Friday, May 25, 2018

Going Back Home

Today I visited the place where I became a teacher.

I haven't been inside that building in 9 years. But for the eight years before that, I went there nearly every day. I sat on the front steps calling people I loved on Sept. 11, 2001. I cried in the bathroom stalls and out on the back steps after hard days as a new teacher (and a not-so-new teacher, too). I had some of my most joyful teaching moments there, with first graders who grew a garden and read stories and explored pattern blocks together, and second graders who wrote poetry and discovered their neighborhoods and did yoga together. There I learned so much about good teaching, from some of the wisest educators I know, about relationships, about justice, about why we teach and how to teach and our responsibility to kids and families.

These halls I haven't walked for 9 years are so familiar to me. The metal grate in the middle of the hallway floor. The sliding closet doors, askew in their tracks. The apple tree outside, whose apples we used to press for cider in the fall. The door handles, the bulletin boards, the fraying blinds that hang over the bookshelves in the hallway so little hands won't disorganize the leveled books.

My school no longer lives there. A new school has called that building home since my school moved into a bigger building a mile down the road. I walked through the hallways as children arrived with their book bags and lunch boxes, hanging their things on the hooks I used to label carefully each September. I could feel the ghosts in those hallways, spirits who inhabit my memory so vividly. Ghosts of the teachers I laughed and cried with. Ghosts of the children who shared my days and, mentally, my nights, with whom I struggled daily as we learned and worked together. Ghosts even of teachers I didn't know well, but whose work shaped lives in ways I know are still remembered, and ghosts of the ideals we lived in that school, the ways we wanted to teach our students to live and think and be.

I am surely a bit melodramatic about the good old days we had there. So many of them were hard days, but now I know that that was probably the best place I will ever work. We were a community that was committed together to a common good -- though a common good that was not easily agreed upon, and often arrived at with great struggle.

Schools are places where adults' and children's joys and struggles are lived. Walking down the hallway, I thought about schools that are closed in the name of saving money and increasing "achievement." I thought how lucky my school had been because instead of being closed down, we had been relocated and merged with another school. Even though those moves changed our school irrevocably, the loss wasn't as great as the losses of communities whose schools are shuttered. 

Eve Ewing writes about the damage to a community that accompanies school closings. This line of Ewing's runs through my mind today: "[T]he decision to shuffle students from one building to another in the name of numbers is shameful. The decision to do so is based on the premise that children, teachers, and schools are indistinguishable widgets, to be distributed as efficiently as possible across the landscape. But the fact is that schools are ecosystems, each with its own history, culture, and intricately woven set of social relationships. Schools are community anchors. They are not interchangeable, nor are they disposable. Schools are home." 

Going back to my old school was as poignant and wistful as if I had gone back to the house where I lived for 18 years as a child. I understood vividly in that moment how true Ewing's words are, and what a loss it is for a community when a school is closed. "Schools are home."

Wednesday, May 23, 2018


In recent months, I have occasionally seen one second grader, Wilfred, engaged in passionate mathematical discovery. At other times, I have seen him head down during math, tears dripping. In fact, he's cried during math a handful of times that I can think of. It rips me up inside each time.

This week, we've been working on two-part problems that involve adding two quantities, then figuring out how much more you need to get to 100. He has been dejected, overwhelmed, and tearful.

Today, though, he worked with his teacher and had more success. I walked in and could hear his teacher saying, "See, Wilfred, you CAN do it! Do you see that you can do it?"

I walked him to the bus this afternoon.

"I heard you worked really hard and figured out some hard problems today!" I said as we made our way down the stairs.

"Yeah," he replied with a small smile.

"You know," I said carefully. "That's how math usually is. Usually, you can't just look at a problem and know the answer. You have to think about it and work hard to figure it out, maybe try some different ways, before you know the answer."

"Yeah," he said.

Then, after a pause: "But not for all kids. Some kids just know the answer right away."

There it was. The thought I'd been fearing.

"Only if what they're doing is familiar," I said, reaching for a word we've used often this year instead of saying something is "easy" (thanks to Tracy Zager for that suggestion). "If they've practiced that kind of math a bunch before, they might know the answer right away. But only if they've had a lot of practice."

"No," he said dejectedly, refusing to give in to my arguments because of what he had seen with his own eyes. "Some of the kids in our class haven't had practice. But they still know the answer right away."

I stopped, crouched down on the hot blacktop, and looked him right in the face.

"The only reason kids know the answer right away is if they have had a lot of practice," I insisted. "They might not have had practice in school. Some kids have had more practice with math before they got to school, or when they're not at school. But NOBODY knows the answer right away unless it's familiar to them because they've practiced it. NOBODY is born just knowing the answer in math. Do you hear me?"

"Yeah," he answered, half resigned, half hopeful.

This is what some kids think, folks. They see other kids who know the answer right away, and they think: you're supposed to do that. If you can't do that, you can't do math. And now it's the end of May, and school is almost over, and that's what Wilfred thinks. He thinks he isn't good at math because he doesn't know the answer right away.

I go back in my memory to the mental image I have of Wilfred during one of our inclusion math lessons, when he was making arrays of cubes with 4 in each row. He was ecstatic when he told me that 72 was twelve groups of four and six more groups of four, and he was over the moon when I talked him through the multiplication equations that would show his discovery. There was no quick "knowing the answer" -- it was an hour of completely student-led exploration and discovery, driven by his own questions. It was one of the highlights of my year, and, I hope, of his. I'm holding out hope for more of those mathematical moments for Wilfred.

Edited to add: 

There has been a great conversation, partly in the comments and partly on Twitter. 

My takeaway from the conversation is this: The way you handle a moment like this, as a teacher, depends so much on what you know about the student, your relationship with the student, and probably your own experiences as a learner. Read the comments and tweets below for more.