Vacation is a time to…. THINK!

This is a *short* vacation week as school holiday weeks go. I know that thought doesn’t elicit much sympathy from the dreaded private sector ūüôā

Usually I spend a lot of time being my compulsive self and trying to do all the school work I think I need to do while I have some time away from kids. I plan, I research, I read….. I obsess.

This year, however, it has been different. I did not actually pick up a teacherly activity until this morning. This morning I worked on long-range Writing Workshop plans and short range weekly lessons for our return to class next week. I suppose I could obsess about some reports or research, but I’m going to play against my instinct and try to be less freakish about anticipating every nuance.

I think I’ve got a game plan to last me for a bit. What got written seems reasonable. Instead of reacting or working quickly, I have a chance to consider and be more reflective and thoughtful about how to teach this, that, or the other.

This week away is passing quickly; there are many projects to be completed around our house before the routine of school takes over again. And even in doing those mundane chores that I’ve put off since the Fall, I can spend some time in thinking…. about school, about learning, about being less nudge-y.

Vacation for me, is a time to think.


Faces of poverty and trauma

This time of year – this time of year when commercial excess is encouraged and expected. A time when non-stop advertisement reminds us that in order for it to truly be the “most wonderful time” of the year, we need to open those wallets and warm up the charge cards. This time of year is filled with sadness and lost hope.

It is a time of year that is filled with resentment and sometimes anger for some of my students. It is a time when life is just not fair.

I can generally gauge the economy by the numbers of children in my classroom who seem hungry. This year, there’s not much guesswork or hypothesis involved. They don’t just seem¬†hungry, they clearly are hungry.

While these students are generally beneath the radar – free and reduced lunch status is not commonly known among teaching staff – there is no hot list of who pays for lunch and who doesn’t. This year, on several occasions, I have been struck by the matter-of-fact, almost accepting manner of parents who have run out of money and who are falling through the social safety net. And who, in¬†desperation, approach me – the teacher of their child – to see if I have any resources they can tap in to.

If this year is any indication, the economy is really bad.

For these children living in poverty, there is no “most wonderful time of the year”. There is only the reality that there will be nothing under the tree – in fact, there won’t be a tree.

In the last week, I have had children acting out and then melting in to tears because they are hungry (I ask now, no sense in hinting around). For several children, whenever a classmate is absent, we tuck the extra bagel, or cereal or graham cracker package into their backpacks.

My mother knits mittens for my students – I have given out every pair, about 10 so far this year. One child came to school so cold he needed to keep his winter coat on (a gift from a generous school benefactor) for more than an hour to ward of the shivers.

These are not the pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps families that some disparage. They were the working poor, have seen their jobs disappear, and now watch helplessly as their family begins a descent through the cracks in our safety net.

And the children? These are children for whom the “most wonderful time of the year” is a cruel joke.

Whose Expertise Is It Anyway?

Recently I heard the most incredulous piece of a conversation that makes me wonder.

One of my developmentally delayed students – a child who has a very low frustration point, low self esteem, and the ability to either poke himself in the arm with a pencil or bite himself when that low threshold has been reached is slated to be assessed using an alternative assessment (a portfolio-based work called the ALT).

Believe me when I tell you that the special education teachers who put these things together work extremely hard to match goals on students’ ed plans (IEPs) to demonstrated achievement. However, someone higher on the Special Education chain of command recently commented that this child should be taken off the ALT assessment and be allowed to “experience MCAS” – our standardized test here in Massachusetts.

Now I will admit that I was not present during this conversation; it was relayed to me. ¬†If there is a shred of truth to it, I have to wonder “what is the point?”¬†Actually¬†the comment I made when I first heard it was more like, “are you freaking kidding me?”

For I can tell you – I, the teacher working with this student 6+ hours each day – that this student a) is unable to read aa texts, b) is significantly delayed so that behaviors are similar to a 2- or 3-year-old, and c) already self-injures when frustration level is reached. This child is already frustrated with life, himself, and learning in general and doesn’t need a grueling standardized test to confirm that he/she learns differently and at a different pace.

I do not understand this at all. I am frustrated by it. And as the child’s advocate for what he needs academically, I will fight this tooth and nail.

Sadly, I think it will be for naught.

Third Grade Giggles

Anyone who has ever taught a third grader knows it’s true: there are certain words that just send these kiddos into hysterics. Think of it as a Seven Words You Can’t Say on TV for 8 year olds.

For example: toilet paper. As in, “If we don’t get some tissues boxes in class soon, you’ll have to blow your nose of toilet paper.” ¬†Bird poop¬†is another prime example. Recently one of my students wrote a personal narrative about a bird pooping on her at the beach. Definitely the highlight of the sharing celebration. Forget irony; 8 year olds love butt humor.

Yesterday – one of my less stellar academically driven days – with a week full of interruptions, a full moon, Christmas-on-the-brain, and a very tired teacher (parent conferences!) – the kids were as silly as could be. Unfortunately we were close to being out of tissues so I asked for some donations before we…. well you know what I had to say.

After that laughter died down, one of my more impish students asked me if I knew buttocks was a compound word. Hey, I’m game for anything when I’m tired. So I confessed I did not know that particular piece of information.

He repeated it again. ¬†And finally in exasperation said, “You know…. butt-talks.”

Even teacher couldn’t hold a straight face on that one. ¬†I think they’re rubbing off on me.



Revisiting Critical Friends

This year I have a group of students who, most of the time, try to work together.¬† So far they don’t seem to get on each others nerves very often. Mykids range from highly independent, self-motivated students to those with pervasive developmental challenges.¬† Some days we exhaust each other.

I made a decision to revisit narrative writing again this month to see if we could improve on our first attempt in this writing genre.¬† One of those improvements is that I have assigned each student a “critical friend”, a writing partner.¬† This afternoon we used the 10 steps toward independence (thanks Gail and Joan!) modeling what a conference with a critical friend should look and sound like – and how it should not.¬† I guess we’ve done this routine enough times with other parts of the Daily Five that it was no big deal to follow a good model with a poor model with a good model.

And then I asked the newly formed writing partnerships to go off and talk about their ideas for this new narrative writing project and offer encouragement and suggestions.

I  often like to step away from the children  and become an observer. Oftentimes I am amazed at how things roll and today was no exception. I could hear each author explain the five narrative ideas they had thought of, why the idea was important to him or her, and then listen as the partner either encouraged or gently offered a suggestion or clarification of the idea.  The partners were so sincere in their responsibilities to their writing partners; how powerful it must have felt to get some feedback from a peer, not only from the teacher!

When I think about making sure my student writers have peers to support them, I sometimes find myself hesitating Рwondering if the students have the skills (social) and judgement to offer constructive criticism to a peer. I wonder if I am asking too much of them.  But today, I observed I have very much underestimated my students. They are most definitely up to the task of working with a writing partner, a critical friend.

I won’t under-estimate them again. Critical friends are here to stay.

Adventures in Technology

It was a chance discussion that brought it on. My sister, a newly minted teacher from Oregon, pointed me to a blog written by one of her instructional technology professors, Barry Jahn. It was the post on an $80 SmartBoard that caught my interest.

Working in cash-strapped urban school districts generally means technology is way down on the list of priorities.  I have two iMacs in my classroom Р1 is nearly 10 years old and no longer can be updated; the other newer model (3 years old) is shared by my students and me and now has been given over entirely to the students. Getting a picture here?

So I am always on the look-out for some technology applications that I can a) afford and b) use meaningfully. As a former instructional technology specialist I firmly stand on the side of tech teachers who think technology should be one of the tools¬†students use — not some stand-alone flash-in-the-pan.

So when the idea of making a SmartBoard out of a Wii-mote appeared, I was intrigued. I already had the Wii-mote — gathering dust as those things are apt to do. I had my old Dell XPS laptop that I was in the process of designating for use in school as “my” computer. ¬†I had a projector already in the classroom. So all I needed was a bluetooth dongle, the software, and an infrared pen. ¬†Sounds easy – right.

Well not so fast. There is Murphy’s Law to consider here – if anything can possibly go wrong it does (and did). ¬†First I needed to get past the hurdle of getting my Dell to connect to the school’s network. Can I tell you that Fort Knox does not have such stringent security?

Then the bluetooth was not plug-and-play technology; that took about a week to figure out the ONE WAY it would recognize my Dell and the Wii-mote. The projector and Dell had a little tussle with each other and wouldn’t “talk”. And finally, it turns out WHERE you place the Wii-mote has a lot to do with whether or not the pen gets seen by the system and can be calibrated.

Oh and the software, no longer free – but a free-trial, didn’t much care for working either. It felt like every hurdle that was overcome had another one waiting to take its place in the line of “technology prevention”. It probably didn’t help that I truly was trying to do this on the cheap by using my 8-year-old laptop.

However, persistence paid off and 2 months later I have a SmartBoard. I rolled it out with my students this week when we introduced the concept of similes with the students, using an already made SmartBoard file from Smart Exchange. Even though the calibration on the pen still needs a tweak, the silly thing worked. And honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever had an easier time getting kids to understand the concept of figurative language.

A perfect reason to use technology in the classroom! Can’t wait to find some others.

Seeds of Science

A few weeks ago, the District trained all 3rd and 4th grade teachers on a new science program that is being initiated here in Lowell. The logistics of revising an already tight schedule to include a new program with some pretty hefty time requirements has been nightmarish to say the least. It hasn’t helped much that the administrator who successfully advocated for this program is no longer part of the Central Office administration.¬† It also has been received less-than-enthusiastically because of timing: adding in a new program when we have major curriculum overhauls in English Language Arts and Mathematics (Common Core!) while we straddle the former frameworks makes everyone cranky.

However, yesterday my students were involved in a soil experiment that has made all the angst over getting this off the ground feel worth it.

Looking for the unexpected

As typically happens when implementing a new program, you read it once, read it again, and still miss something. At least I had remembered to gather leaf matter from my backyard for the student observation. But as it was 6:30 and I was on my way to school, I just picked up what I could from the side of my driveway. To me, it just looked like a bunch of dead red maple leaves – nothing too interesting to observe and record.

Well, were we all in for a surprise.¬† Table by table, each group discovered not only leaves (and a few sticks), but BUGS! Spiders, beetles, bug casings — the whole gamut. And were the kids ever excited! “This is the best day of my whole life,” one of my less-academically inclined students yelled.¬† I think I would agree.

I never know just how valuable, exciting, and wonderful a lesson is until it gets rolled out in front of the students. All that hand wringing? Worth it.