Category Archives: Year Four

We Must Be Clear

The other day while I was waiting for the elevator, I heard a tiny and squeaky voice coming from down the hall, accompanied by an older, reassuring voice. The two arrived to wait beside me at the elevator, a girl about two years old and her caretaker.

I don’t speak Toddler too well, but I did hear the little girl using the word, “Mommy” in each of her pleas. The woman with her assured her, “Soon, soon. We are waiting for the elevator.” Each time the girl pleaded for Mommy, the caretaker’s response was some variety of, “We are waiting for the elevator.”

As I observed, I thought about past students of mine. You’ve probably had ones just like them, too: the kinds of kids who can’t do just with, “Soon” as an answer to, “When?” Some kids need their answer to, “When?” to be much more explicit.

I had one student last year who was constantly asking, “When is this period over? When are we going to lunch? When are we going home?” It became exasperating to answer his same questions over and over. In my mind, I thought, “Dude, what don’t you get? We’re doing math now.” But the more I thought about it, I realized that maybe this kid needs something concrete to indicate what was happening when.

The flow of the day in front of the classroom had always been there, but he never took notice of it. He took it for granted as something in front of the room and I took it for granted that he knew how to use it. Once I had this epiphany, I was able to teach him how to use the flow of the day so he could get information for himself. It also made him realize that I was not arbitrarily deciding what we did during the day. Instead, he saw there was a set schedule that I would lead the class through. Once he became able to tell time more fluently, it was even better because he could go to the clock and start to figure out how much time there was left to go.

I don’t know if it would have worked with the little girl in the elevator, but in a pinch, I wonder if the caretaker could have done a quick little lesson for her in which she wrote and showed her numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 and tried to explain how the elevator worked. As we waited, there was relative silence between them other than the girls pleas and the caretaker’s reassurances. The teacher in me saw lots of teaching opportunities, though. While waiting, perhaps they could have looked at the floors counting down while referring to those 5 numbers she wrote:

“The elevator is on 5 now. We need it to be on 1. Oh, look! Now it’s on 4. Now 3. Now 2. Now 1. That’s the number we need! Now the doors will open and we will get on. We are going to number 5, so we will push 5. And let’s watch the numbers go up. First it is on 1, now it is on 2, now 3, now 4, and now 5! We’re here! Now you will see Mommy!” 

I realize the girl may have been too young for something like this, but toddlers need the concrete, so I wonder if it might have worked. Regardless of the elevator scenario, surely there are many ways to make sure your students who need reassurance about timing and schedules will benefit from your sensitivity to their needs! What do you do to make that happen?

Lots of kids need something concrete, like a clock, to help them understand the pace of the day.

These Tests Continue to Mean Nothing

What’s in a number?

One of my students entered third grade in September not knowing how to skip count by 2s, 5s, or 10s. (Counting by 10s is a standard for kindergarten, so you know).  Nevertheless, she worked tirelessly on her math all year, and so did her parents, so that she could make it in third grade.

I held a sliver of hope for her doing better than a level 1 on the state math test (1 being the lowest level, 4 being the highest). I knew, though, that it would take a real confluence of serendipitous factors for that to happen. Still, I was confident she would do her absolute best, as this student simply knows no other way.

I wasn’t terribly shocked when, in June, I got the list of students’ levels on the test. Four of my students got a 2. Everyone else got 1s. She was one of the 1s. I didn’t give it much of a second thought, but I did think, “Well, she may have been close.”

This week, the thorough and dedicated data specialist at my school sent an email with every student’s raw score on the test. I looked over mine and was surprised to see that I no longer had four students with 2s, I actually had seven. That was nice.

Except it could have been eight. I looked at that girl’s score and saw she was only two total points behind my lowest level 2. That means she missed a level 2 by, I imagine, no more than one question. Phooey.

Her accomplishments are not diminished by the level 1, the test not being the be-all end-all. In fact, given where she started the year and where she ended, the fact that she came so close to a level 2 is a major accomplishment in its own right.

Need I say it again? Do these tests measure anything significant?

And in related news, this from local news channel NY1:

The city sent 33,000 [students] to summer school, thinking they would fail the tests this year. But it turns out 7,000 of them actually passed. Those kids are now free to take the rest of the summer off but the chancellor said he hopes they’ll stay in school anyway.

You can’t make it up. What must the parents have to say about it?

As Summer Dawns

Today is the last day of the school year. The room is bare, ready to sparkle for next year’s students, but devoid of the kid-friendly charm that greeted us every day since September. Desks are empty, closets are packed, computers are prepared for a two month respite. What was once our classroom is now just another room.

Yet, it is not the room that makes the class, but the people. The last few days have been relaxed in some ways, apprehensive in others. Not every child is thrilled to be moving on.

Indeed, some of mine have been with me for two years, and they are anxious about moving on to fourth grade with a new teacher.  Gone is the security they had with me. Waiting for them is the next adventure.

Lately, the shyest ones are the most vocal. The most hardened are suddenly soft. There have been a lot of “I’m going to miss yous” going around. I try to reassure the kids that, yes, I will be in the same room next year. Yes, I will visit you and you can visit me. Yes, you can come play with the ocean animals.

But I also try to make them believe they are ready for the next step. I remind them that they were in one place early in the year and grew in many ways to where they are now.

I hope I’ve given them the tools for being successful. I read one of my favorite books to them yesterday, “Oh, The Places You’ll Go!” At the end, one of my girls asked, “But what are we supposed to do when someone says, ‘You’re dumb,’ or, ‘You can’t do it,’?” I told her she needs to show those people they’re wrong. I said, “When this year started, I know a lot of people looked at this class’ reading and math and said, ‘Oh, they can’t do it.’ But look at where you are now. You showed you can do it.”

And so it goes that another year’s book is sealed. Summer beckons, and we embrace it with open arms, but not without first taking time to reflect upon the last 10 wonderful months and the exciting challenges that another year will eventually bring.

On Trips, Please Don’t Be Trippin’

We had a wonderful trip to the local zoo last week. Perfect weather with lots of time to explore and even play games in the grass. The only problem I had was with behavior: the behavior of other schools’ teachers!

It was obvious that too many other teachers saw the trip as simply a way to get out of the building for the day (“Less work for me!” they surely thought.) As a result, there were kids from as high as my knee up to as high as my head running willy-nilly through the zoo, putting my own students’ emotional and physical safety in harm’s way.

Why is it that so many other schools’ teachers see trips as a time when they can be trippin’? No doubt these poor trip managers are poor classroom managers, too, but there is so much more at stake and potentially in danger on a trip. It doesn’t take much to lose a kid. Spend too much time gawking at a big cat, let’s say, and you won’t even notice that little Johnny has already wandered over to the zebra, which is a solid 10 minute walk away. Likewise, failing to set expectations and go over protocol is a sure way to increase the chances of serious injury and a ruined day for everyone.

I didn’t see anything quite that extreme, but there were several groups that we encountered that set me ill at ease. Being around these doofuses made me proud to be among my colleagues, a group of professionals whose students were conducting themselves like young men and women.

Among the worst offenders (to be filed under “You Have to See it to Believe It”):

  • a large group of kindergarteners walking in a large mass on all sides of the path, against traffic. Normal except for the teacher’s inability and/or refusal to preemptively line them up and establish rules for walking safely.
  • a group of 6 middle schoolers given the run of the zoo by their teacher. When we finished touring the zoo, my class visited the playground and for a while we were the only ones there. Then the middle schoolers showed up. I and my paras were stationed around the playground to supervise. In contrast, the teacher with these kids sat down on a bench, put on her shades, and pulled out her magazine (I’m guessing it wasn’t Instructor) and dug in for a good long, relaxing read. In order to defuse the issues I knew were surely going to arise, I ascended to the top of the playground to referee. When three of the middle schoolers straddled the bridge I was standing on in an attempt to get across, I stood in the middle and told them there were 8-year olds here so they couldn’t do that. When they returned 30 seconds later, I much more firmly told them not to do it, and this time they got the message. When we left the playground area an hour later, those kids were running amok out of the view of the teacher while she continued to enjoy her magazine (and possibly a nap).

Trips are awesome sauce all around, but they can be a minefield if you’re not smart. There needs to be structure in order for there to be safety, learning, and fun. When you take your class on a trip, help the students represent themselves, you, and their school in the most positive ways possible. They are learning valuable life skills in the process, and you’re doing your job.

Related: Trips Are For Teaching

Takeaways From This School Year

Nearly 10 months ago, I embarked on my fourth year of teaching. For the first time, I entered September feeling I had something to prove. To that end, I found myself working longer, harder, and smarter than I have at any point in my career. I reaped the benefits in many areas. I learned a lot this year. Some of my most valuable takeaways heading into the summer are:

1) One Size Can’t/Won’t/Needn’t Ever Fit All – There was a decided shift in my philosophy this year that I’m not sure I anticipated. On some level, I had previously believed, “If it works for one, it should work for all.” This evolved to, “If it works for one, what about everyone else?” I made a much more concerted effort to differentiate process, product, and most importantly, expectations. Because of this, students were, much more frequently than in my previous classes, able to work at their paces, on their levels, without fear of embarrassment and with the satisfaction of being able to do well.

2) Everyone Shines at Something – Some of my least social kids were the best dancers and singers. Some of my most struggling readers were the most patient teachers. Some of my least organized students had steel traps for memories. With all this, an important point came clearly into contrast: We should value the child for their strengths instead of demeaning them for their weaknesses.

3) I Can Help You With That – Another profound shift saw me lessening my assumptions that the universe would correct itself and that which I take for granted as known will become known without my intervention. No, kids won’t just get it. We need to recognize what they need and teach them those skills and concepts. On an easy day, everyone needs to learn the same thing. There are no easy days, though!

4) Bring it Back Old School – Creativity is not the most valued trait in schools nowadays, which plum stinks for the kids, who are forced into boxes when all they yearn to do is be themselves. I was thrilled to get the green-light for some project-based learning at the end of this year and plan to forge ahead with it next year. But, oh the challenge of designing opportunities for creative expression in a barren morass of unfortunate mandates. We’ll make it happen.

5) What Are High Expectations, Anyway? – I am very much on the record in my belief that expectations can be both high and realistic (isn’t that novel?), as opposed to the party line that argues that everyone can and should grow up to be a doctor or scientist (but never a teacher, of course.) It was never reasonable to expect a B reader in September to be a P reader in June. The fact that such a student (who did not know all of her letters in September) is going to end the year on a G is no insignificant accomplishment, though. That another student went from D to L should be celebrated. That one of my most troubled students improved five levels is not a super shame, but a super story. I always knew the kids could improve, and them knowing that I knew it helped them strive and thrive.

6) Is There Anyone Out There? I Assume So – I moved away from my old mentality about parents this year. No longer did I assume parents were disinterested because they didn’t seek me out. Instead, I assumed they wanted to be involved but needed me to meet them in the middle. I no longer allowed myself to justify a note sent in English simply because, “Well, I sent a note, didn’t I?” Virtually every note this year – both for the whole class and for individuals – went home in English and Spanish. I sent home a newsletter seven out of 10 months. I sent nice notes. I sent certificates. I sent reminders. I sent thank yous. I sent anecdotes. My hope is that parents appreciated the effort and felt more a part of the goings-on in school.

Funnily enough, like my students, I started one place in September, with certain goals that I just knew I’d meet. As it turned out, some of them couldn’t be addressed simply because the winds of change had different designs for me. That’s okay. I like where the wind took me.

It Won’t Be Long Now

It won’t be long now before the records are complete, the rooms cleaned, next year’s rosters distributed.

It won’t be long now before the last week of school, the last “Good morning!”, the last lunch, the last high-five, the last homework assignment.

It won’t be long now before the chairs are placed on the desks for the final time, the lights shut, the door closed, the goodbyes said, the tears shed.

And then, you know it won’t be long before we’re enjoying our summer break – maybe on the beach, maybe on the couch, maybe in a class – and the gnawing question, “What’s that kid up to right about now?” creeps into our heads.

It won’t be long before we shake loose the memories of anguish, unfairness, and difficulty our students dealt with and instead recall and revel in the memories of their greatest triumphs. No matter the individual’s adversity, surely we can reflect that every student grew in some way.

It won’t be long before we start saying, “I’m not ready to go back!” It won’t be long before there’s just one week left in the summer, one last late wake-up, one last barbecue, one last day available for anything we want.

No, it won’t be long before we’re back at it, new charges before us, eager for our ears, wanting for our words, hoping for our help. It won’t be long, indeed, before a new class comes to us, ready to learn, ready to prove, ready to show, ready to work.

And it won’t be long before we’re ready to go back and do a better job, because we commit to that every year and because we know we can always serve our students more effectively.

No, it won’t be long now.

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.

What Happens When You Let Kids Shine?

The tests are in our rearview mirror, and with less than one month left in the school year, it’s time for kids to show what they really can do.

This week, my students completed their mural of New York City landmarks. Almost universally, my colleagues loved it and wanted to know who drew it! I gave physical parameters and did some very basic sketching. The kids did the rest.

They were invested from the beginning to the end and the product shows the fruits of their motivation. Who knew “these kids” could do it? Well, I did. HA.

When the test scores come in, they won’t be much. When the report cards are written, they won’t be much. A glance at the reading levels show that everyone is below grade level.

Blah, blah, blah.

The point? Give kids an opportunity to shine and, you know what?

They will.

Look what happens when we let kids shine.


Finding Meaning Through Projects and Themes

One of the unexpected pleasures of emerging from testing season with two months of time left is the fact that I’ve been encouraged to keep kids motivated through project-based learning.

What a breath of intoxicatingly fresh air. We know that creativity has less and less of a place in our elementary schools. The kids wear this knowledge on their sad little faces as they flop test prep packets onto the desk and fall asleep over highlighted pages of nothingness.

Our current literacy unit involves research. There are four groups in my class and each is responsible for a New York City landmark of their choice. I have three goals for the unit: 1) have students direct their own learning about the landmarks; 2) give them transferable skills; 3) keep them engaged and having fun.

So, while kids are doing research, they are also creating a mural. First, everyone in the class sketched their landmark, paying close attention to details. On a tri-fold board, I sketched general parameters for each image. Then, they each drew their picture on the board, creating a bit of a mosaic of New York City. Students used rulers and measurements to maintain neatness. They are also picking up some art skills as they mix the paints to create desired colors, learn effective ways to use a brush and paint small areas, and visualize how items must overlap in order to look the right way. Maybe most importantly, the mural involves a good amount of group work and cooperation that, for the moment, is more effective in art than in research.

Once the mural is finished, I will use it to extend our math unit, which is focused on multiplication and division. As an example, students will be asked to compute the number of windows in the Empire State Building on our mural (the windows are arrays, which is a current focus). They’ll be able to measure different elements on the mural and compute areas and perimeters. I’ll figure out a way to have them review fractions through the mural, too.

Until the mural is complete and ready for us to use it for math, we are working on multiplication and division in context, tying them to, what else, New York City? Word problems don’t say “Sally shared 21 cookies with 7 friends. How many did each friend get?” but they do say, “21 tourists got into 7 taxis. How many tourists got into each taxi?” They are motivated by the New York-centric theme and, if I do say so myself, I am seeing a nice output on their parts.

Given the license to go with projects, you better believe I’m going to drive with it. Students are getting their kicks and their concepts, and it’s phenomenal.

Fuzzy Math

Yesterday, two-thirds of the students in my school began taking the NYS English proficiency standardized exam. It was another chance for my students to try their damnedest to do their best, regardless of their inability to read above a certain level or keep pace with an insanely fast recording (which they were required to listen to for the whole test). In other words: they’d have done swimmingly in any other format.

Anyway, even before the test started, there was angst and anger. One of my students was nearly despondent to learn there was yet another three-day test to take (as third graders have already completed three days of ELA and three of math).

He reasoned thusly: “We already took 6 tests and now you’re telling me we have to take 9 tests? I don’t like taking tests. This is not fair.”

The best I could do was empathize and offer a sharpened pencil as a conciliatory move. Why would I argue with a 9-year old?