Tag Archives: tolerance

A Difference of Opinion

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

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

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

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

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

Just a difference of opinion.

A Note on Nature

Our most recent field trip took us to Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, which is known for it’s wonderful birdwatching opportunities. It rained all day the day before the trip, through the night, and into the morning of the trip, so there was some uncertainty as to whether we’d even go, third graders being out in the rain and all. Optimistic minds prevailed, though, and with a timely note home urging parents to send kids in raincoats, boots, and sweatshirts, we did go.

At Jamaica Bay, you start off in a visitors center that, among several exhibits, has a section of wildlife specimens to handle (feathers, horseshoe crab shells, bivalves, pinecones, etc).  The kids gravitated to it, asking lots of questions and making inferences. Their excitement bubbled to the surface and they nagged and nudged me to get them out on the path. (Not before I went over our scavenger hunt with them, though!)

So we stepped out and made for the path to the loop that would take us around that particular part of the bay, and wouldn’t you know it, everything stopped when one of my students spotted a tiny little snail on the path. Well, of course, we had to investigate the snail, and I didn’t mind one bit. They were, however, apprehensive about picking it up.

Let me explain my background with nature. As a kid, I wasn’t a boy scout or anything fancy. I didn’t fish, I didn’t dig, and I sure as heck didn’t touch any insects. I did, however, like fossils, geodes, rock specimens, and stuff like amber. (I lined all of these things up on the desk in my room and called it my “museum.” Every time someone got me a new specimen, my mom would say, “Oh, look! You can put that in your museum!” I have a humorous image of bespectacled and doofy me curating the exhibits right now. Let me sit with it…Okay, done.) I also liked playing Super Nintendo and Game Boy, and the extent of my outdoor involvement was digging a hole at the beach or playing catch with my dad or friends.

In my teens, my cousin introduced me to fishing. He was a maven, so I took his lead and had some good times with him on docks and rowboats. It took me a while until I mustered the courage to bait a hook with a worm or a fish (he’d so flippantly say, “Put it through the eye and get it behind the skull,” as if explaining how to shoot a basketball), and I was still squeamish about handling a still living fish. Working at camp, I became still less intimidated by nature, willingly handling worms, gerbils, turtles and the like.

Three years ago, I decided I wanted to go camping. And it wasn’t like I said to myself, “I may like it.” No, I knew intuitively I would like it – being one with nature, building fires, encountering wildlife (not really, it turns out), hiking, etc. So I’m much less squeamish now than I ever was, which brings me back to the snail on the trail.

As my little dolls gathered round the unsuspecting animal, oohing, ahhing, and ewwing, I picked it up like it was nothing special. But when I offered it to the kids to hold, they were nauseated by the prospect. I can understand being momentarily put off by the potential sliminess, and I have been there in my own life, but it begs the question: Why are kids so scared of nature? I mean, nothing is more natural than nature!

This isn’t to say the kids didn’t eventually hold the snail or that they didn’t love the trip (swarming gnats and all!), but there is something unsettling about this nature phobia.

Nature shouldn’t be feared. It should be embraced. Kids should be out catching frogs in the pond, holding caterpillars, inspecting slugs. They should be looking at different plants and trees and lifting rocks. Mud and dirt are not bad things!

Maybe kids need exposure before they can throw themselves into plucking snails up as joyously as others. Maybe they’ll wait 20 years before they explore more fully the wonders of the world. Maybe they’ll never care, and who am I to say they should? I just wish I saw less fear in these situations. Nature isn’t yucky! It’s awesome.

See? It’s actually pretty cool!

Lessons from the Golf Course

“I don’t know what I’m doing.”

“I’ve never done this before.”

“There’s a lot to remember.”

The words of a frustrated third grader struggling to grasp the finer points of geometry? Or the words of an ambitious retiree playing golf for the first time?

If you guessed “golfer,” you’re right!

Last week, my dad and I invited my mother – who never graduated past miniature golf – to join us for a round of pitch-and-putt. It was a challenge to her: honor your longstanding interest in learning how to play golf. She accepted, and the ensuing round was loaded with many instances of instruction being broken down and a student giving her all for personal improvement.

I started with the most basic points about the swing: keep your head down and keep your feet planted. Stand with your feet shoulder length apart and stand at a comfortable distance from the ball. I watched the first swing of my mother’s life and tried not to cringe as the club head slammed violently into the grass, kicking up a patch of dirt and propelling it a foot forward. And I said, “That’s all right. Do it again.”

On the first tee, she struck the ball and it dribbled oh, maybe 10 feet to the side. A great shot? Certainly not. A great start for a novice? Surely. My dad and I were sufficiently impressed and offered praise (no doubt motivating our newcomer to see a positive in what the casual observer would consider failure.)

As certain flaws in the swing became apparent – lifting of the head, stepping off to to the side with the lead foot, lining up of the club in the proper direction, swinging a putter on the green with far too much force – we differentiated our instruction. Focusing on each area of need while continuing to encourage meant that by the final holes, shots were getting some air and going straight into the fairway. There was a marked improvement from the first tee to the last, and no doubt the data (aka the scorecard) would agree!

It just shows you that when a student says, “I can’t” and shows needs, we need to assess and instruct to help them improve. We need to help them maintain a positive attitude and a belief in their abilities. We need to convince them that what starts off as a difficult concept will become easier with dedication and assistance.

Even a trip to the sand trap couldn't dampen my mother's enthusiasm to improve her golf game. Fore!

The Kid I Never Sent Out

And just like that…we’re back.

This morning, it’s back to school and therefore, for me, it’s back to the blog. I took a mental vacation from everything school-related this week. No Twitter, no blogging, no reading others’ blogs. I focused on myself instead. Can’t blame my students if they did the same.

The NYS English Language Arts test begins tomorrow (with rounds two and three coming the following two days). Despite that, I’m kicking off my return to blogging and school with a nice story from right before the break. Surely, by the end of today, testing will be the only topic on our minds, but I want to share something positive and exciting that’s been on my mind all week!

The Thursday we went on break, I wanted little more than to just get out of school and go home. I was required to be at school an extra two hours, however, because I teach after school. So by the time I dismissed the after school kids, you can be sure I was on the verge of a crabbiness that threatened to sully my otherwise cheerful demeanor. Why were the parents so late? Didn’t they know we had a vacation to start?

As these surly thoughts were throbbing against my skull, I heard my name called from across the yard, and bounding through the crowd of teachers, students, and parents came a gawky-looking teenager who I couldn’t immediately place as someone I might know. As he drew nearer, though, I could see behind the oversized glasses and braces and underneath the closely shaved head that it was not only one of my former fifth graders, but indeed, one of my greatest success stories.

When this young man was in fourth grade, he was made to visit my room (via the walk of shame) a multitude of times. Each time he came in with a purpose, sometimes expressed by his teacher: “He needs to refocus.” Who was I to deny? I welcomed him each time and each time he returned to his room “refocused” (and maybe not feeling quite as horrible about himself).

The next year, I was elated that this guy was on my register. Unfortunately, several days passed and he didn’t show up for school. I was very disappointed because he and I had struck up a rapport the previous year and I knew he was going to flourish in my room.

I had just given up hope after marking him absent for the umpteenth time when an assistant principal appeared at my door, seemingly displeased, with the young man in tow. A singsongy “Good luuuuuuuck” was wished, and I hastily arranged a makeshift desk for the boy, quite glad to be inconvenienced by his arrival. (I gave him a hearty pat on the back as he entered).

When he approached me last week, this memory came back to me. He truly was a favorite student and I reflect on his growth with quite a bit of pride. As we conversed, I was impressed by the purpose and politeness of his speech. He wanted to reminisce, asking me to remind him of the names of the teachers around us. I also wanted to reminisce, and the friends accompanying him offered me the opportunity.

Friend 1: “He always got in so much trouble.”

Friend 2: “He had to leave the room every day.”

Former student: “The assistant principals always used to yell at me.”

Me: “Ha, you never had to leave my room.”

Former student: “That’s right.”

Friends 1 and 2: “REALLY!?”

Me: “Of course. He was an excellent student, one of my best ever.”

Friends 1 and 2: “REALLY!?”

You get the picture. And I’m glad I got a picture of this guy as a middle schooler. I’ll allow myself the belief that I must have done something right with him. I’m thrilled he gave me the opportunity.

I’m Trying!

I won’t lie, the first two days of this week have been a bit of a slog. Lots of stuff going on, many of us feel like the walls are closing in. It helps, sure, that we have our mid-winter break coming up (many in school can tell you how many hours it is until it starts!), but in many pockets of the building, the vibe isn’t the best.

I have mostly been on a positive streak lately, but it has dipped. I know Monday was not my best day with my kids. One thing after another, none of them having to do with the kids, put me in a foul mood that I struggled to drag myself out of. I am trying to remain cognizant that I have to do my best to keep smiling, keep shining for them (see what I did there? A little Whitney Houston tribute, because Dionne Warwick sang that line, and they were cousins. Got it?) Et cetera, et cetera.

Anyways, we had a nice final 20 minutes of Valentine’s Day (after struggling through a 100th day celebration where we tried to make as many combinations of 100 cents as we could). The kids were lavished with plenty of gifts and were pumped. That was good, at least. I got some gifts, too, which were totally unexpected.

Only three days until the vacation. There’s still oodles to be done…and I promise, I will try to get them all done with a smile on my face!

Are You a 1, a 2, or a 3?

As I continue to reflect on Annette Breaux’s talk here this week, I find myself aspiring to be a 3 (and knowing I’m there in some respects), but acknowledging, too, that in many regards, I’m a 2. I hope I’ll never be a 1, and pride myself on not being one, too.


Annette broke teachers into three categories. We should all aspire to be 3s, sure, but how many of us are there now? How many of us are working to get there? How many of us once were 3s but are now 1s?

Teachers who are 1s :

  • don’t do much teaching. They are always reviewing.
  • complain…a lot!
  • smile…a little!
  • have lots of management problems, but it’s always the fault of the students or their parents.
  • provide all teacher-directed activities.
  • are averse to change.
  • have an “I don’t care” attitude. They don’t recognize that the sleeping or defiant child is issuing a call for help. They believe that kids are lazy without realizing something inside is affecting their motivation.
  • don’t like kids (obviously!).
  • point the finger at everyone but the person in the mirror.

(I would venture that most people taking the time to read blogs like mine are not 1s. I’d also venture that most people know 1s.)

Teachers who are 2s :

  • are usually capable of teaching.
  • don’t realize they are being caught up in the negative stuff.
  • think everything is a burden, and, sadly, their students know.
  • when they know they’re being observed, they turn it on and do a good job.
  • point the finger at everyone else (but not as much as 1s).
  • are able to manage a classroom.

(During this part of the presentation, I found myself thinking that 2s have the potential to be 3s…and that’s important.)

Teachers who are 3s :

  • have classroom communities that, when visitors walk out, they say, “Wow.” The rapport is that strong.
  • love to teach and they tell people they love to teach.
  • are good at it.
  • always appear happy (not to say they always are happy), because anything otherwise would be unprofessional.
  • willingly express opinions and speak to administrators about concerns because it’s a professional practice to do so.
  • don’t sweat an observation because they are always teaching, anyway. (Instead of, “When are you coming?” they say, “Come whenever.”)
  • are the ones students love the most.
  • do not engage in school gossip, even with their friends.
  • embrace change with a positive attitude.
  • lack special talents and are not all-knowing. They just want to get better.
  • will accept any child in their classroom.

As Annette presented her concepts of 1s, 2s, and 3s, I was embarrassed to admit to myself that, though I want to be firmly in the 3 category, there are elements of my practice that put me in the 2 category. I’m not there to stay, though, and that’s what matters.

Annette Breaux’s books are available for purchase here and she is also onTwitter.

Buttons and the Kids Who Push Them

I had the great privilege of hearing Annette Breaux speak yesterday. She gave an inspirational, practical talk called, “How to Impact Student Achievement and Make a Difference.”

Over the next few days, I will share takeaways from her day-long presentation with the hopes that what she shared with us can help you reflect on your practices the way I’ve been caused to reflect on mine.

Annette told a story about a time she was late leaving her hotel to give a presentation. She was becoming more and more flustered as the minutes ticked away. When she finally got herself to the elevator, she hit the button and waited.

Only problem was, the elevator’s arrival time was not to her satisfaction, so she pushed the button again. Still, she waited. Finally, she did what most of us do when an elevator is too slow for our frustrated selves. She pushed the button, repeatedly and hard.

Needless to say, the elevator still took its sweet time arriving, no more encouraged by her final frantic pushes of the button than they were by her first. No matter how many times she pushed the elevator’s button, that elevator wasn’t going to indulge her. It just went about its business as it normally would.

In our classes, we need to make it clear to our students that we are like elevators. You can try pushing our buttons all you want, but the simple fact is: it ain’t gonna matter one bit. Like an elevator, we need to be impervious to attempts to make us arrive only as a student wants. We can’t let the students control us with their button pushing – imagine, as Annette says, what that would do for the others riding the elevator (ie. the rest of the class!)

Hiding my buttons (and not letting the visible ones be pushed) is something I have to improve upon. I can’t engage in arguments with the kids, nor can I allow them to take control of the class (if they’re causing disruptions).

So, I’m going to try to make it a point to smile more.

A smile can be very disarming. You’re banging your ruler on the desk? I’m still smiling. You’re refusing to take out your materials (more on that in the future, by the way)? I’m still smiling. You’re not handing in your homework today? I’m still smiling.

If we’re to be unflappable elevators, we have to firmly answer the challenges of our buttons being pushed.

Annette Breaux’s books are available for purchase here and she is also on Twitter.

What Parent Doesn’t Want the Best for Their Child?

Meet your new cousin!

This week, our family was blessed when the stork delivered a beautiful bundle of joy to my cousins. Seryn is the first baby produced by my generation and in her three days in our lives she has brought much joy to everyone from her mommy and daddy to her great-grandpa.

This was the first time I went to a hospital to meet a baby, and I was struck by the amazing optimism and joy. I wondered if it’s like that for every family when a baby is born.

See, I know every family wants the best for their children, but sometimes the world throws curveballs that parents can’t handle and the children suffer.

How many of our students’ parents brought their babies into the world with joy and optimism, only to have that all replaced by situations they can’t handle effectively (poverty, health issues, disabilities, etc)? Do we assume too quickly that certain parents have given up on their children?

I know Seryn will be surrounded by oodles and oodles of love (oodles = a lot). She’s already been in the arms of so many, and she will always have support.

Not all families are as attentive and loving. Maybe they don’t have the resources, human or otherwise. But their children are their children, nonetheless. We must be sure not to quickly pass judgement and must try to assume the best of every parent. What parent doesn’t want the best for their child?

Creative Commons License
Meet your new cousin! by Matthew Schreiber is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at photomatt7.files.wordpress.com.

Creative Commons License
Baby's Feet by Matthew S. Ray is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at photomatt7.files.wordpress.com.

First Impressions Count, but Not as Much as Subsequent Ones

“Reputation is an idle and most false imposition; oft got without merit, and lost without deserving.” – Shakespeare

My school is enormous. It has five floors and several annexes on the campus. I actually do not know all of my colleagues. Of course, the more years I’m there, the more colleagues I interact with and the smaller the school becomes.

Because I don’t know everyone personally, I have developed my impression of some through word of mouth or what I witness in snapshots or from afar. Unfair, but true.

In four years, I have been in four different rooms. This means I have had the opportunity to work alongside some of the people I had originally judged, sometimes in a good light, sometimes in a harsh one. Sometimes, what I thought originally turned out to be true, but many times my original impression – shock of all shocks – turned out to be false.

I’ve arrogantly felt with each move I’ve made, my reputation has preceded me, and not always for the better. After all, “Oh, we’ve heard all about you” is a bit of an unclear statement. I have heard that line from more than one person and I never know what it means.

The other day, a colleague and I discussed our preconceived notions of each other and the evolution of those thoughts. I asked her what she had heard about me and she said, “All I knew was that Matt Ray cared about his kids.” Oh, had I been so open-minded about my colleague. We did not start off on the best foot when we met each other. Through our conversation, though, it became clearer that my assumptions and judgments were based only partly in reality. To be blunt, I was badly mistaken – as I’ve been many times before.

I guess the whole point of this is what we already know. We can’t write people off just because we may start off poorly. Also, gossip in a school can be very injurious if we allow it to be. Does it serve a purpose to badmouth our own colleagues? It isn’t reasonable to expect to get along with everyone, but at least give that person the chance to mold others’ impressions before we sully them without their input. Don’t we owe them the benefit of the doubt until we can form our own impressions? I am learning that we do.


What’s It Really Like?

I am so snidely arrogant to think that I, more than anyone in my school, understands what my students go through with their learning disabilities. Maybe I know my students better than many in the school, but that doesn’t mean I know what they are struggling with on a minute-by-minute basis.

I have my own issues attending wholeheartedly to work that I must accomplish, which isn’t helped by the fact that I sometimes have music, the television, the iPad, and the stove going all at once while I’m doing work. The difference between me and my students is I can cope with the distractions I bring upon myself, and that’s usually accomplished by simply eliminating them (I’ll catch my show later). Really, my students aren’t bringing the distractions upon themselves – they’re just handed them to deal with.

To my discredit, I have been guilty of believing that my students can do the same, IF ONLY…! How unfair of me.

Why the sudden enlightenment? A great web site came across my desk. It totally reminded me of Rick Lavoie’s F.A.T. City (see below), where adults are put in the position of kids with learning disabilities and made to understand just how difficult school is for them.

The web site is from PBS in conjunction with a series called Misunderstood Minds. I highly recommend you click through to experience some simulations that give insight into what students with learning disabilities deal with. I tried many of them and found myself struggling to answer the questions. Certainly opened my eyes.

From Rick Lavoie’s F.A.T. City, a clip highlighting the issues students with learning disabilities and dyslexia deal with when reading and decoding. Highly beneficial watching, I assure you.