Sunday, January 15, 2017

Simplify

The philosopher Nietzsche said that, "Those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music."

I know people have considered me insane on several occasions, but that has never stopped me from hearing the music. I never stop considering how my time spent here on earth can be simplified. I want to love what I do and be present––from adoring the memory foam mattress topper on my bed to enjoying the stream of light that falls on the dining room table in the morning.

I cannot do this if my life is cluttered. If there are clothes on my bed or a curtain is blocking the light from my window. In any classroom there are so many things to be tamed, from data to paperwork to classroom books. Ultimately though we are there to teach children. That should be our main priority––by what all goals and assessments and classroom arrangements should be chosen.

When I taught first and second graders, I found myself being judged because of the lack of stuff on the walls. "It's so empty in here, when are you going to set it up?" I have been known to say in an interview, "If you're looking for an apple sweater wearing teacher, I'm not your girl." What I meant by this was that I'm not going to cutesy up my classroom. Decorating would be for me and what I want. My priority is teaching children. I believe that when we focus on theme-based classrooms and using other people's materials in their entirety instead of making them our own based on our student's needs, we are falling prey to the age of distraction.

I have watched children struggle with problems in the classroom and go to the teacher for help when there were hundreds of charts on the walls that could have helped, but they couldn't find the right one. I think of it this way, if you are driving and you come to a corner where there is a stop sign, a yield sign, and a do not enter sign, how will you know what to do? We must be very clear, and having walls filled with the alphabet, sight words, and how to stand in straight lines charts is confusing. I know that your principals may not understand, but I assure you I have lived without those things and gotten high marks on my observations. Tell them there are other ways to help children that work. The alphabet taped to their desk is a heck of a lot easier place to find the one you need. Sight words that are memorized can be done quickly during circle time or at a workstation for practice. Having a strong rationale for why you do things goes a long way to getting a principal to agree with your philosophy. So you must develop a philosophy you can stand behind again and again. And you must shift that stance as your knowledge base grows.

Go ahead, buy the thousands of education books that are published each month. They will grow your knowledge base, but don't make their philosophy yours. No one can be you and that's what makes teaching so special. Take down the curtains that cover up the amazing work you are doing. Let the sun shine in special spots of your classroom throughout the day highlighting two children laughing over a book or one boy madly writing his slice of life on a clipboard. At the end of a hard day's work, lower your body onto a comfortable memory foam pillow and read a book that you can share with your students. Simplify your days so that you don't need someone else to tell you how great your teaching is, you'll already know.

Your classroom family hears the music and dances every day.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Staying Home for a Sick Child

Not too long ago, when my daughter would wake up telling me she felt sick, I wouldn’t feel her forehead and send her back to bed. I would instead feel total panic.

My first reaction was to say, “you look fine. Go to school and have them call me if you still feel sick.”

Her emotionally and physically deflated little body would slump, nod its head, and go back to her room to dress slowly because everything hurt. I cringe when I think about this, but it was hard when I knew I’d have to make long sub plans and call into a principal who was more interrogating than kind. Plus, there were my kids, my students, who needed consistency and care. They needed to see me each morning, so they knew their day was going to be okay.
“39 percent of Americans, more than 43 million people, still struggle without paid time off to recover from an illness or seek medical care,” states the Bureau of Labor Statistics. So even my previous situation of not wanting to use my paid sick time speaks to my privileged existence.

My husband works for the same school district that I do, but because of the way his contract runs, he does not have as much access to paid sick leave as I. So typically I take the days off. In this case it’s more a case of finances and less one of gender roles.

Yesterday, my daughter woke up with a wicked cough and a low-grade fever. I texted my supervisor to say I was going to take the day off. Then I sent some emails out to school staff to explain that gifted and talented services would be moved to another day. And just like that, my daughter had me home without feeling guilty that her mother had sacrificed anything to be with her. What made the difference for me?
  1. I have a supervisor who puts me first. She doesn’t make me feel like I have to choose between my family and my career.
  2. I have health insurance for children so I know I can take them to the doctor when they are sick.
  3. I have a job where I can rearrange my schedule to make accommodations for a day that didn’t go as planned.
  4. I have paid sick leave so I will still be able to pay my bills this month.

I spent yesterday reading Red by Liesl Shurtliff to my daughter. Then we played some multiplication games to make sure her facts stayed sharp in her mind. At noon, she fell asleep in front of the woodstove.
I moved her to my bed where she slept for four hours. She needed it. As she slept and I wrote, I thought of all the children out there whose parents love them more deeply than the Grand Canyon, but who must send them to school sick because of their work circumstances. I am fortunate for so many reasons, but being present for my children when they need me is my biggest treasure.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Slice of Life: What Do Emotionally Intense Kids Need?

Slice of Life Tuesday is hosted by Two Writing Teachers

Giftedness has an emotional as well as intellectual component. Intellectual complexity goes hand in hand with emotional depth. Just as gifted children’s thinking is more complex and has more depth than other children’s, so too are their emotions more complex and more intense. Feeling everything more deeply than others do can both be painful and frightening. Emotionally intense gifted people often feel abnormal. “There must be something wrong with me… maybe I’m crazy… nobody else seems to feel like this.” Emotionally intense gifted people often experience intense inner conflict, self-criticism, anxiety and feelings of inferiority.
















If I'm doing my job as a teacher properly, I must be an expert behavior analyst. This is especially important when I have sensitive children in my classroom. I must notice the moment Joshua stops working or David holds his ears. In response, I make eye contact with Joshua, raising my eyebrows as punctuation, and point to his paper. His body jumps in recognition as he picks up his pencil. Next, I might blink the lights to get everyone to quiet down. Notice I don’t holler at the top of my lungs, “Are you kidding me?!” which is what I used to, well sometimes still do, at home with my own children. I’ve learned that my emotionally intense (EI) students have much to teach me about parenting. It can be exhausting being one step ahead of everyone, but it's much easier than managing unpredictable behavior.

Now when my eleven year old son blames me because his piano practicing is difficult, my first thought is, “What do EI kids need?” It’s sort of my version of “What Would Jesus Do?” In fact, I might make parenting  bracelets with WDEIKN. Instead of getting mad at his misplaced anger, I tell him to focus on one line of music for today. He considers this, then nods and continues practicing.

In the classroom on Monday mornings I nurse my coffee as kids file in. “Hey, the schedule is wrong, we aren’t doing poetry today,” Joshua tells me. He is the kid who makes sure I’m on top of the classroom events. He loves that I'm rarely on top of the movement of schedule cards. I make sure to say,  “Can you change the Friday cards to the Monday ones? I forgot to.” I remember to be literal and kind.

At home, I stick to the plan. I remind my own children no less than four times that they are buying lunch instead of bringing it. I also make sure they know about changes in plans. “Don’t forget I have a late meeting Wednesday. So Dad is picking you up.” My kids are calmer knowing what to expect.

One day last year we were making classroom family portraits. Family makeup is vastly different from what it used to be and I know this can be a sore spot for some, but worth the investigation. I continue attempting to stay one step ahead of my students psychologically. Neurologist Oliver Sacks wrote that it was the tiny ways people moved and behaved that showed him who they were. I try to look for those tiny details before they get bigger, but sometimes I'm late in spotting them.

Cut to: Timothy lying in fetal position crying under his table. It’s tough being young and learning how our culture works. It’s much tougher for kids who are neurologically different. I sit next to him and whisper “Are you worried about how to put your dad in your portrait so your mom won't be angry? I would be sad too. Maybe we could divide the paper in half." He slowly gets to his feet willing to give it a try. I can't do this if I don't know each child well, so I must build good relationships early and regularly.

When my own children fall apart, I curse myself for not seeing it earlier. At home I try to employ an old Twelve Step mantra: HALT. How can I make sure my kids aren't Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired so they don't melt down. Just like at school, I don't always catch this in time, but when I do it's miraculous. When my eight year old daughter is crying over something that is not worthy of tears, I hand her a cheese stick because I realize she hasn't eaten for a while and the crying stops. Like. Literally. Stops.

This parenting strategy isn't simple to be sure––I am a yeller by nature. But when I use these gentle, clear strategies with my own children, I feel so much better about myself and the message they are getting.

Steve Silberman, author of the book NeuroTribes, says that neurological differences are “another way of being human.” Being human is different for everyone. My students are different from each other, so I try to help them function well together through a common set of posted rules. This helps them see that rules aren’t arbitrary. At home I have this arbitrary tendency, “No iPad for the week!” My children look stunned at this declaration and since I’ll never follow through on this, there is no consistency or value to the threat. Life at home can be unpredictable and there are some who will argue that it should be more relaxed at home, but it is possible to be more structured and predictable without being controlling or boring. Kids thrive under these conditions.

Monday, January 9, 2017

#IMWAYR It’s Monday! Here’s What I’m Reading: The Learning Habit, Be a Changemaker, & Counting Thyme

It’s Monday! What Are You Reading? From Picture Books to YA! is hosted by Jen Vincent  @Teach Mentor Texts & Kellee Moye @ Unleashing Readers.

I'm enjoying this book which is about helping kids succeed in school and life. The authors' premise is that kids need to be taught the skills necessary to have a balanced like. They feel that we need to teach children how to balance multiple activities. Kids need to learn how to cut out distractions (especially all electronics) and focus on one job at a time. A parent’s role is to provide the quiet homework area area and resist the impulse to “help” or “rescue” their child. Kids need to experience taking responsibility for their work; otherwise, they won’t develop confidence in their own abilities. I need this in my own life and I'm finding other parents asking me questions about the students in my class around these same issues.
This book is showing me how to help kids be successful at starting projects or clubs that work effectively. It is written for kids to read, but I am reading to see if I can break it down into smaller chunks for kids to do during the year. I find that my gifted kids are empathetic and want to help, but only know how to help in traditional ways. I'd like them to start thinking out-of-the-box and find new ways that truly help and are possible.
I'm not finished with this book yet, but I'm totally engrossed in it. I find myself thinking about the main character Thyme while I cook and go about my daily business. 

When eleven-year-old Thyme Owen’s little brother, Val, is accepted into a new cancer drug trial, it’s just the second chance that he needs. But it also means the Owens family has to move to New York, thousands of miles away from Thyme’s best friend and everything she knows and loves. The island of Manhattan doesn’t exactly inspire new beginnings, but Thyme tries to embrace the change for what it is: temporary. After Val’s treatment shows real promise and Mr. Owens accepts a full-time position in the city, Thyme has to face the frightening possibility that the move to New York is permanent. Thyme loves her brother, and knows the trial could save his life—she’d give anything for him to be well—but she still wants to go home, although the guilt of not wanting to stay is agonizing. She finds herself even more mixed up when her heart feels the tug of new friends, a first crush and even a crotchety neighbor and his sweet whistling bird. All Thyme can do is count the minutes, the hours and the days, and hope time can bring both a miracle for Val and a way back home.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Student-Run Digital Magazine for Authentic Learning

A while ago, I discovered that our district does not have a newspaper or a magazine for student content. This bothered me because I had an intuitive feeling that this type of planning and writing would be very good for our students' current disdain for lack of interest in writing. I had time (sort of) and motivation to get things started. I doubted I would have financial backing, so I focused on a digital model that would require time and talent, but not money. In researching best ways to accomplish my idea, I discovered that according to the Journal of Authentic Learning*, there are four components that support authentic learning.
  1. An activity that involves real-world problems and that mimics the work of professionals; the activity involves presentation of findings to audiences beyond the classroom.
  2. Use of open-ended inquiry, thinking skills and metacognition.
  3. Students engage in discourse and social learning in a community of learners.
  4. Students direct their own learning in project work.
Real World Problems
Since the High School students couldn't commit the time and the elementary students don't have afterschool clubs, I called in a few middle school students and told them our problem. There was no magazine. I showed them this one: http://meltedcrayons.bayridgeprep.org/ and asked them if they thought there might be any purpose to having a similar one. They loved the idea and said they were so happy they would finally get to write what they wanted to and know that it was accepted for publication instead of just adored by a parent who was "forced" to like it. We made a plan to share the idea.

I went around to some classrooms in our district to let the kids know what I was planning. Early on I realized that I wouldn't be able to get into every classroom, so I made this video for teachers to share. Clearly I have a lot to learn about film, makeup, and hair!

Inquiry and Thinking Skills
Eight middle school kids agreed to meet every Thursday afternoon for an hour. We began putting the idea into action. I let them make decisions and use me as a resource. I told them what I thought, but I let them know that they made all final decisions. They did some research and decided they needed a rubric. They created one. They located many different kinds of writing samples that they considered to be great so they would have other writing to use when evaluating their peers' submissions. They took the project on as their own.

Discourse in a Community of Learners
They began discussing things right from the beginning. When one student was more dominant, another asked that person to listen as well as participate. They asked me to set up a Google Classroom where I could post each submission so that they could evaluate and comment on submissions in one place. This became an active and engaged space for their conversations. It also meant that students who could not attend meetings had the ability to participate from home or study hall.

Student Directed Learning
After several arguments about different submissions, the students made the rule that it takes just two students to accept a submission for publishing. This helped account for the fact that art––writing and illustrations––can be very subjective. So if two students feel a piece should be in, they cannot be shut down by one person who thinks "fantasy is a stupid genre" (actual quote during one active discourse).

The ownership of this magazine became obvious when despite my admonitions that we might not be ready to go live, the students overruled me by saying that there is never a wrong time to share art. They wanted us to go live the first day one piece was published. So now we have a rolling schedule for submissions and publications without any theme because students wanted to reduce any barriers.

Want to check out our magazine?





*The Components of Authentic Learning” by Audrey Rule, Journal of Authentic Learning Volume 3, Number 1, August 2006, Pp. 1-10.

Friday, January 6, 2017

#MustReadin2017

So many books, so little time. If you're a reader, you've thought about this on more than one occasion. My one little word this year is RELEASE. One of the ways I'm practicing release this year is by reading what I want to read and not what I think I'm supposed to read. This year's must read books for me only include those I've been wanting to read.

I'm happy to join my good friend Carrie Gelson's #mustreadin2017. 

For this list I'm choosing 11 books, which means that I will commit to reading one book a month (and I left a blank for one I might find later). I plan to read 52 books this year, but they will be picture books. The books I'm putting on my list are books that are for me, some nonfiction and some fiction.  I know that I can never read everything I want to read, so this will be a great place to start. 
Check out There's a Book For That to read others' #mustreadin2017 lists.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Book Review: The Infamous Ratsos

At six, if I said to my grandmother, "Let's have hot dogs for lunch," she would say, "Righto!" to indicate agreement. I love this and wish it wouldn't sound out of place for me to use it.

"Let's go to the store."
"Righto."

"I finished my homework, so can I go outside?"
"Righto!"

Old fashioned phrases and words evoke a time and a place for us in a way that very few other things do.

Imagine my delight in Kara LaReau's new book The Infamous Ratsos, when one rat brother, Ralphie, says "Righto!" as he responds to his rat brother Louie about things. In seven short chapters that make excellent use of every word ranging from easily managed ones to those that might require some research, LaReau shows her readers how two small rat boys and one lonely (but very tough!) father rat use being tough to cover their sadness. There is a nice mixture of action and character development when the two brothers look to get into trouble, but end up doing kind things by mistake. Kids will love this dichotomy. The illustrations by Matt Myers carry this story even further by using a backdrop of a crumbling cityscape, two rat brothers who wear clothing and hang out in alleys, and humorous names for storefronts that only the observant will notice. These illustrations will help bring kids into the story as they read the old fashioned gangster speak:

"That's mean," says Ralphie.
"That's tough," says Louie.
"Righto," Ralphie says, cracking his knuckles. "Let's make some trouble."

This book has smart written all over it. I can't wait to read it with the gifted first grader I work with. The use of the word infamous in the title starts us off thinking about how these two rat brothers, Louie and Ralphie are somehow famous for being bad. I love that I'll need to investigate this word with the students who read it before we even start. There is much to discuss and learn about how different relationships work ranging from father-sons to neighbors and even bullying on the playground. LaReau has done a masterful job to incorporate all of this into one very readable chapter book for first through third graders.

Bravo!