Tag Archives: back2school

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?


Reality Check

Well, the time has finally come. It’s “see you in September” time. While the kiddies still have one more week of summertime bliss before they strap on their backpacks and skip along to school, we New York City teachers have our alarms set for earlier than we want. My lunch is packed, and when I’m done with this post, I’ll pack my bag, too. Goodbye, summer. Hello, reality.

I admit, I am having great difficulty approaching year six of my career with the usual renegade optimism I’ve always summoned in the past. On the plus side of things, I’m happy to remain in the same room I’ve been for the last two years. I am also tenured now, which could work in my favor. And, I’m predominantly a third grade teacher for the third straight year, so I’m able to continue to hone my skills in teaching that grade’s content.

There are flip sides to all of this, too. I’m glad to be in the same room again, but with precious few hours for me to be in the room to set up before the kids arrive, there is plenty yet to be done. I’m glad to be tenured, but the city’s new evaluation system may make that distinction moot; in the spring, no one had an answer what kind of protections tenure afforded teachers moving forward, and I’m yet to hear anything this year, either. And, while 11 of my students this year are third graders, one is not. How does he get the education he needs and deserves?

Yes, it is difficult for me to find the positives right now. Uncertainty sits like a dark cloud over the back to school proceedings. Perhaps clarity will begin to reveal itself at our meetings tomorrow, but right now, it’s a morass of concern.

All I can say with certainty is that in one week, 12 little darlings are going to arrive in the schoolyard, casting their eyes toward me, excited to be back, scared to be back, indifferent about being back. And it’s on me to harness that excitement, assuage those fears, and overturn that apathy.

Major challenges await. It’s impossible to know the form they’ll take. But, there’s a trend evident in each of my first five years: by the end of the year, magically, everything has fallen into place. It always seems impossible that that will happen. This year is no exception: it seems impossible now, but it will be reality by June.


My “Sit Where You Want” Policy

Last year, one of my dear colleagues in the Twitterverse inspired me to surrender some control in the classroom. With baby steps throughout the year, I did. Coming from someone who used to pick up kids’ desks and move them while they were out of the room because I couldn’t take the chatter anymore (“Surprise, kiddies!”), this was not insignificant.

Why do I mention the desks? I’ll tell you. Last year, I boldly went where I had never gone before. I told my class on day one that they could pick their seats. I figured I don’t know them yet, anyway, so there’s no guarantee I’m not creating a toxic grouping (despite my inability to ever do wrong). But more importantly, I reasoned that, perhaps if I gave them the responsibility, they’d come to understand that me allowing them to choose their seats was a privilege not to be taken lightly.

I’ll explain. I didn’t just say, “Sit wherever you want.” I said, “I’m willing to make a deal with you.” The deal was simple enough. The kids could choose where to sit – which I knew meant chatty BFFs would be congregating together – and we would see how conducive their choices were to productive work. If it turned out they weren’t and there were too many distractions that came from sitting with one’s homeboys, then we’d have to go ahead and consider a change in seating.

Wouldn’t you know, I didn’t have to change a seat for chattiness until January? We were ready for a change by then, anyway, so it worked perfectly.

If you’re someone who is embarking upon this year as I did last year, saying, “I actually don‘t need to be in control of everything in my classroom,” then I suggest you start with seating. See if it works for you. It will definitely work for the kids!

Dear Student I Have Yet to Meet

Dear Student I Have Yet to Meet,

I am writing this letter to introduce myself and help you get an understanding of what your new school year will be like. So, how are you? Did you have a good summer? I hope you did fun things. Did you read a lot? I have to be honest, I didn’t. But now it’s back to school and we both need to make sure we are ready to work very hard!

First off, I am a man. You probably never had a man for a teacher. Most of the time the kids are scared, like I’m going to be some big meanie. I guarantee you, I am not a big meanie. So you can stop worrying about that.

I should tell you that I did talk to your teacher from last year about you. Don’t you worry about that. I remember some of the good stuff, but I seem to have forgotten all of the bad. Oh, well. I guess it wasn’t that important! Anyway, you will show me lots of wonderful things. I don’t need your old teacher to tell me about them. I just need you to show them.

I want you to feel safe in your new class, safe to be yourself, and safe to take risks.  We’re going to talk a lot about people’s differences and similarities and I’m going to do my best to establish an environment where you feel you can be yourself.

I think you will like the way the room is set up. I think it’s really nice. But, I have to tell you, while your class will be fun, it will also be challenging. I am not accepting work that doesn’t show what you’re capable of. If you are not pushing yourself, I will let you know. Plus, I won’t be too happy about it.

That doesn’t mean you have to come in knowing everything. In fact, I kind of get a little annoyed when a student thinks they know everything! I am many, many years older than you and even I don’t know everything! So please allow me to work with you and help you learn a few things here and there.

Part of the challenge I have set up for you is that you will not be babied in my class. At your age, you are ready to start being more independent. I have set up a few items around the room that will help you be independent. Guess what? You won’t need to come to me for every little thing this year. You’ll be amazed how much you can figure out without your teacher.

There are some other things in this new class that you have to get used to. For one, when you’re working independently, you can sit wherever you want. Makes no difference to me. At times, I may ask you to join me at a table or in a chair just so we can be eye-level with each other, but other than that, knock yourself out.

Also, I am one of those teachers who doesn’t mind too much noise, as long as it’s academic. I’m sure you agree that screaming and having side conversations have no place in a classroom where kids are trying to learn. If I feel like the class is kind of getting out of control and losing focus, I’ll get everyone back on track with a hand signal. Don’t worry about it.

There are two grades in our class this year, but that shouldn’t affect the way you socialize with or treat kids who are older or younger than you. In fact, you will find yourself working with all the kids in the room at one point or another. You will be amazed what you can show them and what they can show you. Lots of times, the other students will be an even better resource for you than me!

Because there are two grades, you will see that many of the kids are able to do things very differently than you. You may be a good reader and be shocked to see that some kids’ levels are really low. That’s okay. They’re going to do their best and that’s what matters most. (And, by the way, you may find that you have a lower level or struggle in math. No worries. All I ask for is that you do your very best.)

That’s basically it for me. If you have any questions, you can ask me tomorrow when you arrive for your first day. Until then, sleep well, eat breakfast tomorrow morning, and let’s have a great year!


Your New Teacher

This Year’s Classroom: Swimming to Success

I’m not sure why I didn’t have a theme for my room the first three years of my career. Themes promote cohesion, interest, excitement, and pride. They offer an anchor for a year’s worth of studies and warrant an infusion of creativity on the teacher’s part in an effort to provide cross-curricular learning opportunities pertaining to the theme.

This is the second straight year I’ve created a theme-based classroom. Last year’s was a lot of fun. Motivated by a desire to make my students prove the naysayers wrong, our classroom was a “Field of Dreams,” based on a community of hopes and beliefs (with a touch of New York Mets love).

This year’s theme developed by – well, I don’t know how. It was partly born of necessity and partly born of my lack of inspiration! I had few ideas until I decided the theme would be something along the lines of, “Under the Sea.” As I collected decorations and mental notes, the theme that emerged left me with one foot on the sandy beach and one in the salty ocean. So I decided I’d incorporate elements of both. Needing to hang something on the door, and knowing I had to incorporate this with academics and expectations, I decided to call this theme, “Swimming to Success.”

With these fish, our class is the coolest school in school!

The door sets a positive tone for all who enter, and also presents an expectation of success, which is necessary!

Now, onto the inside of the room. To put it the way a custodian did when he saw the progress in the room last week, “Man, you just don’t want vacation to end!” There is truth to that. But I also think having such a bright and sunny theme will help all of us through our winter weather doldrums and test prep tedium when those times come. As one colleague told me, she knows where she’s heading when the winter blues set in!

In keeping with the beach and ocean theme, kids will hang their coats and bags on hooks that are numbered with Finding Nemo stickers.

When we gather to meet in the morning or for lessons, we won’t go to the meeting area. Instead, we’ll go to the beach. Kids can choose to sit on bright green or blue mats, tubes, beach chairs, or a boogie board. They’ll sit under a palm tree while they use the SMART Board and attend to lessons on the easel.

It is so much more fun to go to the beach than the meeting area.

In case anyone forgets where they are, here’s a reminder.

I love the ocean backing paper I picked up at Lakeshore. It is ridiculously soothing. (This board is nearly complete).

Beautiful ocean-themed paper with an iguana and fish hanging out.

I am returning to the “You Matter” theme again this year, only the message is being emphasized by me and this fabric fish that I found for a measly $1. We will name him within the first week.

I also finally found a use for that broken clock up there. And hey, what’s that? Another palm tree? YOU BET!

One of my new initiatives is a modified version of the STARFISH program, which I loved when I worked at camp. It really helped kids become good citizens. The premise is the kids learn that the STARFISH values and traits are ones they should aspire to have.

I modified STARFISH’s meaning to make it more relevant to school. I am really excited about this. Also, look on top. The picture says, “Be a hero, not a bully.”

When a student does something “STARFISHy” or in a “STARFISH” way, they will receive a raffle indicating the value or trait they demonstrated and what they did. At the end of the week, I will choose one raffle from all the ones we’ve accumulated, and the winner will be my “Chief Mate,” or “right hand man/woman” for the week. I love recognizing kids for being awesome! This is also great for those kids who will never get academic recognition. It shows them that grades and reading levels aren’t all that matter. I will send a note home on the first day so parents can get on board, too.

You rock! And not just because this raffle ticket says so!

Another one of my exciting character-builders this year is this, “Have You Filled a Bucket?” idea, which I found on Pinterest. I still have to label each “bucket,” but the premise is that, when a student does something nice that makes me or someone else happy and “fills someone’s bucket,” they will get a pom pom in their bucket. After all, filling someone else’s bucket means filling one’s own! As a happy and wonderful coincidence, this is a school-wide initiative this year.

We’re going to be a class full of bucket fillers!

To encourage independence, I’m launching two other Pinterest ideas. First, a chart with students’ names on clothespins so everyone knows what they need to do during reading.

Where do you go? I’m not sure. Go check the chart.

To encourage patience and discourage demanding my attention at every possible junction, I’m instituting a, “Take a Number” system. It is color-coded for odd and even, too, just as a bonus. I’ll also couple this with charts about steps to take before asking the teacher and what students should do when finished working.

No, I’m not a butcher. But if I’m working with someone and you need me, I need you to take a number.

Finally, here is my own personal oasis, my desk. It is nudged into a corner and opened up so much more space than there was last year. You can see it’s already a bit of a mess…

When I’m stressed, at least I can always sit at my desk and relax under a palm tree! Now, where can I hang a hammock?

That’s a brief tour of my room. My goal is for it to be fun, welcoming, and functional. I won’t know if it’s functional until the kids are in there, but I think it’s both of the other things. My hope is that when they set foot in their new room for the first time Thursday, the kids will embrace the challenges of swimming to success and be excited for a wonderful year!

Making a Positive First Impression

Periodically throughout the upcoming school year, I will be referring to a recently published Eye on Education book, Making Good Teaching Great: Everyday Strategies for Teaching with Impact. Its authors are Annette Breaux, whose ideas I have written about extensively, and Todd Whitaker, who is one of my favorite guys on Twitter.

Although I got this book late last school year, I put it away until now. The book is written in a way that provides you with daily strategies to use throughout the school year to make an impact on students. It is a 180 chapter book, each one providing a new activity to try. I’ll write about selected chapters as the year goes on, focusing on those that present new ideas or ideas for which I am passionate.

I’m going to start with the book’s day one activity, called, “First Impression, Positive Expression.” The authors write:

The fact is that students need happy adults who serve as positive role models in their lives. You cannot help your students by being yet another negative influence in their lives. Therefore, it is vitally important that the first impression your students form of you is a positive one.

I was one of those teachers, in my first year, even my second, where I wanted it to be crystal clear that I was in charge and NOT TO BE MESSED WITH. I actually shudder to think back on my opening day lectures, which could have been titled, “This is How It’s Going to Be: NO QUESTIONS ASKED.” What must have these poor kids thought of me? I was their first male teacher, and there I was reinforcing all of their preconceived (and highly misguided!) notions.

(Video: Thoughts for Your First First Day)

Needless to say, that’s no longer my modus operandi. My goal now is to build the community from the get-go, a community that doesn’t revolve around me, but the students (novel, eh?) I shake the kids’ hands when I go to pick them up, introducing myself and asking for their names. I greet the parents. I make chitchat. The happier the kids are to start the school year, the better. It is actually quite thrilling to see their fears yield to excitement, positively bursting out of their uniforms as we begin the ascent to the classroom and I give them an idea of what’s waiting inside. Bottom line: I don’t need the power trip anymore.

Last year, I had five students for the second consecutive year, so there was lots of catching up to do. This year, I have one student that I had two years ago, and I know a few of the others only distantly. So they are undoubtedly going to be intimidated and it’s on me, first day jitters and all, to make them feel comfortable.

I can’t imagine ever going back to the way I once was. Our students want respect and care. They have enough people in their lives putting them down, ordering them around, telling them they’re worthless, etc. I’m not going to be one of those people.

I don’t think you should be, either.

Look Deeper to Understand

I’m going through a lot of my old posts to remember some of the lessons I learned but may have forgotten. Courtesy of Annette Breaux, here’s one that we can’t afford to forget:

Remember: everyone in the classroom has a story that leads to misbehavior or defiance. Nine times out of 10, the story behind the misbehavior won’t make you angry. It will break your heart. – Annette Breaux

I personally believe that all kids just want people to respect, believe in, and care for them. Let’s not forget that kids are kids and their fears, concerns, tribulations and anxieties will often manifest themselves in unsavory ways. This should not be cause for punishment, but cause for us to probe deeply to understand what is at the root of the behavior. Our kids urgently need us to look deeper than just what’s on the surface.

Tips for Avoiding a Nightmare First Day

Is this your nightmare?

What you planned is way too easy for the kids. You don’t have easy access to the supplies you need. The phone hasn’t stopped ringing and conversations are tricky because of all the static on the line. New students who weren’t on your register to begin with are sauntering in on their own schedule and you have no space for them. You realize the desks are positioned poorly and start to rearrange them. The kids are disinterested, disrespectful, and oblivious to you. They’re chatting here and there, turned around in their seats. Not even five minutes in, you’ve already had to address a student refusing to attend to the lesson. The other adults in the room are either totally disengaged or are trying to run the class.

You feel like you’re drowning, so you break out some great strategies from last year. Only problem is, no one’s listening. You don’t want to raise your voice on the first day of school, but if no one’s listening, how can you not? You need to do something to get their attention, to restore order. You climb up on a wobbly blue chair in front of the room, and bellow, “Um, EXCUSE ME?” knowing full well that now those kiddies will have to respect, have to listen, have to take notice of you.

And when they don’t, you wake yourself up. You’ve just suffered a school-mare.

It’s amazing the things that find their way into dreams. In each of my four years teaching, I’ve never had a first day like the one I described above, but without the proper amount of thought and planning, it’s easy for any of those damaging scenarios to throw you off from the start and doom you for the rest of the year.

Here are my thoughts on how to minimize those types of occurrences and begin the year successfully:

  • Where is it? I can’t find it! This is very real for me since my second year started one week after the kids. I replaced someone else in their room, so I didn’t have things organized the way I wanted. It’s hard enough when you need to look for something when kids are engaged, but it’s much harder when you need to look and every single eyeball is following your every single move. As long as you’re not hired the night before school starts, there is plenty of time to get the room set up before the students arrive. I don’t know how some people come in the day before school and just start then. My first year was so crazy that the room looked like a warehouse on the first day. I didn’t leave myself enough time to set up. Never again. I like to have everything organized by the middle of the week before we go back so I can go home, relax, and enjoy the last few days of summer. When school does start, organization and neatness make for a smooth beginning. (Side note: If you’re like me, your room will never be as organized or as neat as it is the minute before the kids enter for the first time).
  • There goes the phone…again. In a school my size, it’s inevitable that there will be interruptions throughout the day. It’s probably true in your school, too. So much is happening on day one that you need to just roll with the flow. There will be announcements on the loudspeaker, visits from the administration, calls from the nurse, and colleagues coming in asking for supplies because they can’t find them! (See above ;)) The key is that the kids are engaged.
  • They’re bored already, I must be the worst teacher ever. Kids love to come back to school. Sure, some are anxious, but it’s a time to see their old friends again, as well as their old (and getting older) teachers. The first day should be fun. I always start with community builders and independent activities that allow personalities to come through, but it is also a day to begin informally assessing the students. When I taught first and second grade, one of the first things I did was have the kids write their name on an index card, just so I could see if they knew how to spell it, what their handwriting was like, etc. Other ways to assess students informally include doing a shared reading or other oral reading exercise and posing a real world math problem using the previous year’s learning and seeing if they can solve it. (I linked here last year and will revisit again this year for a great list of first day activities).
  • Who’s the boss? Working in special ed, my class is entitled to a paraprofessional. As long as the para is well-meaning, I feel I can engage them to become a vital member of the team. It is of the utmost importance, though, that the para goes along with the teacher and that the adults speak in one voice (the teacher’s). One voice makes it clear to students how things are and makes them realize they can’t play adults in the room against each other. This is a conversation that needs to happen before the kids come in and whenever it becomes apparent that there is discord in the message being delivered.
  • No one’s listening! WHY IS NO ONE LISTENING? Routines need to be established from the get-go. One of my first this year will be one that worked phenomenally with last year’s class. It is so simple and so effective. To get the students’ attention, the teacher raises his hand. When kids see it, they raise theirs and give their attention. This filters through the room and gets them silent and attentive quickly. No standing on chairs and yelling when you have something so effective!

Here in NYC, the first day is still about seven weeks away. Still, I’m sure many others are already having school-mares about the first day. No need! Everything will be fine as long as you’re prepared.


Don’t Smile Until Christmas? I’ll Pass.

You Know That Old Saying About Respect?

Classroom Management Tip: Getting Your Students’ Attention

Community Building with Books

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.

Five Classroom Management Tips That Will Work Today

I featured each of these five tips on my blog last week. Colleagues and readers alike have given me positive feedback about them, so I’ve consolidated them into one post for easier access and sharing. I’m using all of them and am seeing a definite difference in the amount of time students are on task. I hope you find some use in them, as well!

Tip 1: Getting Your Students’ Attention

Tip 2: Assessment through Engagement

Tip 3: Sharpening Pencils

Tip 4: Tattling

Tip 5: Transitions

For a printable reference sheet of the tips shared here, click through to Google Docs.