And a New Year Begins…

…complete with smiling faces and all. So where does that put me now?

Once again, I am re-energized by the eager young kids in front of me. I stood today out on the playground and again in the hallway as the students entered school today. The mood was positively electric and completely contagious. Maybe it was my breakfast coming back to haunt me, but I could swear my idealism was bubbling up inside me again.

I sat in a brief staff meeting and looked around at the faces of the teachers around me. People who had spent the past week working their tails off to get ready for Day One. People who (just like me) see every kid coming through that door as somebody’s child. People who share the same excitements and the same frustrations that I do. Colleagues.

Yes, the politics are still at play, standing expectantly over my shoulder. Yes, there are a thousand and one mini-crises that pop up each day. But today, thankfully, some of the resilience I’ve been seeking for so long has once again returned.

Tomorrow my first crop of students comes. I think they’ll be in my downstairs room, as opposed to the upstairs room I was just told I’m moving into. My desk isn’t in the room we’ll be in. There’s nothing on the walls. Just about all of my stuff is still in boxes.

But mark my words. Magic will happen.

On Returning to my Classroom

Okay, so usually? Each August? When you ask me about the start of school? I start getting goosebumps. Literally. Just get me started talking about new school supplies, about seeing happy faces that first day of school, of going back to that wonderful structure of learning rules and routines, of thinking about the incredible sense of possibility that a new year holds, of – – well, you get the idea.

This year? Well, I’m trying. I really am.

What makes it so different?

I have to confess that last year was rough. Not the kids. They’re never the problem. They’re the reason I get out of bed each day, and I tell them so regularly. Is it the parents, then? Naw. I so enjoy having the shared experience of knowing that wonderful person that is their child that even the speedbumps are manageable. And my colleagues are an incredibly dedicated group of professionals with a heartfelt desire to do well by our kids.

It’s everything else. The politics, the issues, questions about direction and priorities and leadership and change. Not to mention major construction.

I’ve mentioned before that in teaching (as in much of life), what I count on most is my sense of idealism. By this past June, it was nearly beaten out of me. I could physically feel my resilience draining away as I entered the building and roamed the halls. I hated that. I hate writing it even now. And I hate that it’s true.

More than anything, I was hoping that this summer could be a true break, where I could breathe, focus, and find my center again. I passed on a multitude of opportunities: workshops, classes, social get-togethers. There were a few meetings and classes here and there, including a math class taught with my math idol from the junior high. (THAT was a rush.)

I was hoping that I could look August in the eye and feel the same sense of romance that I have in previous years. Honestly, that’s not the feeling that I have right now.

Right now, I’m hoping that starting to set up my classroom tomorrow is going to get my blood pumping. Maybe taking the time to sort through boxes, to see new supplies arrive for the year, to dwell on some of the possibilities ahead. Maybe that will do it for me.

If not, I know that next Tuesday there will be hundreds of smiling, tan, eager-to-learn faces coming to greet me and the rest of my colleagues. I know that no matter how heavy I feel my burden is, I can count on those amazing people to pull me through. And they will.

And I’m hoping by the end of the year, I’ll still be a teacher who teaches with her door open. Who still goes into the staff lounge for lunch. Who still blogs about the excitement and adventure of teaching.

Who still gets goosebumps thinking about new crayons.

A Long, Long, Day

So THIS would be why I didn’t have kids come down to my room today:

Sorry kids, we'll be using an *alternate* location for a while...

Even though the water itself was gone within a couple of hours, I was not sure whether or not I would make it back into my classroom to TEACH. I’m still not sure. So, I tried to grab whatever I might need for teaching for the rest of the week:

My classroom for the next who-knows-when

And what have I learned from this experience?

-I can think (and move!) really fast when I need to.

-It’s easy to have a decent attitude about these things in the wake of what’s going on in Alabama and Missouri.

-I have amazing colleagues. From my principal, who was first to arrive at the scene, kick off her heels and start hauling stuff, to the custodians from all over the district who swarmed in to take care of the flood, to the colleagues who offered help, kind words, and shoes, I am one lucky gal.

I also learned that you can never thank custodians too much. And nothing says "thank you" like a plate of yummy cookie deliciousness.

Why I Got Up Today

Actually, if you had asked me at about 7:30 this morning, I couldn’t have told you. I was tired. Crabby. Feeling overworked, overweight, over-scheduled, and under-appreciated. In need of that last hug from my boys, hoping that extra squeeze could set me on the right path for the day. Close, but not quite.

On to a meeting. I think everyone else there had the same Crab Factor (it’s a technical term) as I did. Left with a cup of hot cocoa and a desire to go hide.

OK…before I go on, I have to say that you mathophiles out there will totally get this activity and maybe even want to try this out. You mathophobes out there…well, I promise there’s good stuff by the time you get to the end.

I love to play the calculator game with kids. It’s simple to learn, but oh so rich. (For those of you wanting to use this activity, I’ve typed up instructions and variations below.)

So that was my lesson plan with fifth grade today. To let them see the Great Unfolding of the Calculator Game. Of course they’ve played it before. But they didn’t know what it’s really ABOUT. And today I was not only going to teach them, I was going to give them time to practice these feats of superhuman intelligence.

My secret number was 120. And what did they pick? 150. And what did the calculator show? 1.25.

I was going to let them play the game out. I was going to let them just guess as they had been. I was going to move on with my lesson as planned. But my mouth worked faster than my brain. I told them that if they worked at it, they could get the secret number on the second guess – spot on.

You think the kids were going to steer away from a challenge like that, or hijack my lesson for the next thirty minutes? You guessed it.

It was interesting. Two children clearly had the concept and were trying to explain that the answer was 120. They were fighting an uphill battle against the kids who still were developing their ideas of number and percent, who felt that the group should guess 125. Believe you me, I learned a LOT about their understandings and misconceptions. Conversation went something like this:

“The number has to be 120 because 1.25 is 1/4 above the number. There are 4 30’s in 120 and if you add 30 to it it’s 150.”

“It’s 125 because 25 above the number is 150.”

“If it were 125, the calculator would read 1.2 when we put 150 in because 25 is 1/5 of 125.”

…and on and on. I reminded them that they could work on showing their thinking with a mathematical representation. Somehow, only those two students could figure out a way to mathematically show their thinking. They came up and showed their work: 25%=30, 50%=60, 75%=90, 100%=120, 125%=150.

The lightbulb went on. It was unanimous. All guessed 120. And all breathed a sigh of relief to know that they did indeed get the secret number – spot on.

Yes, I loved that they got the right answer. But what I really loved? Graduating from one level of listening to another. In the space of this conversation, students did away with the I’m-looking-at-you-and-demonstrating-listening-behaviors-but-really-not-caring-very-much habits of listening. So what did they do?

They listened and spoke with the goal of understanding and being understood. They asked each other questions, and forced people to explain further when they didn’t follow their reasoning. They discovered how tough that was – on both sides.

So why did I get up today? To experience the same joy that they do in learning. To remember the pride of making a discovery. To see what magic sometimes happens when lessons don’t go according to plan.

<<how to play the calculator game>>

Take a simple calculator. Secretly tap in a number, divide it by itself and press “=.” The display will read 1. Your opponent will then guess numbers. Tap in the number and press “=.” If the number’s too big, the display will show larger than 1. Too small, and it’s less than 1. Keep guessing numbers until the calculator displays 1. That’s how you know you’ve found the secret number!

Kick-it-up 1: Make a table of guesses and displays so they can track their thinking. (Good for learning greater than/less than)

Kick-it-up 2: Let them play each other. Even primary kids love this activity!

Kick-it-up 3: Let them play each other, but make them round to the nearest hundredth.

Kick-it-up to notches unknown: Do your kids know anything about fractions? Decimals? Percents? That’s what this game is really about. Does that calculator show 0.5? Then your guess is 50% of the secret number. Kids think I am TOTALLY whacked when I tell them I can deduce their number in 2 guesses (3 on a bad day). And then I prove it. Booyah!

Exhibit A

So…how do I exactly know that I’m working with gifted kids? Well, let’s start with the kindergarten and first-grade students I’m working with, shall we? (For the uninitiated, that puts them at ages 6 and 7.) I gave them the following premise: “If you could spend all day studying about anything you wanted, what would you most want to learn more about?” Here is a sampling of responses:

Social studies (people)

How we can help endangered animals

History of the world


5 least busy airports in the world (followed by a list of them)





History (BC)

So yeah. It probably goes without saying that this group will keep my hands full.

P.S. For those of you who have been following the thread about how I’ve changed my grading practices, stay tuned. It’s been going well! I promise to write an update. Pinky swear, even.

New Way of Business, Part 2

Here I am, grading the latest round of tests. This time, it’s geometry. Last time, it was decimal multiplication and division, and I don’t know who wanted to cry more – the kids or me.

Those of you who read of my dream know I told myself that I’d put together a checklist (buzz-speakophiles will call it a “rubric”) highlighting the learning targets, then judge how far students were towards mastering those targets. Perhaps it would be easier for me to grade (read: I can sleep at night), and it would be better for the students.

If you’re curious how it looks

Drum roll please? Now, I’m a numbers person. Don’t get me wrong. I LOVE numbers, and the ability to quantify a construct. But using this checklist to grade, rather than assign point values on each question, was about 500 times easier (oops! there I go, quantifying again).


For starters, just about anything you ask someone to do in mathematics requires more than one skill at a time. I have to say it’s already a habit of mine to conduct error analysis on just about everything my kids turn in to me. Did they make a math fact error? Are they missing a key part of the procedure? Did they just not read the stinking directions? I also encourage kids to keep an eye on their work so they can learn that same analysis.

Having this checklist allowed me to treat one problem as though it truly required more than one skill set. Take the first problem: “Identify two parallel lines or line segments.” If a kid missed the first problem, maybe it was because they didn’t properly notate lines. Maybe it was because the lines they wrote down weren’t actually parallel. I had kids miss for either reason. For both, I was able to accurately reflect where their skills were.

I found that it was far easier to decide if a student should be marked “developing” or “got it!” than to decide on a point value for a set of problems. For me, it feels like I’m establishing the difference between being evaluative and being constructive. For me, it feels like I am seeing kids for their strengths and needs. Correction: I’ve always intuitively done that. I guess now it feels like I’m putting my money where my mouth is.

What started to become difficult was to follow one reader’s challenge to also quantify a score. I’m still working on that. My first thought is to connect it to the checklist. I could also go by my standard test-scoring procedure.

What I want most is to have a student look at a graded assignment and feel that it’s an accurate reflection of the time, effort, and heart that they put in.

Tomorrow’s the big reveal. I’ll be bringing these to the kids for their responses. Tune in tomorrow, kids!

A New Way of Doing Business?

Maybe it was the barbecue talking.

Maybe I just had a lot on my brain.

But I woke up last night at 12:30 after the most puzzling nightmare.

It was at school. There I was, in the teachers’ lounge, and there were a couple of moms sitting down at the table. Of course I knew them; they are quite active in and around the school. It wasn’t a surprise to see them sitting there, but what they were doing blew me away.

Each woman had stacks of papers. They were already checked by teachers, but these women were grading them AGAIN. Only they weren’t grading the students. They were grading the teachers! There they say with red pens in hand, ready and willing to disagree or discount what teachers had put on the papers already. They then put those incredibly low scores at the tops of the pages in preparation for sharing them. (With the principal? With other parents? School board? Who knows? It was only a dream, you understand.)

I remember feeling so incredibly violated by the whole thing. The injustice of it all struck me most. I was angry about being ranked and rated so low despite my efforts. I remember wondering: To whom might I have gone? The principal? (How did I know that this wasn’t done with her collaboration or blessing?) Our union? (Wait, our district doesn’t have one).

I woke up then, my mind racing. What would I do in that situation were it to actually happen (because, you know, at 12:30 in the morning you can convince yourself that ANYTHING can happen)?

In the process of trying to calm myself down enough to sleep, I tried to figure out what about the dream bothered me so much. The helplessness of not having someone to go to? Sure. But beneath that lay the indignation I felt at seeing my work, slashed through with a red pen. It was the frustration I felt knowing I had only done my best, and to see that I only got a fraction of it “correct” according to their standards. There they were, judging me and the quality of my work. How would they ever know what heart went into it?

(Turn proverbial light on *here*)

Don’t I do that to my kids, though? Hadn’t I just returned a test to some of them, not so long ago, delivering grim news of their progress? It couldn’t have felt much better.

So here’s what I wonder. Here’s what my next experiment is going to be.

What if the next grade isn’t a fraction correct and a percent?

What if, instead, I were to attach a list of the learning targets tested, and note how far they’ve progressed in meeting those targets?

Would it lessen the blow? Would it encourage them to take heart in what they *can* do, rather than what their deficits are? Would it motivate them to take responsibility for their learning? Or would it continue to foster an environment of feel-goodism in a culture of overly padded self-esteem?

I’m going to give it a try. Perhaps it will crash and burn. But perhaps I’m onto something – something that just may change the way I do business.

Your thoughts? I’d love for you to weigh in on the scoring / grading debate.

Why I Seldom Watch the News

…so get this. There was a story on the news today about a Florida school where kids run the place. No teachers, no curriculum – just a center of discovery. But that’s not the point here.


The point is that they asked Meline Kevorkian, who’s written several books about education, for a quote about how it wasn’t a standardized curriculum with testing. Here’s how she started out:

“Without testing, how will these kids know how good they’re doing?”

um, Meline? That’s “well.” How WELL they’re doing.


The Question I Just Can’t Answer…

…is also the one that I never got asked before I had kids. For that matter, I never got it before my kids started school. But here goes:

“You’re a parent. What would you do if you were me?”

Granted, I’ve been able to call on being a parent in so many ways as a teacher. It’s helped me to see that there’s only one child in the room: yours. Parenthood has helped me realize just how hard, how incredibly hard it is, to support our kids. I know that lots of teaching advice doesn’t work in real life. I understand how tricky it is to help kids navigate school, navigate life. Because I’m a parent, just like you.

What would I do in situations as a parent? You’re asking me for advice-as a parent? That’s when I get nervous. See, I’m a parent, just like you.

My kids are an extension of me, just like yours.

I correct their table manners, remind them to say please and thank you, and fight with them to take showers.

I worry about giving my children a balance between freedom and safety.

I check on them at night while they’re sleeping.

I cart them all over creation in my mama-mobile.

I worry that I don’t do enough for them, that I don’t spend enough time with them, that I don’t support their schooling as much as I wish I could.

I sneak kisses whenever I can.

I laugh at their terribly disgusting humor, all while hoping they don’t talk like that at school.

I worry about being “that parent”– a pushy, aggressive, helicopter mom.

I worry that in trying not to be “that parent,” I’m not a strong enough advocate for my child.

I worry that the decisions I make for them are the wrong ones.

Yep, I said it. I make decisions for my own kids all the time, thinking they’re the right ones. But who knows? I imagine my kids will be in therapy at some point in their lives; I just can’t predict what for.

I’ve been in this business for longer than any of my students have been alive. And yes, I joke that my students are “my kids,” and I am incredibly protective of them, much as a parent would be. I still keep in contact with kids who are out of college by now.

But I’m not their parent.

Listen, folks, I can give you as much advice as you want — as a teacher. As a parent, I can identify with many of your challenges, successes and hopes and speak of them firsthand. But advice? I’m as new to much of parenting thing as anybody out there.

The best I can do is to share with you what I know about your kid, what I know about teaching and learning, and work with you to help your child flourish.

I do the best I can do with what I have and what I know.

Just like you.