Here’s the thing

pexels-photo-626165.jpegDid you happen upon KQED’s interview with San Francisco educator, Michael Essien, principal of MLK Middle School? If not, here’s the report which includes an audio of the story.

So many of us in education feel the pressure to keep teaching the prescribed curriculum even when our students, our kids, are telegraphing their emotional response to the curricular pressures they are experiencing. Could it be possible that the children are telling us “this is not working for me?”

I believe this to be the case when so many kids have escalating behaviors that disrupt the flow of the classroom. Just as an infant wails when it is hungry, tired or bored, our students are also wailing in the form of noncompliant behaviors.

As a classroom teacher, I was fortunate to have some really supportive push-in help when a child’s behavior was, let’s use the education-ese term, “off the wall”. I can picture Liz Higgins, a now-retired social worker who was assigned to my last school, talking in the calmest of voices to one of my students who was under my desk after having up-ended her own. The child eventually returned to the class activity, and the day continued.

I was fortunate to experience the power of push-in reconnections with traumatized and frustrated students many times over the course of 30 years. I hope over time I learned from these education mentors. Fred and Sandy and Sharon, Mary Ann and Maria, I don’t believe I properly thanked you for that. You taught me that when a child acts out, it is important to reconnect and re-establish our relationship. What has always impressed me about these six educators is that none of them ever seem to have lost touch with their roots in education. They may have been (or may now be) administrators, but they never forgot about their own experiences in classrooms or with students.

On some plane of understanding, I eventually realized that when one of my students was acting disruptively, that was a signal that, for that student at least, the demands of the classroom were too much. The times that I was able to keep that student with us in the classroom were, for the most part, successful outcomes. They did not happen all the time and they certainly did not happen as often as they should have.

Principal Essien’s experience as a teacher and in special education informed his decisions. He demonstrated to his staff that he could be trusted as an administrator because he still remembered what it is like to be in a classroom. Mr. Essien recognized that adding one more thing to a classroom teacher’s responsibilities was unworkable, that there needed to be a collaboration between administration and classrooms in order to best serve the students.

His push-in model is working because the collective focus is on what the students need in today’s education pressure-cooker.

Shouldn’t this be the goal for every child?


Teaching Conflict Resolutions Through Pretzel

2013fielddaybPut yourself back in elementary school and imagine your reaction to a classmate calling you a name or hurting your feelings through action or word. Would you speak up or would you allow that hurt to fester and grow into something more significant? Would you feel listened to? And if you caused the hurt would you recognize it as such?

In our adult conversation, do we listen – really listen – to each other even when the conversation is difficult? I am not so sure any more. Maybe what we adults could use is a refresher course in conflict resolution.

Ruth Sidney Charmey, author of Teaching Children to Care and a co-founder of the Northeast Foundation for Children invented a powerful activity for children named “Pretzel” (click on the link to find out how the activity was implemented) as a way to teach children conflict resolution and empathy.

My good friend and colleague, Paula Gendron, introduced me to Pretzel as a means to teach children awareness of others. Although from year to year it morphed into other small treats (Skittle, Sticker) according to the allergy concerns in the classroom, the premise always remained the same: we all need to feel safe in our classroom community in order to do our best work. In my classrooms, we used this activity almost weekly to heighten awareness and sensitivity  in the classroom community.

Two of the rules or norms for Pretzel would be applicable to all of us.  The first one would seem fairly easy: find something positive to say and compliment someone.  It’s easy to see negativity, and that can wear anyone down.  I believe that when I look for something positive to say, no matter how seemingly insignificant, it can change not only my mindset, but another’s as well. For my former students, it was a requirement that there be something positive noticed and complimented whenever we participated in Pretzel.

The second norm is a bit harder to do whether you are a child or an adult. When someone offers a criticism, the listener needs to really listen without interjecting commentary or excuses. It is important for the listener to remember that the words are expressing how someone perceives a situation.

Listening without becoming defensive or commenting defensively is very hard whether or not you are 8 or 18 or 48 or 108. However, listening to another viewpoint or version of events along with an awareness and acceptance of how someone feels is an essential component to developing empathy. When an 8-year-old hears a classmate say that walking away from one friend to play with another caused hurt feelings, the first reaction is denial. We need to notice more when words and actions might cause another person hurt. We need to be more empathetic.

Grownups need to practice conflict resolution now more than ever. We are bombarded daily with bully talk and hate speech that inflames and does not resolve anything. We need to accept that there may be more than one way to perceive a situation, listen no matter how difficult to hear, and develop our adult empathy. And maybe once we adults practice the skills of conflict resolution, we’ll have less conflict to resolve.


No-Nonsense? Nonsense!

DSC_0107Our local CBS affiliate posted a public opinion question this morning. The “No Nonsense Nurturing” is rearing its ugly head once again because teachers and schools using this program (see link ) have gained some news cycle traction: teachers are being told not to use “please” or “thank you” with students.

As Amy Berard, former Lawrence Public School teacher, so eloquently wrote, the program requires teachers to speak with students according to a script. Don’t say please. Don’t say thank-you. Be direct, speak without inflection. Don’t give students a choice.

Oxymoronically named, the program does anything but nurture. Teachers are commanded not to use polite language as it might cause the teacher to appear to be less powerful, to lose “control”. Is this what education has come to? Power and compliance?

As a classroom teacher with thirty years experience, this trend in education policy to find the one program that will magically turn all students into acquiescent sheep troubles me. Educators don’t need to be trained and practiced professionals who have the skills in child psychology and classroom management to read the room and respond to what the students’ needs might be. No, all one needs is the magical script, training and consultant available for an extra fee.

I spent the whole of my teaching career empowering students to learn by making choices, modeling acceptable social interactions, and still managed to keep 20-30 young learners from swinging from the light fixtures. Students need to learn from decision-making and practice making good choices. As a colleague in my last school used to say, “you win or lose by how you choose”.

An educator recently made this thoughtful observation:

One of the Great Truths of Ed. Reform is that we cheer on reforms
that affect Other Peoples’ Kids, but that we would never tolerate for our own

Is this the kind of nurturing we want for our children? Puh-leeze.

What She Said….

I recently read this post from Germantown Avenue Parents’ blog. Those behavior management tools – like the mentioned stoplight? Do they really help kids get behaviors on track?

In my school, we are required to hang a pocket chart. Each child has an assigned number and flips cards through a series of colors – green to yellow to blue to purple to indicate the kind of day they are having.

Who are we kidding with the numbered pockets?  It takes kids about an hour to know who is who.

While I agree with giving students a visual reminder of their behavior accountability, I dislike having behaviors displayed publicly. Besides taking up valuable bulletin board space, it seems self-defeating.  And disrespectful.  Would you want YOUR bad day posted for all to see? Me either.

What’s a solution to this dilemma? I have a small, portable pocket chart that served the same purpose as the bulletin board display, but in a less public way. For my more challenging students, I maintain a periodic behavior chart which gets reviewed daily (or hourly sometimes). And for the status of the class – we can still hang out our class sign indicating our classroom community is having a ‘great day’, ‘not-so-great day’, or ‘wish we could do-over’ day.

We can still help students get behaviors back on track. We just don’t need to do it publicly.

Change is good

Like lots of teachers, I am burnt to a crisp mentally by the time June arrives. Some years, this happens sooner – usually those are the years that can be identified as curriculum change years.

This year has been a particular challenge. You see, this year, everything was new again. I have been teaching for a l-o-n-g time and while I never teach the same things the same way twice – which makes sense, the kids are different and have different needs – one would think there would be something that would be connected to prior years.

Not true of the academic year that has just ended. We were charged with changing our math curriculum, our science curriculum, and our English Language Arts curriculum. The level of discomfort with curriculum was pretty high.

The amount of time preparing was off the charts. Why? Because anyone in the education field can tell you that those Grade 3-6 materials suggestions are often (mostly) directed toward students in the middle of that grade span.  In other words, we – my grade level team and I – spent inordinate amounts of time trying to find comparable materials to teach our students.

My husband tells me that I’m a “magic bullet” kind of person. I am continually looking for the just right solution.  To this end, I discovered a great book by Mike Anderson and published by ASCD: The Well-Balanced Teacher.  If you are a study-guide kind of person, here is a link you might enjoy. FB fiends (guilty!) might like this page.

It has been an eye-opening read. And somewhat comforting to know that there are plenty of other educators feeling the same way I do about the need to work smarter and be more balanced.  Ten months of 10- to 12-hour days does not make for a happy, creative teacher.

Summer is a time of renewal. A time to reset those parts of my life that have gone out of balance. It is time to make change good.

Well, That Was Ugly

I have always thought it important for students to learn to work cooperatively. When I worked in the private sector, we worked as teams or groups – almost never without some kind of interaction with colleagues.  Kids need to know how to work in collaborations, too.  

And so, we set out this week to work in cooperative groups to create “rules” for defining two-dimensional polygons.

I modeled the expected outcome (a chart listing the attributes of the four polygons each group was investigating). I semi-randomly created groups of 4 students with one eye on creating a heterogeneous group. Defined and had students take on group jobs – recorders, materials, etc. And sent the groups on their merry way to focus on the task.

Which failed miserably. Why? Because despite our attention to polite dialogue (one student ended up telling her group to “shut the hell up”), the task of working with others needed to be broken down further. Even the simple – or so I thought – task of choosing one out of the four to record on chart paper was unattainable. I ended up spending much of the period on how to choose a recorder, what the responsibilities might be for the materials manager, etc.

Clearly, this is something my students and I need to work on aggressively. After we re-gathered in our meeting spot to talk about what was not working, I knew we needed to work much more diligently on getting along in a group so that the task (remember that?) actually is completed.

Yes, this is a very egocentric group; many try to have private conversations with me at the same time! But we need to learn how to get along in a group and how to negotiate working under group dynamics.

And that, my friends, was the take-away from that math lesson.




We all have them, those puzzling dreams that we can remember in the morning. Well, I just woke up to a nasty alarm after spending pillow time with a rather puzzling one. My mind can be a scary place.

I’m not sure what I was doing, but it seemed to be some kind of math lesson – naturally. I love teaching math! I have the vague impression that people weew watching it for some strange reason….. whatever.

And in that lesson a teacher’s greatest fear started to come to life. The group got so out of control that teaching was next to impossible. I’m not sure what was going on anymore – I hate when the details of a dream get lost to awake time! – but I do recall having to take the activity away from one cooperative group. A group that included Charo (what????) and Queen Elizabeth II (double what????). For the record the Queen was very gracious and totally understood why the teacher was stopping her participation. Charo, however, pouted.

Just as I was about to resume the activity, the alarm broke in. So many unanswered questions; did the rest of the lesson go okay? Most of all I hope I never experience one of those deja vu moments starring this dream. Analyze this one if you want Dr. Freud, but I’m guessing I made need a vacation.