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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Little Words – Little Miracles

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“When I didn’t get up you should have gone to Mrs. Skubik and told her I wasn’t listening.”

“You should have listened to me.”

They were both angry. One had just dumped the other out of “his” chair and onto the floor. We talked some more, and I tried to help them get to the idea that there were other ways that the situation could have gone.

“Well, I guess I could have listened to you.”

“Yea – I could have sat somewhere else too.”

“I guess we were both a little at fault.”

“Yea, I’m sorry.”

“Me too.”

This part of teaching is so important. It takes so much time. It is invisible to those outside of the classroom. It isn’t sexy, fun, cool, it’s untwitterable, and it doesn’t show up on test scores (well- not directly), but it is the life blood of a functioning classroom. And it is rewarding, but in the tiniest doses, like taking an 81mg aspirin for a migraine. It takes a lot to get some relief.

Earlier in the day during independent reading time, I watched J get up out of her seat, go and grab two books off the shelf, and walk back and slap them down in front of her partner. “This is what we are going to read now. Put the other ones away ’cause I don’t like them.”

“Well, I do. I don’t want to change books!”

I shot them a look. They stopped talking. When I was finished with my conference, I went over and sat down. Lots of anger. Lots of misunderstandings. Clearly, this partnership was not working for either of them. I usually try to help partners work their way through it, but you know –know when to hold ’em and know when to fold ’em– I told them I would work something out to change things up. I knew the problem was mostly with J, I knew her interactions with others was often problematic. She had a lot of difficult things going on in her nine-year-old life. I asked her if I gave her a few names, would she be willing to find someone she could work with. She nodded.

Turns out, there were two boys she thought she could work with. I went and asked them how they felt about adding a third person to their partnership.

“Oh sure, we could work with her.”

“Yea, and she could help us. She’s really good at reading.”

Wow, right under my nose, and I had no idea she had fans. How did I miss that?

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Last year I posted up our favorite “words of the wiser” words from our read-alouds, those signpost words that help readers get to the most important messages a book has to offer. I am thinking this might be a good year to add our own words of the wiser, the words we use when we are being kind and lifting up our better angels.

So today I celebrate those words, those little miracles every day.

celebrate-image-1Thank you to Ruth Ayers for reminding me to celebrate. There are more here, and today is the 100th celebration day! WOW!

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Drama Uninvited

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A Slice of Life from last week. Lots of folks share slices here. Check it out if you don’t already.

          I usually don’t check my phone when I’m at school. Once 2:40 rolls around, I look at it. Then I am ready – who needs me? What do they need? But before that, I am all about my students.

Most of the time.

At lunch one day last week I made the mistake of looking at it. Here is what I saw:

Water is turned off.

Making sure bill is paid.

We did not have your ss number.

What? What kind of cryptic message is that? I DID pay the bill. I quickly checked my app for the credit union. Yep. Bill paid, 8/28. And why is my husband referring to himself as we? And why can’t he look in the file labeled SOCIAL SECURITY? Perhaps it would be in there? Grrr….

Then this.

I gave Disney Papa’s ss.

Shit.

Now they think I’m dead.

My daughter, the college sophomore, just got a job with Disney. And she gave them my father’s social security number instead of hers. Why you ask? Because I had it stored in my phone when I was taking care of the business you take care of when someone dies, and one day I accidentally gave it to her when she asked for hers.  She obviously didn’t get rid of it the first time she handed it out – to her summer employer. And why is that folder so hard to find?

Then another one.

Make an appointment with the orthodontist for tomorrow.

How about a please? But, crap, I have been meaning to do that for her. Okay, I made the call. The receptionist informed me that she had just made an appointment for my daughter a few minutes ago. Hmm. Made instead of make? What a difference a D makes.

Then this:

DWP had a problem with water pipe at Weymouth Corners.

Love you.

Also, picked up your stuff at the pharmacy and the dog food.

and this:

*made

Also I fixed the ssn.

Redeemed. But not before my heart rate and my blood pressure shot up. Geez!

Tomorrow that phone is staying in my purse. Drama can wait until 2:40.

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The Amazing Thing

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Another Saturday, and I can breathe and celebrate after the first three weeks are down in the books. There are lots of other celebrations here. Thank you Ruth for reminding me to follow a path of gratitude.

Starting off the year with fourth grade writers is always daunting for me. I am faced with such little people! The memory of the ten and almost-ten-year-olds I wrote with for nearly ten months is still fresh from June, and the overgrown third graders that are sitting in their seats are so, well, new. I know where we are going, but I feel paralyzed and unsure how to get going. Weird, huh? Every year.

I tackle it by jumping into conferring right away. Easier to say than to actually do. Almost no one can write yet without turning and talking to their neighbors. And we did that, yep. If I let them get away with chatting during the writing time of writers workshop, it sets up a difficult to break habit. Writing is so much easier when it’s quiet. They get it. But they don’t know how to do it. So, it’s a conference interrupted by lots of quick-trips to tables to remind the team that we are writing, not talking. Getting them to remind each other helps too, but early in the year that often takes the form of whiney and loud shushing that adds to the noise. We are not yet a well-oiled machine. We aren’t even poorly oiled. Heck, we are missing big pieces of machinery – forget about the oil.

This week I am grateful to one of my writers for giving me hope and reminding me in her sparkly-eye-way that this situation will get better. We will become writers capable of great and small things. We will. I could see that she had an idea for her personal narrative involving something with our local Boys and Girls Club.

“So, what are you working on right now?”

“I am writing a story about how great the Boys and Girls Club is. It was so much fun this summer. We had lots of fun trips. We made crafts. I went there every week and played games too. I love it. It is a great place to be in the summer.”

“You are already writing an essay! Oh my goodness, we haven’t even tackled that and you already have an idea for one. You are so ready to do that kind of writing. Can we put that solid idea for a thesis on hold for a minute, until next month actually, and try to find a story in it? Can you think of a one-time story you could tell about something that happened this summer at the Boys and Girls Club?”

She got a big smile on her face, and looked just over my shoulder, as if she was seeing it all again. “Yes, I can. I can think of something really good. And…” She paused, looked straight at me, and I swear her eyes twinkled. “Something really amazing happened. A really amazing thing.”

I shivered like any hot-blooded writing teacher would. Holy smoke, a really amazing thing? This was so easy!

“What was that amazing thing?”

A pause. It stretched out a few heartbeats. Then a few more.

“I kind of forgot.”

I tried really hard not to laugh, or flinch, or let out the breath I was holding. I wonder if I was successful with the breath thing.
You forgot the really amazing thing?” I said with as much natural curiosity as I could muster.

“Yes, I did.” Big smile. Her eyes looked right into mine. A flash of guilt but also a look of confidence. As if to say: “It’s there, I just have to remember it.” Most importantly, she knew it could be there, even should be there, and with just a little time and encouragement, it would be there.

A little patience, maybe a lot, and it will be an amazing thing.

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Remembering Lesley

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Celebrating a life well lived. You can read other celebrations here.

I have been teaching a long time. I have gotten to know many parents. Most of them have been helpful, thoughtful, kind and supportive. A few have been difficult and even hostile. A few more have left a deep and indelible mark on my heart.

Lesley Arnold was one of those parents. I was about six years into my career– still pretty green. Lesley’s daughter was in one of those classes that you remember forever, a class that clicked. Full of wonderfully creative, intuitive, hard-charging students. I loved working with them. While Lesley was clearly aware of the many gifts her daughter Edith possessed, she never made a big deal out of it. She was a no-nonsense kind of parent, firm, honest and fair – helping out with all of the kids. And, she was incredibly loving and nurturing. She wove the many facets of her personality into a natural motherhood. She made it look easy. I know now that it’s not.

Lesley offered me her assistance whenever I needed it, but she really stepped up to help me develop my art history skills. As a tireless volunteer, and accomplished artist, she headed up the Art to Grow On project at our school.  But she also made it personal by bringing me countless books and magazines and ideas for infusing more art into my curriculum.  I grew my understanding and appreciation of art because of her. I became a better teacher of art because of her.

She had a wicked sense of humor which was revealed by a little book that she gave me entitled “Great Housewives of Art” by Sally Swain. It still cracks me up.

Mrs. Monet cleans the pool.              Mrs. Gauguin has a Tupperware party.       Mrs. Seurat adjusts the TV set.

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She had a beautiful British accent and a very graceful presence. But right underneath that proper front was a rascal who could deliver a one-liner without ever cracking a smile. And she suffered very few fools.

I lost touch with Lesley when she and her husband Graham moved to Tennessee. I wish we had stayed in contact. A few weeks ago I read her obituary in our local paper. I cried like a baby. Such a bright light, such a wonderful person, just gone.

Then a friend of mine forwarded me an email he received from Graham, with the words “Maybe say a little prayer of joy for a change…” And then there was a photograph of a beautifully radiant Edith, in a hospital bed, holding her newborn son. My heart jumped with joy, and my tears started again. NOT gone! How perfect, the circle unbroken, life moving on. All of the goodness that Lesley put out into the world, continuing on in another life.

I will say a little prayer of joy and a giant prayer of gratitude. Thank you for Lesley.

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Folders and Disguises

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A slice of life from San Pedro. Click on that to read more from other places. Thanks to Two Writing Teachers for this space and fellowship!

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On my walk this morning I zipped into the local Office Depot. It’s that time of year… 1 cent folders are hard to resist. Since they won’t tell me when the mark down will happen, I check in every so often to see. Last year I was able to sweet talk the guy into letting me buy sixty, but usually they have a limit. Today I had visions of finding the cheap price and then having to go in every few hours in different clothes. I could disguise myself and get sixty, no, 120, no– even 180!

A new folder in a bright color for a new writing unit always seems so special. My students love taking out the stuff they don’t need anymore, storing it in a portfolio, while keeping our word wall, a few charts, maybe a favorite mentor text, and putting it in a crisp, clean folder.

This is an easy and small expense for me. Except for the disguise part.

I had a quick flashback of my dad doing a similar thing a few years ago. My mom was trying to get rid of some old computers from our church’s school, which was closing down. There is an electronic waste disposal center in our town where they come out in Hazmat suits to take the old stereo parts, computers and clock radios from the back of your car. When he got there with the Civic’s back seat piled high, they told him they could only accept three. Businesses couldn’t just dump all their waste at once.
My dad was furious. “This is not a business, it’s a school. A private school, but a school! Come on!”

No deal.

So my dad, the rule-follower that he was, went home and stormed into the bedroom. Mom followed him in, “What happened?” He took off his shirt.

“Did something spill on you?” (A good guess.)

He changed hats.

“Don, what is going on?”

He explained, grabbed a quick bite to eat, and headed back out. He moved the remaining computers to the back seat of their other car, and headed out to complete his dastardly deed.

I love that image of my dad. He loved rules. He was a man of integrity. And yet, when he perceived an injustice or ridiculous rule, he did what he had to do.

He taught me well.

Office Depot, watch out.

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Circles

The title of Sunday’s last conference session was “Taking Back our Schools– Organizing to Stop the School to Prison Pipeline.” It promised to discuss restorative justice. I walked in and sat in the second row. It started with a short film about the school to prison pipeline. I had heard this before, Marian Wright Edelman spoke of this at NCTE back in November. Here I was again, drawn to the topic again, circling back.

The video disturbed me. I knew the stats: If you are suspended you are three times more likely to drop out of high school. 80% of incarcerated youth have been suspended and 50% have been expelled. While correlation does not equal causation, it certainly can be argued that overreactions to smaller discipline problems are part of the problem. The video provided multiple examples of apparent overreactions. I was not prepared to see police officers with German shepherds in school hallways, ordering everyone down. Students hitting the floor so they could be searched for drugs. That was an eye-opener.

The presenters asked us to hold our questions until a bit later, so they could get through the entire session as planned. They sensed the room could talk about this subject for hours. I could. I chose to attend this session because my district recently implemented a new discipline policy which has caused a lot of frustration at my school site. We were told we could not use certain words (like consequence) and that in effect, there was nothing that could be done any longer for students who were acting out. They couldn’t really be disciplined by being removed from class. The district would come down hard on any principal who disciplined a child in any punitive way. That is how it was explained to us. And what we saw was children who were beginning to catch on that they could pretty much do anything, and nothing would happen. What a disaster of a discipline policy. I knew there had to be more to it. So here I was, learning.

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The term restorative justice is a big and general term for some very specific practices. It is modeled after traditional justice and accountability practices of indigenous peoples, especially the Maori of New Zealand. It is primarily a relationship building program that aims to prevent harm by growing communities. It aims to teach children (and adults) that we are part of communities. We must hold ourselves accountable to our communities. Communities, as opposed to rules or policies. If I know you, and I have a personal connection to you, I am much more likely to want to honor that connection and not act the fool. And if I do, then I need to make amends, and enter back into the community, not be isolated and punished.

This is what my former partner Henry and I used to do with our fifth graders. It was called Magic Circle and was a part of the Human Development Program. It focused on community building through conversations held in a circle. Everyone was in. We would talk about some general topics, and then we would make space to talk about any conflicts that had come up. We taught students that we as humans have needs. Conflict arises when your needs are not being met. Being loved/liked, belonging, autonomy and respect were the four we focused on. So, when you are upset because someone cut you in line, the root of that anger is not the person with whom you are angry, it is not being respected. When you are acting out on the playground after a lunch where no one would sit with you, your basic needs of belonging and being liked are not getting met. We would practice four-part messages where we learned to express what we wanted and what we needed in clear ways. This circle was another full circle to the work Henry and I used to do. We both still do the four-part messages. Why did we stop holding circles? Time pressure? More testing, less teaching? Full circle again.

My favorite part of the presentation was hearing Ayesha talking about her experiences using restorative justice community building circles with her students at a middle school in Watts. The power it gave students to handle problems on their own speaks to the power of community. It was a very hopeful and positive message. It works.

She had us try it. We sat in a circle, we passed a talking piece, and we talked about something she would suggest, like “Talk about a person in your life who inspired your teaching.” We listened to each other without interrupting. She showed us how to do a version of “jazz hands” when we wanted to cheer for something, so we could maintain a quiet, listening circle. We also played a few games. Just fun. Giggles. All in a circle. Getting to know one another. A community in circle.

The new discipline policy of my district is aimed at “embracing proactive, non-punitive enforcement strategies.” Yet, it seems to ignore the preventative work that is vital for this policy to have an ice cube’s chance. My goal is to help my colleagues embrace the circle and get to the heart of each of our students. Because once you know you belong, you can overcome and achieve almost anything.

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Five Things

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I spent the past week in New York City at the TCRWP Reading Institute. Today I celebrate five things, and share them here with community at Ruth Ayers Writes. I am always thankful for Ruth’s generosity. I am going to write a lot more about what I learned… but not today!
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1. Having a few days with my daughter in the city before the institute started. We shopped and shopped, ate, laughed, saw sights, walked and walked. We argued a little. We made up. I love that kiddo so much. Being around her makes me happy.IMG_3644

2. Spending time with colleagues from my school. This is always the major side-benefit of the week. The shared adventures, the jokes and laughs, the time spent getting to know each other over meals… precious, precious, precious.

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3. Learning more about how to navigate around by bus. I am usually a subway fan, but getting around on top of the pavement has many advantages. I was always afraid I wouldn’t be able to pull it off, I’d get lost… but I did it. I got on the bus! And I saw more of the city this way. LOVE that city.

4. The kind woman who helped me figure out how to get OFF the bus. I couldn’t get the door to work. She calmly helped me figure it out. Everyone else stared at me like I was an idiot. She did not.

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5. Highline Park. I couldn’t picture what it would be like based on the various descriptions I had from lots of different people. The common denominator was always “You have to see it.” So I did. Agreed. However, next time I am walking the whole thing, and ending where the beverages begin. Just sayin’.

That’s five. I could write about 100. Lucky me!

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