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.

Nope.

 

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They Don’t Tell You…

 

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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

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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

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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Battles

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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.

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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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The Last Chapter

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I love the last chapter of a book.

I mean, I really love the last chapter of a book.

This week we came to the last chapter of How to Steal a Dog. I flipped off the fluorescents, flipped on the string of fun lights over the cabinets, passed out some chocolate chip cookies, and my fourth graders and I read the last few chapters together. It was magical. When we got to the end, they even read the last line with me. They were so in tune with the main character, they knew exactly what she was going to say, and they said it out loud… “…and it didn’t stink.” Magic.

Then they asked if there was going to be a book two, a sequel. And could we read it. At first I was puzzled and a little deflated. Did they not see how the problem had resolved? The return (or lack of return) of Georgina’s father had little to do with the resolution. But they wanted to know where he was. Did they not see that Georgina had learned an important lesson? And grace and forgiveness were the beautiful gifts she received, instead of what she thought she wanted?

I reminded myself to meet them where they were. No judgement on my teaching or their learning, just meet them…and I realized that even though they wanted a sequel, what they were really wanting was to hold on a bit longer. Just like me, they were so connected to the characters by the end of the book, they wanted to spend a little more time with them. I shared with them how I feel a little sad at the end of a good book because I am never ready to say goodbye to the characters I have lived with for the last few weeks. Some of them nodded knowingly. Some were skeptical, and still wanted to know when book two was coming out.
Then the bell rang. Magic over. Recess!

But I celebrate that special moment this week. You can read more celebrations here. Thank you Ruth Ayers for this special place to celebrate each week.                              celebrate-image-1

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The Cheerleading Section

I had the privilege of meeting Patricia Polacco this week. My friend Dayna arranged for her to come out and speak at our schools, and it was a wonderful afternoon. In spite of a jam-packed auditorium with inconsistent air conditioning, and children who know how to be read to but not how to listen to a speaker without talking, hooting, whistling, thumping, kicking the seat in front of you… (that’s another post perhaps), we were treated to an hour of her storytelling-peptalk-wisdom sharing. My favorite: “We all open our gifts at different times.”

Patricia has made no secret of her struggles in school and her dyslexia. She shared her story with our students, and begged them to not ever give up hope, to believe in their own gifts, and to see their own genius. This was very touching to hear, but also to see. Some of my colleagues and I were sharing afterward that our students hear this from us all the time. We are always encouraging them. We are kid-whisperers! But, coming from someone else, and particularly from someone who has written and published stories that they love, well, that was an eye-opener for some of them. I could see a few kids look up and squint, turn their head sideways a bit… as if to say, “I’ve heard this before, but not from someone outside of the cheerleading section.”

For isn’t that what we are? Cheerleaders. Just off to the side. Always cheering! Aware of the game and our surroundings. But not in the game. Not the player. We often use the metaphor of coach to describe a teacher. That makes a lot of sense; we guide, set things up, design plays and moves for optimum learning. But last week when I went to my niece’s school to watch her cheerlead her way through a football game, I also watched a coach verbally rip into a player for not doing something he was supposed to do. It was clear that he was disappointed and angry. The blunder created a play for the other team. Winning was at stake. And the player’s mistake had put the winning in jeopardy. Anger was an appropriate response. I guess.

I proudly and passionately work in a public school. High-stakes testing took ahold about fifteen years ago, and has maintained its death-grip on our schools and our mission to facilitate an educated public. I believe it is responsible for a similar, side-line mentality today. I have found myself angry when a lesson fails. When a student doesn’t try. When they play, fool around, day-dream. And I check this anger. I know it doesn’t belong in my classroom. I believe in childhood and daydreaming, nine-year old boys who sit in their chairs on their haunches, unafraid of falling over backwards. I believe in chatting and passing notes. I believe in taking time to discover a good book. I believe in learning at your own pace and in your own time. I believe in mistakes. And attempts.

But that doesn’t win games. And it doesn’t satisfy the establishment’s request for everyone to be college ready and on track to be so by second grade. Jesus Arne, really. What a ridiculous thing to say.

Near the end of Patricia’s visit, she shared the story of the meteorite that landed in her mother’s childhood front yard. Her family believes that it has some power, and they often make a wish when they touch it. She had a chunk of it and showed the kids. She encouraged them to make a wish, something important, and we all closed our eyes as she held the rock.

I know that we can make giant strides in our classrooms, with even our most reluctant learners, if we get to know our students and carefully plan our lessons. If we follow up and reteach with intent and variety. If we show up with passion and curiousity. And if we cheer. Loudly. And believe with every fiber of our being that each gift in our classroom will be opened in its time. It may or may not show up on a test score. It may or may not show up in our time with our students. But it will show up in a smile when it finally clicks. In a courageous attempt to try something that is really hard. And in tightly closed eyes, and a fist balled up around an imaginary piece of rock, wishing fervently for something their heart whispers.

I’m proud to be a member of the cheering section for 28 years. And counting.

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