Monday, December 14, 2009

Word Webs

We are finishing up our geology unit, and getting ready to do a final project and a final assessment. To review, I made sets of cards with all kinds of rock- and soil-related vocabulary on it. Working in small, teacher-led groups, we went through the cards and talked about what they meant. For some things, we taped examples of the material right onto the card (like gravel, or sand.) For others, students drew quick pictures of something to remind them of what it means. For example, Alex drew a window on the card that said "transparent," and Yolanda drew a wooden block on the card that said "opaque."

Then we put the cards down all over the table, and I asked who could find some that went together. The rules were:
  • You can move the cards around wherever you want on the table.
  • You can put together 2 or more cards.
  • Even if someone already moved a card, you can move it again to put it with another word or words.
  • For any move you make, you have to explain why you put those words together.
(I learned this activity at an Expeditionary Learning Schools institute about 3 years ago but had never tried it before.)

They had a blast, and did a mind-boggling job of connecting words. Here are some examples:
  • Keisha put "clay" next to "rock" because "when rocks get very, very, very, very tiny, they turn into clay."
  • Alex put "roots" next to "humus" because "trees and plants grow in humus."
  • They made this tower of materials that come from rocks, from biggest to smallest:

  • Najah immediately put "water" next to "rock." Curious, I looked at her. "Why did you put those together?" I asked. "Because water is one of the things that makes rocks smaller and smoother!" she announced proudly.
  • Keisha (who has some considerable learning challenges), put 3 cards in order like this:

"Because if you put rocks in a volcano, they turn into lava!"
  • Shawn put "glassy" next to "ice" because ice is glassy. Then someone else put "iceberg" next to "ice" because icebergs are made of ice, and they are both glassy.
  • Alex put "dull" next to "tree." "Because wood is dull," he announced.
  • To my surprise, Yolanda put "dull" next to "opaque." "A lot of things that are dull are opaque," she told me. "And wood is dull, and it is opaque." I thought about it and agreed. Not everything that is opaque is dull, but everything that is dull is opaque (I think).
It was another great moment of teaching, of intellectual excitement and spark. Having the words in front of them really helped them remember what they have learned, and how it all connects. They put things together that I never would have thought of. And all of the connecting and reasoning works to spark their synapses, helping these ideas stick in their brains.

And, once again, it came from geology... Don't tell my dad that I found out, after years of complaining about geology, that rocks could be so fun!

Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Spark

Yesterday, in the first days of December, it finally happened in my class. After three months of learning together every day, we finally had an intellectually exciting conversation that had my students enthralled.

This class was not overjoyed about performing mineral tests or looking for rocks outside. Finding patterns in lists of equations does not excite them. Reading many stories by Ezra Jack Keats and learning all about him didn't do it for them. Books that in other years have sparked conversations about race and identity seemed not to register. Thinking about maps and the ways people use them passed unnoticed. Many of the lessons and projects that have, in the past, led to waving, wiggling hands and excited bursts of conversation had little impact on this class.

Don't get me wrong: they have had fun in my class. They do enjoy filling their pockets with rocks, but more in a collector's style than that of a geologist. They love to cook (and I think we should cook more). When we went roller skating, they demonstrated incredible persistence and cheer, despite repeated bruising falls. They have worked hard on a huge mural of a local neighborhood we visited that accompanies graphs of data they collected on that visit. They love to hear a good story.

But they have enjoyed many of these things as children, not as learners. Of course they have learned from them, and of course they are children, and should enjoy things as children. It's just that this group is not particularly intellectually engaged (yet). They are very, very wiggly. They are quite concerned with what each other are doing at every moment, and love to tell each other what to do. They always have urgent needs, whether for the bathroom or a glass of water or to see the nurse. There is, in fact, an incredible, often overwhelming amount of activity and conversation going on in my classroom. It's just that most of it does not center around learning.

So, great authors didn't do it. Exploring rocks didn't do it. Maps of unknown places had no effect. What is the subject that, this week, has made my students watch and listen with wide eyes, wave their hands in the air, and beg to share their ideas? Ladies and gentlemen, we have been thinking about what makes rocks get smaller and smoother.

When we did these lessons last year, they passed virtually unnoticed. Although my students had fun brainstorming where rocks come from, and they enjoyed the exploration of sand, silt, clay, pebbles, gravel, and humus, it wasn't a topic that particularly grabbed them. This year, though, the second graders are fascinated.

For two days we brainstormed what might make rocks smaller and smoother: water falling on them, or when they bounce around in a river. Tree roots pushing them. People walking on them, or cars driving on them. Earthquakes, tornadoes, and volcanoes came up. Meteorites were a subject of great debate. We went outside and looked around to see what evidence we could find of changing rocks. We made lists. We talked a lot about where sand comes from. How come you can't lie down on a bunch of pebbles and be comfortable, but sand, which is just pebbles made much smaller, is soft to lie on?

Teo was quite sure that people make sand. "How do you think they do that?" I asked. "They rub rocks," he answered confidently. "Whose job do you think that is?" I wondered, grinning. "Geologists!" he replied. Silly teacher. He described groups of geologists whose only job all day was rubbing rocks, in order to make all the sand on all the beaches. Lovely.

Yesterday, we read a book that talked about rocks, soil, and sand. They were entranced. I drew pictures of mountains, boulders, rivers, and oceans on the board. They asked why sand sticks together when it's wet. They wondered how rocks melt in fire (like in a volcano). They frowned when I talked about the earth moving, as in an earthquake. (How can the earth move?)

It was fun. It was so fun. As I sat there listening, and as they sat there listening to each other with a minimum of redirection, I had a flash of what I love about being a teacher. The fact that I didn't feel it until December this year does not make me too optimistic about the rest of the year. But at least the spark came this once.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009


Here are excerpts of my students' (really quite excellent) stories, which we are getting ready for publication this week.

Upon seeing his parents dance at their wedding: "I cried but it was ok because it was tears of goe" [joy].

"When I entered the roller rink I was dumbfounded by all the pepple. I put on my skates it took A long time! I got through it."

"a minute later my brother went in the room. where I was woching tv. and he had his skeleton costume on! I immediately pulled my [toy] gun and it went dam! dam! I was very startled me." (oh, the constant confusion between "b" and "d"!) "The next day I wasent my self. I could fell my heart beding fast. and I was shivering I could see scary people in my mind."

A swimming story:
"Then the water got even colder then before It was so cold I felt like I will tern into a ice cube. Then we went out of the pool I said what a relief."

Upon receiving a scooter for his birthday:
"This is so new! i sied to myself and my stomik jumped because it is excited."

In a haunted house:
"My heart was feeling like a durm! [drum] My stomach was jumping off the walls to get away. My eye was wide like an animal! My arm was wiggling like a cats tail!"

I've never had such good description in my kids' stories, and let me tell you, these are not the best writers I've ever taught, so I am left to conclude I've done a good job of teaching something. Man, they look like they aren't listening to a thing you say, but once in a while, they learn something!

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Family Conferences

One of the cool parts of my job is doing family conferences.

Am I glad when I finish the last one? Yes.

Do I think, "Whew, don't have to do that again until April!"? Yes.

Family conferences are a lot of work. They take energy, focus, schmoozing skills, and tact. Sometimes, things you never anticipated arise, and they can push you off-balance. Some families make you nervous, make you wonder, "What kinds of things is she going to complain about this time? What could I have done wrong?"

But, all in all, I have a lot of fun at conferences. This year, even though I don't enjoy their children as much as I have previous classes, I really enjoyed all of the family members I met. I was impressed by their familiarity with their children's abilities, interest in the curriculum, and desire to understand how I teach. Today, I had a parent come back for the second meeting in two weeks, just because she didn't really understand her notes on solving math problems the "new" way when she got home. She wanted an extra math class with me so she could help her son with his homework. What could be better?

I have also figured out, after all these years, how to say a lot of things to families. I know how to tell you that your child has a lot of catching up to do in reading, or has frequent temper tantrums. I know how to explain why I don't teach your child to borrow or carry in math, and I can almost always get you on my side in that battle. I know how to break the news that your child is so very wiggly that he can't really get his work done, and I know how to say that I think we might want to have your child evaluated for special education services. I even know how to give you suggestions for disciplining your child, or for stepping out of the regular power struggles you find yourself in at home.

The biggest, best secret I have about family conferences? It's that I can nearly always connect with a family member if I let you know that we share a fondness for your child. I always know what positive things I'm going to say, the strengths your child has revealed in these first two months of school, the promise I see. I probably have a cute, funny, or smart story to tell you, and I convey as much warmth as I can in those stories. I spend a good part of the conference connecting, building bridges, so that you and I are definitely, by the end of our 30 minutes, on the same team. And I always, always, always give you, the family, the benefit of the doubt. I let you know that I know that you want the best for your children, and that you are doing the best you can to get it for them. Because the truth is that in 9 years of doing this, I haven't ever met parents who didn't want the best for their children.

I worried a bit this year that I didn't quite convey the full seriousness of some of my students' academic difficulties. I don't think families left my classroom feeling urgently concerned and, honestly, some of them probably should be. But I don't want to send them home feeling hopeless, or stressed so they will pressure their child too much, or upset at me, the messenger. I felt like my biggest job at this, the first conference of the year, was to build that connection. If we have bad news to talk about more later on, at least we'll have this strong foundation on which to build.

Saturday, October 31, 2009


Last week, my student Javier was having a bad day. All morning, he wandered around the classroom, muttering under his breath, refusing to do what I asked. As a result, he ended up eating lunch alone in the classroom with me.

I sent his mom an email to let her know how his morning had been. I tried to ask him what was up, but he wouldn't tell me -- he just acted pissed. His mom wrote back and said, "If you have a chance, call me so I can talk to him."

Since we were alone at lunchtime, I called her and put him on. As I puttered around the classroom, he talked.

He put the phone to ear and said, "Hi, mom."

After listening for a second, he explained, "I didn't get enough sleep last night, so I'm really tired."

Another moment of listening, then: "Yes, but I was feeling frustrated."

As she answered, the mouthpiece of my cellphone dangled closer to his eyes than to his mouth.

"I don't feel like talking to you about that right now," he said in a low voice.

Another quiet moment.

"Yes, I understand what you're saying." His voice was calm and resigned.

I was amazed. I had never heard him talk this way before -- so measured, so clear, so self-aware.

"Javier," I said to him. "All morning you've been letting me know that you're having a hard day. You've been letting me know by not doing your work, by not following directions, and by stomping around the room. But I just heard you talk to your mom in a clearer, more mature way than most grown-ups know how to communicate. Now if you could just talk to me that way when you're having a bad day, we could figure out how to help make your day better."

So far, he hasn't been able to talk to me this way. But I know he has it in him.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Lessons Learned

Over the past 8 years, I have learned many lessons about teaching. Specifically, I learned many lessons about how to make my job sustainable, so that I didn’t have regular mental breakdowns, or quit, so that I kept my cool in the classroom and didn’t cry on the way home. This year, I have had a much harder time holding on to these lessons. I have cried many days after school. Once, I had to turn the reins over to my assistant and leave the room to take deep breaths. I am working far, far too hard, as hard as I worked my first and second years of teaching. I can feel myself reaching the brink of sanity on a regular basis.

I have tried to get better at leaving work at a reasonable time. My goal is not to stay more than one hour after I am done teaching, and I have been more and more successful at that. I have tried to get regular exercise, with mixed results. But the other things I know, that I have to reclaim, have remained elusive. I am writing them down now in order to promise myself that I will re-dedicate myself to these things that I learned gradually, over many years of teaching, and that have kept me sane.

1. My students arrive in my classroom with a certain level of skills. I have no control over that level, over what they did or did not learn before getting to me. My job is to meet them at that starting place and move them forward, as far as I can. I can’t work magic; I can only do what I can do. They will make progress in my class. In fact, they will learn a lot. They may not get where they are supposed to be by the end of second grade, but that is because no one can make up for all that they have not learned yet, at least not in only one year of school. I can do what I can do, and that is all, and it has to be enough, even if we all wish it could be more.

2. If I don’t get all of my work done, or all of my lessons planned to perfection, it’s okay. If I’m not ready for something today, I’ll do it tomorrow.

3. I know how to be a regular education teacher, and I know how to be a special education teacher. Although they overlap greatly, they are two jobs. In one classroom, one adult can do one of those jobs. I can and do infuse my everyday teaching with what I know about special ed,, but I can’t do two jobs at the same time.

4. I can’t do other people’s work for them. Even if I think I can do it better than they can, I have to let them do it or I will resent them and overwork myself.

5. Sometimes, my response to stress is to try to do more, work harder, be more prepared, and control everything more. If I can do a little more strategic thinking and feel better, then great. But if I am working too long, until my brain is foggy, my eyes watering, and my nerves tightly wound, it’s counter-productive.

6. I have to let go of things being perfect in my classroom. This means I have to let other adults run activities and lessons their way, even if I think it would be better if I did it, so that I can have a break. I have to relinquish what happens in my room when I am not there, or with my class when I am not in charge. I don’t have time to worry about that which I cannot control.

7. Having fun is important. Even though my kids are so far behind, and I want to teach them so, so much, we need to play, and build with blocks, and sing, and dance, and be silly sometimes. (One point for me: I have instituted a painting / building / playing time at least twice a week in my classroom, as a time for us to enjoy each other and practice key social skills, and not go crazy from just doing academics all the time.)

8. Breathing is important. Exercising is important. Not working all the time is essential. Crying is good. It is also even better when you don’t need to cry so much. We’ll get there.

Monday, October 26, 2009


On top of the move and all the changes it has implied, from a more demanding schedule to a lonelier space to a lot of extra work, I am mourning my old class, and having a hard time adjusting to my new one. I had the joy of teaching the same 21 students for the past two years, from the time they were brand-new first graders until they were ready for 3rd grade. They were a group like few others. Sure, they made me want to tear my hair out on a regular basis, and yes, I am romanticizing them now. But oh, how I miss them. I miss how well we knew each other, how we could make each other laugh just with a glance, how we had so many shared stories. I miss how much autonomy I could give them, because they knew what I expected and were mature enough to do it. I miss the fact that, as I used to say, if you sliced some of them open right through the middle, you would find only goodness all the way to the very core.

This year’s class is a whole new ballgame. I have always hated the beginning of the school year, the part where you have to teach all the routines and your expectations and break them in. It makes me feel like a drill sergeant. Last year, it was with great joy that I realized that my students already knew all of that, and I already knew them, and their families felt like old friends. This year, it is back to the beginning, and more so. My students are a tough bunch. They are more like mid-first graders than second-graders, academically, socially, and emotionally. It is very lucky that I taught first grade for 7 years, because I am calling on all those skills this year.

I am teaching them how to line up – oh, how often I am teaching them how to line up. (Every day when it is time to line up, I sigh a deep sigh and give myself a pep talk.) I am teaching small lessons, most days, on how to be nice to your partner, how to solve conflicts, how to help your classmates remember the rules without shouting across the room, “Malik, STOP it!” or running to the teacher to announce, with a whine, “Kalia just hit me!” when all she did was bump you by mistake.

Not only that, but I am teaching lessons on what the short vowels are, tens and ones, and how to sound out very basic words, skills I did not have to teach in second grade last year. This makes me anxious as I think about what these students are supposed to be able to do by the end of this year.

We are making progress. Once in a while, I like one or two of these kids. Once in a while, we have fun as a class, or they are mesmerized by a story, or excited by geology. Not like last year – it is much harder to engage them in a lesson than it was with last year’s class. They are less academic. But they are getting better at learning, they are practicing kind words, and they are looking more like a cohesive group. I am good at this job, and I know what to do with a group like this. It feels good to be a pro, and to see my skills paying off.

Now, if only my heart were in it.

Sunday, October 25, 2009


I am in mourning.

Over the past two weeks, this awareness has slowly arrived, the way the clouds steal across the sun until you look up and realize you are standing in a fog. I began this process of moving and expanding our school with a determination to make it work, to accept the additional strains and stresses, to take on additional leadership responsibilities, and to stay optimistic and cheerful in the name of The Work. (The Work, in this case, being our call to educate urban students not just with core academic skills, but also so they could grow up to fight for justice for themselves and others who have been left behind.)

I am not giving up on this work, or on my school and our students, of course. But I am allowing myself to mourn. In the process of realizing what I – what we – have lost, I am trying to remind myself of the things I have learned about teaching over the years, the things that have made my job at least somewhat sustainable and livable, and that I seem to have forgotten this year in this transition.

Here are the losses, the things I am missing so much that I can feel it in my stomach, the way you feel when you have lost what you thought was the love of your life.

We have left the small, sunny, colorful building where I learned to teach and worked for 8 years, longer than I have stayed in any one institution in my life. I miss the wood floors, the apple tree outside my classroom window, the crowded main office that was often too noisy, but where we all congregated to chat, laugh, and commiserate. I miss the open door to the principal’s office, where the Queen Mother would sit and we would hold meetings, trying to fit too many people around the table, or where I would lounge in the doorway, leaning against the door frame, telling her my favorite stories of the week or my worries about my students. I miss the creaky stairs, the musty closets, the storage rooms we turned into tiny offices.

Without a doubt, missing a space is mostly emblematic of other losses. We traded in our too-tiny, too-crowded building for a place as big as a city. It has wide, endless hallways, open, renovated classrooms, and an enormous gymnasium and auditorium and cafeteria. It takes about 15 minutes to walk from one side of the school to the other, and longer to find your way around it on the outside. The sun does not shine into my classroom. It is not (yet?) a building with a heart, a personality, a sense of who we are and how we fit together in this place.

Of course, it is beautiful in there. I have a bright new rug, instead of the dirt- and urine-stained one my students used to sit on; I have new furniture painted in blue, green, and purple; I have magnetic white boards, rainbow-colored hooks, and brand-new display boards for student work. When we first arrived, we were delighted with all of this. But now, all someone has to do is mention the front hallway of our old building, and I get a raw ache in my chest. Our old school was a home, a family, a place where it seemed that we all knew each other. Here, it is more like we work in an office building, or a hospital, with hundreds of people passing in the hallways, acknowledging each other perhaps with a nod.

It is not just that we are divided by space, that we don’t know many of the new staff members and students, or that the 4th grade is twelve minutes away from my classroom. It is also that our schedule is different. Our school day is longer now – instead of teaching from 9:30 to 4, with students in the building until 4:30, head teachers work from 8:30 until 3:15, and the students are still there until 4:30. It is a longer day of work for administration, it is a longer day of learning for kids, and it is an earlier start for teachers. I used to have 2 hours every morning, from 7:15 until 9:15, to get ready for the day. I loved those quiet mornings in my classroom, alone with a cup of tea. If someone stopped by, or we met at the copier, we might stand and chat for 10 minutes. I had time to think about my day, to reflect on yesterday, to enjoy the silence.

Now, if I arrive at 7:15, I have at most one hour to be ready for the day. I need to move more quickly through my morning routines at home in order to be there by then – no more leisurely mornings at the breakfast table with the paper. At school, teachers walk by each other on our way to the copiers, but we don’t stop to chat. I can’t possibly do all my work in that hour, so I stay at 3:15 to get ready for the next day, but my kids are still there. It is not a quiet or reflective time.

On Fridays, we used to have an hour and a half between early dismissal and staff meetings, when we would eat lunch and possibly have a meeting, but a relaxed, chatty meeting. Now, we have half an hour between when the last students leave and our meetings start, so we run around heating up lunches and making copies, then sit down to rush through the order of business so we can leave at 3 for the weekend we are all desperately needing.

The sense of kinship is, plainly, what I have mostly lost. I grew up as a teacher, suffered hardships, learned important lessons, and experienced great successes, in a small community of professionals, families, and students. It was far from a perfect place. But I don’t think any of us knew what it would mean to go from 350 students to 575, to go from 35 staff members to nearly 100. We are lonely. We are isolated. We miss each other, a lot.

The feeling of our school is vastly different. We may grow into this new space and schedule and size, we may make our way back into a feeling of common purpose and community, but it will take us awhile, I think. And meanwhile, those of us who made the move are sad, missing so many things, and wondering if this is where we want to be.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

White kids

From Abe the other day, when talking about the history of our school and its mission to provide high-quality math and science instruction to kids of color in the city:

"Are white kids allowed to go to school here?"

Oh dear.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Quick Diagnosis

We've been in school for nine days, and I am quickly diagnosing behaviors. Why is Danie giggling uncontrollably and loudly during Afternoon Circle? Why is Sonny yelling at kids angrily every five minutes (it seems)? Why does Kyle suddenly need the bathroom or the nurse or a drink of water every day when it's time for math? Why is it that any time Howard is faced with any kind of frustration, no matter how small, he begins to whine or shout loudly and insistently, and will not stop?

These questions exhaust and try the patience of even the most experienced teachers. They are also par for the course at the beginning of the year. As I coast down the hills on my bike ride home, I go over the events of the day and try to figure out the motivations behind the behaviors that sometimes make me wonder if I've chosen the right profession.

According to Cooperative Discipline, there are four reasons for misbehavior: attention, power, revenge, or avoidance of failure. I think I was taught this years ago, but I didn't really remember it until someone reminded me recently. Whether you know these four reasons from instinct or instruction, you respond to each kind of misbehavior differently, addressing the underlying need rather than the superficial behavior.

I have a bunch of attention-seekers in my classroom. So, I've turned on the anti-attention machines full-blast. I think I said this phrase about 12 times today: "I will give you some attention when you're doing the right thing." This is followed by very purposeful, very intensive ignoring, and lots and lots of loving, positive attention for the kids around the room who are doing the right thing. As soon as the student making loud noises, thrashing around in his seat, or just being silly stops, I turn the same force of warmth and attention on her, noticing what she's doing right, and creating lots of positive energy around her academics.

This positive energy is really the meat of the thing. Building relationships, building relationships, building relationships. Creating intense, powerful connections, whether because we both like kittens, or baseball, or math. Getting excited together over something we're learning, or some progress he made, however minuscule it seems. I think I've heard the Queen Mother say this about 700 times in the years I've worked with her: "Some children crave intense relationships no matter what. It doesn't matter if the intensity is based in negative responses to behavior or positive ones. They will do whatever gets an intense reaction." The answer? Respond matter-of-factly to misbehavior, and intensely to the right behaviors.

The other thing I've been working on honing this year is my ability to preface nearly any redirection or suggestion with an honest compliment. "Abe, you are sitting flat on your bottom. Now all you need to do is make your mouth quiet and you'll be ready." Today we were working on writing beautiful, perfect letters for a name tag project. Before I let myself tell anyone what they needed to do better in their letter, I always looked for something that was already good. Sometimes it seemed hard to find, but there was always something. "That line of your A is very straight." "Your L goes all the way to the bottom line of the handwriting paper." "I noticed you used light, careful lines to make the letter." Once I started that way, enthusiastically, I would give one piece of feedback for their next draft of the letter. "On your next one, do you think you can make the line as straight as you just did, and at the same time see if you can make the A bigger?" The kids were overflowing with enthusiasm, and eager to do another draft. They could feel the progress.

It feels a little unrelenting, this process of diagnosis and treatment. But the sooner I nip them in the bud, the sooner things will get easier.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Teaching school is like climbing big mountains

This past summer, I spent 9 days climbing some very tall and very steep mountains with two friends. The trip was harder than I had anticipated. The weather and company were excellent, but the trails were poorly marked and very rough. Sometimes we couldn't figure out where we were on the map; other times we could read the map but couldn't find the trail. Many days, it was hard to keep our footing on the loose rock or boulders, and the constant uphills and downhills pushed my legs to the edge of their limits. All of this was with 40 pounds on our backs.

After 6 days of this, I noticed I was having a hard time enjoying the beauty of the incomparable scenery around me. I was still mostly in good spirits, but I was worried a lot of the time about getting where we were headed without getting lost, injured, or caught in bad weather. I was surprised at the fact that I was able to keep up my spirits, laugh, and make good decisions, and that I hadn't cried. But on the morning of Day 7, from the bottom of a valley, I woke up, gazed at the jagged peaks we had to cross, and had a very whiny thought: "I don't want to go back up in those mountains!"

It's pretty unusual for me to look up at high, rugged peaks under a clear blue sky and not want to climb them. So I knew something was wrong, and I was pretty sure I knew what it was. My inner resources were low because I wasn't getting enough time to slow down and just enjoy the mountains. Every day, we were getting up early and getting going quickly, without those moments over the cookstove, waiting for the water to boil and watching the morning come. At night, we were collapsing into our sleeping bags and falling asleep immediately, without much time for reading, chatting, or watching the stars. During the day, even when we remembered to sit down and rest, we were worrying about the route and trying to decode the map instead of enjoying the canyon in front of us.

Most expeditions involve days like this, but partway through our trip I realized we should have planned a few shorter days in between the long days. When we had looked at the maps last winter, and read about the routes, we kept adding miles, days, and peaks onto our itinerary, because all of it looked so good. We didn't exactly bite off more than we could chew: we were capable of completing our planned itinerary. But we bit off more than we could chew and enjoy to the extent that it deserved to be enjoyed.

The first weeks of school are making me feel the way I felt on Day 7 of my summer trip. I've been keeping up with things at school, staying positive, and working well with my expedition-mates. I am excited in the morning, most days, for what lies ahead. But when I come home at night, I am sad. There aren't enough things nourishing my soul. I'm not taking any breaks. I'm worrying about what lies ahead, and if we'll make it. Things are getting done, but with little enjoyment. I could expand the metaphor even more, but you can do that for yourself: the trail is rough and uncertain, the map is unclear, and the pack weighs 40 pounds.

The transition back to school in the fall is a particularly abrupt and harsh one. In July, I went from a week of sitting on the patio of a rented house in a French village, consuming cafe au lait, wine, croissants, and cheese all day, to grueling days of climbing. At the end of August, I went from owning my own schedule, with languid mornings and warm, slow evenings, to being in my classroom from sunrise to sunset 6 days a week. I have lost the luxury of balance and free time, and that makes me sad.

Things will even out soon, and I will work hard to add some shorter days to the mix. In a few weeks, teaching will be more like a thoughtfully-planned expedition, with long, hard days mixed in among easier days with great views and mountain streams for swimming. Right now, though, there are few options other than to look up at the peaks and keep on trudging forward.

Thursday, September 3, 2009


It's September.

September, for teachers, usually involves a lot of shopping at the dreaded big box stores, a lot of cutting and gluing and laminating, a lot of making charts and lists and labels. And that's all before the kids even arrive, when the real work begins.

This year, September promises to be different for a lot of kids and a lot of teachers at my school. We have moved, and expanded, going from 350 students to about 575 in one year. The city closed a "failing" middle school and moved our "successful" pre-K - 8th grade school into their building. In addition to their space, we inherit their students: about 150 7th and 8th graders who have been learning, or approximating learning, in a school that was more like a prison than a garden. "Pre-prison" is what my principal called it when she visited last year: a school that's getting kids ready to fail, in the best-case scenario, or to be locked up or killed, in the worst.

Moving and expanding presents some challenges, to put it mildly. Doubling the size of our middle school, which was already the newest part of our program and probably the shakiest, seemed like a somewhat crazy idea. Taking on these students, whose reputation precedes them, sounded somewhat like professional suicide.

Don't get me wrong. These middle schoolers are not a different population of kids than those we've been teaching for years. But students at my school have been treated with respect, nurtured, and taught well for years. Our new charges have been in a failing school. If the rumors are correct, it was a chaotic, unsafe, and miserable place to be. High percentages of the students were placed in special education classes, wholly separated from the regular education students (a practice my school does not believe in, but which we will have to continue for at least the first year or two). These kids have been treated as if they aren't smart and can't learn and won't amount to anything. So, they've been acting as if they aren't smart, can't learn, and won't amount to anything. Go figure.

[I want to take a minute to be clear here that I don't imagine any of this was exactly the fault of the teachers or administration at the old school. I bet if you talked to those teachers and administrators, you would find a lot of committed, hard-working people who cared about kids. You would also find professionals struggling in an atmosphere of intimidation and fear in this world of test scores and standards, where we are expected to force students to learn and meet arbitrary goals, but with no support and few resources. You would find teachers who felt disrespected and oppressed by the school department and the administration, and administrators whose hands were tied. Surely you would also find some deadbeats, who should have been moved out years before. But many of them would have become teachers for the right reasons, even if now, years later, they were disillusioned, exhausted, and helpless.]

Our school works hard to build relationships with children and families. So we've been trying to start making positive connections before the school year begins. (Instead of starting out by calling home Week 2 to say "Your son was disrespectful today"). Many of the new students and their families got home visits from current families of our school last spring. Over the summer, middle school advisers paid home visits to their advisees' families. Last week, they came back to tell us stories of these visits at a staff meeting. They talked about teenagers who wouldn't turn off the TV or put down their Game Boy, who had no interest in talking to this new teacher from this new school who had come to their house to get to know them before school starts. (Normal teenage behavior, no?)

But gradually, advisers found a way to connect with many of the students. They asked for stories about the old school, and found out that most of the students had experienced bullying by other students or disrespect from teachers. One girl told how some kids took her shoes and ran off down the hall with them and no one, not even the teachers, could stop them as they raced through the building. Another student talked about being yelled at by teachers, talked down to, publicly shamed. Kids dreaded coming to school.

The advisers told these students, "That will not happen this year. No one is allowed to make anyone feel unsafe at our school. It is our job to make sure that doesn't happen, and we will do our job."

Advisers connected with families because they spoke the same language (Haitian Creole, Cape Verdean, Spanish), because their families were from the same neighborhoods, or because they loved the same foods. If they didn't speak the language of the family they were visiting, they brought someone else from school who did. They asked questions, expressed interest, and shared stories about themselves. And the students and families who were supposedly checked out, out of control, and unable to learn started to check back in.

Some of the inherited students have been coming into the building to visit over the past few days. Their school has been transformed over the summer. Where once there were peeling walls, broken furniture, and doors hung askew, there is now fresh paint, spotless bulletin and white boards, and untouched furniture. There are brand new science labs, and motion sensor lights in the bathrooms. It looks beautiful. ("This is like a private school!" one teacher whispered to me in the sun-filled library lined with antique wooden cabinets.) It looks like a school, where people are expected to teach and learn, and where those teachers and learners are valued. Two middle school boys came in my room the other day to introduce themselves. They were delighted by the changes, and amazed. They barely recognized their old school. They were warm and friendly and excited.

School hasn't started yet, and I'm sure that it will not all be smooth sailing. (It never used to be last year, so why would it be any different now?) But these kids, about whom we have been hearing rumors for a year, seem just like any other kids, if you treat them with high expectations, respect, and humanity.

On the one hand, this is not surprising at all. It is something we know and believe in, which is why we treat students and families with warmth and an expectation of partnership. On the other hand, it makes me scratch my head and wonder what the hell other schools are doing. This isn't rocket science. It's not easy, but you don't have to be a genius to figure it out. It's common sense: treat students like you know they will learn, and they will. Treat teachers like you trust their professional judgment, and they will work hard and have good judgment. Create a building that feels like a learning environment, and it will become one. It's not nearly this simple, of course, but these are pretty good places to begin.

Friday, June 26, 2009

The Last Day

Today I took my last 9 students on a long walk. We went through the Arboretum, where we looked for frogs and turtles, counted dragonflies, and identified catbirds, red-winged blackbirds, and exotic trees. We ambled through long grasses and along stone paths, then came out on busy roads where we walked to our favorite local ice cream shop. We ordered pizza across the street, then had ice cream (smalls, one topping per child). Finally, tired, hot, and sticky, we headed back toward school, this time along the road instead of through the Arboretum.

At least four times we stopped to make friends with dogs that were walking by. Each time we had the same conversation. "What's your dog's name?" "How old is he? Is that in dog years or people years?" "How many years is that in people years?" "What does he like to eat?" "Really!? He eats that?"

I thought a few times about all the things they say and notice that they learned from me. I mean, I thought it humbly, with a kind of awed amazement that I have influenced these kids in a few ways. But they see the world in some new ways because of me. The way they notice and talk about bikes. The way they think about recycling (Ivan carefully found the recycling container at the ice cream shop for his plastic cup.) The way they point at every bird they see. Israel and his ability to identify some of the common birds around here -- grackles, starlings, finches. The way they helped each other get up a steep hill, and Amalia said, "It's a good thing we support each other!" All the knowledge they have, and share with each other, about insects, mushrooms, plants, rocks.

I mean, I definitely don't get all the credit for any of this. I probably only get a little bit of the credit for it. But we've made a community together, for two years now, that is characterized by taking care of each other, the environment, and our neighborhood, as well as curiosity, excitement, and enthusiasm for new ideas. It's been a place where it's safe to share your feelings most of the time, where kids take risks and stretch themselves, and where we have a lot of fun. I feel really proud of that community, and proud of my kids for being such willing and happy participants it in.

Israel came up next to me as we neared school. "I'm kind of sad that it's the last day of school," he said, with an embarrassed laugh. "Me too," I agreed ruefully.

Amalia didn't leave my side the entire walk. Each time we got separated, there she was again next to me, her little sticky hand slipping into mine.

We were sitting in the coolness of the ice cream shop, all of us gathered around 3 tables, when Israel looked around and said, with his customary little chuckle, "It kind of feels like a family."

Now they are gone, and I am in my almost-empty classroom. It's started raining outside. (We forgot to repeat the sun dance today.) I'm facing a big stack of paperwork, but officially, I'm on summer vacation. The traditional end-of-year song is being blasted over the intercom. (Usually, it's "I Will Survive." This year, it's "The Way You Make Me Feel," in honor of Michael Jackson.) I'm tired. I'm happy. I'm sad.

Sun Dance

It has been raining for days and days around here. As of yesterday morning, we hadn't seen the sun in over seven days.

So when my students arrived, we decided to do a sun dance. First we composed the words. Then we worked out dance steps / hand motions to go along with them. We rehearsed, then headed outside.

Bumblebees like the sun.
It is hot and it is fun.
Rain is boring.
I am snoring.
We just wish the sun would come!

Five times we performed the sun dance in front of the school. Amalia counted "1, 2, 3, 4" so we would know when to start. Carlos counted out the number of times we had done it, so we would know when to stop. Jarad held a drawing of the sun up toward the sky. An hour later, the sun came out.

We always knew we were pretty damn powerful.

(Malcolm looked at me suspiciously. "I think you heard the weather report this morning," he said. I frowned innocently and motioned him to shush.)

Thursday, June 18, 2009

I am from a dream a night

We've been writing I am From poems. Some excerpts:

By Amalia
With a little cold wind
I’ll whirl and twirl
around until
giggling with my girls.

By Tia
I hear
in the morning.
My skin is like
chocolate butter cups.

By Alex
I am from China to
become a ninja warrior so I can
meet my grandpa that had
died a long time ago
I just
don’t live
I live
my neighborhood
I hear
baseball games
around the
corner and
trucks rumbling
and kids
at the
I even
hear ice cream

By Pria
I am from a
dream a night
I am from a
I am from
the sun

By Aliyah
I am from cold coffee ice cream.
nice dark coffee ice twisted coffee
ice cream. don’t leave me in the sun or
I will melt like a raindrop

By Jarad
I’m from
the music
that Ms. Swamp
all day

By Jada
I am from my mom’s stomach
like peanut butter is from peanuts.
I am the color of peach coladas.

By Raheem
I’m from Jamaica
where the wind blows in the night
and sun shines in the day. and
in the morning I hear drums
every day. and crickets chirping in late
days and I hear coyotes howling in
the evening. and I feast on Jamaican beef
patties all day. and people have parties in the
morning and they blast music all night.

The scent of burgers and hot dogs and chicken.
Dogs barking in the afternoon.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Math Review

Today we started our end-of-year math review packet.

Not exactly inspiring curriculum. The students need a chance to review everything they've learned in math this year, and they need practice with pencil-and-paper math tests -- things like reading directions carefully, double-checking their work, etc. So we give them a math review packet to do before the end-of-year assessment.

The funny thing is that my kids were really into the review today. And so was I. It was fun guiding them through it, asking them questions when they got stuck, and seeing them find a solution to something they didn't think they could answer.

We didn't finish the packet because it was time for a read-aloud. So after an hour of math work, I told them to clean up and come to the rug for the story.

A chorus of groans arose around the classroom as a bunch of disgruntled second graders shuffled to the rug.

"I don't want to hear the story," Tyshaun whined. "I want to keep doing math."

"Me too," Israel agreed. "I love math. Let's skip the story."

"Yeah! No story! More math!" Jarad started chanting.

I laughed. Much as I am tired (in June, after ten months of it) of whining, this whining wasn't really such bad news.

"Just wait," I said. "I know you love math. I love math too. It's hard to stop doing math when it's so fun. But the story I'm going to read you is so good, you'll be glad we stopped. Plus, we'll do more of the math tomorrow."

Then we read And Tango Makes Three, a book that has been banned in many places for telling the true story of two male penguins at the Central Park Zoo who became a couple, built a nest, and eventually hatched an egg given to them by the zoo keeper. It always generates good discussions, although I have to stop my knee-jerk reaction when kids giggle or say "that's nasty" at the mention of two dads. Instead I ask them why they think it's nasty, and other students disagree and share their thoughts, and we have a real conversation about it.

The thing about the story of the baby penguin is that everyone loves it. The charm of the two male penguins who want so much to have a baby that they try to hatch a round rock (and remember, this is a true story), and the delight everyone feels when their real, adopted egg hatches -- you can't help but rejoice with the two dads. The students are rapt, with enormous grins stretched across their faces and hands clasped nervously in their laps, as the two dads take turns sitting on the egg and then hear peeping coming from inside it. I saw my student with Asperger's Syndrome more emotionally engaged in the story than in anything else we've read all year. (Except for another book about penguins, come to think of it. Hmmmm.)

And that's the beauty of the story. No matter what you think about two dads, you are pulling for Roy and Silo. Which is what makes for good literature.

After the story, I said, "See, you didn't want to stop math to read this story. But aren't you glad we did?" And they were.

It was a very good morning to be a teacher in the second grade.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

The Too Rough Fingers of the World

I was looking online for the text of Langston Hughes' poem "The Dream Keeper," which we've been reading this week. (It is incomparable.)

I found this. It is definitely worth a read.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Portfolio Presentations

I work at a school where, in order to graduate from the eighth grade, students have to write a paper and do a portfolio presentation for a panel of judges about the relationship between colonialism / colonization, government corruption, deforestation, and climate change in Haiti or Kenya. They learn about US contributions to poverty in those countries, and 2004 Nobel Peace Prize Winner Wangari Maathai's work on reforestation in Kenya. They speak about the ramifications of global warming, and the importance of stopping deforestation as one part of slowing climate change.

That is just exactly the kind of school I would like to work at.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Student Poems

Here are few of our first original poems. Not everyone has line breaks down, so I'm copying them as they are, even though many of these line breaks are not purposeful (they just wrote until they ran out of space.)

The ceiling is like a cloud in the blue sky shifting across the sky. (unfinished)

Music is in hip hop and
soul or smooth rock
when my mom is going to
sleep she tells me to turn
it off but I just make
it louder music is my thing.

(Undertaker is a WWF wrestler, I think)

There goes Undertaker
leg drop...
There goes Undertaker
last ride...
There goes Undertaker
old school...
There goes Undertaker
choke slam...
There goes Undertaker

My mom smells like a blossom when I eat her chicken
the crust is crispy the meat is tasty
she spends her money on me and my baby sister
She gives me money on my birthday her pan-
cakes are moist and good her bacon is crusty


They pass it to me in the lane,
and my knee is in a lot of pain
I make the and-one
the fans say "that's the game!"

Ray Allen

Ojo passes it
Ray dunks it
Ojo gets
Ray makes
Yeah Ray go

The ice cream man

The ice cream man
never steps out his
truck is it just
because of a
angry old man, approaching
the ice cream man?
He steps on the brake
as if he was in a race
and he never turns
back he leads the
police on a high speed
chase, and that's mostly that.

The last one is my favorite. I love the angry old man, approaching the ice cream man.

What is it about poetry? Their natural sense of rhythm and language and powerful words emerges so naturally.

How to be a good mom

My assistant Melissa just left for maternity leave. The students put together a book of good-bye letters, complete with advice on how to be a good mom. A few gems:
  • "I think the day you have your baby will be the BEST! My mom says I'm the best thing that ever happened to her."
  • "Teach him to be a gentleman."
  • "Babies cry because they are cold. They miss being in their moms' warm stomachs. That's what my mom told me."
  • "Your baby needs plenty of sunshine."
  • "Make sure you give him lots of love and care."
  • "When he's 4, he can come here to go to school with us."
  • "Teach him to use the remote control." (oh dear)
  • "Make sure you get enough sleep."
  • "Make sure you have time to go out with your girlfriends and have a break."
  • "Teach him to be good when he goes to the dentist to get his teeth checked or cleaned.
(This last one was from Tyshaun, who came in yesterday and sought me out purposefully in order to say, "I have to leave early today to go to the dentist." Remembering his advice to Melissa, I thought there was perhaps something going on in all this dentist talk. "How do you feel about going to the dentist?" I asked. "Not good," he answered emphatically. He told me he doesn't like having people put their fingers in his mouth, or getting shots in his mouth. I could very much empathize, and I told him what I do at the dentist when I'm nervous: close my eyes, take deep breaths, and try to think about something else.)

Jerome made a big picture, split in the middle horizontally. On the top was a baby in a crib, with big bubble letters over the top that said: "Let Baby Sleep!" On the bottom was a baby in a high chair, with the heading: "Let Baby Eat!"

Melissa's baby boy was born yesterday morning. He's got 22 happy aunties and uncles in our classroom.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009


We have been memorizing poems, and today a number of students bravely performed their poems, alone, in front of the whole lower school at Community Meeting. Jarad, usually a quiet, reserved kid, stole the show with his recitation of a poem about Mohamed Ali that starts, "Well, I float like a butterfly, sting like a bee..."

On the way back up the stairs to class, I heard him asking his classmates, one after the other: "Which poem do you think I should learn next: the one about Martin Luther King, or the one about Malcolm X?" By recess time, it was a formal survey, complete with clipboard.

I think probably either one would do.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Art and Poetry

Today we read "Invitation," by Shel Silverstein.

If you are a dreamer, come in,
If you are a dreamer, a wisher, a liar,
A hope-er, a pray-er, a magic bean buyer...
If you're a pretender, come sit by my fire
For we have some flax-golden tales to spin.
Come in!
come in!
I thought it was a hard poem to understand. We started by asking questions about it, because I told them that when you read a hard poem, you ask yourself questions about it.

Who is he inviting in?
Where is he inviting them?
What are "flax-golden tales?"
Who is he calling a liar? Why?
(That word had a big impact on them.)
What inspired him to write this poem?

And then some students had some answers, and some surprisingly good ones. (I know, I shouldn't be shocked when they are thoughtful. I mean, I've known them to be quite smart and insightful for two years now, right?)

"I think he's inviting us into our imaginations," Aliyah said immediately. Wow.

"Why?" I asked. "What's your evidence?"

"Because he talks about dreaming, and wishing," she answered.

"I think it's about making up stories," Pria suggested. "Because he talks about spinning 'flax-golden tales,' and tales are like stories."

The idea then surfaced that he was inviting people to sit by a campfire (since he says "sit by my fire,") -- that it was about a camping trip, and they were telling stories around a campfire and roasting marshmallows. Ah well, can't completely escape the literal second-grade mind.

We talked about fairy tales, because that's what spinning "flax-golden tales" evoked in our minds (we thought about Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Rumplestilstken, and other stories in which spinning figures), and because they asked about a "magic bean buyer" and we remembered Jack and the Beanstalk.

Ramon understood the poem deeply, from the beginning. He raised his hand over and over again, driven to share his ideas about imagination, inviting people in, and stories.

"You really understand poetry, and you really like it, don't you?" I asked him, smiling as I looked down at him on the rug.

"Yes," he answered.

"You know, I used to want you to go to art school," I said (because he is a very talented artist). "But now I want you to grow up and go to poetry school."

Instantly, he replied, "But poetry is like art."

"It is like art," I agreed, my smile widening and my heart getting a little fluttery at his marvelousness. "What do you mean? How are they the same?"

"When you write a poem, it's like making something up, the same as when you draw a picture or tell a story," he said. "And it's using your imagination."

If ever I thought poetry was too hard for second graders, I learned my lesson right then and there.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Poetry and Performance

I have discovered something new and great.

It started almost by accident. We had a brilliant guest teacher in the other second grade, who came in and taught a poetry lesson. He introduced the students to the poem "The Eagle," by Tennyson.

He clasps the crag with crooked hands,
Close to the sun in lonely lands,
Ringed by the azure world he stands.

The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls,
He watches from his mountain walls,
And like a thunderbolt he falls.

It was an excellent lesson, in which he didn't reveal the title of the poem, and they had to use clues in the poem to guess who "he" was. They also got to act out the poem, learning what the unfamiliar vocabulary words meant, and even jumping off of desks to imitate "like a thunderbolt he falls." They illustrated each line of the poem, having only 3 minutes per line to sketch quickly what they visualized when they heard that line. They recited lines of the poem over and over again, concentrating on fluency, expression, word endings, enunciation, and performance skills.

I decided to do the same lesson in my class Monday. I was excited and inspired. But my students were silly. They were annoyed that they had to stand up to recite. They spoke too loudly, yelling the lines. They went too fast, and sounded out-of-sync. They flopped around on the rug, and made fun of the poem.

I persisted. I stayed animated and positive about the poem. Some students were intent on memorizing and reciting it, and on the idea that when the whole class could recite it beautifully together, we would go outside and jump off a (low) wall at the last line. I let those who wanted to sit down sit, and I worked with the others. Every time they chanted a line, I got excited, and commented on the parts they did well. We practiced the word "clasps" over and over again. We even practiced the "sps" sound over and over again, in preparation for the word "clasps." "Beautiful!" I exclaimed as they began to recite in unison, ending with a few seconds of silence, the final consonants ringing in our ears.

On Day 2 of the poem, there was less silliness. At one point, I ended up alone with 3 students in the room. I asked if they wanted to recite it together. They chose not to look at the words, and they did it perfectly, working as a group to start and end each line together. Their expression and articulation could use a little work, but they had the whole thing memorized in two days.

Today, those three students performed for the class. Then they chose 3 more students to stand and join them. Finally, they chose 4 students to replace them, and to recite it as a group. After each recitation, the class broke out in applause. I continued to comment on crisp consonants, coordination of teams, and expressive voices, and to delight in the beauty of the poem.

The teachers have been thinking a lot about fluency lately. Our students can often read on grade-level, but not fluently, and comprehension breaks down, especially when they get to third grade. So today I took my lowest guided reading group, and asked them to practice reading one page of a non-fiction book about sharks over and over again. I read it fluently and with expression, and they echoed me. They read it for and with their partners. We noticed what each student did well, and made suggestions. They read the same four sentences over and over and over, until they sounded almost perfect, like fluent readers.

In the middle of the lesson, I turned around to see that Ramon had stood up as he practiced the reading. Ramon, who the day before had complained bitterly about having to stand to perform the eagle poem, and had flopped down on the rug in exhaustion.

"Whatcha doin' standing up?" I asked him.

"I'm performing," he answered.

"Oh really?" I asked, grinning. "Whatever happened to 'I don't want to stand up to read the poem!'" I whined in imitation of his tone.

"That was yesterday!" he responded without missing a beat, his eyes crinkling up as he laughed at himself.

I realized that performing is powerful stuff. Reading is so hard for Ramon, who has a serious reading disability. But he likes practicing it over and over again, and he is good at memorizing. The more he repeats a poem, or a page of text, the better he will know the content, and the more he will recognize those words the next time he encounters them. He, and his classmates, are starting to relish the sound of their own voices when they sound strong, beautiful, and competent -- not the way they usually read. They feel proud as they get better at the text they practice. And they are motivated by the promise of a real audience, whether it's our class or the entire lower school.

I promised his group that they would each get one chapter of the sharks book to master. They could take it home with them to practice, practice at school, practice, practice, practice, until they were good enough to "perform" it for the audience of their choice. They were excited, and our reading group returned to class full of energy and smiles.

Meanwhile, poetry is taking off. We started talking about alliteration, focusing on the first line of the eagle poem. I brought in tongue twisters to try, again focusing on articulation and word endings. Students got a page of alliterative phrases with blanks, such as "tough teachers _____," and they got to fill in the blanks with another word that started the same way. Some of these began to turn into silly poems. Every day, there is great enthusiasm at the end of reading, as some students get to perform what they have written, or recite a poem they have memorized. It is an organic process -- it is just unfolding, and I am picking up on the energy and growing it, but I am not making it happen. This is how good teaching happens, kind of magically, kind of by mistake, and your only choice is to run with it.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Infinite Pools of Patience

Why is it that some days I have infinite pools of patience?

Some days, no matter what happens, I am the picture of serenity. Chairs can be kicked over in rage, tantrums can be had in the hallway, giggles can burst out incessantly on the rug -- and I am tranquil, responding in even, measured tones.

"It's okay to be disappointed, but you can't use your body like that. You need to let us know with words."

"When you talk to me that way, it doesn't make me want to do what you want."

"I'm going to ask that question again, and I expect to see people raising their hands quietly."

All delivered in a matter-of-fact, even friendly tone that says "I still like you, and I know you can get this right. I'm happy to work with you on this if you try it again." Handled the way a good teacher would handle it.

If I knew the secret to those unflappable days, perhaps I wouldn't have the kind of days when the smallest quip, or student out of place, or unrequested voice makes me sigh, snap back, throw my hands in the air, or want to stamp my feet as if I too were in second grade.

I suppose the latter kind of days are the days that make me human. But I would rather be super-human, I think: unmovable, always wise and calm and friendly, never rushed or impatient or stressed. As I age, I'm getting better at this, despite the fact that I am not hard-wired for calm. So maybe by the time I've been teaching 25 years?

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

liq⋅uid [lik-wid]

Definitions of a liquid, by the second graders.
  • something you can only hold if it's in a container with no cracks or holes
  • something that changes its shape to fit the container it's in
  • something that slides or pours
  • something you can put your hand through
Pretty damn good, huh?

Monday, May 4, 2009


Dear Ms. Swamp,

My favorite part about spring is all the flowers and trees growing because your neighborhood looks nice and to get to plant new things in spring and you get to enjoy the weather in spring. What's your favorite part about spring?


Dear Ms. Swamp,

What did you first think about teaching second grade? What enspired you to go hiking?


Dear Ms. Swamp,

I am sorry that I did not do my homework. The troth is that I forgot haf of my homework.


Friday, May 1, 2009

Hilarity at Morning Circle

My class made me laugh so hard yesterday morning that I cried, and one of my contacts came out.

Tyshaun came in angry (as is so often the case). We sat down for Morning Circle, and I knew immediately from the thunderous look on his face that he was upset. There is nothing subtle about Tyshaun's moods.

I commented that he looked unhappy, and asked if he was mad at me. (I'm usually the one he's mad at.) He shook his head, his face hidden in his arm, while the class watched.

"Are you mad at a student?" I asked. The back of his head moved up and down.

Someone said the name of a student he was upset at, from another class, and Tyshaun nodded again.

"Do you want to go talk to him?" I asked. His head went back and forth. No.

"Is there anything I can do to help you feel better?" Back and forth again. "Is there anything the class can do to help you feel better?" Nope. "Okay, well, if you think of something we can do, let us know."

By now his eyes has begun to emerge from his arms. Soon it was his turn to greet the students sitting on either side of him. His head went back into its hiding place, but I thought I could sense his mood lightening a little, so I tried to make him laugh by making a face. Against his will, a smile spread across his face for a second. I knew we were okay then. The class was laughing, pleased that Tyshaun was coming out of it. Then Ivan pretended to greet the students next to Tyshaun, in a falsetto that sounded nothing like Tyshaun's voice, and we all collapsed with laughter. It was probably partly because I'm a little coldy that tears started to roll down my cheeks. I rubbed my eyes, and found a contact in my hand.

Morning Circle pretty much degenerated from that point. I got the contact safely back into my eye, and we tried to move on, but fits of giggles kept taking over all of us, including me. Finally we had to do some deep breathing so we could get serious enough to finish the circle and move on to writing.

Fun times in second grade.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Substitute Voices

Teachers use our voices much the same way singers do -- all day, every day, at a strong volume. Teacher voices have to project above the voices and noises of 23 bodies in one room, and across large spaces such as the hallway or the playground. But we never learn the things singers learn about how to warm up, how to project, or how to breathe, so voice problems among teachers are common.

Right now at least 3 teachers at my school are suffering from severe voice strain, and I am one of them. I am going to speech therapy once a week to learn exercises I can do to use my voice more efficiently, so that I get maximum volume with minimum effort. I am drinking buckets of water every day. (All day, my students remind me: "Ms. Swamp, drink water! Ms. Swamp, here's your water bottle.") I am supposed to vary the range and tone of my voice throughout the day, and not to talk too much or too loudly.

My students are all on board with this. They understand the problem. They are quieter than usual, and they hush each other so I can talk at a lower volume. I am working really hard not to talk too loudly, so my voice is pretty quiet. I'm using a normal speaking-voice volume, but in an action-filled room, it can be about as effective as a whisper in a noisy bar.

Today I decided to share some of the vocal work. At the end of recess, I asked Ola to lead the circling up. He counted down from 10 to 0, then told everyone to hold hands, raise them, drop them, and check their shoes (to see if they were tied), all in exactly the same words I use when I lead that routine. He called students to line up (and called Cliff last because Cliff was smiling -- God forbid anyone smile in school!), and he led the class back to the classroom. He told the line leaders to stop at the appropriate places in the hall, and directed the door holders to do their job as well. At the classroom door, he made the class stand silently at the door, and only let quiet students in to walk to their seats for lunch.

"It looks like you've found your substitute voice," Amalia remarked to me as she went by.

But really I have found 22 substitute voices. Raheem is brilliant at quieting the class when he rings the bell to make an announcement. "Michael, please go to your seat," he instructs. "Everyone, please stop touching the cubes. It's time to clean up. Make sure you check the floor under your tables. Ramon, please look at me when I ring the bell."

In the hallway on the way to drumming, Ivan quieted the group. "Ms. Swamp is waiting for you," he said, his eyes on me as I stood quietly waiting for silence. "Bria, please stop talking. We are going to be late for drumming!"

The classroom could run itself without me, it seems. They know the routines inside out and backwards. Not only do they know the routines, they know exactly what I am going to say, and exactly what words I am going to use, at least when performing everyday maneuvers. It is fun to watch their leadership emerge, and to see how they rise to the occasion. If Tyshaun is in charge of getting the class to PE, he doesn't fool around in the hallway like he might otherwise. He stands a little taller, and looks around at his classmates with an authoritative expression on his face. They ask each other in respectful but assertive tones to listen, to be respectful, and to help us get where we need to be. Meanwhile, I stand back and watch, and grin.

Friday, April 10, 2009


The second grades spent two days this week at an Audubon Society center in the city. It is a true green oasis in the midst of urbia (that's the opposite of "suburbia"). It smells like the woods, and it sounds like the woods, and that is rare to find in these parts. Even though large portions of my life have been spent in rural spaces, for many of my students this is a relatively unknown world.

I told them we would go on a hike on the second afternoon. They know I love to hike. We sat in a circle in the sun to get ready for what was really more of an amble over half a mile of flat trail than a hike.

"We're going hiking!" I announced.

A shout of approval went up. "Yay!"

"Wow," I said. "There is just about nothing that makes me happier than if I say 'We're going hiking' and people say 'Yay!' Let's do it again! We're going hiking!"

"Yay!" they cried even more enthusiastically, always eager to please.

"So, there are 4 things you need to know about hiking," I said. "And the first one is this. Hiking is hard work. So you have to be really strong and tough to do it. And that means no complaining. Even when it's hard, and you're tired, and you want to stop, you can't complain, because you have to be really tough.

"Second, I'm going to be first, and you need to be behind me." [We talked a bit about how we would make sure no one fell too far behind.] "Third, we want to see birds and animals, so we have to try to go quietly in the woods so we don't scare them away." [We agreed on a quiet way to get each others' attention if we needed to show each other something.] "And last, it's important to stay on the trail, because if we walk off the trail, we'll step on things and hurt them, and we want to leave the forest the way we found it."

I told them I had learned to hike when I was their age, about 8.

"When you learned to hike, did you complain?" Pili asked.

(It is at this point in the narrative, if not before, that my parents give each other knowing looks and chuckle.)

I thought for a minute and said, "Yes, actually, I did use to whine and complain when I went hiking. But that was because no one told me that you had to be tough and strong to hike. I didn't know that rule of hiking. And at first I didn't like it that much. But after awhile I discovered that the woods were full of beautiful things to see, and I learned that if I was really tired, instead of thinking about how much farther I had to go, I could just think about each step, one at a time. When it's hard, I try to think about this step that I'm taking right now, and nothing else."

"And then you get there!" Amelia finished my thought.

"Yes, then I get there," I repeated.

I am happy to report that 16 of us "hiked" through the urban wilds for over an hour, with a grand total of zero complaints. It was warm and gentle there, and we looked at small bugs, tree bark, cattails, mallards, and burrs. We picked up sticks and put them down again, we watched red-tailed hawks coast above us, and we enjoyed the first moments of spring.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

The end of the insects

From Paige's final entomology test.

"A simple metamorphosis is when some bugs don't change like a waxworm changes but a milkweed bug does not. The life cycles goes like this egg - nymph - nymph - adult. It goes the nymph three times because it never changes.

"A complete metamorphosis is when a insect goes egg - larva - pupa - adult. A milkweed bug is different because it doesn't say larva or pupa insted it says nymph three times. The adult of a waxworm is a moth.

"When insects molt they shead something cemuller to skin but it is calld exoskeleton. When a insect is littel and it has to grow up it sheds the exoskeleton."

Cemuller! I love it.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

I respectfully disagree

On our second-to-last neighborhood field trip a few weeks ago, my students embarrassed me. Some of them (not all, but some) were disrespectful, defiant, and rude, both to me and to our hosts at a community organization. One of our hosts was a community organizer who had been a founder of our school. I was humiliated when I would ask of a student a simple request, such as to move over, and he would respond with "No!" or "Why?," both mono-syllabic responses delivered in a hostile tone of voice.

I realized that I have an assumption that when you are out in public, you are on your best behavior. How many times, as a teacher, will I have to learn not to assume anything? I remembered that last year we used to talk about what kind of impression we wanted to make when we were out in public, but we hadn't revisited the topic this year. My third realization was that some of my students talk to me in this way, somewhat contemptuously, on a regular basis, and that if they talk to me that way at school, why wouldn't they talk to me that way in public?

Now, I may temporarily forget things I've learned before as a teacher, and make the same mistakes over and over again, but I usually eventually remember important lessons from years past. So I remembered that, as all first-grade teachers know, it is important to teach everything. We don't assume, when first grade begins, that students know how to knock on the bathroom stall doors, or stand in line, or sit in a circle, or walk across the classroom quietly. We teach our expectations for each of these things, and millions others, very explicitly.

So, I began to teach my students how to respectfully disagree. I went to a meeting, and I watched how adults disagreed with each other, and I took some notes. We made a list on the board. Our list included phrases such as:
  • I object.
  • Can I suggest an alternative?
  • I disagree.
  • Can we talk about this?
And many more. Then we practiced. Students pretended to be me; I pretended to be them; they pretended to be the principal while I pretended to be me.

It then occurred to me that they might start to think that if they respectfully disagreed with me, they would get exactly what they wanted. And while these words, delivered in a mild tone of voice, certainly make me more amenable to listening, I knew that there would be times when I simply could not engage in the conversation. When seventy things are going on around you, sometimes you need to just be able to say, "Go do that," and have someone do it, no questions asked.

So, our next list was, "How to respectfully express disappointment." It included things like, "I would rather not, but if you really need me to, I can." Or, it offered a deep but calm sigh as a way to accept disappointing turns of events. We talked about how the teacher might say, "I can't talk to you about this now, but we can discuss it later." And we practiced with more role plays.

Of course, things did not change magically overnight. I realized that when students had spoken disrespectfully to me before, as long as it wasn't super out of line, I hadn't been sure of how to respond. In my desire not to have a strong emotional response, I would often simply ignore them. I wouldn't give them what they wanted, but I wouldn't let them know that their words or tone were unacceptable. Or, I would get frustrated and annoyed by how they spoke to me, and I would snap back, or give them a swift consequence.

So I began a slow process of trying to change patterns long ago established. "Jarad," I said the other day, "Nice job on the science work. Now turn it over and practice it once more."

"Awwwwwwwwwww," he moaned loudly and angrily as I turned away. I walked back over to his desk.

"Jarad," I said quietly, "that was not a respectful way to respond to me, and it didn't make me want to listen to you, or even be around you. Why don't we try that again?" Again, I told him to practice the science work. This time, he responded calmly and reasonably: "Ms. Swamp, I don't think I need to practice it again. I think I already know it."

I thought about it, and realized he was probably right. "You're right," I answered. "I think you do know it. Okay, you can put it away and get a book to read."

I had known that I didn't want my students to speak to me that way. What I had not anticipated was how powerful their revised tones and words would be. I myself had taught them to talk this way, but I still found myself strongly affected by these calm, reasonable phrases. Instead of being annoyed, I was willing to take a minute to think about their perspective. And often they were right, and I changed my mind, or we found a way to compromise. Things were much more civil.

I don't want it to sound like this has worked magically. We have almost two years of habits under our belts, and they are hard to break. Kids still whine or snap at me, and I still forget to calmly remind them to try it again. Sometimes I snap back, and they get madder, and then I get my way just because I'm the boss. But I have found a new way to respond to them: not with a consequence, but with a lesson or reminder, and then a do-over. I have high hopes for next year. If I start with a new class from Day 1, working on these kinds of communication lessons, we might get far by the end of the year.

Friday, March 27, 2009


I warned my kids that our field trip yesterday would be hard work for their bodies and their brains. "It's going to be like an expedition," I told them. "Lots and lots and lots of walking, and lots and lots and lots of thinking and focusing and learning. So get your bodies and brains ready!"

On the walk up the hill when we were almost back at school, I asked Israel if he was tired.

"Nope," he answered. "Are you?"

"Nope," I said.

"No," he agreed. "You must not be, because you're always climbing big mountains. This is nothing!"

A few minutes later:

"It was a lot of walking," Ramon said. "But I took it like a man!"

"Yeah," I said. "It was a lot of walking, but I took it like a woman!" He looked a little confused.


Yesterday morning I went to a meeting of staff from other schools around the state who wanted to learn from our school. As one of the teacher representatives from my school, I was there to answer questions about just about anything they were wondering.

See if you can figure out what's wrong with this picture.

First question: "There are lots of things going really well at our school, but the one thing that we're having a really hard time with is family involvement. I mean, we just can't get families to show up at school. I can't tell you how many conferences I've scheduled where parents stand me up, without even a phone call. These people just don't come to the school, no matter what we do."

I am lucky enough to work at a school where I have never heard anyone say "these people" about our families. I knew immediately why families weren't showing up at their school. Would you go somewhere if the people who ran the place felt that way about you? I imagine families who face these kinds of attitudes from the school, and who may have painful histories with schools in their own lives, feel about going to the school kind of the way I feel about going to the dentist. It's never fun, I always get bad news, and it reminds me of how much it hurt when I was little.

We gave this teacher good advice: send teachers on home visits before school starts, or promise yourself you'll call each family once a month with good news. Build a relationship based on genuine feelings of good will, a common goal, and love for the students. Have culminating curricular events that students are proud of. I reminded her that one important part of this whole business is what we think and expect of families. "I have never in my life met a family who didn't want to be involved in their student's education, who didn't want the best for their child," I told her. "We have to believe that, to start from a place of knowing that about them. Families will meet those positive expectations if they feel them."

Contrast this teacher and her attitude, so common in the teaching world, with my sister, who has had such a grueling time of it this year. Systemic failures of her school and school system (and of our country) have made her teaching job an impossible task that is brutally heart-breaking on a daily basis. It would be easy for her to blame her students, and their families, almost understandable if she resorted to wondering what is wrong with them that their students act like this and can't do that. But instead, she talks regularly about how much she enjoys her students, what great kids they are, how they did this or that today that made her laugh. She had family conferences last week and ended the day feeling positive and connected, telling me how much she likes her students' families. If there's any test of a great teacher, she's passed it, then. Too bad she can't help out this veteran teacher in western Massachusetts who can't get her families to show up.