Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Little Round Bird

Ever since we hung our bird feeder back in August, more and more birds have gathered on our patio for their daily feast.  Yesterday, I spotted a new arrival.  He was just a tiny thing.  Sort of.  He was neither long nor tall, but he was so round he looked like a feathery ball that someone had stuck a beak onto one end and tail feathers in the other.  His feet were barely noticeable under all his roundness.  Like his companions, he hopped and bobbled across the pavers, picking up birdseed as he went.  There was something different about him, though.  He remained apart from the others as he went about his seed gathering, even venturing close to the house and the glass doors that afforded me this view of backyard wildlife.  He seemed rather fearless.  Or clueless, perhaps.  I couldn't decide which it was, but he fascinated me just the same.  

At one point, he flew up and landed on the narrow ledge under one of the kitchen windows just to the side of the sliding glass doors.  With his rotund body, there wasn't nearly enough room for him, and he fluttered frantically to stay in place.  After several seconds of this, he landed on the patio, but rather than admit defeat, he merely tried again at the opposite window.  He was equally unsuccessful and returned to his previous activity of hopping across the patio.

Since birdwatching was not actually on my to-do list, I turned away from the windows and my feathered friend's antics and got back to the business of my day.

Later that afternoon, I stepped out my front door to locate my children who should have been playing right out front but were nowhere to be seen.  (Turns out they were playing hide-and-seek.  Evidently, they are very good at this game.)  I was distracted from my mission, however, by the sight of a bird perched on the side of our fountain.  It was the same little round bird!  He hopped around the edge, apparently trying to figure out how to get to the water at the bottom of the bowl without dunking his whole body.  

I couldn't help but think that if I were living inside a children's book, there would be something magical about his bird.  Maybe he would talk and reveal some terrible secret, or he would take me on a fantastical adventure that would somehow lead me to a new and profound understanding about myself and this crazy world we live in.

Neither of those things happened, of course.  Instead, a neighbor kid ran across the lawn in search of a hiding place.  He startled the bird, which in turn startled him.  My little friend flew off and the magic of the moment disappeared with him.  And that was the end of that.

Until this morning.

With the house still dark and the kids still asleep, I turned on the Christmas tree lights and settled on to the couch to enjoy a few peaceful moments before the hectic pace of a busy day set in.  As I sat sipping hot coffee, I heard an unfamiliar bird song.  It wasn't the usual staccato "tweet, tweet" but an actual song, several notes long.  I instantly thought of the bird from yesterday and walked to the kitchen to see if he was in the yard.  I was disappointed to find only the usual assortment of birds gathered for breakfast.  And then, there he was.  His little round body was pressed against the wood frame of the glass door.  He hopped across the patio, not because my presence had disturbed him, but because it was time to do so according to whatever plan he had made for himself.

Now,  I don't have any way of knowing if he was the one to sing me that beautiful song, but I like to think it was.  And maybe, just maybe, there is something magical about him after all.  Maybe he came to remind me that there is in fact magic all around us, if only we are willing to stop in our tracks long enough to see it.  Or maybe he came for no other purpose than to eat as did all the other birds in the yard.  Regardless of his reason for being there,  I found meaning in those small moments, a gentle reminder of what life is all about.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

A Piece of My Heart

I am tempted to drop you off in front of the school.  Thoughts of all I have to do to get ready for my own class spur me on, and fall has finally appeared, bringing frosty mornings that have banished the too-hot days of summer to distant memory.  I remind myself that these moments are precious and fleeting, so I get out of the car that has just begun to take the chill from the air and walk you to class.

The cold bites at nose and cheeks, drying my lips while bringing water to my eyes.  Your little hand, encased in soft, knitted fingerless gloves, is warm and comforting in mine.  We walk mostly in silence, only the music of children playing and the shuffling of your feet on the concrete pathway fill my ears.  The hustle of the morning is forgotten as we slowly make our way across the playground, content to spend these few extra minutes together.  We can't stay here, however, lost in the moment of your hand in mine, and the time comes, as it always does, to let you go.  I draw your warm not-so-little-anymore body to mine for a hug and a whispered "I love you."  I then turn to make my way back across the playground, this time alone.

You don't know that I turn back around one last time to see you adjust your backpack on your shoulders and gallop toward your room and your familiar routines of which I am not a part.  Even after having done this for several years now, there is an ache in me as I leave you there.  It is the ache that comes when you leave a part of yourself behind.  That is another thing you don't know.  There is a piece of my heart that belongs only to you.  It follows you wherever you go.

I leave you because I must.  I will go about my business as you will go about yours.  But all the while, my heart will be anticipating that moment at the end of the day when my eyes will fall upon you and drink you in again, and I will be whole once more.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

A Lesson from Bad Kitty and a Think Sheet

It was one of those moments that moms dread.  I was waiting blissfully ignorant outside my son's classroom door.  It was Friday, a minimum day, and the sun was shining.  It seemed like a perfect day.  Perfect, that is, until his teacher appeared at the door and, as she said goodbye to each student, made eye contact with me and beckoned me with her finger.  One look at my son's face, all thoughts of perfection quickly vanished.

As it turned out, it really wasn't that big of a deal, not to me at any rate.  Jack had received a "think sheet" because he had been talking during Read to Self time.  His teacher informed me that she had given multiple warnings to the class that there was to be no talking, but Jack continued.  I expressed surprise.  Jack loves to read, and as I told his teacher, when he's reading it is very hard to get his attention.  I asked if he had been free to get up and move, and she assured me that he was, that he had chosen to remain where he was.

For Jack, though, getting a think sheet was akin to the end of the world.  Any corrective action is interpreted as "everyone hates me."  There is no talking to him when he gets in one of these moods.  As we walked across the playground, he put his head down and tearfully refused to discuss the situation with me.  All I wanted to do was assure him that I wasn't upset with him.  I told him I loved him.  I tried to hold his hand.  Each attempt on my part only made him walk faster, trying to put more distance between himself and me.  Frustrated that I had somehow ended up the bad guy in this scenario, I got in the car with him and drove home in silence.

Silence gave me time to think, however, and I began to wonder if there was a little bit more to the story.  Before leaving for school in the morning, Jack had tucked Bad Kitty Vs. Uncle Murray into his backpack.  Only just recently had Jack discovered the Bad Kitty books.  Two nights before I had to repeatedly tell him it was time to go to bed.  "But I want to read," he whined.  It wasn't just an attempt to manipulate his book-loving teacher-mother either.  He really wanted to keep reading.  How do you say no to that?  It was after 9:00 p.m., though, and knowing how difficult he would be to get up in the morning, I did say no.  He reluctantly went to his room, telling me that he didn't want me to rub his back like I usually do.  I knew something was up.  Sure enough, moments later his father and I could hear him laughing from down the hall as he continued to read his book.  Bad Kitty had been his constant companion ever since.  When he wasn't reading it, he was talking excitedly about it.  Which made me wonder:  Had he been talking during Read to Self time or had he been sharing his book with his friends?  Once he calmed down, I asked him if he had been reading Bad Kitty in class.  He admitted he had been and that he had been reading it to his friends.

This bit of news got me to thinking some more.  About reading and students and classroom expectations and just how realistic and effective this whole "silent reading" thing really is if in fact our goal is to create genuine lifelong readers.

Don't get me wrong, I fully support Jack's teacher's decision to have him fill out the "think sheet."  He and I will talk about the importance of following directions, of being respectful, and of not distracting others during reading time.  But I started asking my teacher-self some hard questions.  Have I made reading solely a solitary act?  Do the practices of my classroom support the natural inclinations of 8-year-olds and encourage a love of reading?

Several years ago I made the conscious decision to make sure that independent reading time was scheduled on a daily basis.  I begin each year by going over expectations and having my students practice for increasingly extended amounts of time, building stamina.  One of the expectations, of course, is that there is no talking.  I have always felt such a sense of accomplishment when my class can sit and read for 20 to 30 minutes at a time.  I also have changed my routines so that I now begin each day with a read-aloud.  I talk up books and reading every chance I get, and I am thrilled when I see students' growing stacks of books on their desks and their choosing to read whenever they have a free moment.

 I do give my students opportunities to read together, but the truth is, when I do, it is an assigned story with an assigned purpose.  I am dismayed by the realization that I never give them an opportunity to simply share what they are reading with one another.  There is no time in our day when a student can simply lean over to a neighbor and say, "Hey, listen to this!"  I picture the multiple desks with their stacks of Wimpy Kid books.  How many of those students would like to share their reading with each other?  How many more kids would get interested in reading the books if they were given a chance to hear parts of them read aloud by an enthusiastic peer?  I want so much for all of my students to fall in love with reading.  Thinking of Jack's excited voice repeating the exploits of Bad Kitty, it occurs to me that I have an invaluable resource in my classroom that I have failed to tap into.  I can go on forever about books and how much I love reading, but no doubt my students think that because I'm a teacher of course I love reading.  How much more powerful for students to see and experience the enjoyment that other students get out of it!

I can't help but think too about my own independent reading practices.  Most of my reading is indeed a solitary act.  However, when I am reading something that really speaks to me, I often will read part of it aloud to my husband, often interrupting his own reading.  It's just too good not to share.  It's kind of like watching a movie by yourself.  Isn't it much more enjoyable when you have someone to laugh out loud with?

So, thanks to Bad Kitty and a think sheet, it appears that it is time to re-imagine my class and routines once again, so that my students might share books and develop a love of reading with each other.  And, honestly, I couldn't be more thrilled!

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Mistakes Will Be Made

A couple of days ago I went to have my hair cut and highlighted as I do every 8 weeks.  I decided to have my hair stylist use only red for the highlights.  Usually I just have a few red pieces mixed in with brown and blonde, but I was in one of those moods where I crave change without knowing exactly what I want that change to be.  Years ago when I was in my 20's and working for a financial consulting firm in Santa Barbara (so long ago now that I frequently refer to it as a previous life), I had a hair stylist who urged me to go red.  I wasn't into coloring my hair at the time, so I never did it.  Feeling a bit bold, now felt like a good time to try it.

Later that afternoon my 7-year-old son came home from school and launched into a story.  About midway through it he finally looked at me, really looked at me, and scrunched up his face like he had just seen the most hideous sight ever.  "What did you do to your hair?" he asked.  "I don't like it."  After this heartwarming declaration, he immediately got up off the couch and proceeded upstairs, getting as far away from me as he possibly could.  Hmmm, maybe the red wasn't such a good idea after all.

After spending some time in front of the mirror, I began to think I rather agreed with him.  Maybe the red was a little too much.  In my early 20's it might have worked.  In my late 40's, not so much.  I looked . . . old.  That definitely was not the look I was going for.

But I can't say I am really upset about it.  Live and learn, right?  I had finally done what I had thought about doing for years, decades even.  So what if it had turned out to be a mistake?  Mistakes will be made.  Mistakes should be made.  Because then you know at least you tried.

I am forever telling my students, particularly when it comes to math problem solving, to try something.  So many just sit there and stare at the page, frozen with uncertainty.  How many times have I done the same when faced with real life problems?  The truth is, though, as long as you sit motionless and in a state of panic or, worse, a state of apathy, there will be no solution.  Solutions very rarely, at least in my experience, just magically appear before you.  You have to try something first.  And yes, that first attempt very well may turn out to be a mistake.  You may come up with a ridiculously wrong answer or walk around with ridiculously red hair, but at least you tried something.  Now you know one thing that doesn't work.  If you think about it, finding what doesn't work isn't really a mistake at all.  It is simply a step forward.

Mistakes.  Struggle.  Failure.  These words have come to have such a negative connotation in our society, and yet it is through our mistakes, our struggles, our failures even, that we learn, whether it is in math class or in life.  It is through our mistakes that we grow and become more than we once were.  They lead us to some of our greatest successes.

I have made mistakes, many of them.  I will continue to make mistakes, in teaching and in life, but I will value them for what they truly are:  learning experiences that will lead me to a greater understanding than if I had never made them in the first place.  

Mistakes will be made.  And I, for one, will welcome them.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Dad's Four-Letter Word

After living with emphysema for 13 years, my dad passed away on July 13, 2014.  He was 87 years old.

When we met with the pastor to discuss Dad's service, he said that he would give people the opportunity to come up and speak.  I knew I wanted to say something, but I didn't know what or if I would be able to.  I woke up at 3:30 a.m. on the day of his funeral, and words kept flowing through my mind.  At 5:00, I decided to get up and write them down.  What follows is what I wrote that morning and, thankfully, was able to share with all who had gathered to pay their respects to a great man, Jack Burns, my father.


Those who know me well know I have a bad habit.  Actually, I have quite a few, but the one to which I am referring is my tendency to let four-letter words fly on occasion.  Those who know my family well also know where I most likely acquired that habit:  Dad.

Lately though, there was a particular four-letter word Dad liked to use.  That word I can use in front of all of you.  It was "love."  When it came time to leave after a visit, I would give him a hug goodbye, and he would say, "I love you."  When I would call and talk to Mom, he could be heard in the background telling her to tell me he loved me.  She would relay back to him that I said I loved him too, and he would respond, "Good."

The thing is, Dad wasn't telling me anything I didn't already know.  I don't remember the words being used a lot while I was growing up, but Dad told me he loved me all the time.  He said "I love you" when I was a little girl and he taught me to read simple words in the newspaper he was reading.  He said "I love you" when he came to school performances and listened to me screech my way through a song on the violin.  He said "I love you" when he rushed to my side, white as a sheet, when I broke my leg in the 8th grade.  He said "I love you" when he supported my decision to go to college, crying as he left his baby girl so many miles from home and beaming four years later when I received my diploma.  He said "I love you" when he walked me down the aisle and later when he held each of my sons, Jared and Jack, in his arms.  He said "I love you" every time he made me call when I got home after visiting so he knew I had arrived safely.  And he said "I love you" when he wished me a happy birthday every year at exactly 9:05 a.m., the time I was born.  No, he didn't need to say he loved me.  He had already shown me a million times; there was never a doubt in my mind.

It was that same love that Dad felt for all of us, Mom especially, that kept him going.  It gave him the strength he needed to keep fighting even when the simplest of tasks became a struggle.  In the end, Dad proved just how powerful love can be.

I will be eternally grateful that [my sister] Katie urged me to come home last Friday.  Those last two days were extremely hard, but I am so glad I was here to help take care of Dad and to simply hold his hand.  It wasn't much, but I hope he heard loud and clear what I was trying to say:  "I love you, too, Dad."

Friday, July 11, 2014

Waiting for the Silence

I sit and wait.  What I am waiting for exactly, I do not know.  No, that is not true.  I just don't want to be waiting for it, so I push it as far away from me as I can and pretend it isn't lurking around some not-too-distant dark corner of my future.

Tears gather but I force them back, telling myself to save them for later when I will really need them.  And need them I will.  There will be dark days ahead, filled with a heavy silence that the world will never quite be able to drown out.  There will be an emptiness.  No one else will see it, but I know it will be there, and I will carry it around with me the rest of my days.

I remember when my oldest sister died.  It's been almost 25 years, but those moments live on inside my mind.  My parents, brother-in-law, brother and sisters, and I were all at the hospital.  Waiting.  Waiting for what we did not want to happen, hoping, praying that by some miracle it would not happen.  I recall the nurse saying, "She has a strong heart."  Even though she worked in the medical profession, I do not believe she was referring to the organ beating rhythmically inside my sister.  Cindy was strong, determined, a fighter, and not ready to leave us.  So we waited.  Helplessly, we waited, like unwilling witnesses to a natural disaster, wanting to intervene but completely powerless to do so.  I'm ashamed to admit, at some point I just wanted the waiting to be over.  And then it was.

In the final moments, we knew the fight was over.  As the monitor broadcast her decreasing heart rate, I walked to her side, touched her hand, and said goodbye.  Then I walked out of the room.  I couldn't bear to see her go.

I wasn't prepared for the silence that followed.  That heavy, suffocating silence that comes when your world has irrevocably changed.  You sense that life is going on around you, but you can't feel it or make sense of it.  It's like in the movies when the only thing in focus is the character and everything around them becomes blurry and distorted.  Instinctively, you move through your days, responding to people in what you hope to be an appropriate manner.  But you are so hollow inside that nothing really sinks in, nothing fills you up, and you believe nothing ever will.  Truth is, you are right.  There is a part that will remain forever empty.

Today, I am there again.  Waiting.  Waiting for words I do not want to come.  Waiting for a goodbye that I will not be able to bear.  I don't know when it's coming.  It may be months for all I know.  But it's coming.  Another natural disaster that I am powerless to stop.  Only this time I know what will follow.  So wait I will, and save my tears for another day.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

A House Without a Cat

I don't have a cat.

Which is strange because just yesterday I was awakened before dawn by the sound of  raucous meowing.  Just yesterday I stroked soft fur covering a little bony body while I spoke gentle words of comfort.  Yesterday, I helped my husband guide an apparently disgruntled creature with sharp claws into a cat carrier.  And even today, I find cat hair on blankets and floors, and there's still that little dirty spot on the rounded corner of the bathroom wall that she liked to rub against.  A food bowl sits empty on the laundry room floor waiting to be filled.

But I don't have a cat.

I can't say it was a shock when my husband called from the vet's office yesterday afternoon to say that Adele's kidneys were failing along with a host of other problems and the vet suggested we have her put to sleep.  I had known it was coming.  We both had.  Or perhaps I should say all three of us had.  Adele hadn't been herself lately, jumping up on tables she had never thought to jump on before, following us into rooms but then sitting with her back turned to us like she was in some self-imposed time-out, curling up on the pillow next to the head of my sleeping child instead of staying in her usual spot at the foot of the bed.  My husband joked that she was crossing off items on her bucket list.  Maybe she was.

There are truths in life that we accept intellectually, but when we are actually confronted by those truths we find ourselves emotionally ill-equipped to deal with them.  My husband asked me what I thought we should do.  Neither one of us wanted to be the one to make the decision.  So we talked around it for a few minutes, silently praying that the other one would be brave enough to say what we both knew needed to be said.  In the end, I don't think either one of us said it.  It was just understood.  At the time, I thought it was the right thing to do.  Now I have moments when I'm not so sure.  I didn't want her to suffer, but I wonder if she wouldn't have preferred to be at home.  I know that is what I would want for myself.  To be surrounded by my own things and my own people.  To be where all that really matters lives.  I am comforted by the thought that my husband, the one who brought her into our home all those years ago, was with her at the end.

As painful as all that was, the hardest part was having to tell our children.  They had known Adele all their lives.  She was as much a part of the family as any human relative.  How could we explain that she was no more?  I took them to their martial arts class knowing that when we returned their father would be home and we would have to tell them.  We agreed to one little white lie:  We would tell them that she had died at the veterinarian's office but not that we had had her put to sleep.  Death is understandable, euthanasia a little less so when you are 11 and 7.  We pulled into the driveway and, upon seeing their father's car in the driveway, my older boy, Jared, called out, "Daddy's home!" Then he said, "Adele's home!"  I couldn't speak.  I suspect he knew something was up because he repeated, "Adele's home!"  Still I said nothing.  As we walked up to the front door, my younger son repeated the story of something Adele had done that morning and told me, "She better not do that again!"  No, she won't, I thought, and hoped that he wouldn't feel bad later for having said those words.

There was stunned silence when my husband first told them.  Jared stood stoically until I took him in my arms.  Even then he cried silently.  Jack was confused at first, asking if she was going to be okay, then finally realizing that he was never going to see his cat again.  That's when the tears started.  I told him it was okay, to which he wisely responded that it wasn't.  His grief broke my heart even further.  As I watched him lying on the couch crying, I couldn't help but wonder how he would handle it when the loss was even greater.  Intellectually, he knows death exists.  Emotionally, the experience of losing someone he loves is like an unexpected round kick to the heart.  How will he handle the deaths that lie before him?  How will any of us?

The amazing thing is we will.  Our world will be a little quieter, a little sadder perhaps.  But we will get through it.  We will find reasons to smile and to laugh and to wonder again. 

We spent some time last night going through boxes of old photographs, hunting for pictures of Adele.  It turned into a wonderful trip back in time to when our life as a family was just beginning.  We found several pictures of Adele, in many of which she is lying next to Maslow, who died 7 years ago.  And I smiled, thinking that they were back together again, napping peacefully in a spot of sunshine.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Why I'll Think Twice Before Saying "It's Easy" to a Child

It's easy.
See, wasn't that easy?

How many times have I uttered those words?  Probably more than I realize because honestly, I never gave much thought to what I was actually saying.   Most likely I intended the words to be encouraging.  Now, I'm not so sure that they are.

Last week, my younger son Jack was testing for his new belt rank in martial arts.  For the test, the kids had to do a stick pattern called "windmill."  It was similar to another pattern they had previously learned, but just different enough to be confusing to his young mind.  It was beyond confusing to my not-so-young mind.  I watched intently in class so that I might help Jack practice at home, but I just couldn't get it.  Neither could he. 

We had two days to practice before the test.  But how do you practice something you don't know how to do?  We had an idea of what it was supposed to look like but lacked all the intricate details.  I instructed my boys to practice the best they could anyway.  Needless to say, Jack wasn't thrilled and did his best to whine his way out of it.  At his brother Jared's urging, however, he stuck with it.  He kept getting stuck at one particular point.  One of his sticks must have been in the wrong position because every time he did the second move he ended up hitting himself.  We were all pretty certain that wasn't supposed to happen.  Finally, Jack dashed downstairs to tell me he and his brother had figured it out and commanded me to come back upstairs and watch him.  Sure enough, he was no longer his own worst enemy.  We were making progress!

The day of the test came much too quickly.  The first part of class was spent reviewing, and Jack's instructor worked with him on his windmill.  Jack was still having trouble, but slowly began to get the hang of it.  That's when his instructor said to him, "It's easy,"  words that I have said myself numerous times, but this time, hearing them spoken by someone else, and directed to my child, they stopped me cold.

It's easy.

Only, it wasn't.

As Jack's mother, I had seen him try and try again and just not be able to get the hang of it.  It was decidedly NOT easy.  I couldn't help but think, what message do we send a child who has struggled to grasp a skill or concept when we say that it is easy?  If it's easy, then the kid must be pretty stupid to not have gotten it sooner, right?  I know that that is not what Jack's instructor meant, and I don't even think Jack took it that way.  I know I have certainly never meant it that way.  But that was the unspoken message I sensed lurking beneath those innocuous words. 

Sure, it is easy when you've done it a million times.  Just like fractions and long division and inferring and writing complete sentences are easy for me.  (Yes, I realize I do not always write in complete sentences!)  Perhaps the problem is that we have so much experience that we have forgotten what it is like to know nothing and to be learning something for the first time.  It seems to me, though, that when we say something that a child has struggled with is easy, we diminish their hard work and perseverance.  They then become words of discouragement rather than the words of encouragement we intend them to be.

The next time I witness one of those miraculous moments when a child begins to understand what once was confusing, I won't diminish the accomplishment by saying, "See, wasn't that easy?" which I  know very well it wasn't. Instead I will say something like, "See, all your hard work paid off," and thereby acknowledge that I know what that child has done wasn't easy, but I also know that they are capable of learning difficult and challenging things.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

The Day My Class Fell in Love with Close Reading (Or at Least Had Fun with It!)

With the current emphasis on close reading, I have been looking for opportunities to have my third graders reread texts to answer questions using text evidence.  Ever since reading Falling in Love with Close Reading by Christopher Lehman and Kate Roberts, I have been trying to do more than just have students point to a place in the book where they found the answers to questions I ask.  I was really struck by the idea that students should look at texts through particular "lenses," examine the details they find for patterns, and use those patterns to create understanding.  On several occasions, I have had students work together to find evidence that would help them to answer questions that they themselves had formulated about characters, plot, and author's craft.  Sometimes we were successful, sometimes not so much.

A couple of weeks ago, we read The Garden of Abdul Gasazi, written by Chris Van Allsburg.  It is one of the few stories in our basal that I truly like and feel lends itself to rich discussion.  One of the things I love about this book is that it requires students to pay close attention to the details to decide whether Gasazi, a retired magician, actually turned Fritz the dog into a duck or if it was all just a trick.  It seemed like the perfect opportunity to put our close reading skills to work.

My students already had read the story and had pretty much decided what they thought had happened.  I began by asking them to stand on one side of the room if they thought Gasazi had actually turned Fritz into a duck or stand on the opposite side if they thought it was just a joke Gasazi had played on Alan.  My class this year surprised me.  In previous years, most students believed that Fritz was really turned into a duck.  The majority of this class, however,  believed that it had been a trick.  (My class is pretty respectful of authority, so I suspect when Miss Hester told Alan it had been a trick, they simply accepted it as fact.)

I told my students that they needed to prove that they were right by finding text evidence that supported their point of view.  What could be more motivating than proving you're right? Students partnered up and immediately began rereading the story and writing down details.
Not long after they got started digging for evidence, two of my girls rushed up to me and excitedly inquired if they could switch to the other side of the room.  They explained that they had found evidence that convinced them that Fritz had indeed been transformed into a duck.  I quickly assured them that they could change their position.  They happily sat down and continued their work, while I celebrated in my head that their closer examination of the text had led to new understanding.  All around the room, students were working diligently searching for proof that they were right.  I listened in as partners discussed what they had found, what it meant, and if it supported their position or not.  Not once did I have to redirect a student who had gotten off-task. 

Once students had had enough time to gather evidence, I called everyone together and had them share out their findings, which I recorded on a chart.
After looking at the evidence, we evaluated the quality of each argument.  Even those who did not agree that Fritz was ever really a duck could see that there was plenty of evidence to suggest otherwise.  In the end, the class decided  the author had not made it clear on purpose.  When I asked my students why they thought that was, one student offered that he thought the author wanted us to go back and reread the story to figure it out.  And although everyone still did not agree whether it had been a trick or not, there was consensus that it was an entertaining, well-written story, and one worth looking at more closely.

Perhaps even more importantly, what my class I and learned together was that with the right story and the right motivation, close reading not only serves a purpose but can actually be fun!

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Red Paseo

A funny thing happened yesterday.  I was talking to my mom on the phone, as I try to do every weekend.  (No, that's not the funny part.)   Halfway through our conversation, I heard my dad in the background telling my mom something, but I couldn't make out the words.  When she relayed to me that he said I should blog about buying my first car, I was stunned.  I couldn't possibly have heard her correctly.  First of all, I didn't know my 86 year-old dad knew I had a blog.  Hell, I didn't know he even knew what a blog was!  But stranger still was the fact that last summer I had written about that very topic, although I had never shared it.  What on earth had made him think of that?  And why now?

This last month has been a difficult one for me, one in which giving up has appeared to be the only viable option.  Unknowingly, with his out-of-the-blue suggestion that sent me back to this piece of writing, my dad gave me just the encouragement I needed to keep on going.  So, Dad, this one's for you.


I was 25 when I bought my first new car. It was kind of a strange time in my life.  I had graduated from college but still didn't know what I wanted to do with my life.  (To be honest, I still am not entirely sure about that one.) I had fallen hopelessly in love right before graduation, which had probably convoluted the whole what-am-I-going-to-do-with-my-life scenario.  But alas, the relationship had fallen apart, I was working for a financial consulting firm, and I was living alone in a tiny, run-down studio apartment in an iffy neighborhood hundreds of miles away from family.

What does this have to do with my car?  Perhaps nothing.  Perhaps everything.  I was at that proverbial crossroads and seeking to gain control of a life I was beginning to suspect I had little control over.  What better way to convince yourself that you are master of your universe than to spend several thousand dollars you don't have?

The car I settled on was a 1992 Toyota Paseo.  Medium red pearl was the color.  (Funny the things you remember.) She was a beauty, and the closest I was going to get to a sports car on my budget.  I absolutely loved that car and still get misty whenever I see one to this day.  There was just one little problem with my beloved car.  It had a manual transmission.  And I had never driven a stick-shift in my life.
Now, I could have bought one with an automatic transmission, but that didn't fit my "vision." If I was going to drive a sporty car, then by God, it was going to be a stick!  The salesman actually gave me a quick lesson, I signed the paperwork, handed over what little money I had, and the deal was done.  By some miracle I was able to drive it back to my parents' house.  When I jerked my shiny new car to a stop in their driveway, they must have thought I was the biggest idiot ever to buy a car I couldn't drive.  I give them props for not saying anything to that fact.  At least not to me anyway.
I spent the next few hours practicing driving around the neighborhood.  It wasn't pretty.  For some reason, I just could not get the hang of it.  Seeing as how I am not the most coordinated person in the world, this should not have come as a surprise.  But to me it did.  In school, learning new things hadn't been hard for me.  They weren't always easy (especially math), but I was able to get through--no, be successful--without too much strain.  Now I was in a situation where I was on the hook for thousands of dollars for the next five years, and if I couldn't get the hang of this "ease up on the gas, put in the clutch, shift, ease up on on the clutch, and smoothly accelerate" dance, I was screwed.
I'd like to say that I mastered it that weekend, but I can't.  It seemed hopeless. To make matters worse, I had to be at work Monday, and work was in Santa Barbara, a 5-hour drive away.  So, there was only one thing to do.  My dad had to drive me.  So much for independence and mastering my universe.
For the next week, a friend drove me to and from work, while my boyfriend (new guy, not the one I fell hopelessly in love with) gave me driving lessons at night.  Slowly, I got the hang of it until I finally acquired enough ability to get from point A to point B.  It still felt awkward, though, and took tremendous amounts of concentration and effort.  In short, driving my new lovely car wasn't so lovely.
I am not sure how long this went on.  I do remember one humiliating occasion of being unable to get my car in the right gear in the parking lot at work while a coworker waited impatiently behind me.  But mostly I remember the day I was driving home from work, and coming off the freeway, it all seemed to click into place.  I didn't think to check the rear view mirror, but if I had, I'm pretty sure I would have seen a light bulb over my head.  What hadn't made sense before, made sense.  What hadn't worked, worked.  It was like my mind and my body had finally decided to work together and stop fighting each other. Thinking about it even now, I am pretty sure I can hear angels singing.  It was the most sublime a-ha moment of my life.
There are a few lessons I am sure can be learned from this experience.  Everyone has things they are good at and learning comes easily, and everyone has things that are difficult for them.  When learning something new, you sometimes are going to have to persevere through the struggle before you get it.  Everyone learns at their own pace.  These are important lessons, ones I need to keep in mind as I help my students learn and as I watch my own children grow through the experiences of their lives.  These are important lessons.  My take-away, however, is a little different and a little more personal.
When I think about this particular event in my life, I marvel at the shear gumption I displayed.  I knew what I wanted and I wasn't about to let anything, not even lack of skill, stand in my way.  I fought hard to make it happen.  And I triumphed.  That moment sticks in my head when so many other memories have faded from view.  Why?  Not just because it was a moment of success, but because it was a moment of success following failure.  I refused to be beaten and took control.  Some would say it was a stupid move to buy that car.  I say it was bold.  And a move that led to one of my proudest moments.

Thank you, Dad, for always being there for me even when it meant great sacrifice on your part, for believing in me, and for giving me the courage to believe in myself.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Do We Expect Children to Be Perfect?

The lessons my children teach me. . .

My older son is in sixth grade.  Like most moms, I have a hard time believing how quickly time has passed to change my sweet little boy into a preteen.  In many ways I don't feel ready to be the mother of a middle schooler, but since I don't have a choice in the matter, I'm learning to accept it.  Although he's not perfect, I can honestly say he's a good kid. He doesn't cause any serious trouble, and overall he does well in school.

Every week, Jared's teacher sends home a progress report via email, listing the assignments and grades earned so far for the trimester.  As I scanned the list yesterday I noticed a few low grades, including a couple that were 50%.  She noted that the grades had been reduced because the assignments were turned in late.

I immediately felt a lecture coming on.

This has been an issue with him before, and it was discussed at his parent-teacher conference in the fall and has been many times since.  He is horribly unorganized and quite forgetful, a nightmare for both teacher and parent.  Just this morning, right after telling me he had band today, he walked out the door without his clarinet.  He does this kind of stuff all. the. time.  As you have probably guessed, it drives me crazy.

The lecture never came though, as a funny little thought popped in my head:  "So what?"  He got a C on a paragraph about some randomly assigned "Person of the Week."  So what?  He earned a B or better on the others.  He earned a score of 50% on a science assignment that he turned in late.  So what?  He later earned an A on the test.  As I said earlier, overall he does well in school.  He always has.  I know that he is a bright kid.  It suddenly occurred to me that what I was upset about was the fact that he wasn't doing everything perfectly.

My husband and I took a Love and Logic parenting class last year and one of the ideas that really stood out to me was to let your children make small mistakes now when the consequences aren't too serious.  Making mistakes is how we learn.  If children are micromanaged and never allowed to make mistakes, and experience the consequences, they won't know how to operate in the adult world.  I can't someday send my child off to college if he has never learned to be in charge of his own learning.  He doesn't need to have his mother hover over him, making sure that everything is done just right so he can earn a bunch of A's on his report card.  Instead, he needs to learn that if he doesn't organize his materials, complete assignments, and turn them in on time, he is not going to be successful.  This is the life lesson that will have lasting meaning. Straight A's aren't always an indication of learning.  Sometimes the C's, D's, and F's represent a much more valuable lesson learned.

As I thought about my own children and my expectations for them, I wondered how often we teachers expect the children in our classrooms to be perfect.  And what do we look at to determine their level of perfection?  A bunch of numbers dutifully recorded in our grade books?  Score reports from standardized tests?  Do we demand that they do everything perfectly every time?   Is this truly what education is all about?  Undeniably the pressure is there for us to ensure our students are successful.  But is that what the data really illustrate?

The fact is my son is not a collection of data.  He is a complete human being.  He goes out of his way to thank a ride operator at Disneyland for letting us ride twice after a mix-up when getting on.  He holds doors open for others.  If he has a question, he confidently asks those who might have an answer.  He doesn't understand why the kids at his school can't play tag, so he is questioning those in charge and has started a petition to get the rule changed.  He worries about our cat who was just diagnosed with diabetes and makes sure we have given her her insulin.  He cares about his elderly grandparents and truly enjoys visiting them.  He fights like crazy with his little brother, then holds his hand when walking through parking lots.  He reads and reads and reads, sometimes needing to be reminded to get out of the car because he is lost inside another story.

No, he isn't perfect.  He's wonderful.

When my students walk into class Monday morning, I will welcome each and every wonderfully imperfect one of them.  And I will remind myself that every mistake they make (or I make, for that matter) is not a failure but a lesson that points the way to future success.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Getting Students to Respond (and Have Fun Doing It!)

A few years ago our staff was presented with the opportunity to participate in a professional development program called Success Math.  It required a three-year commitment but promised to teach valuable strategies for improving math instruction.  One of my colleagues, Janelle, agreed to participate.

Over the last three years we have been offered glimpses of what she has learned.  Watching her teach a lesson, math seemed…dare I say it?…fun.  That was not a word I often associated with math.  I grew up a bookworm and majored in English in college.  I was never bad at math, it just wasn’t something I particularly enjoyed, and because of that, it was difficult for me to get enthusiastic about teaching it.  Or maybe it was more the follow-the-textbook-lesson-by-lesson approach that I didn’t enjoy.  What I noticed when I observed Janelle's lesson was that all the students were actively engaged, something I'm afraid wasn't always happening when I taught math.  

Fortunately for me, this year Janelle, with the support of two of her coaches from the Success Math program, was given the opportunity to share with the rest of us third grade teachers some of what she learned.  We have received instruction, participated in a practicum, and we have been observed and coached.  It has been quite an experience.  I can honestly say that the training has improved my teaching, not just in math but in all areas, as the strategies we have learned apply to all subjects. 

One strategy that we have focused on rather intently is modes of response.  Teachers have students use a variety of ways to participate and to respond to questions.   The key is to choose an appropriate mode and tell students which mode to use before asking your question.  I am pretty sure the only mode of response my teachers used when I was a kid was the good ol' raised hand.  Don’t get me wrong; I still have my students raise a quiet hand on occasion.  But I use a variety of other responses as well:  thumbs up if you agree, cross arms if you disagree, show me on your fingers, write it on
your whiteboard, whisper to your partner, etc.  These different modes of response work great in math, but I find that I use them all day long.  Now, even correcting homework is something that everyone actively participates in.

The benefit is that I get a better feel for how well every student in my class is grasping the content.  In addition, involvement is greatly increased because every child is expected to respond instead of only the one called on.  It also allows those children who are shy about speaking in front of the whole class to actively participate without wandering too far out of their comfort zone.  Even those who may have more difficulty understanding the content, and therefore are prone to tuning out, can continue to participate with the support of their peers, thus greatly increasing their learning.  Behavior management becomes easier because everyone is actively engaged in the lesson, leaving little time to get off-task.  

Yesterday was a perfect example of how this strategy can have an impact on student learning.  One of my students has great difficulty staying focused for any length of time and is often lost and confused as a result.  We recently started studying geometry, and my lesson was on polygons.  Students had to learn the definition of a polygon as well as the names and definitions of different polygons.  Because students were constantly active, looking at examples and non-examples to come up with a definition, drawing their own examples, and responding to questions in a variety of ways, this particular student had no difficulty staying actively engaged in the lesson.  It was a win for him because he was able to learn the content, and it was a win for me because I didn't have to constantly redirect him.  Both he and I were able to walk away from that lesson feeling energized and confident.

I have found that this one strategy alone, successfully implemented, can improve classroom management and student involvement and provides me with the feedback I need to direct my teaching to better meet my students’ needs.  It definitely has made our lessons more fun!