. What is the point? 

What is more important than safety? Without your health, you have nothing. I have never dreaded the start of the school year more.

I allow that remote learning was not a great success when we transitioned to it overnight in March. That’s not the fault of the teachers, parents, or students who learned on the fly how to do things in a completely different way. The fact is, we were all caught unprepared because our leadership at every level was unprepared.

Now, months later, principals and teachers are being asked – no, forced – to contrive measures with minimal logical guidance in order to keep their school communities safe, or should I say, as safe as possible. I venture to guess that very few of these people have healthcare backgrounds, and so the mission is doomed to fail from the start. It’s not for lack of caring or effort. It’s just too awesome a task to tackle. 

Why not devote this time and whatever money will be spent toward safety measures to something that can demonstrably improve our current situation: professional development for remote pedagogy? How about training for parents? 

The piecemeal, patchwork way we got through the spring is not sustainable, and the likely reality is that once we are back in person, we’re going to wind up being remote anyway. In Corona, Queens, where my wife and I work, this is all but guaranteed. Neighboring Elmhurst was the epicenter of the entire country. Is there any reason to think it won’t be hit terribly again?

Our role is to educate, to inspire, and to meet our students’ various needs. I’m telling you now, I can’t do that without feeling confident in my safety or that of my family. Reopening schools in-person is a recipe for disaster and heartbreak. I recently told my 14-year old daughter, who was challenging our strictness about her social life, that my greatest worry is that she, or one of us, will be involved in a new outbreak without being aware. In other words, we go about our lives and suddenly, we’re part of a new health crisis. Is that necessary?

Governor, you have showed the entire country a model for stemming the awful tide of this pandemic for our wonderful state. You’re owed a great debt of gratitude. However, you know we’re not out of the woods yet. So let me ask you, then: rather than ease off the accelerator, why not continue to go full throttle toward stemming the tide? If we keep our foot on the throat of this crisis, don’t we keep all New Yorkers – including parents, teachers, and students – safer? You are fond of the mountain metaphor, and now, thankfully, we are on the other side of the first mountain. But it’s only the first. Another seemingly inevitable mountain looms ahead. 

There is much work to still be done to protect New Yorkers’ lives. An obvious way to do that is to allow districts to go fully remote to start the year. Do as you have always done as we proceed: evaluate, reevaluate, and adjust the sails. The potential human toll is too great to do anything else.

I’m a dad. I’m a teacher. I hold both roles deeply in my heart. I chose both as paths for me many years ago. I have never looked back. I have loved my children and my students. 

My grandmother lived to be 91 and would always say, “If you’re healthy, you’re happy.” Governor, I am very worried that there’s a lot of unhappiness on the horizon. Please do your part to limit that as much as possible.

Gov. Cuomo, Don’t Gamble with Lives to Open Schools


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Dear Gov. Cuomo,

I write to you today as a career educator entering my 13th year as an elementary school teacher in Corona, Queens. You’ll recall Corona as the literal epicenter of New York’s Covid-19 outbreak. I work there. My students and their families live there. Many of them contracted Covid, and in our school, many students are now mourning the deaths of their grandparents and parents.

I also write to you as a father. I’ve got three children who mean the world to me. One starts high school this year, another sets off for middle school, and the other, who is 2, happily oblivious to any of the world’s sadness (or even my and his mommy’s worries) and who has attended daycare since 6-months old. He randomly announced yesterday, “I miss school.”

During this pandemic, you have shown bold and courageous leadership for our state, garnering you acclaim and national recognition as you deftly worked around and against the absence of leadership from the White House. While the President railed against masks as a sign of weakness, you urged New Yorkers to wear them as a sign of respect. While the President frighteningly and stupefyingly painted a rosy picture of a once-in-a-generation health crisis, you spoke honestly, truthfully, and bluntly about the public responsibility to help flatten the curve. Although most people probably would never choose to live life under lockdown, cherished community institutions shuttered and family norms shattered, the fact is it worked.

You also acknowledge that New York will see a rise in cases as cases rise around the country. It is generally accepted that come fall, the pandemic will reach its second wave, which, they say, will be worse than the first.

Governor, your priority for our state through this pandemic has been public health. I understand that the economy needs to creak back to life, truly I do. But if that has to come at the potential expense of student and teacher lives, is it worth it?

Trump has flouted every recommendation from people who know more than any of us. His level of hubris and self-assuredness in the face of unrelenting fact, numbers, and basically, destruction, have led this country down a dark road into a cavernous abyss where we laypeople are sacrificed for the cause of his bungling bid to be reelected. His calls for reopening states to drive the economic engine have been more than irresponsible. They’ve been reckless, selfish, and without question, deadly.

At every opportunity you have distinguished yourself as the AntiTrump, showing greater understanding of the long game of the pandemic. I am calling on you to continue to do so. When Trump and DeVos call for opening schools, I urge you to stand up for our students and teachers and not lead them over a cliff the way Trump has already done to so many Americans who have become victims of his lack of caring or understanding.

How can schools open without proper funding, enough space, a vaccine? Is it your position that to move the economy along, children must die? Teachers must figure out ways to deal with immensely challenging scenarios and educate children while anxiously worrying about their own health and that of their families? Can you imagine a school functioning to it’s fullest educational capacity when everyone is trying to understand how to keep pre-k students from being near each other, or keep mischief makers from messing around with their masks, or walk down the halls with 6 feet around every student in each direction? This is not only senseless, it’s impossible.

Whatever money there is this year that’s meant to go toward sanitization, cleanliness, barriers, PPE, and whatever else is needed to bring students back to school, why not take that money instead and invest it into professional development to help teachers improve their remote pedagogy? Why not use it to bring awareness and understanding to parents who will be home with their children while they learn remotely? Why not use it to fund childcare services for parents who can’t stay home for remote learning?

We need to be thinking outside the box. It’s not enough to say, “Kids need to be back in school.” They do, of course. But if it means they’re going to die, or their teachers will, well, I don’t see how that’s worth it.

The threshold you’ve prescribed – that a region must be under 5% infected over 14 days – assumes you are okay with approximately 100 students and staff in my building being sick at one time, and potentially having their lives at risk. And on top of that, it’s okay by you that, as we extrapolate the numbers, the likelihood of sustained infection and outbreak in the building just goes higher and higher. We don’t yet know how kids spread the disease because we haven’t seen enough kids together during this pandemic. Why assume the best when that almost certainly means more illnesses and deaths?

You are keen to point out repeatedly, and justifiably so, that being “New York State tough” allowed NY to be a model for the country, a beacon of what you should do to handle this crisis. With your own admission that cases will rise due to surges around the country, as well as a recent Siena/NY Times poll indicating 82% of New Yorkers expect things to be worse in the fall, I just don’t understand your gamble.

Trump gambles with lives. Why are you?

Next Stop: Administration


The teach goes on.

It’s now my seventh year in the classroom and fifth in special ed. It’s been a while since I’ve been anything like the presence online I once was, but I’m still here. Hi, everyone. I hope you’ve been well.

This school years features a unique, challenging, and exciting wrinkle. In June, I began classes in School Building Leadership. I’m in my fourth class now and I’m accruing my internship hours. Next stop: administration. By April, if I pass the required two part exam in February, I will acquire my SBL certificate from the state.

I’m heading to the dark side.

Or, I’m heading to a place where I can make a more widespread positive impact.

I’ll go with option two.

Leadership-Quotes-44

Perhaps the most valuable takeaway of the experience so far is that I’m able to begin crafting my own personal vision of what kind of administrator I should be. My thoughts and hopes are very much theoretical at this point, but no matter what happens, I must be true to my personal and professional values.

This is the kind of administrator I hope to be some day:

  • The kind that is a consistent, positive presence in the classroom and hallways. Students should know me as a concerned, caring educator. I should know them by their names. I should know about the wonderful happenings in their classrooms.
  • The kind that approaches problems from a positive perspective, empathizing with the plight of the teacher and guiding teachers toward their best for our students.
  • The kind that acknowledges he is not an expert in all topics, and that others who are must be called upon for guidance and aid.
  • The kind that participates in the formulation of a shared vision that all stakeholders support and practice, and that makes the vision the standard by which we operate.
  • The kind that promotes observations, class visits, and dialogue as a collegial means of driving the school forward. I firmly believe that teamwork makes the dream work. I must provide opportunities for teacher professional growth by articulating and demonstrating the mutual benefits of observations and dialogue. Collegiality must exist in the culture of the school so that the shared vision can be achieved.
  • The kind that values character, effort, drive, growth, and dedication over grades, numbers, natural intelligence, and scores.
  • The kind that looks for solutions to problems instead of allowing the problems to fester or grow underneath the carpet.
  • The kind that leads from behind, allowing people to shine while I proudly watch.
  • The kind that maintains a level head and does not rush to judgment.
  • The kind that expects the best of all staff and makes staffing decisions based on what is best for the students.
  • The kind that can keep perspective: above everything else, we are all human.
  • The kind that people will run through a wall for.
  • The kind that never forgets what it was like being in a classroom.
  • The kind that honors the opinions and needs of stakeholders – parents, students, teachers, other staff, community members – and also looks at things from a bird’s eye view.
  • The kind that does not lose grasp of the anchor of values that guide me professionally and personally.

I hope I’ll be back more often than I have been to write more about this captivating new professional journey. I hope you’ll be with me along the way.

My Vision of an Ideal School


I recently completed an assignment in which I detailed my vision of an ideal school. If you ever had the opportunity to visit, this is what it would be like.

Click to enlarge and see what my ideal school is all about!

You will find our idyllic school situated among lush, green hills. Behind the gates of our campus, you will enter a unique space established with children, learning, and social and environmental consciousness at the core of everything we do.

At the gate, you will provide your information to the security guard and have your picture taken. After you park your car in the lot (located adjacent to the solar panels that power our school), you will follow a path that leads you to and through our garden. I hope you have time to meander because there are so many delightful sights to behold. On the path, your eyes will be drawn to the stepping stones vividly painted by our students under the tutelage of a local artist. Take time to enjoy them, but also revel in the natural beauty of our award-winning garden. Give our students the credit: when our school first opened, students in our gardening club designed the garden, selected plants and flowers and planted them themselves. They also learned about the engineering and landscaping required to build a garden. Today, students, staff, and parent volunteers continuously maintain the garden. If you time your arrival right, you will see our food services staff collecting ingredients from the garden in order to prepare lunch. Or, you might see students adding scraps to the compost pile. The garden is watered with waste water from our building.

Proceeding through the main entrance of our modern school, you will be inspired by the beauty of our lobby. Not only does it serve as a bright shining beacon in a physical sense, but it showcases to all visitors how amazing our students are. The endless natural light that floods the space through our floor to ceiling windows will awe you. You will be drawn to the mural that spans the entire length of the wall opposite the windows, a product of a partnership between various local artists, our art teachers, and our students. It depicts scenes that highlight our core STARFISH values (see A Focus on What is Learned). You will be fascinated by the student artwork that greets you: sculptures, paintings, and photographs are all there for everyone’s enjoyment and enrichment.

Passing through the halls of this vibrant, engaged community of elementary-aged learners and leaders, it will be obvious to you that there is a fervent love of student-driven learning cultivated in our school.

Our Classrooms

To understand how our students thrive, you must first understand the physical arrangement of our classrooms. What may look like a mishmash is actually designed with students’ personal preferences – and right to choose how they want to learn – in mind. There are single student desks, tables to accommodate multiple students, couches, beanbag chairs, floor space, office chairs, and exercise balls. Rather than seeing traditional completed student work on the walls, you will see work in progress on the walls. Whiteboards cover our wall space and students use them during discussions to collaborate and record ideas. Their to do lists, sketches, and thoughts are as inspirational and stimulating a classroom display as you will ever see.

Our first floor houses all classrooms, the main office, and the cafeteria. Our second floor features our science lab, art studio, auditorium, and gymnasium.

Our Students

Students in every classroom collaborate extensively on micro and macro levels. Within their own classes, they work together on math problems, literary and art analysis, composing music, group presentations, and more. Students work in ways they find comfortable: at desks, standing, lying on the floor, sitting on a couch, using paper and pencil, or on iPads, laptops, and cell phones. As long as students are working productively and not interfering with their peers’ educations, we encourage their comfort in place of outdated ideas of how students “should” work. Our classes are inclusionary. Students with disabilities are students first and foremost. We believe every child has the right to work, play, and be with other children, and here, they are.

Classes on each grade collaborate on multidisciplinary projects such as designing gardens and playgrounds; addressing social issues in the school and communities (local/regional/national/global); highlighted by monthly charity drives; and advancing school-wide awareness of environmental issues. As students prepare to thrive in a global community that is increasingly more closely knit, students in the same grade use safely established, staff-monitored school social media accounts (Twitter, Facebook, blogs, etc.) to communicate and collaborate. Our one-to-one iPad-to-student ratio makes this possible, and the collaborative process extends outside of the school’s walls because students interact outside of school hours. In school, students sit on committees and report the ideas and concerns of their class to the representatives of other classes. These meetings form the basis of how students proceed in their collaborations.

Students take a great deal of responsibility for assessment of themselves and their peers. Our teachers expertly guide students to identify positives in procedure, thought process, and outcomes and to also critically consider weaknesses and how they can be improved. Student-generated rubrics and checklists, always designed collectively by each class and based on state standards, guide these processes.

A Focus on What is Learned, not What is Taught

Rather than through tests, we seek evidence of learning in the actual work students do on an ongoing basis: their projects, presentations, journal entries, conversations, etc. Teachers and students adapt accordingly based on that most critical feedback. However, at the end of every unit in math, reading, writing, science, social studies, and foreign language, students do take “traditional” tests. Importantly, though, their grades are not used in a strictly summative sense. Rather than use these tests as a conclusion to a unit and an opportunity to say a student either “got it” or did not, we use them to guide our next steps. So, students who demonstrate difficulty with concepts are invited to attend early morning programs that focus on their misunderstandings or troublesome concepts. All of our teachers work with groups of four to six students. For morning groups, students are assigned to a teacher based on the teacher’s personal specialty. Groups are flexible from unit to unit. Our goal is not to have students do well on tests. It is, instead, for them to master content. The timeframe in which this is accomplished is of secondary importance.

At this school, our closely vetted, highly qualified teachers act more as guides toward learning than just imparters of knowledge. Teachers are expected to help students learn, and so you will never hear the excuse, “I taught it, but they didn’t learn it.” Teachers respond to the needs of their students as they arise and adapt their approach to the curriculum appropriately. This structure reflects our greater overall commitment to safeguarding the emotions and esteem of our students because we aim to make sure every student has the fullest opportunities to do their best. We value cultivating strong relationships that lead to confidence and risk taking.

To that end, we promote an idea called, “Awards for All.” We don’t reward high grades because inevitably only some students will ever win! We like to catch students doing STARFISH things. Our recognition focuses on character rather than achievement, and we celebrate students for being supportive, trying when something seems too difficult, exhibiting a positive, can do attitude, showing respect toward all, providing friendship, displaying integrity, sharing, and being helpful. These are attributes to which all students can aspire, and they give us common language to talk about our students’ development as people.

We’re in this for the Kids

If it seems like there is a lot of talking as you walk through our school, there is. Constituents engage often in productive dialogue about learning and growing. Our students are excited about learning and so are our teachers. Grade level teams have common preparation periods multiple times weekly, allowing time for teachers to mine their collegial resources. A weekly book club meeting over lunch allows teachers to discuss a common text, be it school-wide (in which meetings are conducted simultaneously in smaller groups, with greater collaboration occurring through traditional methods like jigsaws, as well as web-based methods like wikis and blogs) or grade-wide (typically a complex student text read and discussed by grade-level colleagues as a way to consider methods of teaching it to their students). Meetings are structured in a way to promote productivity and limit non-task specific talk. Procedural protocols are established and used at every meeting.

It is the administration’s job to support the fine work of the teachers and the students. Just like students and teachers, the administrators engage in frequent dialogue about best practices and ways to continue improving and promoting the school’s culture. Like students and teachers, administrators are also expected to engage in multiple two-way conversations around meaningful feedback that makes others better. Administrators make every effort to spend as much time as possible everyday in classrooms. Interactions between administrators and teachers are often direct and honest. They are professional and nonthreatening. Everyone knows why they work here as a member of this team: to make our students better. With this always in our minds, conversations are productive. We waste as little time as possible.

When problems arise, stakeholders are asked to come to the table with potential solutions. Various options are considered before any decisions are made. Ultimatums do not exist here because everyone works with the same vision and goals of making sure every one of our children, regardless of perceived inability or difficulties, gets access to the best possible education they can while they are with us.

Students also have responsibilities toward each other. As an example, our experienced fifth graders love being paired with a kindergarten buddy for the year. Think of it as a big brother/big sister mentality. The “bigs” help the kindergarteners in many ways. They help them find important places like the medical office and bathrooms. They help them learn school procedures. Once a week, buddies eat together in the lunchroom, drawing together, playing games, or just talking. Bigs visit the kindergarten classrooms to read and be read to. They help with math. It is a rewarding experience for all children involved.

Our Families

Family members play a significant role in our school community. They are visible throughout the building and perform a variety of roles supporting our students and school. Often, you will find parents and grandparents in classrooms, assisting in everything from paperwork and filing to facilitating conversation between students to working one-on-one in academic content. We encourage parents to bring their unique talents and hobbies to school so that we all can benefit. They collaborate with teachers in afterschool clubs that match their interests. Students who participate in afterschool have a menu of clubs from which they can choose, including: math, science, language, creative writing, drama, environmental, children’s rights, bookmaking, chess, computers, music, gardening, and photography. Family involvement in the building increases family engagement in our children’s educations, which helps promote and foster their accomplishments. We are all very much invested in our school as a conduit for the improvement of everyone in it.

Our families also play a large role in making sure our Fun Fridays happen as smoothly as they do. They assist with organizing and distributing a calendar in September that details the theme of every week’s celebration. They also coordinate reminder efforts to make sure everyone is included in the fun. On Fridays, everyone in the school community dresses based on the theme. Weekly, we have the opportunity to dress based on something students are learning about: fairy tale characters, Revolutionary era loyalists and patriots, presidents, ancient Egyptians, community helpers, scientists, and more. Once a month, we all dress in the color of the charity we are supporting. Everyone looks forward to Fridays because our bonds of community are strengthened.

When you visit our school, we think you will see for yourself what makes it so special. The investment and inquisitiveness of our students, the dedication and professionalism of our staff, the care and involvement of our parents, and the whole culture that permeates our entire organization, combine to make a truly unique school. We hope you will visit us soon and take the opportunity to explore, learn, create, and celebrate with us.

What to Expect When You Have Expectations


One thing I don’t ever want to hear my students say is, “I can’t.” That’s the kind of toxic language that too many students have internalized too many times. Too many hopeful, eager students have been turned sour by disbelieving, uninspiring adults. Too many promising minds have been lost to too many negative mouths.

A little boy in my class came to me from a less restrictive environment a few months ago. The poor kid was floundering, lost in a tide of confusion and self-doubt. He looked – and was – miserable. Distant. Blank.

At first, he started coming to me just for reading. He got a special seat right next to me and, little by little, started coming out of his shell. Though he’d sometimes cry, “I want to go back to my real class,” I remained firm with him about all the reasons he should – no, must –  embrace his new class. One of my most gregarious students took him under his wing, and I made sure to do the same. On more than one occasion, I made it crystal clear to him that in my class, he was expected to conduct himself – socially and academically – in certain ways. That meant trying things that were hard, learning ways to manage them, and eventually, succeeding at them. He needed sensitivity and caring, but he needed to be pushed, too.

It may have been tough love, but he got the message (and learned to take pride in a new way of being). Before long, the boy was leaping out of his chair every time I came to his room to bring him to mine. His dazzling smile spoke words he was unable to: “I’m learning. I’m improving. I’m gaining confidence. I’m capable. I’m smart.”

Soon enough, his family agreed to move him into my classroom full-time. His network of new friends expanded, as did his academic knowledge and his understanding of his own potential. During the first full week in my class, he produced math writing that impressed his classmates, me, and the administration. He proudly took his polished, if not perfect, work to the common bulletin board all classes share on my floor, and hung his paper there himself, an enduring trophy on display to remind him of his ability. Each day when we passed the bulletin board after lunch, his new friends and him would beam just knowing it was there.

Those who believed in him from the start were thrilled with his new zest for school, love of learning, and newfound confidence. “You see? I told you he could do it!” came from one colleague. When I told the principal about the way he races into class announcing to me he’s here and ready to learn, she said, “That gives me goosebumps.” Those of us who believed in him relished in his newfound, humble pride. Those who never took the time to try found no joy in seeing they were wrong all along.

But the proof is there.

On previous math tests, he averaged in the 40s. On his first test in my class, he scored an 80. Today, finishing up the second test, he scored an 88.

This boy, who barely could get a word down on paper at the beginning of the year, now uses outlines to write topic sentences, supporting details, and a conclusion.

This boy, who spent more time looking at his fingers than worrying about books, now listens to complex texts and discusses them with partners.

Don’t tell him what he can’t do. Don’t make him think he’s less than awesome. He deserves better.

This isn’t only about me. Plenty of teachers have high expectations and powerful beliefs in their students’ abilities. But too many don’t give their students a chance. That pisses me off. We are meant to teach the students in front of us: not just the easy ones, not just the ones who retain and understand everything.

Saying a child can’t do something, or promoting that belief with actions toward the child, is poisonous. Poison injures, sickens, and defeats. If you think the kids don’t know they’re being poisoned, just consider the difference my student has enjoyed. Coming from a culture where the bar is set low and students are encouraged to crawl under it, going to a culture where the bar is set high and students are implored to jump over it, he sees it’s not about what you can’t do, it’s about what you will do. And you will do it.

I firmly believe that our students will only rise to the challenges we present to them. If we set a standard of busy work being acceptable, confusion being typical, and belittling being preferable, we will surely lose our kids. Do they deserve that? It makes me angry to think there are people who don’t realize they don’t.

Counter those expectations with challenging work, clarity, and emotional support, and just like the little boy’s smile, all students will have a chance to shine as they were meant to.

What it Takes


What does it take to be a teacher? Many know. Many think they know. I’m not above admitting that, seven years in, I’m still figuring it out. Here’s what I’ve learned this year:

Consistency is key. My students, like many others, need a lot of repetition to internalize ideas and concepts. That means they need the work in a given unit modeled for them in a certain way. Then they need to practice with guidance in that same way. Then they need to practice independently in that same way (and be held accountable when they don’t).

Here’s some real world application. We are coming to the end of a unit on 2-digit addition, which at times requires regrouping. There are several strategies to demonstrate two-digit addition, all of which require several steps. One of my big takeaways this year is just how difficult it is for my students to remember steps to math problems. That means lots and lots and LOTS of practice.

The language given to the students has to be consistent. The procedures and thought processes have to be, too (steps written on a chart help). When drawing pictures to represent numbers, I’m learning the placement of each ten and one has to be consistent, too, down to the number of ones I will allow in each column. When we all speak, write, and draw in a common language, everyone has a better chance to succeed.

Just throwing material at the class and hoping it sticks is a fool’s errand. Sadly, there are people who haven’t yet learned this.

Students want to be challenged, and even more so than they realize. Not until last year did my principal observe that my lessons were up to the “rigorous” standards we are expected to uphold. She also told me I need to push the students more and expect they could do more. I always felt I had high expectations, but this year I have really ratcheted them up.

They’re only in second grade, but a colleague and I began teaching our classes how to use outline templates to prepare to write an opinion piece. The outline is such that they have to look at abbreviations and remember what to do in each section. They have to remember that solid lines are meant for full sentences and dotted lines are for key words. Then, they have to transfer their work to paragraph form.

You’d be amazed at how they’re doing.

With all the consistency mentioned above – repetition, common language, practice – tomorrow the class will write their own outline about something they want, as independently as they have in the last two weeks. It’s exciting to see them using a tool that I probably didn’t know about until fifth grade. They love the structure and predictability of it, and they understand that their work is improving.

I know more than I knew, but there’s still more to know. Maybe once I was a brash, cocky, 24-year old know-it-all who rode into my school thinking my graduate studies and natural genius had me prepared to teach at a level yet to be seen. Nearly 7 years later, having been humbled many times by administrators and colleagues, but most importantly, by my students, I know that it’s on me to work my fanny off to make sure they’re receiving the full benefit of their education (and that I’m meeting the demands of my job).

While I’m happy to offer suggestions to others and share “what works,” I also am happy to take a colleague’s great idea and make it my own. I’m not beneath running across the hall or next door and saying, “I need help with this.” I’ve learned that teaching is an infinitely humbling experience, and there’s no room for cockiness. No matter how well things might be going at any given time, there often seems to be something that will come along and make me rethink, reassess, reevaluate and ultimately, regroup. It keeps me fresh, energized, and motivated.

Kids need to be challenged and stimulated, but they need to be able to do it without being chained to their seats and desks. I’ve always believed it is perfectly okay for students, without asking, to get up to access materials in the room, get a better view of the board or demonstration, stand while working, lay on the floor while working, whatever. Too often, kids think the classroom is the teacher’s, not theirs. I think it’s important to make it clear to them they don’t have to feel restricted to their designated spot.

To go with this, it’s okay with me that kids need breaks. I mean, hey, they’re seven. (Perhaps when my parents read this they can let me know if they think I could have sat the way kids are expected to now when I was that age.) Sometimes, my students put down their pencils and I say, “What’s up?” “I need to rest a little.” “Okay, no problem. Is a minute good? I’ll let you know when a minute’s up.” A minute later, if I say the minute’s passed and the child says they’re still not ready, I have no problem saying, “That’s fine, take another 30 seconds.” By then they’re ready to go again.

I do have a lovely little tool I like to bring out at least once every morning and afternoon, and I’m going to insist you go sign up (for free) so your class can benefit, too. There’s a brain break site called GoNoodle, and we love it. The kids get a movement/singing/dancing break through Zumba and other interactive videos. It’s always a highlight of their day. A few great things about GoNoodle: 1) the kids love it, 2) it’s very fun to watch them enjoying it, and 3) they get themselves right back to business after a break.

That’s about the sum of what I’ve got for tonight. It’s been a good year so far, with lots of learning experiences (only a few of which are listed here). It’s the learning that helps me continually strive to improve.

Out with the Old Word Wall, in with the New


Now that it’s been EXACTLY five months since my last post on this blog, here I am with some fresh thoughts for the new school year. But first, how was your summer? And, since I haven’t been here since March, how was your spring? Has it been that long. Yep, it sure has. Last year’s class really took a lot out of me and I struggled to find much to write about. Or, I struggled to find the energy and enthusiasm at the end of the day. Or both. For whatever reason, this blog – and all of you, dear readers – fell to the wayside. I’m sorry and I’m going to try to do better.

So, it’s a new year, and that means it’s time for a new outlook. The good news (or perhaps the best news) is that for the first time in a long time, I only have one grade in my class. Please stay that way. The other best news is that, also for the first time in a long time, I don’t have a testing grade. Though I do love third grade (the math is so fun and the kids are really developing as humans), I’m excited to be back in second. Really, it’s my first year as a full on second grade teacher, but I’ve had bridge classes with second graders three times. It’s a transition and a challenge, but it could be a lot harder. It’s also in my favor that service providers and previous teachers have given me such positive feedback about my incoming class. The reviews are in, and they’re fans.

My plan is to expand on all this and more throughout the school year (as I used to so steadfastly in my younger years), but for now, I’m going to focus on what has emerged out of the blue as one of my big initiatives for the year.

I won’t lie: for a variety of reasons, I strongly dislike having a sight word wall in my room. My room is teensy tiny, and devoting a wall to 26 letters and a growing list of words under each just overwhelms my space and sensibility. The thing becomes hard to look at after a while. A mishmash of sentence strips doesn’t do much for anyone. Biggest, perhaps, is that the kids mostly don’t know how to use the word wall. It’s basically there because it has to be. I’m not a fan of that kind of thing.

In our classrooms early this morning to work on setup and organization (school starts next week), a colleague and I shared a conversation over the dilemmas of the sight word wall. Although my to-do list had on it, “Put up word wall letters,” based on our conversation and brainstorm, that WON’T be happening. As a result of our discussion, the sight word wall space has been repurposed, converted into two separate but related boards, and the sight word wall itself is being moved to a more appropriate, convenient place (or places, if you prefer). It’s a lot to take in so let me walk you through it.

First off, the sight word wall, despite the garish display it tends to be, actually can serve a value when properly utilized by teacher and students. To be sure, my students absolutely need to have the words as a reference. So, the sight word wall will remain, but it will be in a different form. Rather than be up on the wall lording over all the little readers and writers, each cluster of desks is going to have a word wall displayed atop it. This way, everyone has words right in front of them. It will have to be updated weekly, which can become a management issue, but as it’s a new concept, that’s something that needs to be fleshed out. In addition to the communal ones on the tables, each student will have his or her own word wall. It will contain the words of the week as well as any words taught in guided reading, or that the student wants to include. (Differentiation and student choice alert!)

Next, the space formerly occupied by the sight word wall will continue life as not one word wall, but TWO. Wow. Since the texts we read are so crazily complex, we think it’s best to move ahead with word walls full of delightful vocabulary that come from the texts. And instead of being there just to be there, they’ll be there as major foci for our students.

Why two, you wonder? Well, on one side there will be words for everyday use (little nuggets of gold like, “ideal,” “usual,” and, “plenty.”) The hope – and, to be fair, the expectation – is that students take these excellent and valuable words and transfer them to all facets of their literacy. Hey, that reminds me of the superb job my students did last year with just that sort of thing. On the other side will be words for content. These are words students need to understand in order to understand topics about which we’re reading, but that may not transfer too well into the rest of the world. As an example, last year, we read a book that used the word “culvert.” It didn’t make sense to expect students to use this word outside of book-related topics, but it was definitely important to their comprehension of the story.

The word wall will look something like this, and it’s possible, if not likely, that each wall will be sectioned for nouns, verbs, adverbs, and adjectives. I’ve got a bug/garden theme going this year so I’m saying, “Our Vocabulary Grows.”

IMG_7726

Click to enlarge.

There’s no secret here. I am a word nerd and I love when kids get excited about new vocabulary. I can really envision this new setup taking off and benefitting the students more than any old sight word wall will.

For more inspiration:

10 Great Word Wall Strategies for Classrooms

Let the Games Begin! and Let the Games Continue!

The Most Miserable Time of the Year


It’s a sad scene when kids who can’t read are forced to take standardized tests they have no reasonable chance of passing.

It’s even sadder when they know it.

Here’s one who has made considerable reading improvements thus far this year but still has no clue what he’s doing. (“I’m so confused,” he said.)

Here’s one on a kindergarten reading level who this year finally learned all her letter sounds. She goes through each word sounding out every s-i-n-g-l-e letter and considers it reading. When she gets to the questions, she says in her developing English, “I no know.”

This one’s crying. That one’s been staring at the same question for ten minutes. This one’s coloring in the picture that accompanies the passage. That one’s finished almost as quickly as I am done reading the directions.

“Pointless” is not even a word that begins to come close to describing the value these tests have to me and my students. News flash: they’re all going to fail. News flash again: force me to sit for three days taking a five hour test on physics and I’ll fail, too. I can tell you this without even looking at the test.

If you need an assessment of my students’ readiness for the next grade, you might consider asking me. After all, I can tell you all the things a test can’t, such as the types of scaffolds that have enabled them to make some strides this year. Or how much greater the comprehension is when text is read to them. Or what else they need to learn to continue to move forward. Or how they’re “accessing” the grade level standards but, given all their deficits, it’s virtually impossible without a lot of support and guidance. Or who has involved parents and who pretty much fends for themselves once they get home. Or who may be being hit, or who doesn’t eat breakfast, or who brings chips and calls them “lunch.”

I could tell you plenty about these kids, and plenty about the tests.

The sorry thing, though, is that no one’s asking.

It Snows, and We Go


Yeahhhhh...no it isn't.

Yeahhhhh…no it isn’t.

This will be a brief little rant before, for the third time in 2014, I venture out into what the mayor of New York calls “hazardous” or “treacherous” travel conditions because my job requires it. See, I’m a teacher, and while all indications are generally that New Yorkers should stay indoors and only head out in emergencies, schools are still open because, as the new adage goes, “Kids have to eat.”

They do, of course. And if I’m a new mayor – Bill de Blasio – or schools chancellor – Carmen Fariña – doesn’t it sound great for me to show how much I care about the students’ wellbeing? Sure it does.

I’m not callous or ignorant enough to argue against this. There truly are kids who rely on school for their most complete meals of the day. But, there are other facts that can’t be ignored:

  • The logic behind warning about hazardous and treacherous travel conditions for “all” New Yorkers extends to our littlest ones, too. They’re walking on sidewalks still covered in ice (since no one seems too worried about enforcing the law about property owners shoveling their sidewalks in an appropriate amount of time). They’re riding buses on slick roads when officials are cautioning people to stay off the streets.
  • Many parents think it’s ridiculous to send their kids out into weather-related danger, so they opt to keep them home. Our snowstorms this year have resulted in roughly 65% student attendance across the city. Most teachers with half a brain know that if more than a third of the class is out, you put a hold on any new lessons.
  • Thousands of teachers are being put in harm’s way, too. I have colleagues who travel 20 miles to get to work. Even for me – I’m only five or six miles from my school – it’s an adventure. The main street by my apartment has not been a priority for plowing in any of the storms this year. It’s a mostly downhill trip from my building to the highway, so for about a mile, I’m crawling along (if I’m not skidding along). Furthermore, teachers who drive and work in dense areas, like I do, are contending with deplorable parking conditions on the streets as it is. There are mounds of snow that turned to mounds of ice and on a day like today, with all the new precipitation, getting out of those spots will be even worse.
  • Full-day storms like that one we’re expecting today, actually don’t just impact the morning commute for students and teachers. They affect the afternoon commute, too – you know, when everything’s even worse. No one ever seems to remember that. (This might explain why after-school programs haven’t been canceled, either).

Anyway, it’s getting late. Normally I wouldn’t be up for another 10 minutes. But, I was up at 4:10 today, expecting to hear that cooler heads prevailed in the Ivory Tower – I mean mayor’s office. I don’t know why I ever thought that.

Safe travels, everyone. Especially the kids.

A Tale of Two Classes


If yesterday was the least stressful day of the school year thus far, today was one of the most.

A blizzard Tuesday threw roads and transportation in New York into chaos. NYC schools remained open the next day. However, for whatever reasons they had, many students and staff were not at school. I was, and in my class, 7 out of 12 were present. Later, 6 first graders were brought to me because their class had to be split up in the absence of so many teachers. So, my room was filled with me and 13 kids with disabilities.

I decided that, since these little first graders didn’t know me, or anything about the room or the floor they were on, that I should buddy each one of my third graders with one of them. I created a kind of big brother/big sister dynamic so the first graders would walk in line, raise their hands, and do some work on this unique day. The results were fantastic. My third graders took to their buddies and made them their responsibilities.

I had some math work for the little ones to do – basic single digit addition for practice (on a color by numbers picture for fun). I instructed my third graders to sit with their buddy and help them if necessary. Here’s what I saw:

  • Third graders teaching different techniques for adding.
  • Third graders instinctively getting supplies for the first graders.
  • Third graders teaching first graders basic multiplication facts.
  • Everyone working efficiently.

How nice that my students finally had an opportunity to say, “I am better at something than someone. I can really help.” It gave them pride – a feeling they seldom get to feel because the work they’re required to do is often ridiculously beyond their abilities.

While yesterday was a smooth day – with relative quiet, lots of smiles, and organized chaos, today was anything but. Students returned after their day off in the snow, and things were just off from the start. It didn’t help that for two hours to start the day, they had to sit for a benchmark math assessment that frustrated them to no end. It didn’t matter how many times I told them they hadn’t learned how to do something. Those familiar feelings of inadequacy and disappointment ballooned quickly.

In fact, little true learning happened in my class today. We started with the benchmark math test. Then, we had a period for reading in which I worked with my lowest group (all on kindergarten levels). With all their bickering over a game and their frequent interruptions during the lesson, it felt like we hardly accomplished anything. In fact, I had to very sternly remind them why they were in this reading group in the first place. They saw I was angry, and they settled down and resumed working. From there, students had to finish writing the next scene from the difficult chapter book we just finished. (It sounds fun and creative, but is very difficult to do). Some of them had to finish after lunch, and between routines having been disrupted by missing school or medicine, as well as that crushing frustration of not feeling good enough, the day was very dark.

I was reminded as I drove home that failure in school – actually, the sinking feeling that one can’t be successful – begets behavior problems. It happened today. It will continue to happen as long as students like mine are held to standards that don’t support their needs, and in fact insult them. What a shame that the goodwill they had with the opportunity yesterday to feel important, big, and special with their first grade buddies dissipated over things that, in their lives and even this year, will mean pretty much nothing.