Monthly Archives: October 2015

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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