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The Importance of Questions

ruth ayers celebrate

I know how important it is to ask questions. I know this deep in my bones. This week brought a couple of reminders of how important questions can be.

The first took place during a parent conference this week. I teach in a school where many of the parents do not ask questions. They show up at the conference, show a great deal of respect, or sometimes disengagement. I chalk up the latter to a mindset: “School was a difficult and painful place for me and I want to just get out of here.” They most often listen passively to what I have to say. My inquiry of, “Is there anything you are concerned about or anything you would like me to know about your child?” is often met with, “No, everything is fine.” Sometimes I get, “I’d like him to read more,” or, “I know she has to work harder.” We don’t get very deep. I used to work at the other half of my school which is a magnet school. The parents in my twenty-some years of conferences there had lots of questions. Demanding, concerned, sometimes even confrontational.

The tough questions made me a better teacher. Even if I knew the concern was baseless or exaggerated, at its root lied a grain of truth that, if paid attention to, brought me to a better understanding of how to teach that child. Self-reflection is a healthy and necessary part of teaching. We know this. But sometimes I hear teachers complain about parents and their hard questions without seeing the gift it can offer.

This week a parent’s inquiry brought me to the surprising revelation that I need to pay more attention to her son’s contributions in class. I was frustrated that I didn’t have a clear answer for her, and I told her I would do a better job of paying attention to him. I am thankful for her tough question and it got me to thinking about how much I miss the challenge of demanding and inquiring parents. If you work with a population of children whose parents are often unable to advocate for their children, it is easy to become complacent. You have to form the habit of asking the tough questions of yourself.

Which leads me to reminder number two. I have been frustrated with my inability to help one of my students get his thoughts onto the page. He listens attentively during read aloud and has significant ideas to contribute, but writing it down proves extremely difficult. He and I played around with Dragon Dictation and another app I found but the iPad kept crashing and we couldn’t figure out how to get the text off the app and onto paper. And remember, 32 other students were waiting for/actively demanding my attention during the time each day he and I puzzled it out. And we had no real success to speak of. Argghh.

I woke up this morning and asked, “How can this be so flipping difficult? Why can’t I figure out a speech to text solution that will work in my classroom?” And I googled “Text to speech, elementary classroom” and found my answer. You probably already know this but Google Docs has a voice-typing tool that will do exactly what I want. EUREKA!

I am celebrating questions and inquiries that lead to more inquiries and sometimes answers. Thanks to Ruth Ayers for the reminder to celebrate. Lots more celebrations are here.

 

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Write About What Fills Your Heart

A short piece I wrote entitled Write About What Fills Your Heart is on the #TeachWrite Blog today! Check it out here:

teachwritechat.blogspot.com/2018/01/write-…

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In the Book Club

Today we were reading The Wild Robot by Peter Brown. A few days ago, when we first started reading the book, my students were wondering about how this story could possibly happen, since the robot is in the middle of the ocean on an island and yet “goes online.” They all agreed that would be impossible. “There is no way there would be wi-fi on that island,” L said with certainty.  

Like Vicki Vinton taught me to do in her wonderful What Readers Really Do: Teaching the Process of Meaning Making, I didn’t do much front loading for this book. I want them to experience the real questions that arise, the puzzles they get to solve, the uncertainty that readers need to carry for a while in a book. But today their questions, which had gotten numerous and frustrating for them, got me thinking that if I were reading this book and felt this way, I might seek out some answers. So I took them to Peter’s blog because I knew it would provide them with some of the answers. We read it out loud together, and a few paragraphs in T said with a big smile, “Oh here we go, we are getting to it now!” He was so excited to learn that this book was set in the future where middle-of-the-ocean wi-fi might be commonplace. Then we got to the part of the website that showed the books Peter read when researching for this book. He had pictures of the spines, “shelfies,” of the titles.

The room caught on fire! “HE READ HATCHET! I READ HATCHET!” yelled M.  J said, with her eyes wide open, “Oh my gosh, he read Charlotte’s Web! Wow! I am reading that RIGHT NOW!” They continued to identify titles they knew and loved. It was electric.

The legitimacy that this gave to my students, this idea that other people read the books we have in our classroom library caught me off guard. It confused me a bit at first. I think it’s another reminder of how far away from book literacy many of them live. While books have always made up, and continue to make up a large part of my life, for many of my students, books are things that only exist in school. Reading is not an activity they see people do at home. No one, outside of our classroom walls, talks about the book they just finished, or the book they want for their birthday, or the book that they can’t wait to read.


But now they know this cool author named Peter– they are in cahoots with him, reading his wonderful story– and he gave them the gift of “being in the club.” They are in his reading club. How simple, and yet how hugely critical.

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Teacher Triumphs!

I’ve been thinking a lot about sports and how sports stars are represented and shown and celebrated. I do this from time to time, especially when I am force-fed the championship games of any sport in order to hang out with my husband. There is always a point in time when my mind starts to wander off and I start wondering what it would look like if we treated teachers the same way that athletes are treated in the moments surrounding championships.  

Perhaps one of my colleagues is filmed sitting quietly with a child in flashes over weeks, patiently waiting and trying different ways to break that code, waiting for the AHA moment, and then it comes, and that too was captured on film. Cue the music, a knowing smile on the teacher’s face, a bright one on the child’s. How awesome would it be if every teacher had a moment where their triumph was televised nationally? And people tuned in to watch.

Or, can you just imagine, me running around the corner, with my fists pumping, in slow motion, just after I provided a space for a child to finally mourn her mother, through a cute, even silly “Dear Mr. Pumpkin”, low stakes writing prompt when unexpected pumpkins had dropped into our laps? I had no idea, but I trusted the process, and trusted kids to write in ways that matter to them, and it gave her that space, and she finally let some of that stuff out.

“No one knows that I don’t really like you. I hate you. You always remind me of that time of year, when she went away. You were everywhere. We never have pumpkins now.”

Play the music, show the cheering teachers surrounding me, streamers released from above, celebrating my move.

Nah. Feels weird. And kinda not the point.

But I do think about it sometimes. Our work is largely ignored. Taken for granted. No one is watching for the little miracles every day– no one sees them. We are isolated. We work harder than most people. It can be tedious. Difficult. Routine. Or not. Patience, and faith, and lots and lots of mistakes. And near misses. But then, it happens. But no one is watching. Where’s the music? The streamers? The photos showing the labor? The celebration? Not happening.

That is okay. ‘Cause the only two people who need to know are the two who witnessed it. And that footage can play over and over in our hearts.

 

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What is Sustainable?

After an enriching, emotional, and exciting weekend conference at #NCTE2017, I have been tossing around something in my brain sort of like I would do with a slow-melting cough drop in my mouth. I was listening to a few youngish teachers talking about their work, and one said, “I can’t stay in the classroom for my entire career. It is unsustainable.” They all agreed.

I have 31 years in. I plan to go another five to seven. And I still love it. Almost every day. This idea shook me. If it is unsustainable, what does that say about me? What is wrong with me? How can I still be plugging along? Am I stale and old? Am I burned out? Am I some sort of oddball teacher that people snicker at behind my back?

I go back and forth between these questions, and worrying about how I am seen, and then reminding myself that it has nothing to do with how I am seen. That is a throwback to my mom’s generation. I don’t do that anymore. Sort of.

Most of the people I admire and learn from in this organization are no longer in the classroom. Consultant. Literacy educator. Literacy leader. Professional developer. Author. These are the titles they hold. They are brilliant. They know a lot about teaching and learning. They research. They write. They often go into classrooms and spend lots of time with children, but they are always other teachers’ classrooms. Other teachers who slog through the year, at times joyfully, tiredly at others. Teachers who strive to make their classrooms places that honor every learner. Give space for every child and their unique needs and contributions. Clean the floors. Buy the Kleenex. Stock the Post-it note supply. Go to the library, borrowing armfuls of books that she needs right now, not wanting to endure the wrath of her husband when he sees the total she spent at Amazon this year, again.

Is it possible to be a teacher who loves to learn new things, outgrow her practice, stay relevant, but resist the “shiny-thing” tendency of many in the profession that are easily distracted from tried and true pedagogies that work? Can I do this without getting burned out? And why do so many good teachers I know think it is unsustainable? Why do so many gifted teachers leave the classroom?

How can effective schools exist if long term teaching, with joy, courage and stamina, is seen as an impossible goal?

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Note to Self

Soooo, a few weeks ago, after a bruising three hours with the National Board Exam, I found myself at Kohl’s. Desperately seeking slippers. And socks, that won’t show. And pajama tops. Only the tops. And sparkly nail polish.

I also almost bought shiny silver sparkly glitter Keds. But luckily, reason kicked in.

What an experience that was. The exam I mean.

I am trying to get certified in English Language Arts – Early-Middle Childhood. It is what I have taught for the past 30 years. I figured I knew it enough. I brushed up on the theories, the stages of development of language acquisition, reading stages, writing stages, childhood developmental stages. I studied assessments that primary teachers frequently use, since they are not in my fourth grade wheelhouse. I reminded myself of what I do when I am being my best version of a teacher. I read and reread the NBC standards. Nothing really earth shattering in there, no surprises.

And yet, I am not sure I will pass. Well, there were more things I knew than I didn’t. I think. But how many do you need? I felt pretty good about my constructed responses, where I looked at a kid’s work and wrote about what I saw and what strategies I would use to address the issues and strengths. But I think I blew the reading one. Honestly, how do you assess a reader if they aren’t in front of you? A running record does part of it, but the real life kid and the discussion and the comprehension check fills in the snapshot.

Mostly, I was struck by how assaulted I felt. As soon as I started I wanted to get up and walk around. I was told I COULD NOT do this. Plus I was being timed. Geez. The earplugs I wore made me able to hear my heartbeat, which got much faster when I was answering a question I wasn’t sure about. I never knew my heart did that. I had to practice breathing. A lot.

This is totally voluntary on my part. But I went in thinking “I am strong-woman-teacher, I can do this.” And felt like I hobbled out, having been analyzed, critiqued and judged by some two dimensional evaluator that has no way of knowing what I really know, and what I do with my knowledge.

Note to self. Remember this every time, (Every. Single. Time.) you do this to kids. Keep it in mind. If it drove you to Kohl’s for random shit on a sunny Saturday afternoon, imagine what it does to a little one without so much impulse control.

 

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OUR Children

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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?

Sincerely,

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.

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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