Posts Tagged ‘elementary education’

Sunday Sitdown #5: First Lesson

February 14, 2021

Mrs. Williams was a great first-grade teacher.

She was kind, cheerful and honest.
She always encouraged us with phrases like, “You’re cookin’ with gas!”
She regaled us with stories of her little girl.
She used Girl Scout Thin Mint cookies as prizes when she REALLY wanted to motivate us.
Heck, she put up with ME as a first grader. That’s no easy task.

She was also the first Black teacher I had ever had.* And she was willing to talk about race.

One day, Mrs. Williams decided that she was going to teach us about skin color. Looking back as a teacher, I might guess that wasn’t just a random choice. I might guess that Mrs. Williams was responding to a comment or situation that came up in class. Or maybe there was something going on in the world that my first-grade brain wasn’t quite aware of. Whatever it boiled down to, Mrs. Williams decided that it was time for us to talk.

I’m going to guess that the lesson was longer than I remember, but what captures my memory most is when she held up two crayons: one white, one black.

Mrs. Williams held up the white crayon and said, “When people say they’re white, does their skin look like this color?”
A crowd of giggling first-graders yelled back, “Nooooooo!”
She held up the black crayon and said, “When people say they’re Black, does their skin look like this color?”
We again yelled, “Noooooo!”

And that was at the heart of it. It was the first time I had ever engaged, on-purpose, in a conversation about what being Black or being white really means. About what race means, and what it DOESN’T mean. It was a way to tell a group of six- and seven-year olds that race is complicated. It’s not just what we see. It’s more complex than a label we might wrap around someone.

Thank you, Mrs. Williams. You were cookin’ with gas.

*I’m also beyond grateful to be able to say that Mrs. Williams was just my first Black teacher, and not my only. For all of the shortcomings that may have accompanied my schooling, I am glad that my school district made an effort to hire a diverse range of teaching and instructional staff. It was important for children of color in my community, but I’d say it was also important for me.

Swinging For The Fences

February 9, 2021

I’m not going to lie.

This year, I have had some SPECTACULAR fails in the classroom.

And I mean, not just the oh-man-this-is-tricky-how-am-I-going-to-figure-a-different-way-of-teaching-this-to-the-kids fail. That’s just an ordinary, run-of-the-mill, cost-of-doing-business, everyday type of fail.

No.

I’m talking about the holy-cow-this-lesson-is-crashing-and-burning-and-I-have-absolutely-no-way-of-backing-out-of-this-and-no-way-to-figure-out-in-the-moment-how-to-make-it-better-and-why-did-I-even-bother-getting-out-of-bed-today fail.

I’ve thought a lot about these fails.

They haunt me.

In the moment, failures as I’m teaching feel like I’m failing as a teacher.

The good news is that time offers perspective. And through the perspective of time, I get offered moments of clarity and growth.

You see, all my fails, at least the most spectacular ones, have had one thing in common: they all occurred when I was asking more of my students than they were ready for.

That got me thinking about what I do and why I do it. I was talking with my kids this morning about yet ANOTHER ambitious lesson we were going to try and take on. Here’s what I told them:

“Friends, I’ve been thinking a lot about what we’ve been doing, and I realize sometimes I mess up as a teacher. And when I think about the mistakes I make as a teacher, I kind of have to decide. Do I want to make the mistake of overestimating what you can do, and sometimes ask too much of you? Or do I want to make the mistake of underestimating what you can do, and asking less of you than you might be capable of?”

Down to a person, we all knew the answer to that question.

So yes. I will continue to shoot big, and yes. I will continue to sometimes miss big. But If I didn’t shoot big, Would I ever get reasoning like this?

Done as a group together (you may have to expand, but there’s good stuff here).

Would I ever get writing like this?

Fourth-grade spelling. Gotta love it.

Would I ever get peer feedback like this?

This is what happens when you model feedback based on grown-up writing communities like the Slice of Life challenge.

Fact is, I wouldn’t trade all those difficult moments for the world, if it means growth for me and my kids. And maybe next time, these mistakes will pave the way to a smoother path next time, one that takes them – and my teaching – even further.

Slice of Life: Pre-Emptive Gratitude

January 26, 2021

We don’t have a snow day today, and I’m about as happy as a wet cat.

Something deep within me ached for a day back at home, even if it still involved a full day of classes and meetings. The thought of getting up early, bundling up, clearing off the car, of navigating barely passable roads, and repeating the process at day’s end just seemed…disheartening.

But here I am, standing at my desk and ready for my first meeting of the day. And on days like this, it’s easy for me to give in to discouragement and crabbiness. Grouchiness fits like an old pair of jeans.

Unfortunately, that makes for a REALLY long day.

Instead, I’m setting my sights on the moments of gratitude and joy that I know await me today, in no particular order:

warm chai
colleagues who check in…and mean it
a women’s night with folks who ground and inspire me
fresh grapefruit
soft socks
the wisdom of eleven year-olds
the Slice of Life writing community
a dog who’s happy to see me
deadlifts in the garage
the perfect hard-boiled egg, dipped in salt
podcasts
helping folks do what they do, only better
long, deep breaths

…and all of the surprises this day has awaiting me…

A Teacher’s Guide to Inauguration in 36 Easy Steps

January 19, 2021

or, Reflections from the Evening of January 19, 2021: How to Manage to Stay Afloat for the Next Eighteen Hours and Hold up the Walls of the World While it Watches, Waits, Breathless

  1. Pull yourself away from noise.
  2. Pet your dog.
  3. If you don’t have a dog, pretend to have a dog.
  4. Drink something warm.
  5. Listen, just for a moment, to tomorrow’s poet, Amanda Gorman.
  6. No. I mean really. Go listen. It’ll take you two minutes.
  7. Pass the tissues.
  8. Get a good bedtime.
  9. Wake up. Look at yourself in the mirror.
  10. Don’t just find the visage in the glass. Find the PERSON behind it.
  11. Don’t tell yourself “You’ve got this.” You’re tired of hearing that.
  12. Don’t tell yourself to breathe. You’re tired of hearing that, too.
  13. Tell yourself that you will get through today.
  14. Just like you do every day.
  15. Even the most difficult ones.
  16. Because that’s what we do.
  17. Get yourself to school, or to your Zoom, on time.
  18. Or not. Folks aren’t taking tardies today.
  19. Remember that our children are the reason we get up each day.
  20. Put your suffocating dread in its own breakout room.
  21. Tell your students you have faith in them.
  22. Tell your students you have faith in this world.
  23. Tell them again. Most of them won’t believe you the first time.
  24. Tell them they are part of history, that future children will hold their lives between the pages of a textbook.
  25. You will get through the day.
  26. Just like you do every day.
  27. Even the most difficult ones.
  28. Because that’s what we do.
  29. Close your computer and walk away.
  30. Do what you need to do to unclinch your white-knuckled grasp from your fear and anxiety.
  31. Because tomorrow your children will be waiting for you.
  32. They will need to hear, again, of your faith in the world.
  33. They will need to hear, again, of your faith in them.
  34. And again.
  35. And again.
  36. And again.

One Little Word…For Now

January 12, 2021

I’ve been a member of the Slice of Life writing community for nine months now. It’s been a source of inspiration, support and validation as I work to become braver in my writing.

As time goes on, I learn more about the rituals and traditions that “slicers” have. Most recently, I learned that each New Year’s brings with it the challenge to come up with One Little Word to frame ourselves for the new year.

I didn’t know that was a thing the week most folks posted, but I promised myself to write a post with my own One Little Word. Which is…

gather.

For me, for right now, I have come to rely on the power of gathering.

Which, now that I think about it, is strange, given that the literal meaning is so very impossible right now.

But in the metaphorical sense, I have come to rely on gathering…

Thoughts. Some days, it takes everything I have to bring my attention and focus to heel. My brain slides in one direction and the other. Like right now, for instance. I feel in my bones…how I feel, which means I feel…how? I can’t name it. My thoughts slip past and that’s strange to me. I’m used to being able to spend time with my thoughts. I’m used to being able to stop and articulate what’s going on in my inner self. And lately, that’s been tricky.

Life. These past months in particular, I’ve experienced shattering and loss. For several weeks, I sat, cross-legged and dumbstruck, among the wreckage. I’m finally standing now. Tentatively. And as I look around the room, I’m witnessing all of the routines and habits and structure I’ve let fall to pieces. And seeing them reminds me of ways I’ve failed myself, or those I love most. One by one, I’m gathering those pieces. It’s still an armful, so this one is going to take a while.

Joy. Thankfully, I haven’t lost my ability to notice and name those things, big and small, that provide me with delight, that offer reasons to get out of bed each day, that fill my heart to bursting. I can’t forget to bring these things in and together.

Strength. Remember what I said about how all those pieces of my life were an armful? It’s a LOT to carry. I am indescribably grateful for the amazing humans who situate themselves near me in one way or another. It is through the care and compassion of others who help me with the heavy lifting.

Gather. I’ll always need this word, for sure, but I’m hoping that I’ll be ready for a new one before I know it.

Offerings: Slice of Life Tuesday

January 5, 2021

Today, I bring you a bouquet of wonderfulness, plucked by my own hands from the bounty around me, gathered with care and bound with a length of twine I found in my kitchen drawer:

A video a student sent me, just because she knows I love animated shorts, and this one was beautiful and sweet and wonderful.

A student, who loves to play with language, becoming excited when I explain appositives, shouting, “I call those COMMA TWINS!” [see what I did there?] Which, for the record, is absolutely BRILLIANT.

That same student, who gets super excited to be noticed, basking in the spotlight because we then introduced “comma twins” as a literary term.

A group of fourth-graders who somehow stumble both onto the idea of “oxymorons” and “fatal flaws” within the space of a single hour lesson.

A fifth-grader who thinks it’s cool that I don’t care if people know how old I am, after I explain that today is my half birthday and that officially makes me forty-eight-and-a-half.

Turkey barley soup, served up for lunch out of a favorite mug.

Second-graders coming to realize that not every kid has everything they need to be healthy and happy.

A kid who notices an appositive in her book and thinks to email me a picture of it.

The musical videos a student sent me of him playing the ukulele with his sometimes-willing brother at his side. Oh, the beauty and the joy that he radiates.

There were so many other flowers by the side of the road it was tough to choose just a few.

A good problem to have.

Slice of Life Tuesday: Missing Dreams

December 22, 2020

Today for the weekly Slice of Life challenge I knew I had a poem to write, but wanted to experiment with language and form. I came to a modified version of a triversen, a William Carlos Williams-created form consisting of six tercets: 18 lines in 6 stanzas. I’m still tweaking and working and thinking, but here goes:

In timesothertimes my dreams are vivid
and I carry them clanking in my pocket
and I listen to how they speakatme

Now manytoomany dreams slip from holes
in my pocket and shatter on the floor leaving
shards beautiful to stare atandat

I see my selfnotself in pieces of these dreams
and I play those bits again and over
til their edges smooth roundanddown

I force these realnotreal visions to replay
like lyrics of beyond-reach songs so
I might slide into sight of what came nextandbefore

But each timeaftertime the light fades
from the edges, the lyrics never come and
neither does the wisdom that used to comeandstay

So for nowtilwhenever all my pocket holds is hope
that dream-words will once again rest there
long enough whole enough clear enough to be heardandfelt

On Finding a Writing Community

December 15, 2020

Sometimes my lessons are OK, but no great shakes. Sometimes they crash and burn – sometimes sadly and softly, others in a great fiery blaze of glory.

But sometimes.

Sometimes I have an idea for a lesson that’s a GREAT ONE.

And it WORKS.

I’ve been trying to be deliberate this year about writing workshop for my fourth- and fifth-grade students. I want to create a community of writers where we improve our craft. Where we love writing and fiercely protect our time at every turn. Where we take risks in our writing. Where we exist as a group that offers our fellow writers support, feedback and the occasional kick in the proverbial pants.

So far, we’ve got a space where we love writing, where we take risks and fiercely protect our time. I’d like to think it’s because I’m transparent with my students about my own writing. Whatever I ask my students to do, I do along with them. I share my writing, even when I don’t like the results so much. I love what I write sometimes, and I struggle to write sometimes. I think, and I’d like to hope, that it’s validating for kids to know that someone they see as a “real writer” (translate: a grown-up with a blog) shares their hopes and insecurities.

One area that’s been really tough for me? Peer feedback. I’ve tried for years to create routines, rituals and skills that fulfill the vision I have for a student writing community. This year, I really want to make that happen. I want my kids to feel comfortable sharing their work with others. I want them to feel like they are part of a writing community. I want them to feel that other writers SEE them, that other writers READ them, that other writers RESPOND to them.

Kind of like…the community I have in the Slice of Life challenge.
(dim the lights)
Like the fearless writing my blog cohorts put out every week.
(cue soft music)
Like the thoughtful, sincere and thorough feedback in the comments.
(gradual crescendo)
Like the fascinating conversations that occur in the comment section.
(lights and angel music UP)

YES. That’s IT. How did I not see it before, ever?
I can use the posts and comments from other Slice of Life bloggers…as MENTOR TEXT for FEEDBACK!
How. On. EARTH. Did this idea not come to me sooner?

We started with my own blog post from last week. Students read my post and the comments that followed. What did we notice? Encouragement. Quotation from the text. Deep connections. Specific compliments. Questions.

And then? We hopped over to my blogging hero Fran Haley’s site and read her work. The students’ challenge? Work together to write a comment that’s worthy of being in the company of those we saw.

WOW. Did they ever deliver. Don’t believe me? Check out the page for yourself and be the judge!

What’s even more incredible is how excited the kids were to see their posts up on the Internet. We read the kind and sincere comments that Fran wrote back to each and every one of them. I don’t know how much time Fran put into her responses, but it was worth every second to see the smiles on my kids’ faces. I’m utterly overwhelmed by Fran’s generosity. Of course, she might read this, blush and say it was nothing.

But it was everything.

My kids feel seen. They feel proud. They now know their work deserves to be read, to be considered and talked about. And they feel inspired to continue their work.

I can’t fool myself into thinking that our work is done, that we have somehow magically perfected this community of writers. But we have laid the foundation, and I am grateful to the writers and colleagues from my own writing community for helping me make it happen.

Slice of Life bloggers, if you’re out there, and you’ve made it this far, THANK YOU. Thank you for providing me with your support, motivation, friendship and inspiration. It means the world.

Little Folks, Big Ideas

December 9, 2020

My third graders have been delving into philosophy, of all things. Because if little minds deserve ANYTHING, it’s the ability to wrestle with BIG ideas.

I’ve been using resources from The Prindle Institute to support our work. Our questions lately have focused on: what is alive? what is real?

After an AMAZING webinar with my hero Ellin Keene and her co-conspirator Dan Feigelson, I decided that today, I’d try taking their strategies for a spin.

Rather than falling into the question-answer-response rut, I took Ellin and Dan’s advice and posted a thought statement to see how kids might respond.

Some context. Last week, we read Lio Lionni’s Let’s Make Rabbits, which challenges our ideas about what is real, about what is ALIVE.

On Monday, I gave kids a list of different things and asked them to explain if they were alive or not. TheĀ most interesting discussion came from those grey areas: a flower in a vase, a turtle in the egg, an appleĀ that fell to the ground. Their conversation led me to think about the idea that life may not be a binary concept.

The thought statement I posted? “I wonder if being alive or not is like an on-off switch, or more like a dimmer switch.” (Yes, I demonstrated the two from my kitchen today. =)

Things I’ve learned:
1) There’s an ART to teaching this, and to structuring it for student success.
2) I didn’t quite get there.
3) Even the messy results were still pretty cool.

Some student thoughts/reflections from the day that made me smile:
-I am now wondering how people started.
-Something new I thought about today is what is real and not real.
-A dimmer light is like a person growing up.
-When you turn a dimmer switch, it’s like a person getting older and when it gets to the darkest point it’s like the person dying.
-Can life be pain?
-Is your imagination alive?

This, from eight year-olds. Friends, the world is in good hands.

A Thing of Wonder

December 8, 2020

Today I saw an owl.

It glided over and lit in my next-door neighbor’s tree just as I was returning from a walk at dusk. There it sat, easily a foot tall and several inches across.

It was a thing of wonder.

It sat long enough for me to walk through the front door of my house.
Long enough for me to shout to my boys, “Guys! There’s an OWL!”
Long enough for them to ignore me.
Long enough for me to quietly slip out the back to get a better look.
Long enough for me to slip back in for a flashlight to see better.
Long enough for me to turn that flashlight on and

Remind me that
A thing of wonder does not need me to
Stop in my tracks
Take a moment
Catch my breath
Stare in awe
Take a picture

Wonder will be wonder,
Whether or not
We bear witness.