August 28, 2013

We’re now into the inservice period that occurs before school starts.  Each of us approaches it with some trepidation, not because there’s anything wrong with meetings, but because every year is like starting anew in some ways.  There are always changes, large and small (curricular, structural, physical plant, co-workers).  The biggest change is the students.  In our unit, we have students for two years, so only half the students are new each year, but the other half will change the dynamic and feel of the group.

Preparation is important.  There are decisions to be made (again, large ones and small ones), supplies to be ordered, furniture to be arranged, paper to be put on bulletin boards.  That’s in addition to faculty meetings at which big ideas are discussed, such as diversity and school policies, and where we are encouraged to get to know each other better in various ways.

I start getting antsy, however, as the inservice time continues.  If I were the kind of person who wanted to spend lots of time every day meeting with adults, I would not have gone into teaching children.  When I’m teaching, I’m a more engaged version of myself than when I’m in meetings.  In meetings I start to get distracted.  I start wondering, as my mind wanders, if I’m looking distracted, and then I start trying to make my face look more interested, and then my focus is on whether I’m succeeding in that.  With students, I’m in the moment.  I’m not wondering what I look like, or if I should enter a discussion — I’m there.  I have discovered that I am much more successful in the moment than I am at planning (though I recognize that I should work on trying to be a better planner).  It’s like we’re on “Iron Chef” and we’re as ready as we can be without yet knowing our secret ingredient — the students.  I can’t wait for them to arrive and for us all to finally start our adventure together.


August 16, 2013

I will admit that I was never particularly interested in history.  As is often the case, this might have to do with history teacher I had.  High school offered one history teacher who was seemingly on the verge of a nervous breakdown, and while I appreciate now her insistence that we memorize things (such as the preamble to the Constitution), she didn’t inspire me to care much about the topic.

Since then, I have generally become interested in history because of something that pulls me in.  Reading a book by Amy Tan made me wonder what happened in China during World War II.  Seeing “Argo” made me wonder about the history of Iran.  (I was a young child when the events in “Argo” occurred, so you can’t blame me for being a little fuzzy about that time period.)  And I love a good story, so history that is told like a narrative tale is more compelling to me than a list of facts or dates.

My son is about to turn 12, heading into middle school in a few weeks.  Yesterday he heard news on the radio while I was waiting for a traffic update, and was horrified by reports of what was going on in Egypt.  This morning he read the article in the front section of the newspaper about it.  (Usually he just reads the comics.)  As we talked about it, I realized that while I understood recent events (because I read the newspaper), I’m fuzzy on how we got to this point in history.  My knowledge of Egypt is mostly about ancient Egypt — I know almost nothing of what happened between the last pharaoh and last month.

And while I am comfortable admitting that I don’t know everything — my students and my son have certainly heard me say, “I don’t know.  That would be an interesting thing to look up.” — I am embarrassed at my lack of historical understanding.  The things I learned about ancient civilizations in my middle school social studies classes, along with a large dose of World War II in Europe (from my father and from my one college history course), pretty much make up all the history I know.  And that’s not acceptable, not for an educated person in the U.S., not for a teacher who’s trying to inspire and excite her classes.

Off to the library to try to find a good book about modern Egypt.

The Influence of a Teacher

January 20, 2013

For a group I belong to (an alliance of LGBT and straight adults in my community) I am reading Oddly Normal:  One Family’s Struggle to Help Their Teenage Son Come to Terms With His Sexuality.  The author’s teenage son attempted suicide, and the book traces the issues the son had had in school as he tried to be himself (gay).  One of the striking things about the son’s elementary school days is how much influence each of his teachers had, for better or worse.  With a teacher whose style matched his needs, he was happy in school and did very well;  with a teacher whose approaches were constantly bruising the boy, he suffered psychologically and did not want to attend school.  While it is true in this case that his worst teacher was probably not, at least from the description, a good teacher that year, it is also true that for some of his other teachers, it wasn’t so much a “bad” teacher as a mismatch of teacher and student.

This is one of those truths that everyone knows but no one wants to acknowledge — that what works well for a teacher for one child doesn’t work well for another child.  We like to assume that “kids are kids” (i.e., kids act the same at school no matter whose classroom they’re in) and that a good teacher is a good teacher (i.e., any good teacher is good for any student).  But it’s not true.

When I used to teach middle school, I taught math, among other things, and more specifically algebra.  I loved teaching algebra, in large part because it was the kind of math that moved me from math-phobic to math-philic.  I loved the logic of it and the flexibility to use it in so many different situations.  Several of the students in my class had had, the year before, a different middle school math teacher.  One of those students was quite wistful about how the previous year had gone in math and told me several times that the other teacher was “really wonderful” (the implication being, given her sighs and frustrations, that things weren’t going as well for her this year).  Another student, however, thrived that year and told me that she was so glad to have a teacher whose explanations made total sense to her, as opposed to the previous year’s teacher.

So who was right?  Well, both were right.  My style of teaching math meshed well for one student, whereas another student found the other teacher’s style more helpful.

When we assign students to classes or groups, it only partly takes into account whether we think that student will be a good “fit” for a given teacher.  In my private school we do pay some attention to that, but we also have to think about class size, gender and age distribution, and the needs of the student (and his/her parents).  Sometimes we are lucky enough to have made a great match, in which student and teacher both thrive by being with the other one.  Sometimes it’s not ideal and you make the best of the situation.

It is certainly true that I have occasionally had students who just frustrated me or completely perplexed me.  But reading the book I’m reading, I realize how important it is to do what I try to do anyway, which is to keep trying to connect.  If I’m having a difficult day with one student, I may take some time during SSR to ask the child about his or her book, or to suggest a book I’ve read and enjoyed, or even just to check in about how his or her day is going.  It may not tell me much, but it gives us five or ten minutes to be comfortable with each other, to reset the switches and try for a better rest of the day.  Because teachers have so much control over the student experience, it’s my job to try to make that experience a good one.

When I taught middle school, every three years (part of a three-year curriculum cycle) we taught Shakespeare.  This ended with a Shakespeare festival, in which every student performed some role (big or small) in one of three plays. I discovered that I had no talent or interest in directing a play, but that I adored helping students enjoy Shakespeare.  The students who graduated from our school (which ends in 8th grade) went on to enjoy Shakespeare in high school, having learned from us the joy of it.

My son is in fifth grade.  Last spring, a local theater company put on a production of “The Comedy of Errors.”  I decided he was ready for his first Shakespeare, and it would be a good one, being a somewhat slapstick comedy overall.  Before we went, I prepped him a bit, letting him know that he didn’t need to understand every individual word, and that as long as he got the gist of it, that was fine.

He loved it.  He guffawed, he hooted, he spent the intermission talking about the characters.  And he said afterwards that he felt he understood most of the language even though it was “old-fashioned.”

This fall a friend’s Shakespeare company in New York was putting on a new play that borrowed from and paid homage to Shakespeare.  I asked if the play was appropriate for an 11 year old; they said certainly.  So off we went.

Again, our son loved it.  He laughed, he talked at great length afterwards about the characters and the plot, he picked up on the meaning of the characters’ names by reading the program beforehand.  (He’d make a great “groundling” — he really loves to interact with the play, not only laughing, but responding loudly or repeating lines.  We’ve had to quash those instincts, as we are not actual Shakespearean theater-goers and the other audience members wouldn’t appreciate a loud child…)

Great success on both counts.  And yet, at both of these performances, our son was the only child in the audience.  The Shakespeare production was a matinee, and later on during the play’s run the company itself marketed the play to school groups and families, but that hadn’t caught on yet when we went.  And at the play in New York, there were no other kids at all.  My husband commented that maybe it was because it was late, but if you actually lived in New York, it wouldn’t be that strange to see a play that ended at 10:30 with your family.  I’ve seen younger children out later than that in Times Square.

So why no children in the audience?  Maybe it’s because there are still a lot of adults out there who had bad Shakespeare experiences in high school or college, the joy beaten out of the play with a focus on how difficult the language is rather than on how universal the themes within are.  Or maybe adults think that kids can’t possibly “get” Shakespeare, that it’s too difficult.

But really, assuming you’re taking kids to see something accessible (the comedies are perfect; teens can get the history plays pretty well if you talk about the power struggles within first; and of course teens can totally get the romances), Shakespeare works.  There’s a reason he has been held up all these years as such an amazing playwright.  And if you just let children get the gist of it and enjoy it, they will.

So take a child to a play. Let children discover the thrill of live theater. And don’t fret if it’s Shakespeare.  They’ll probably love it.

The Wonder of “Wonder”

October 5, 2012

It was a lucky thing that I became a teacher, because I’ve always loved to read, and I’ve always loved children’s books.  Before I had a child, I had entire bookcases full of children’s books, but because I was a teacher, it didn’t strike folks as odd.

As a teacher, a mom, and a reader, I love to keep up with new books.  In the spring, I read good reviews of a book called “Wonder” and made a mental note.  Over spring break, I borrowed it from the local library and sat down to read.  I was enthralled.  I laughed.  I cried.  I didn’t want to the book to end.  I wanted to know more about the characters and what might happen to them.

And when I read a book and love it, I want to share it.  I decided it would make a great spring read-aloud with my advisee group (4th and 5th graders, a good age for the book).

They loved it.  Like me, they developed strong opinions about the characters, but then those opinions shifted throughout different parts of the story.  By the end (when I was crying again — and they’re used to me crying when I read and are very kind and supportive, bringing me water and tissues), we loved these characters.

Given the emphasis we place on community, friendship, being an “upstander,” being a mensch, etc., at our school and in our unit, I thought this would make an excellent summer read for our students.  My team of five teachers were meeting to discuss the summer work;  I said I thought we should have all the students read “Wonder,” which no one besides me had read.  Luckily, my teammates trusted my knowledge of children’s books and my impassioned plea.  We required all incoming 4th/5th grade students to read “Wonder” over the summer and answer (on a notecard) one of several questions (their choice) about it.

Here are some examples from written responses to these questions:

August and Jack have a really nice relationship, where they can trust each other and always have each other’s back.

August and Miranda are deep friends and think the best of each other.  They are like siblings (who like each other).

Julian and Jack are having a war.

Because I have arthritis, I can relate to Auggie.  It can disable me in some ways, but I manage!  I have MRIs just like August has hearing tests.

I think I relate to Via because I have a friend and I think we’ve had a misunderstanding.  She is not as close to me anymore.  Just like Via and Miranda.

And this is just what they’ve gotten out of the book on their own!  We are beginning to have small-group discussions about the book, and there are so many interesting thoughts the students have.  Although my students don’t have Auggie’s rare condition, they can relate to having a friend who does something really mean, or being a friend who makes a big mistake and wants to apologize.  They are experiencing (sometimes for the first time at this age) the shifting in friendships, and how sometimes even two people who are both lovely people can drift apart over time through no particular fault.  They have experienced cruelty and are trying to navigate what to do when these things happen.  “Wonder” is a fabulous book that allows all of these issues to be discussed without having to force a child to bare his or her soul in the discussion.  A kid can talk about what it must feel like to be in August’s shoes without having to say, “Someone was mean to me once and it really hurt.”  What a great common reading!

Thank you, R.J. Palacio, for writing a book that has resonated with so many students this year.

p.s.  I also shared it with my son.  At his school this year, some hearing-impaired students have been mainstreamed for part of the day into his classroom.  I was able to get him to think about Auggie in “Wonder” to help him see the experience from their perspective and to help him be more empathic.

Ray Bradbury

June 9, 2012

Although I was saddened by Bradbury’s death (though at age 91, it was hardly a premature one), I loved reading everyone’s blog posts and essays about him.  As a happy 10 year old voraciously reading “The Complete Stories of Ray Bradbury,” I did not know others who, like me, were enthralled.  My mother hadn’t read any of Bradbury’s works, and I read “The Fog Horn” to her while we both held back tears.  I sometimes spent a weekend trying to decide which story was my favorite;  having come to a conclusion, I’d then change my mind and start again.

Ray Bradbury was labeled a “science fiction writer,” most likely because of “The Martian Chronicles,” and because I loved Ray Bradbury I decided I must be a fan of science fiction.  This was an erroneous conclusion.  I discovered in college, having been given a “great” sci-fi book by a guy I was dating, that much of the realm of science fiction bored me.  It was a combination of physics (here is how the spaceship works) and anthropology (here is what the aliens ate).  And the characters were only there to serve the purpose of action heroes and narrators.  Yawn.

There were so many things I loved about Bradbury’s stories.  There were the stories that featured an unexpected twist (the kind of stories that inspired folks like Twilight Zone writers and later Steven Spielberg).  It’s not that a twist in a story is unusual (see O. Henry or Saki), but Bradbury built a fictional universe in which bizarre yet rational things could happen.  By this I mean that the characters acted the way humans do, but because of the alternate realities in the story those actions led to unusual consequences.

I loved the range of things he wrote about.  “Dandelion Wine,” which I read after devouring all of the short stories, was full of fancy, but of a completely realistic kind — the kind of joy I still feel when I buy new sneakers, for instance.  One reason “The Martian Chronicles” resonated with people was the way in which he combined aliens with the nostalgia people had for the American past (even among people who didn’t grow up in a small town in the Midwest).

Finally, the characters he created were utterly human.  I have read “All Summer in a Day” to my 4th and 5th grade students.  They do not live on Venus.  They have, however, experienced the ways in which children can be cruel to each other.  The story moves them and we usually have a terrific conversation about the importance of being kind to each other (even if you don’t like someone).  Every story Bradbury wrote is made up of people who act the way we understand, even if the setting and the consequences are foreign to us.

I have tried, over the years, to write short stories, and I always get stuck because they’re not as good as his.  Finding out this week that Ray Bradbury changed people’s lives all over the world made me feel like that happy 10 year old all over again.  Thank you to everyone who wrote and posted about him;  he lives forever in his writing.  And I am inspired to write again.

May 4, 2012

It’s the day before Derby Day, and I still teach these lessons. Today the fourth-graders place their bets. This year we have a local horse to root for, Union Rags, but sentimentality is only one way students might bet, and they’re considering all their options. The race itself is tomorrow around 6:30, and I know some students who are eager to know the results.


First of all, I should say up front that I’m from Louisville, Kentucky, and Derby Day is a big deal there.  The schools were closed today in preparation for it.  There’s a two-week festival preceding it.

That being said, I have never actually attended a Derby.  Actually, I’ve never actually attended any horse race.  Pretty philistine of me, I know, but then again, I can count on one hand the number of sporting events of any kind I’ve attended.  And I get a better view of the Derby on my television.  And watching from home, I can socialize until the moment the race starts, watch it, then get back to the party.  No crowds, no rain, no parking problems.

Although I have not always worn my Kentucky heritage with pride (and hey, George Clooney doesn’t either), I have enjoyed spreading Kentucky Derby fever among my friends.  I’ve lived far from…

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October 5, 2011

Birthdays used to be a pretty exciting occasion.  Sure, having a fall birthday meant that it wasn’t widely known that it was my birthday at school, where people were just getting to know each other (spring is much better for that), but still, people knew and made a big deal out of it.  Even in college, birthdays were celebrated with enthusiasm.

It’s not really like that now.  It’s not that I’m upset about aging (hey, it beats the alternative), but that the ages are relatively insignificant the older you get.  The teens all mean something, the twenties are still feeling young, then you get to the fives meaning things, and at this point I’m not sure that when I hit 45 it means anything at all.  (45 denotes a form of musical media that no longer exists, but aside from that it doesn’t seem important.)

I didn’t publicize my birthday at school today — it feels kind of cheap to let everyone know.  I received lots of wishes on Facebook (since Facebook notes my birthday on every friend’s page) and it felt celebratory.  Late in the day, the students discovered that it was my birthday thanks to a birthday cupcake from a co-teacher.  I told them my age, because I feel that getting older is a normal thing, despite the fact that society treats aging as a crisis.  Several announced to me that I’m their parents’ age, which isn’t surprising given that I have a child the same age as my students.  But it did make me recall in a flash the days when I first started teaching at this school fourteen years ago and my students would comment on how young I was.  I’ve gradually moved into the category of teachers who have been at the school a long time, and I have been there longer than all of the administrators except for the head of technology, who arrived the year I did.

One of my co-teachers never announces how old he is, and students have spent a lot of time over the years trying to guess.  It’s his right not to tell anyone, but I think he’s missing out on a good opportunity.  I want to teach the students that people get older in different ways, that one person might seem old at 60 and another at 80, that wrinkles aren’t bad, that you can be old but still know the lyrics to Lady Gaga songs.  I’m old enough (and perhaps wise enough) not to try to be hip — and the odd thing is that I used to try a lot harder to be hip when I was younger and probably more naturally hip — but if you teach students and you’re paying attention, you’re aware of lots that goes on in their culture.

Yes, I’m 42 now.  I may not actually be the answer to life, the universe, and everything (which has been my nerdy excitement about this particular number), but I hope to show my students that aging is part of life and it’s nothing to be afraid of.

It’s Alright to Cry

September 21, 2011

The fact that I know Rosey Grier sang this places my age in a certain category…

The school year has begun, which explains why I am simultaneously happy and exhausted.  Much time is spent in the first few weeks just learning the routines.  This time is well-spent, but it is sometimes a little tiring just practicing how to be a thoughtful student without actually getting to the “meat” of the curriculum.

Our first week of school, like much of the last part of the summer, was wet.  Day after day of rain reminded me of Ray Bradbury’s story “All Summer in a Day,” about a school on Venus where children are going to see the sun for the first time they can remember (it happens only every seven years).  It ends up being a story about the way children are and is sad.  If you haven’t read it, you can do an online search and find a pdf of it on various sites.

Having thought of this story, I decided that, despite the tight schedule, I was going to read this aloud to my language arts group.  I love to read aloud to any group, and it’s one of the things my advisee group is known for as the year goes on.

I read the story, and the students were enthralled, wrapped up in the rainy world and the prospect of sun.  We got to the end, and I choked up as usual.  One of my students asked, with some amazement, “Are you crying?”  I explained that I was a little teary, yes.  And one of my advisees said, “That happens a lot when she reads aloud,” and then, “Do you need a tissue?”  It was said with kindness and concern, and there was no derision in the fact that I do, in fact, often cry when I read.

This is due in part to the books I choose.  When I taught younger students, I cried every time at Charlotte’s Web, and cried when Mudge gets lost in one of the Henry and Mudge books.  When I taught middle school, I cried at Ruby Holler when one of the main characters rocks a doll in a way she herself never was.  I cried last year when we read The Giver, and I cry every year when I read the end of Elsewhere.  I am caught up in these characters and can’t help but cry.  My students are often shocked at first (and then wonder aloud if I’ve read the book before this moment), but they are sympathetic and grow to understand that this is what happens when I read, even if I’ve read the book every year for many years.

And while I do not cry to make a point, I think it’s a useful thing for my students to witness.  For one thing, it reinforces the idea that it’s okay to cry — that even adults cry.  More importantly, perhaps, is that the power of words can move us to the point of tears.  Students are familiar with the concept of crying in a movie, but it’s relatively novel for them to see someone crying at a book.  I hope that it inspires them to read something that truly moves them, and that they will feel comfortable crying if that’s how they feel.

In the meantime, I am thankful of the tissues, the cup of water, and the understanding nods that my students provide when, once again, I’m crying as I read to them.


August 21, 2011

There has been a lot of backlash against teachers this year.  Summer is one of the main issues.  The usual complaint is, “You get ALL SUMMER off, and yet you want a big salary too?”

Besides my usual rejoinder (“If you think it’s so awesome, why don’t you become a teacher?”), which usually just ends with a whimper, I can explain why summer is important and also why it’s not exactly a complete and utter vacation.

Lots of professionals I know get five weeks of paid vacation.  Their jobs may be stressful, but they are generally not answering phone calls or e-mails from anxious parents or students at 9 p.m.  They are not writing lesson plans at 10 p.m., spending weekends grading papers, or several times a year writing thoughtful narrative reports on their students.  Yes, there are other jobs that can be this consuming (I’m thinking of doctors on call, or nurses who work crazy shifts), but not many.  Most of my professional friends go home and don’t have to deal with their jobs in their off time aside from an occasional crisis.  The teachers I know work all day at school and then go home and work more.  (And unlike doctors and nurses, we mostly don’t get paid a lot for it.)

In the summer, teachers do a lot of work, too.  I spent a week this summer taking a class — a really useful, interesting, important class about how to teach children to self-monitor their own behavior.  It was from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily and also had some homework.  Add to that the week we spent at school reviewing last year and planning next year right after the students got out, and the two weeks before the students return that we’ll spend planning and preparing.  Add to that a few parent e-mails I received and responded to.  And the books I’ve read that I might consider using in my teaching, or at least recommending to my students.  And the books I’ve read that are part of my professional development.

None of this is meant as a complaint.  I’m happy I have flexibility of time during the summer that I don’t have during the school year.  (My job has many benefits, but flexible hours are not one of them.)  But it’s not the same as being completely free for ten weeks.

Honestly, I’d be happy to spread the vacation out throughout the year.  I’d prefer to have more time in the middle of spring, when it’s pleasant out but not hot, and a week in the fall, when it’s crisp but beautiful.  (I don’t need more time in the winter, thank you, but I know there are skiiers who would love more time then, too.)  In this part of the country, that’s unlikely — the East Coast tourist areas depend on summer traffic (Jersey Shore, Hamptons, Adirondacks, etc.) and aren’t likely to wish for students going to school during any part of the summer.  And a lot of school buildings aren’t adequately air-conditioned to run in the summer.  But I can see all sorts of advantages to having vacation in smaller chunks throughout the year.

And now I’m heading back to my school tomorrow to begin planning this year in earnest.  The students don’t start until after Labor Day.  See you in a few weeks.