Category Archives: Year Three

Lessons from my third year as a teacher, and first teaching primary special education.

When I Retire

I recently wrote about how having friends at work was never a priority. However, the fact of the matter is I have made some close ones – people I really respect and enjoy being around. That makes work pleasant, as we’re all dealing with similar challenges together, instead of battling alone. Of course, it makes you want to go to work everyday, knowing that you’re going to a place where you are liked and like the people around you.

Now, I’ve heard anecdotes recently from a variety of schools about colleagues not being so supportive of each other, saying nasty things behind others’ backs and the like. I hope no one is doing this to me, and if any of my colleagues have any kind of issue with me, that they can bring it to my attention and we can work it out.

Like everyone else, I want to be recognized for my positive attributes, and I want those to be my hallmarks and form my reputation.

We recently celebrated the end of the school year with our annual party. This one had the added wrinkle of being a defacto retirement party for some much loved members of the staff.

I was moved by the way people spoke about each retiree. I didn’t expect such wonderful things to be said, and more importantly, the honorees were genuinely surprised and touched.

I’m not perfect, but I hope when it comes time for me to retire, my colleagues can look back and say:

  • I was a team builder and effective motivator of colleagues.
  • I was fair to my students and cared for them as if they were my own children.
  • I built character in my students and gave them creative learning experiences that inspired and energized them.
  • I was a supportive, trusted colleague who others could turn to for advice, help, and an attentive, even-minded, honest ear.
  • I treated all members of the school community with respect as human beings.
Of course, retirement is a long way off for me, but if I stay true to these ideals, I think my career can continue to be fulfilling and I can, I hope, enrich the lives of others’ the way the ones we honored at the party enriched mine and so many others.

Look in the Mirror, You Might Like What You See

Today, I took the opportunity to do something I’ve never done before. I brought out the students’ writing folders, with all their published pieces from the school year. I called their attention to their non-fiction writing, and I asked them to pick the one they thought next year’s teacher should see. This forced some serious consideration and observation. Students were, maybe for the first time, attending to a tangible representation of how their work has evolved for the better since September. They recalled each book, and I was amazed at their ability to read them almost perfectly.

Most pleasant for all of us, especially me, was the way they reacted when they reached the very backs of their folders. There, they could see a writing sample from the very first day of school, replete with summer rust and lacking many conventions. The simplest words that they take for granted now were misspelled. People were drawn as sticks, some with legs coming out of their heads. For some students, a single letter represented a word. For others, pictures did all the storytelling. They could not believe the difference between September and June.

For the first time, I gave students a chance to reflect on themselves. It was so much easier for them to do this when they had a big picture to look at (they find it tedious when doing so after publishing). Pride was evident on their faces and in their voices, the way they eagerly clamored to show me and their friends just how different their September writing was.

Now I’m wondering how I’m going to make students more reflective next year. It’s got to be part of my push to help them foster independence. At least I learned something today: contrary to what I’ve believed before now, they can do it. They can reflect and take stock of their own work. I need to make this part of the routine next year.

An Open Response to the Mystery Teacher

A fascinating and poignant post came across my desk this evening, and I couldn’t resist commenting on it. Please read the post from Connected Principals and then read my response. Here is a link to the anonymously written “When Adults are the Bullies.”

And now, please consider my open response to this Mystery Teacher, which also appears in the comments section of the above link.

I have about a million thoughts on the content of this post, but only enough space to share a few:

First of all, I have no idea who you are, where you work, or who your colleagues or principal are, but one thing is very clear about you, Mystery Teacher. You obviously recognize that your most pressing concern as a teacher – or a school employee, better said – is the students. I started my job a few years ago with the mindset that I was going into a school to work for my students, not make friends. Any relationships that developed, either friendships or otherwise, would be incidental to why I was there. They would not be my focus. They would be nice perks, but they would not define me as a school employee. Your colleagues could do well from adopting the same philosophy.

Second, I also came to learn the hard way that, from a social perspective, it’s best to keep administration-teacher relationships on as professional a level as possible. I too wanted to bring administrators into my room to see the things my kids were doing, and I did so often. But by doing so, word began to filter through the school that the new kid in town was either a) doing some really awesome stuff or b) a snotty, know-it-all who has been teaching for five minutes and thinks it’s good to make others look bad. The majority of my colleagues seemed to go with option A, and the ones who went with option B got a mouthful from me. I always put it in the context of my kids. In my mind, though, I know the people who feel threatened by me only feel that way because they’re insecure and in many cases incapable.

I also know what it’s like to have colleagues turn on you overnight, for seemingly no reason at all. However, I have to say when that happened to me, it led to one of my closest friendships in school. (Things DO happen for a reason, Mystery Teacher).

Third, I feel that it is incumbent upon the administration to make sure this kind of crap doesn’t happen in our schools. It accomplishes nothing and promotes an unhealthy staff dynamic. Why shouldn’t teachers be sharing best practices? All teachers need to believe they have room for improvement. If they don’t, and they feel there’s nothing more to learn, then it’s time for them to hit the road. A veteran colleague who I’ve since fallen out of touch with for a few reasons told me my first year how much she loves talking to the new teachers because of their fresh perspective and ideas. This is the kind of attitude all teachers should embrace. We can all learn from each other.

I don’t feel you should think you’re a coward. A coward would sit by him/herself eating lunch alone, being proverbially shoved into the locker, and not standing up for him/herself. Okay, so you may eat lunch alone, but you are standing up for yourself. By applying for other jobs, you’re saying you won’t tolerate abuse at the expense of your own self-worth or at the expense of your student’s well-being. Unfortunately, we are often too small a cog to bring a whole machine to a grinding halt, and you’re not going to change people like the ones you describe. But by bringing your passion to another place, you’ll inspire more students, with the confidence and experience to make wiser choices along your paths (I have learned that there are some colleagues I just can’t associate with past “Hello, how are you?”, be it for their loose lips, negative attitudes, or jealousy). But like I said at the beginning, you see the big picture: you work for your students.

Keep doing that and you’ll be just fine. Your new school will be glad to have you. If they’re not, then they clearly don’t realize what they’ve got.

I Stood My Ground and We All Won

One of the things I learned while my class was yukking it up with Mrs. Ripp’s via Skype today was that the contents of our NYC to Wisconsin care package had been distributed to the Wisconsin students by virtue of the randomness known as “Pick Sticks.” I hadn’t thought of that as a way to give to my class the goodies we received, but when Mrs. Ripp mentioned that, I figured it was a good idea.

If you don’t know, when you “pick sticks,” you’re just pulling a random student’s name on a stick out of a cup, and the student who is pulled a) gets the thing, b) answers the question, c) lines up next, etc.

So after we signed off Skype for the summer and wished each other well, I pulled out our sticks to assist me in divvying up the contents of the box we received. I did my best to explain to the class that they shouldn’t wish too hard to get any specific toy (like the University of Wisconsin ball that created so much joy for all), and that they should remember that when we pick sticks, we go with whatever the stick indicates. I really wanted them to prepare themselves to be disappointed. There were some highly coveted items, but only a select few students would be able to claim them as their own. Naturally, not everyone could get the most popular items, but as my dad used to say in my younger days, “Them’s the breaks.”

The first 7 or so students fell somewhere on the happiness spectrum between slightly amused and elated. They were all taking it like a man or woman, accepting whatever gift they received (understanding it’s better to get something than nothing at all).

But then the pick stick process ran into the buzzsaw known as Dolly. Her name was drawn just in time to receive a soft teddy bear with a knit red Wisconsin sweater. To me, it was one of the picks of the proverbial litter, but to Dolly, it was an unacceptable interloper on her dreams of acquiring that soft squeezy ball. I had my first challenge to the pick sticks. So I said to Dolly, “I know you are upset that you didn’t get the ball. You still can have this bear if you want it. Do you want the bear?” Frowny face and all, Dolly shook her head to indicate no. I told her she can make her own choice, but if she chooses not to take the bear, she will not get anything else. She still shook her head.

The process repeated with two other students who, so incensed were they to not receive exactly the piece of Wisconsin memorabilia they craved and desired, decided not to take anything. As a result, I had seven very happy children warming up to their unexpected treats, interspersed with three agitated, simmering kids who felt they had been wronged in the worst possible way.

In past days, my para would have approached me to try to get me to figure out a way to mollify their injured hearts, but I think she knows now that I don’t operate that way. No, this is a teachable moment for me, and a learnable moment for the students. I let them sit for a while, walking on a cloud after my para said, “You’re right, they have to learn.” When I began to see the brick walls they built around themselves come down, I approached each student individually.

They were not happy to hear what I was saying. I’m sure they didn’t appreciate how calmly I reminded them that they made a choice not to receive the gift after knowing the rules of pick sticks were, say it with me, “You get what you get.” (You know the rest). Gus wasn’t too pleased, Dolly barely registered a whisper in response, and Jasmyn allowed her eyes to water just a tad.

Sorry, though, I didn’t feel badly for them. I might have had they not ended their days the way they did.

Yes, they were mad at me, or the process, or the kids in Wisconsin, or their friends. But after I talked to them about it, reminding them it was their choice, their harsh exteriors faded minutes later. This was confirmation to me that they understood that their anger and sadness was a result of a choice they made, and nothing else. Before the end of the day, Gus was back to his alternately excited and gloomy self. Dolly was back talking in an audible voice. Jasmyn was boisterously announcing that she heard on the news that Justin Bieber got married.

I may sound harsh, but I offer no apologies for how it all went down. The expectations of the pick stick process were presented before we started, as they always are, and three students chose to pass on what they could have had. They spited no one but themselves. I reflect that it’s important to hold your position when children test you. I don’t think it makes me any less sensitive or caring. I think it makes me fair.

By now, I think they realize that, too.

Getting Ready for RSCON3

The school year is winding down and I am feeling, surprisingly, re-energized to make something out of my summer that might benefit next year’s class (whatever class that may be). While so many of our educational brethren are counting down the days (okay, I am, too) and making summer plans to do with everything except school (okay, I am, too) I am also finding myself thinking big ideas for how I will spend at least some of my vacation setting up some of the ideas I have running through my head (and filling up my notebook).

Whether I actually commit myself well enough to do them remains to be seen. But there is something to which I am totally committed, for better or worse. I will be entering the foray of education conferences this summer as more than an attendee. I will actually be presenting on two topics at RSCON3, The Reform Symposium. It’s a worldwide internet conference that features an amazing roster of presenters, all organized by an amazing group of educators.

I looked over the list of presenters earlier today, and to say I may be just a bit out of my league might be an understatement. That being said, I’m going for it, in the hopes that something I’ve done in my career might be something that can inspire someone out there to try the same, or modify it for their own learners.

I am so excited to be partnering with one of my main inspirations out there, Pernille Ripp. We are planning to present about our experiences bringing our two classes together (July 29, 7:30 PM ET). It is my hope that sharing our story with others will inspire virtual colleagues to figure out ways to bring an exciting and unique way of student-centered learning into their own classrooms.

My other presentation will be about the ways I’ve used photography in the classroom to enhance literacy (July 29, 5:30 PM ET). This has been a passion of mine since my first year, and although The Mosaic Project has evolved (or maybe devolved?) due to a variety of circumstances each year (not all positive) I still believe that at its heart it is a wonderful way to bring students to a place they may have never dreamed of going. It’s an empowering project with a product that has never failed to surprise and impress me.

The full schedule is not available on the web site yet, but I can tell you with no uncertainty that if you decide to attend The Reform Symposium, you won’t be disappointed. I planned to watch only two presentations at RSCON2 back in January, but I wound up sticking around much of the day. It was an exciting, fun, memorable conference. I know it will be this time around, as well. Mark your calendars for July 29-31!

Hope to see you there!

Accusations and Tears, But Any Lessons Learned?

I returned to pick my class up from lunch today to discover they were outside playing. I was really happy because, first, it’s rained here for what feels like two weeks straight, and second, because kids need to get outside and due to the immensity of my school and the construction going on, recess is not an option.

My joy quickly turned to dismay when I stepped outside and saw them all – except for Tessa – lined up. She was crying, a few steps ahead of the class, scrapes on her elbow and forehead. It was due to the fact that she was so anxious to line up that she ran to the group. In flats, this is expressly forbidden.

I sent her to the nurse with supervision and began to bring the rest of the class inside. By the time we got the second floor, though, Alvin (outgoing, loud, and confident) was sniping audibly at Jasmyn (shy, quiet, and unsure of herself). This was a unique face-off, as these two children have little to do with each other most of the time. Alvin often gets into arguments with other kids, but with the exception of her friends, Jasmyn really likes to keep to herself.

Alvin was standing with his arms folded, nearly glaring at Jasmyn. I was alarmed at her being in someone’s sights that way, but I figured I’d give it another flight of stairs before I intervened. When I turned around to take inventory on the third floor though, no fewer than seven children had folded arms and angry faces. I asked what was going on, and four boys chorused that they were angry at one of the other girls (another wallflower) Dolly, who they claimed pushed Tessa, causing her to fall. I knew there was no way this could be possible, as Dolly’s most major infraction this year has been speaking too quietly for me to hear.

Soon enough, the whole class was up in arms, screaming this way and that. First of all, that kind of conduct is an absolute no-no in the halls (and they know it), but more importantly, I sensed a real fraying of the threads that have bound us since September. I informed the class we would be having a meeting when we got back to our room, and that they were all to put their lunch bags away and make a circle in the meeting area as soon as we went in.

They were silent as they came to the meeting area, sensing they had touched a nerve in their teacher and were not going to get away with it. I retrieved a ball to establish a one voice rule and asked who wanted to begin. The boys were very eager to lay out their side of the story, and Gus articulated the way Tessa came to fall and hurt herself (right down to the type of shoes she was wearing). The next one to speak was Alvin, who made it his business to announce that he was mad that Dolly pushed Tessa and made her fall. Here, Jasmyn sprung to defend her friend, momentarily forgetting the rules of the circle but accepting them when I reminded her she needs to hold the ball in order to speak. She said she was sitting with Samantha because they were both wearing “these ones” (gesturing to the flats) and that Tessa, who was also wearing “these ones” was running and fell. Dolly wasn’t ready to speak, but violently shook her head no when I asked her if she pushed Tessa.

Students took turns talking, and it began to become a little clearer. While I was annoyed and angered by the infighting and accusations, I was really enjoying listening to the students’ passionate arguments in favor of their perspectives. It was some genuinely authentic dialogue occurring, with even the shy kids piping up.

David spoke at one point to give his account of the story. He said he was tying his shoe, and when he turned his head “like this” (turning to the left), he saw Tessa on the ground with Dolly next to her. Therefore, he reasoned, Dolly must have pushed Tessa. I was not satisfied with this logic, and I asked him if he saw Dolly push her. Or, did he only see Tessa on the ground? He conceded he only saw Tessa on the ground, and I successfully convinced him that he had no way of knowing how that happened because he had to turn his head to see, and only saw after the fall.

Did you know an elementary school playground incident could pan out like an episode of Law & Order?

So I used this opportunity to chide and teach. I tried to make it crystal clear to Alvin (the head rumormonger) and the rest of his band of merry thugs that when you lie, you hurt feelings. By this point, poor Dolly was bawling, partially due to embarrassment, partially due to fear, partially due to having people stand up for her. Even Richard, so awkward socially and so aloof most of the time, was moved. Sitting next to Dolly, he went to put his hand on her back for comfort, but hesitated and looked at me for approval to do so. I nodded, and he patted her back, tears forming in his eyes, too.

I turned back to the boys and asked them, “What did you learn from this?'”

Alvin was honest. “Nothing?” (He actually meant it). So I unloaded some direct instruction on him: “No, we learned that when we lie, people get upset. It’s not the right thing to do.” Jumping in, David announced, “Lying is bad.” That’s a succinct way to put it.

Before I could adjourn the meeting, I had to fly back into fifth grade lecture mode. I reminded the students about the way they’ve treated each other all year, and how important it is to be nice to each other even if you don’t like someone. I repeated several times, “If you don’t like someone, that’s okay. But you still need to be nice to them!”

Did any of this 40 minute meeting impact the kids? Hard to say. Certainly some children were moved by the whole disharmony of it all. But where will it go from here? Already this afternoon there were frayed interactions across the desks. Is it just the May/June Swoon? I tend to think so.

But I also tend to think I won’t be accepting these issues for another month.

Yet We Test

A while ago, I made a proclamation (in my head, anyway) that I’d move the direction of my blog away from railing against that which was not in my control. What was the point? At any rate, my students this year are too young to take the tests that in many ways define grades 3-8, so it wasn’t really on my mind much. In fact, I not so quietly gloated to my colleagues the last few weeks that, “I’m glad not to be dealing with this anymore.”

But today, I feel the need to pontificate just a little. The testing bubble burst this week when my students had to sit for 3 separate sessions of the state English proficiency exam. Since I have a bridge class, I had to deal with the logistical aggravation of the arrangement, including switched and missed preps as well as figuring out where to keep the students who weren’t testing in a given session. This was a nuisance but something I could manage.

My students had to deal with a much more potent and demoralizing aggravation.

Most of my students enjoy reading. Even though some of them are reading two years below level, they still like books. But those are books, vividly illustrated on topics that excite them and that they can choose.

They haven’t yet begun to fully understand the ways they struggle to read. Their experience taking the test this week may have given them an idea, though. That’s sad.

The rules of the test are written out clearly in boldface and italics, so the proctor essentially reads a script and the kids are left to their own listening – and writing, and reading – devices. The result was this: despite the great social and academic gains my students have made this year, they still wound up bruised and battered by the end of day 3 of testing.

Several faces looked back at me from the tiny desks, big pencils in small hands, silently pleading for some kind of assistance in completing the tests’ tasks. They could see their classmates managing to put answers down, and they looked from them to me as if to say, “Why can’t I do that?” One or two students raised their hands and said, “I don’t know what to do.” All I could do was silently point them back to the test. As they struggled furiously to sound out words they didn’t know using letters they couldn’t remember, they went looking for the alphabet chart (which, by rule, was covered). They looked at me with watery eyes. They were powerless and so was I. Their academic world as they’ve known it since September was turned askew with no apparent reason other than me saying, “Just do the best you can do.” What do words like that mean when you feel the best you can do is not very good at all?

Yet, we test.

I discussed these issues with a colleague who is in a similar boat as far as testing students with material that is out of their league. She agreed it’s heartbreaking to sit through.

Yet, we test.

I know in my mind my students can not, nor should they ever be, judged based on their ability to perform on a test like the one they took this week. It’s foreign to them, and inappropriate, too. And, as I truly believe, it’s just not right to boil everything down to one or two days and designate a year as a failure or success in such a way. The whole process is too damning, too nervewracking, too unfair to the children.

Yet still, we test.

A Class Trip to Wisconsin

Today my students showed up, right on cue, wearing their school shirts. Normally, the only time we break those bad boys out is for a class trip, and that’s common practice throughout the school. As such, no fewer than 8 staff members stopped us in the halls this morning to ask “Where are you going today?” The puzzling reply?


Well, maybe not exactly. I explained we didn’t have a trip. Instead, we were going to be Skyping with our buddy class in Wisconsin (although, until our friends popped up on the computer, at least two of my boys still thought we were actually going to Wisconsin today). This was met with a variety of “Wow! Cool!”s and some “Oh”s. People were either impressed or indifferent. Never did we mind: the entire class was pumped.

At around 1:05 EST, my and Pernille Ripp’s class were finally connected via Skype – the culmination of several months of planning and exchanges. After a couple of initial hiccups, the kids on opposite sides of the Smart Board saw each other for the first time and let out squeals of joy. I knew my class would be excited to finally see the kids from the mystical land of Wisconsin. They had wondered openly whether people in Wisconsin had cars and airplanes, as if Wisconsin was some distant star in the universe, inhabited by no one but Mrs. Ripp and 23 children. I was not, however, prepared for Mrs. Ripp’s students’ reactions to us. Did they think we might have three heads, too?

My and Pernille’s collaboration was conceived with the idea of learning about the differences between Madison and New York, but more and more it became clear to me my students would be even more excited to learn about the similarities. Of course, none of us were prepared to learn one girl had 17 horses (how many of us can even say we have one?), but there were plenty of things to find in common. The kids in Wisconsin knew “Puff, the Magic Dragon,” and they sang it with us as we performed.

Even though many students reported having butterflies in their stomach leading up to the big Skype call, everyone rose to the occasion and shed some insecurities in order to speak in front of their new friends. There was obvious interest on both sides to learn about each other, and there was nothing forced about it.

It was truly a memorable day in my class, and it’s one that I don’t think we’ll soon forget.

What is Behind that Nervous Smile?

Kids come from all walks of life, carrying with them the burdensome baggage of their youthful experiences that only adults should have to deal with. One of my core beliefs in working with children who come from disadvantaged backgrounds is that, as much as we adults think we know what’s going on in their lives, there is so much of which we haven’t a clue.

It is with this thought in mind that I reflect on something that has interested me since I began teaching: Why are so many of my students incapacitated by poor self-image and shyness?

Back in the day, my fifth graders would sooner pass out from the heat in the room in June than take off their hoodies, which, I guess, served as security blankets to cover all the insecurities of their changing bodies.

This year, one of my girls is so painfully shy that when I ask her to come in front of the class to do something she knows how to do well, she just smiles at me and bolts herself to the chair. I have to encourage her ad infinitum before she even considers budging, and when she does, it is usually only because I’ve gone over to her and whispered in her ear or given her some other clue to know it’s safe and okay. It happened today when all the kids were clamoring for a chance to count out a pattern on the Smart Board. When it was her turn, she refused to come up (but performed expertly with me right there by her side once she made it).

She won’t smile in pictures. She averts her eyes everywhere but the camera, painfully darting them into the lens for split seconds at a time. It pains me. What can be so hurtful to a 7-year old as to cause her to become nearly incapacitated in these situations? Shouldn’t a smile be one of the easiest things to offer?

Why are this girl – and so many other children – paralyzed by the fear of failure and judgment at such a young age? Who is instilling this lack of confidence in them? And what can I do to help them break it?

The reason I bring this up today is because our Skype session with our Wisconsin buddies is approaching, and the fears I foretold in the early planning stages are beginning to rear their heads. Today we did a couple of practice runs, focusing on how to come up to the computer, look at the camera, and speak to the children on the other side. When it came to Jasmyn, who knows her question well enough to say it without looking, she just sat at her desk, unwilling (unable?) to move. She finally made it to the computer (with some prodding from me) and asked her question beautifully in a loud voice. So why the terror?

I am perplexed. If saying a simple 5-word question in front of a trusted teacher and classmates was so scary, how will it be to speak to strangers on Skype with the principal and APs in attendance? I am wary of pushing Jasmyn past her limits – but I am also confident that exposing her to these situations and letting her see they are not dangerous, and that she can handle them, will benefit her.

Am I right?

Yes, I Underestimated Them

A tweet came across my desk last night as I was preparing for today’s return to school. In the tweet was a link to a site offering ideas about how to use digital cameras in the classroom. I was intrigued due to my own experiences with kids and cameras. Clicking through, I read one idea that’s not new to me, but wasn’t on my mind when it should have been: give kids cameras to document science experiments.

With our class taking the next month to immerse ourselves in reading and writing science, I figured it’d be a great way to help the kids observe our plants and provide information about them. This was also a spin on an idea I presented in one of my professional development courses, where students could visit a garden to photograph plants rather than draw them. I figured we could do something different and enhance engagement for the children who struggle to draw and write. I pulled the cameras out of the closet at home and set them with my other bag to bring into school.

Of course, when I got into my room this morning, reality struck. There simply wouldn’t be enough time to charge up all the batteries and organize everything. Poor planning? Perhaps. I’ll take the hit on that. Well, the show must go on.

I thought back to the class’ previous experiences drawing plants when observing them. Nothing too special. The artists did it gladly and well, but most did a very quick sketch without detail that wasn’t an accurate representation of anything earthly. I knew they needed me to show them how a scientist draws – with details, and big enough for someone to learn from. That was my push – “You need to draw a picture of the seed and pretend the person looking at it never saw a seed before. You need to show people what a seed really looks like.”

With my modeling and an authentic, understood purpose, they were able to do it. Some kids struggled to comprehend the size they should draw at, and that it’d help to subtly change colors as seen on the seed, but other than that, what an improvement.

I put the cameras back in the closet and locked them up. I don’t think we’ll be needing them for this anymore.