OUR Children


This morning in my spin class I overheard two moms talking about where their kids go to school. They both really like the same school. They praised it for its discipline policies and how well behaved the students are. They liked the teachers too. They said it is the best school in San Pedro. I know and love that school– it has some amazing teachers. It is a great public school.

I teach in this town too. Parents love our academic program and they love the teachers too, and we have a solid reputation in the community as a great school. But one of the perceptions also out there and even within our own walls is that our school lacks discipline– and that kids get away with bad behavior. In the world of public school competition, bad news travels faster than good.

The school the spin moms like is almost totally white, and mostly affluent, in this little suburb of Los Angeles, one of the most racially diverse cities in the country.

The school I teach in is a mixed bag of lots of different kinds of kids. Lots of different socio-economic groups.

And as I sat there, getting strapped onto the bike for my morning ride, I started thinking about what it means to love a school because kids are well-behaved. Who wins in this situation, and who loses? At my school, we work hard to help our students develop a sense of self-control and agency. Compliance is not our goal. But many parents see compliance and they see safety and order. Safety and order = good school.

Who is left out when compliance is our goal? It’s pretty obvious: kids who struggle to comply. How do they fit in? How do they find success? How do they develop the tools they need to function once they leave our safe little bubble with the clear boundaries?

Our school is incredibly diverse. We have families that advocate for their children boldly and consistently. We serve children whose families have read to them since they were in the womb, families who take their children to libraries and museums regularly, families who provide for their children in every way they can manage. A compliance-driven system can work for this population, but at what cost to individuality and healthy self-awareness?

And we also serve children whose parents can’t effectively advocate for them, for many, many, many different reasons. We work with families who can barely get their children to school. We work with parents who cannot parent their children and are at a loss of how to even try. We work with kids in deep pain, with entrenched patterns of negative behaviors, with living conditions and backstories that would challenge the most stable among us. How do they find their way in a compliance-driven system?

They don’t. Well, some do, they adapt and figure out how to comply– while pushing the pain deep down. But most do not. They act out. They push boundaries. They cause lots of trouble. Do we just suspend? Kick out? Label them as failures before they hit ten years of age? That isn’t just or humane.

I celebrate a school that endeavors to help each child– EVERY child that walks through our gates–to find a way to get through a day and develop their own compass, one that will help them navigate their way through life.  And I celebrate that messy process. It is messy. We aren’t expert at it– yet. Maybe we will never get it exactly right. But we make huge strides with kids. Daily.  And it works. In the long run, I believe,  it is worth all of the talking, the patience, the hope against hope, the small kindnesses, the tears.

As I spun away, my legs and lungs crying out for mercy, I realized this: I worry that when we separate ourselves into these specially coded places– and ensure that OUR children will be safe and away from THOSE children– we are missing the big picture. We are part of a big and beautiful city. We have to find ways to be together in it. They are all children. Our children. Surely we can find ways to embrace them all, and help each of them find their way. Easy to say. Tough to do. And we can.img_4128

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Better Than That


Every year for the past two years the air conditioner in my classroom has gone out. Broken. This happens for two to three weeks out of the school year. Each time it gets “called in.” Each time we wait and wait. Each time, eventually someone comes out to fix it. And then it works for a little while. And then it breaks again. And it gets “called in.” And we wait…

This is a problem. Let me dive a little deeper into three aspects of the problem.

1.  I have to teach in 80-90 degree heat. My students have to learn in this heat. The students are stressed, although they are troopers, and very little complaining goes on. But I can see it in their flushed faces. And I get tired too. When I get home I can wring out my clothing. I have painful heat rashes all over my body. It is stressful to teach in these conditions.

Each time this happens, I am offered a cooler spot- most often the library. I appreciate this, and we took advantage of it on the very hottest 100-degree-day this week. We really had no choice. But it isn’t an ideal solution. It isn’t really any solution at all. Which leads me to the second aspect of the problem.

2.  Assuming that I can pick up my classroom and move to an alternate location for an indeterminate amount of time is an erroneous assumption. If it were for a day or two– I could handle that. I do handle that on a regular basis. But this is different. This is for a week, or maybe two, or maybe only three or four days. No one knows.

I plan lessons to occur in my classroom where I have access to my charts, my books, my technology, my tools, my seating arrangements, my meeting spaces. This is a carefully orchestrated endeavor each and every day. I don’t take this work lightly. To assume I can just move it all to an alternate location at the drop of a hat, and then back again, during the course of a regular day… I will be honest and tell you I feel insulted. I know that is not anyone’s intent, but it is a real feeling I experience when this solution is brought up as a “Why don’t you just move to the library…” solution to the problem of a broken (again) air conditioner.

The fact is that when we move, we accomplish about 50% of the work I had planned for that day. We cannot focus, we are constantly interrupted, we are in a whole new space without our normal borders and boundaries. This is fine for a day or two, but not as a regular and seemingly permanent solution for this persistent problem. I am and always have been the kind of teacher who is mindful of every moment of instruction. I am often literally breathless at the end of the day. There is very little down time in my classroom. And yet I am forced to choose between teaching in the heat or losing what amounts to half a day of instruction every day that the air conditioner breaks. This is an unacceptable choice.

Last spring I was forced to give them the state tests during a no-air-conditioner period, and because the library was unavailable, we had to remain in our classroom with the doors and windows open and the portable fans blowing loudly–which was a good thing because it drowned out the noise coming for the lunch bench and playground areas– during testing. This is one of the main ways in which my students and I are judged, and these were the conditions under which we had to work. No one made a note of that on the test results page.

3.  The third aspect of the problem is this: What message does it send to our families when the very basic need of adequate shelter cannot be met by the school to which they entrust their children? To tell our children again and again that “someone is going to fix it but we don’t know when” is to let them know that they are not important. Their needs take a back seat to other district needs. What else could be more important than clean, safe and reasonably comfortable facilities?

In addition, we are under an order by the local air quality management district to filter the air that flows into our classroom 24/7. There are two large signs stuck on to my wall demanding that I run the fan at all times. This is important it says! Yet, this filtering does not occur when the AC is down because with it goes the fan. So, not only are my students hot and sweaty, but they are also breathing air that has been determined to be unhealthy for them, and there is not a thing I can do about it. And no one seems to think it is important anymore.


I think it is more than evident that a pattern has been established here. The air conditioning unit for room 37 is not ever going to be okay. And it is not okay with me that that fact has become a permanent part of my employment. I try hard to be a team player. I am not a big complainer. I have been a flexible, hardworking, problem-solving educator for 30 years in this district. And I believe that my students and I deserve better than this hot and sweaty limbo condition every few months for days and weeks at a time. Can’t we do better than that?


Cathy Scott Skubik

Park Western Place Elementary

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Who is Innocent Anymore?

Recess break.

“Have you heard from Caroline?”

No I hadn’t.

And I wondered why someone was asking.

And she wasn’t there. She wasn’t at UCLA. She was not. But, I forgot that in the moment.

I found out. A shooter. A campus in lockdown.

But, she wasn’t there.

The shooter was, but she wasn’t. She was in our town, at a doctor’s appointment.

She was talking to her friends, from her phone, they were in buildings on campus on lockdown. She was worried that they would step into harm’s way.

She was trying to tell them how to be safe. She was trying to give them information.


A colleague said: This didn’t affect her.

Yes it did.

It touched her spirit. She worried. She panicked. She thought that perhaps she had sent a friend into a bullet’s path. By a simple word of advice. Stay put.


This is so sad.

It is sad for the young professor, living his dream, with a wife and a family and a life. A career. How sad for the children whose dad is now dead, not able to father them anymore.

It is sad for the young man who shot him. Who loved him and worried about him?

What teacher knew him and thought, hmmmm, he is in need of some help.

How can we help him?

How could he get so lost?


How sad for the innocence lost.


Innocence. What the hell is that? Who is innocent anymore?
I am not naive. I know my daughter cannot be spared that lesson. But I will admit, as much as I knew in my heart that she was okay…. and I pray that my radar is always accurate… handy that… as much as I knew that, I also hoped that her days as a young person who believed that the world would offer her a fair shake… would last a little longer. Not her belief anymore.

I wish I could write some grand take-away. Some lesson I learned. Advice. Words of the wiser.



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They Don’t Tell You…



Here are some things no one told me in my methods courses, also known as teacher-school.

They don’t tell you about the day when you find out that what you thought was a smoothly running classroom is really a hive of worker bees with a few but powerful and restless, cussing, scheming nine-year olds.

Or that there will be a day when your breath is taken away by the meanness that a child harbors inside. You will wonder where she gets it. What has happened to her to create such a need to reach back out and sting? How can you possibly begin to sooth some of that hurt and at the same time protect others from her jabs?

They don’t tell you that there will be a day when you realize that your best efforts are not enough. Period. That what you thought was really working was not. That all your class discussions and book talks about kindness, and being true to yourself, and what is appropriate… all – not sticking. All overpowered by social media and a culture where children are completely steeped in sexual images and messages that they can’t help but react to.

They don’t tell you that you will give, and give, and give, and it will not ever be enough. That you will leave at the end of a long day so bone-tired and weary that you are not sure you can make it to your car. And you will go home, and sit down, and your people will want to talk and play and move on with the early evening and all you will want to do is cry.

And they don’t tell you about the day you say good bye to a student who you have watched grow into the lover of books you had hoped for. Who has emerged as a confident and joyful learner, in spite of the fact that life has handed him a load of despair and unfairness that no living being deserves. And who leaves within ten minutes. Social services at their best, don’t you know. No time to say goodbye. A quick grab off my shelf of the read-aloud he loved, tucked into his hands, “Always remember how strong you are, and how even when you don’t think you can, you can.”

They don’t tell you your heart will break in a hundred different ways.
Good thing. Who would teach?

I know there is a flip side to every heartache above. There is light in every dark corner and dead end. That every human endeavor is a series of moves through tunnels and pinnacles, twists and turns and questions that have no answers. If you never walked through the valley, how would you recognize the mountaintop? The joy would be less intense, less sweet.

I know that this pain and this hurt is what some teachers avoid by never really engaging in the first place. I know this. Luckily, they didn’t tell me how to do that either.

Thank you Ruth, for this place to share our celebrations and our heartaches too. You can read many more here.


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Approximations, Earthquakes and Dinosaurs


Time to celebrate! Thank you Ruth Ayers and the community she nurtures.

And speaking of time…it’s almost that time! SBAC looms large. Manic testing season is around the corner. My head is full of “Are they ready?” (nope) “Have I covered everything?”(of course not) “What will happen if…” (let it go)

In my wanderings this morning, I have been to this scary post on Washington Post about high stakes testing. And I have read a wonderful op-ed piece in the LATimes about why Finish schools do so well. And then I took myself to my classroom blog to review and publish some student posts and comments.

First, I gotta say, I love Kidblog. This platform allows my students to communicate with one another and express themselves in an authentic way. And they do.

Of course, there are the favorite food polls, favorite song polls, favorite soda polls…

A few bully experiences and sibling stories.

They are arguing about Donald Trump. Most of them believe he is a bad guy.

They tell each other about books they are reading.

This week I asked them to step it up a bit. Raise their own level. Instead of one line about their favorite food, try to tell a story about it. Or write an info piece. We are exploring genre in our notebooks, and taking a topic and bending it into different types of writing. I encouraged them to try that in their blog posts. Some of them did.

This is how you play!When the quarterback say hike that mean it is time too block!Thats not all you are sopos to get ball and make a touchdown or get the first down.But you are on defense you can sack the quarterback or intersp it.That is how you play some football tell you some more latter by!!!

or this…

Did you ever know how an  earthquake can happen? an earth quake happens when a rock is found beneath the ground on top of fault line and it suddenly breaks and a earthquake comes

I struggle a bit with how heavily to edit. I want them to write more, and love it more, and feel empowered more… and asking them to fix it up can squash that. I draw the line at two things: if I can’t read it, it needs fixing up, and if it is untrue, inaccurate, or hurtful, it needs some revision.

I am inspired by how this activity gets some of my writers moving. Kids who rarely show excitement about writing come alive when it’s time to blog. The social aspect of it is powerful. But what moves me the most is when something we have been working on in class shows up in a post without my prompting it. We recently finished reading Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy. They DEVOURED it. It gave us a chance to examine metaphors and how authors use them to talk about deeper issues and themes.

This morning I found this, waiting for my review.

Dinosaurs are like a book club because each bone is like a person and they form together to make a group and this inspired me to do this because I love inspiring people to use their imagination and to become someone their parents have never seen before.

So, this week I choose to leave testing mania out of it, and I celebrate nine and fledgling ten-year-olds’ approximations. It’s all about the try. I don’t expect mastery or perfection. I want my students to feel free to try lots of stuff in an environment that will celebrate the engagement, the effort, the risk. They have LOTS of time to hone their craft. But we don’t have lots of time to get them inspired. That window is closing, as hormones hover in the wings. Now is the time to nurture that fierce love of learning, to inspire that deep and firm sense of “I can,” and to stoke the courage that will push them over the hurdles to come.

Take that, SBAC.



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Random Princess Sighting

This week I celebrate childhood.

Right smack dab in the middle of a note taking page, a Disney princess showed up! Right there, after many, many serious lessons about text structures, reading and rereading, sketching and note taking, tackling the hard parts of text, and trying our best to be researchers with courage…


There she was. Waving to the map of California that shows precipitation patterns. My student neglected to read the key of the map, instead interpreting it visually.  Thus the land is green, blue is water…

I think Belle may be responsible for the distraction.IMG_4010

I love thinking about why this student decided to do this…

Was it purposeful? Did she want to decorate the page? Make it pretty?

Was she bored? Where did that come from?

Does it matter? Childhood is alive and well.

Princesses are everywhere.

I’ll celebrate that!

You can read other celebrations here, thank you Ruth Ayers!




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Big Bunch, Little Bunch


Here is a slice of life from last weekend. On Sunday husband and I made fresh spinach lasagna. We debated, as usual, as to the best way to cook it and how much to start with. We opted for four bunches, and it still wasn’t enough. It worked, but we could have gone with more. Geez! I was transported back to a winter’s night when I was in college and my roommate and best friend since fourth grade and I were experimenting with cooking. We felt so grown-up, in our own apartment and all. Living the life.


I can’t remember what was on the menu other than fresh steamed spinach. We were so proud of our healthy habits. We had a big bunch of spinach, and spent a long time washing it and getting rid of the sand. Then we steamed it. Then we lifted the lid. We were astonished and a little disappointed at the result. Enough to feed one person– one measly little bunch. After all that work! It started out so big…

It can be about this time of year that some of us teachers may begin to feel a little bit of the same disappointment/frustration/anxiety. Testing is around the corner. We are at or just past the half-way mark. We started out SO BIG. And, when we lift the lid… not what we are expecting. Some kids– still not reading.  Some going through the motions and complying, but not engaged. Some haven’t really moved at all from where they started with us.

And yet… if we remember to look at all of the students in our classroom, it can be quite encouraging. We need encouragement right about now. We don’t need to get down and frustrated and send out any hopeless vibes. We need a shot of energy – kind of like Popeye’s spinach.

Last week, I started looking at everyone. I found many examples of kids who have come a long way. During parent conferences I heard K’s dad say that yes, he has noticed a difference too. She is coming home, reading for longer, and her discussions of what she has read are filled with solid-sounding comprehension. And I listened to Y tell her grandmother all about the book she is reading right now, and she went on and on and on, and on. We both looked at each other. Wow. Very different than the first time we sat down and discussed her progress. K’s mom shared with me that he is spending more time reading and less fooling around than he used to. She’s not sure what is going on, but it is encouraging. Yes, it is. When I sat with A, who refused to do any reading or writing about reading whatsoever until about a month ago (when we started a book club for others like her), and gave her a running record, I had to give her the next two to find her independent level. And, at the beginning of workshop partner time, when I stop myself from running over to the seemingly-always-in-crisis group, and focus on what is working, I see many examples of authentic book talk. Not perfect. But real.

I reflect on this not to toot my horn. Nope, I reflect on this to remind myself time and again, it is my job to encourage and allow space for the act of reading and reading and reading. It is my role to help students in finding the books they love, and then giving them time to read and read and read some more. This will pay off in the end. It is messy and not clear all the time. But there is growth. Of course, it takes more than just letting them read. There are lots of other moves I make during a day. But, I remind myself that in a reading classroom that is designed to build readers, the focus must remain on building independence and engagement before visible growth and compliance. And it takes a BUNCH of process to get a little bunch of product.


Thank you Two Writing Teachers for the chance to share a slice. You can read lots more here.




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Confessions of a Part-time Facebook Junkie


This is part story, part confession.  Here is the confession: Facebook takes my time. Too much of it.

I love Facebook. It is fun to keep up with people I don’t usually see. It is fun to see what they are up to. It’s also fun to drop little mini-stories about little things that happen in my day.

smart and final

And I also hate it. There is a lot of negative energy at times. Even the above post– as righteous as it felt– also felt mean-spirited in a way. Faecbook is a total time-sucker and a perfect excuse to “just take a few minutes to unwind” after a long day. It is never a few minutes. And often I don’t feel unwinded. Not a word. Should be.

Ten to twenty minutes a day… that is some time out of a day. Okay, hold onto that twenty minutes. It’s coming back later.

Here we are on a Sunday morning. Beautiful sun shining, long walk already in. A whole day to get caught up on paper grading, planning, professional reading… and…. we get to Facebook! Like a moth to the flame. STOP IT.

So I get to my email, and Two Writing Teachers has this wonderfully thought-provoking post by Kathleen Sokolowski about how important it is for teachers to not only be readers but also writers. This cuts me to the quick. I carry some guilt around this issue. I KNOW this. Yet. Facebook calls. And I write little snippets. Suddenly I realize how like my fourth graders I am. It is so much easier to engage in quick things, light things, easily accessible things. It doesn’t make them less important or valuable. It just makes them… lighter.

Trying to write a blog post, an essay, a letter, a story… they take work. And time, and real effort. And, it opens you up. You become vulnerable when you put yourself on paper. That is scary sometimes, and tiring too. However. It is not too difficult. It can be done. Just a change in habit perhaps. Just some engagement. It is so worth it. How often do I lament about my students’ lack of engagement? Me thinks I doth protest too much!

Remember that twenty minutes? If I changed my unwind habit to one of twenty minutes of writing… first, before Facebook, maybe that would be enough to set that guilt down and start writing more. To kick into a writerly life once again.

There are so many good reasons to write. It is healthy, stress relieving. It is excellent preparation for teaching. It helps keep memories from flitting away. It helps me process and prioritize. And understand. I have so many reasons to write. But I am also good at coming up with excuses to not do so.

The past month has found me cleaning and decluttering. I feel energized and unburdened. (Yes, I did this before that book came out about the subject. Just sayin’.) It seems a natural next step to clean up this part of my life as well. Here I go.

Feeling better already.

Thank you TWT for the chance to share. I love Slice of Life stories.




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The Things We Hide Away

Today I am thankful for a moment to remember.


When I first started dating my husband, some thirty years ago, I remember a night when I called him to find a tearful, shaken man. His friend Ben Pinel had just been killed in a fire at The Proud Bird restaurant in Los Angeles. I didn’t know him, but his death was widely felt by many I knew in our small suburb of Los Angeles.

This morning I went to a new coffee place in downtown San Pedro called Sirens. My husband and I sat down to enjoy a quick latte with our daughter before she headed back up to school. We started up a conversation with the owner. I noticed there were a lot of firefighter references all around, including the Dalmatian, a dark and white chocolate latte, and asked her about them. Turns out, Yolanda is the sister of Ben, and she and my husband started talking about Ben and the fire, and on it went. She created this coffee house as a tribute to her beloved brother. She told us about the beautiful tile and clay artwork on the wall.


The lighthouse is a replica of a beautiful gem, Angel’s Gate, in our own Port of Los Angeles. Julie Bender, an artist and retired LA City firefighter, designed and created the work. The wings were painted one night by a group of widows whose husbands had died in the line of duty as first responders. The light in the lighthouse shines to symbolize how we will never forget those who gave their lives in service to their communities.

Yolanda shared with us how she met Julie, who just sort of showed up. Yolanda was looking for something to memorialize her brother and other first responders, and had in mind something that would fill up a large wall space in the back. As they talked, they realized they had a deeper firefighter connection. Julie had been at the Proud Bird fire, and she pulled out Ben’s partner. They were unable to save Ben in time. Yolanda told us she believes that creating the memorial allowed Julie to lay down some of that burden.

That is how it goes, isn’t it? There is so much around us, so many layers of life and experience that we can’t see unless we spend a little time digging. I have been thinking about this a lot in my classroom the past few weeks. Listening to children, instead of talking at them, always opens up my eyes to the lives they lead right under my nose. They have questions and goals, likes and worries, and they bring it all into the class. And then they seem to hide it away so they can learn the way we ask them to.

“Maybe we could talk about the things we have hidden away inside of us,” D told me last week. At a loss for words, I smiled through my tears. Yes we could. Yes we will.

That is how it goes…we spend our days walking around, carrying our burdens and the things we have hidden away. Some are heavier than others. Reaching out, showing up, sometimes it just works where we meet the person we are meant to meet, and life’s synchronicity works in our favor.

What a lovely way to remember.  What a lovely thing to celebrate.

Thank you to Ruth Ayers. I have missed celebrating with you on Saturdays, and am aiming to get back into that habit.


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Celebrating is hard sometimes. But thanks to Ruth, I try to do it each Saturday morning. Check out all the wonderful celebrations here.

It’s hard to be a teacher during the week of Halloween. A constant battle for attention and focus. Super challenging. Period.


And it’s difficult to maintain focus and momentum this year in the City of Angels and its giant monster of a district with its fierce appetite for testing, testing, testing. Even more difficult to get excited about teaching a new unit when your school district is actively trying to hamstring you. The mandated assessments take so much time that they make it literally impossible to teach effectively. Period.

At our Tuesday afternoon faculty meeting we had a discussion about the book we were all reading, Choice Words. So many good reminders about how the words we use everyday can help form student beliefs about learning and potential and responsibility. Then we reflected on some of the things that a group of us heard Lucy Calkins say during a staff development session the week before. Ideas about the importance of sticking with a unit all the way through. Following the plan. I thought to myself, but didn’t say out loud, that in order to do that one needed HOURS of time to read through the unit, understand its intentions, gather materials, you know, the work of a teacher. But it takes hours. Many. And I thought, okay, I can do that after this meeting. I have a good start, a few more hours and I should be good to go. I have a few hours before I head home. Perfect.

And then, then… the upper grade teachers were kept in the meeting after everyone else was dismissed to go work in their classrooms. We, the lucky ones, got to hear about how we had to log on to the district testing site and jump through some hoops so that we could administer the interim assessments. And it was apparent that it may not work on the first or second try. Technical difficulties. Time taken. HOURS we never get back.

Testing takes time away from instructional time in classrooms every day. That is disastrous enough for teachers and students.  But it also takes time away from the vital work of researching, reading, planning what we are teaching. Planning time is not a luxury– not something we do in our spare time. But it is taken away from us, by our district, consistently, to meet this mandate or take that online assessment. And saying no puts you in opposition to people you work with, administrators and coordinators you respect.

So, I am feeling less than celebratory. And I am trying to figure out a way to fight back, stay true to what I know, and keep teaching. But not just by closing my door. I have come to know that if that is all we do– just take care of ourselves and our own little world– then the problem persists. It doesn’t get better and in fact gets more problematic. We have to take a stand. We have to let people know how the testing-industrial-complex is taking over our schools and our classrooms, and we have to fight back. Like storm troopers.

But right now, I don’t feel like a storm trooper. I am tired. So I can celebrate a weekend. Time to regroup. And time to get my mind around this new unit, as well as plan the next move in the battle.

May the force be with me.


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