So What?

Screenshot 2017-09-09 at 9.58.46 AM                         Calvin and Hobbes incorrectly capture the meaning of “So what?”

Teaching middle school science shapes you into what I consider an unusual teacher. The reasons for this include the infusion of the above question into much of what they do. The ongoing use of inquiry and hands on methods to explore our world also add to that shaping. These are strategies that many teachers are intimidated by. And for good reason. They are intimidating! They lead us and our young learners to places we may not anticipate or feel we are ready to explore. But when it comes to using the question, “So what?” a door is gently nudged open to reveal the whys of what we are doing.  I have been using and writing about this question for almost twenty years and some of my colleagues have thought of it as flip and disrespectful. But on the contrary, it is anything but.

Fast forward to my current position in which I lead the learning of fifth graders in a literacy classroom. In a previous post I open up about the “sock in my stomach” feelings I had when reviewing less than great end of year test scores. While I spent the summer trying to wrap my head around and decide what I wanted to do to move forward I found myself reading many posts by many talented and experienced educators. Today I found an article on the use of the above question in a professional development forum for reading teachers. I was pleasantly surprised about this leader’s use of this question. The teachers in this article had their children draw “readers”. The teachers then categorized and discussed the responses. This article was part of an online treasure trove of literacy articles from  Choice Literacy. After finally joining this resource, that our school’s literacy coach recommended many years ago, I found the article, “Draw a Reader Test, Informal Assessment Supporting Teacher Inquiry”. It was the first article I read after joining.  It renewed me.

After our meeting last year I realized I had a choice to make. I was either going to get my act together (hone in on structures and goals in reading and math workshops) or I was going to retire after twenty five years of teaching. During those reflective months I read a lot. I wrote a lot. I talked with friends a lot. I did the same things we guide our kids to do when they feel overwhelmed and don’t understand something. I also came across a podcast about my exact dilemma written by a talented and compassionate teacher leader, Angela Watson. It was time for me to see myself as a veteran teacher who is in a profession that is shifting immensely. This article also renewed me and gave me the guidance, strength, and gumption to move forward and tackle the challenges that lie ahead for not just me but for all teachers. I knew in my heart I wasn’t ready to stop doing what I love, teaching fifth graders who struggle to learn. After reading several dense tried and true “how to teach reading” texts over the summer I slowly regained the power, strength, and self confidence I needed to move forward. They, and my friends, and my writings helped instill in me the fact that my instincts, at times, are spot on. “So what?” So what about teaching? So what about working with kids in a literacy room? So what about working with kids who have so much baggage on their plates that learning is hard for them? So what?

So here is my reflection on that question. I love teaching. I always have. Yes, it’s gotten harder, way harder. Yes, the demands at times feel overwhelming and I often wonder how on Earth am I going to do this; how on Earth do young teachers and teachers with kids do it? Yes, teaching reading and writing is hard enough never mind trying to teach kids who struggle the most. Add to that, teaching kids who come to school hungry, dealing with trauma in their lives, working with less than what they need to be whole and happy and complete. So what? Because I love these kids and they deserve the best we can be.

Teaching is hard. We all know that. But if we hold on to why we do it, the kids, we will muster the strength and grace to move forward even when the wind is knocked out of us, even when one more thing is put on our plate and we think we can’t manage one more thing on our plate. It’s the kids and the belief that by teaching them how to read and write will help them immensely in their difficult lives we will be able to move forward through trying times like now. We are their lifeboat. But maybe, just maybe, they are our lifeboat too.

Enjoy your kids this year. Teach them how to love reading and writing. Teach them to love themselves. And never, never stop asking the guiding question that brings such deep reflection and relevance, “So what?”

Mary

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We All Get the Before School Jitters

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A natural madala built by a child struggling with anxiety. It was soothing for her and for all of us in class. Her calmness, smile, and hug when she finished said it all. It worked.

It’s that time of year again. We are cleaning and organizing our rooms to get ready for a new school year. And with that comes excitement, anticipation, and often jitters of anxiety. Here it is the middle of the night, a week before school starts, and I’m sitting up with a cup of chamomile tea and a stomach full of jitters. There are several things that help me when I get jitters. One thing is to write, so here I sit writing. Another thing is to take the focus off of academic work for a minute or two. The curriculum is going to be at school to greet us whether we are ready or not. So for now let’s think about the notion that if we feel this way, our kids feel this way too. Some, if not all, are having sleepless nights and jitters too. With new experiences such as a new teacher, new routines and expectations, new classmates comes anticipation and uncertainty and thus, jitters.

Our role as teacher of these new youngins is to first help them feel safe, cared for, and cared about. When we allow ourselves to come around to that thinking we allow ourselves to embrace some out of the box ideas to try those first few days. In our school we usually have three days of school then a four day weekend. This is a perfect amount of time to spend helping our kids (and us!) to settle in from our summers. When I moved from teaching middle school science to teaching in a Title 1 Literacy fifth grade classroom, my team leader told me that when things weren’t going quite right and/or feeling quite right to pull out a book and read aloud. That was almost ten years ago and it is still one of the best pieces of advice given to me as an elementary teacher. I say jitters might fall into this category of “not feeling quite right”. So while we plan fun, get to know you, relaxing first day lessons and activities, we  are all certainly also planning what we want to read aloud to our kids.

Safety, seeing ourselves in books, laughter, community, hope…these are things we look for in the books we choose to begin our year with. I just watched a video shared by a fellow teacher. It is by  Chimamanda Adichie, a novelist from Nigeria. She shares what it’s like to be a black child and read books about white, middle class children. Her message is clear, strong, and articulate, “We need more than one story.” If you’d like to watch her Ted Talk you can view it here  This talk has certainly reminded me of the need to have books in my classroom library that all my kids can find themselves in. Books with girls and boys as the brave ones, the kind ones, the ones who struggle and succeed. Books about children of color, immigrants, refugees, migrant workers, homeless, middle class, with parents in jail or with mental illness. Books about children who are gay or live with gay parents. Books about children who are transgender. A few years ago I had a student with two mothers. When she spotted a book in our library about a child with two mothers she of course was immediately attracted to it. It lived in her desk for most of the school year. She saw herself in that book and she saw that she was ok. That is one powerful way we can begin to create a safe classroom.

As we begin to prepare for our school year I am reminded of the importance to take time to slow down, enjoy the last few days of summer and the warmth and beauty it has to offer and then slowly think of fun things for your new students to do when they arrive. Create a first day that will make them want to come back on the second day. I’m thinking I may start the year with the book, The Dunderheads by Paul Fleischman. It’s funny (hysterical actually), highlights that everyone has a talent to contribute, the power of cooperatively working together, creative problem solving, and empathy. What more could we possible want in a book? Then we will use those skills that are highlighted to create something together.

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Make this a great year for you and your students,

Mary

 

Is It All About Words?

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This summer I read books that have been on my night stand for quite some time. A few very moving kids books such as Echo and The Birchbark House series began my summer reading as well as finally getting to The Girl Who Drank the Moon. Then I turned to a few books for me that included Americanah, When Kids Can’t Read, and The Art of Teaching Reading. In their own unique way, they reminded me of the power of words.  Words have never been far from the forefront of my thinking when I strategize ways to improve my instruction. But the idea of making words more visible seems to be pleading with me for deeper reflection. Because of this I am trying to uncover authentic ways to make them front and center in my classroom this year.

Last year as I read books and blogs about comprehension strategies (very important) I kept coming back to the question, “But what if the kid doesn’t even know what the words mean?” It can get exhausting stopping every paragraph or two to decipher the meaning of a word. Whether it’s using contextual clues, looking up the meaning, or asking someone the meaning, each one of those strategies when relied on over and over again can stifle the flow and pleasure of reading. Yet not finding meaning can cause misunderstanding and chip away at comprehension.

In the past few weeks, as our country continues to implode, I find myself thinking about the power of many of the words people are using. Not just their meaning, but the power behind their meaning. As I read responses to news stories I am often surprised by the many interpretations of a passage. An article that left me hopeful, enraged others. An opinion that left me enraged, others are chanting their approval. Initially I found myself feeling deep despair wondering how other humans could lack empathy for fellow humans. But I also wonder, could it be a misunderstanding of the meaning of words? Maybe it’s their prior experiences they are bringing to their reactions, of course, we all do. But there are many new words floating around out there that I wonder if  a lack of understanding their meaning is interfering with understanding of what is being written. I find myself googling unfamiliar words such as antifa to understand what the articles are trying to tell me. What if I didn’t take the time to look these new words up. Would I think their meanings the opposite of what they actually mean? I realize that in order to understand a word that is unfamiliar to me I need exposure to it. I need to say it, hear it, write it, play with it, own it.

Like many teachers I have been on teacher blogs looking for ideas for age appropriate books to read to my kids to help begin conversations about what is happening in our country.  We are at a historical moment in our country and silence is not the way to approach this. Our kids will have questions, concerns, fears and they need a safe place to ask those questions and discuss their fears. Why wouldn’t they? We adults do. As I order books and read them I realize again, it’s the words that stand out to me. I turned to Eve Bunting, a fabulous writer who handles delicate subjects in such beautiful ways. I ordered Terrible Things thinking that would help begin a conversation into why our country is dividing itself. But as I read it I found myself thinking that I just can’t read that book. It was her words…”terrible things, terrible shadows, blotted out the sun, ran, screamed, carried them away”…. her words, such terrible words with such terrible images. Her words brought up emotions just as they were meant to do. But for me, they were too much.

The words of today’s problems bring me to a few words that changed our country, “All men are created equal.” What a powerful phrase. But what exactly do those words mean? Does it depend on your perspective? The men who wrote those words consider “men” as educated white men. Now does the phrase mean the same thing to you? Many people wonder about women, where do they stand in the “created equal”? Or people of color, where do they stand? Words. They matter. It really is all about words. Words that are used and words that are left out.

As I read though When Kids Can’t Read by one of my favorite reading teachers, Kylene Beers, she talks about Words Their Way, a vocabulary program we use. One suggestion she gives is to begin using 5-8 words daily in speech and writing a week before that sort is introduced. What a simple, brilliant idea. That is just one strategy I plan to use this year as we focus on words.

Words, enjoy them, play with them, and use them carefully because words are power. Have a great school year.

Mary

When Writing Helps What Ails You

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This lovely photo above and poem below were posted on Kate DiCamillo’s Facebook page

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Above Poem By Kate DiCamillo

After the racist violence of Charlottesville VA I, like many, couldn’t quite get enough of what people were writing as they tried to process what they saw and/or experienced. I was on Facebook following link after link listening to people of many different backgrounds process when I noticed that even some big educational voices began posting their sadness and disgust too. The first brave post I saw was from Angela Watson, so bold, so strong, so articulate. Then there was Lucy Calkins and Kate Messner and others followed as well. But it wasn’t until I read Kate DiCamillo’s post that I was reminded that writing in its many forms helps during times like this.

Stay strong, stay bold, write, hold hands, and speak up,

Mary

When Reading Gets You Through Tough Times

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We may get lost but with the help of a good book we will find our way home…

This past year I got lost. I got lost on many levels. I got lost professionally and personally. My internal compass broke. It happened the night of November 8th, the night the delicacy of our democracy became clear. I spent the entire year working endlessly to do my part to help our country find our way back home. Then something happened that threw me so far that I’ve had trouble getting back up. I had an end of year data meeting where I realized that not enough of my kids made the test scores they needed to make. It was humiliating, embarrassing, and eventually led to an incredibly deep anger. Trusts were broken but hopefully not lost. But after a summer of deep honest self-reflection I realize that I really was lost. Which brings me again to our end of the year read aloud and this guiding quote:

“You will get lost.

You will be afraid.

You will fail.

You will fight.

You will remember.

You will rise.

And without doubt:

You will find your way home.”

Badger, The Fearless Traveler’s Guide to Wicked Places

I got lost. I lost track of what my important job really is, teaching. I have always been a teacher even from a young age. I can remember at age eight teaching my little brother how to make his GI Joe doll hang evenly from a banister so he could shoot him down. When I was twelve I taught my sister how to walk again (she lost function of her leg after running through a glass door and cutting her leg deeply). When I was a teenager I taught myself and my sister and father how to plant an organic garden. So teaching has always been with me. Recently I wrote a blog post about being a protector of the children. I feel that calling deep within my soul. In that same blog post I discussed how our new president is a direct threat to our children and so that protector in me came out. But my focus was on the wrong protecting. It should have stayed where it was needed most, on my classroom. I misunderstood what protector of the children means for me.

I was afraid. I was very afraid and I know nothing good comes from fear. While I was lost I learned news about each of my family children and my husband that triggered such deep fear that at times I felt completely lost, confused. That fear reached deep into my core and ripped my heart and soul out. Only once in my life have I felt such immobilizing fear. I’ve always been rather fearless actually. Fear has never stopped me from doing anything until now. I realize that combining feelings of fear and  feelings of being lost are not helpful, especially when you’re a teacher.

I failed. My end of the year scores told me clearly and explicitly that I failed. Failure is not something that any of us feel good about acknowledging, never mind sharing. But sharing mistakes and failures and insecurities is something that allows us to acknowledge that we are human. It allows others to realize they are not alone when they fail too. While owning such failure has not been easy, I will say that while initial feelings of this failure led to intense anger and the flight mode being activated. While this itself did not lead to understanding, it did, after my initial ownership of this failure, lead to the beginning of honest reflection and ownership of my role in this failure.

I fought. I fought with myself and I fought (only in my head, heart, and soul) with those who presented the data to me. After twenty plus years of teaching and having never experienced a meeting like I did that day in that office I did the only thing most humans do in such a situation, they fight. I’ve never been a very good fighter so this ungraceful dance with myself was as awkward as it could be because I fought with myself, berating myself as a teacher and person.

I remember. I remembered when I didn’t follow through on a lesson when kids demonstrated a lack of understanding or the need for deeper learning. I remembered the lessons I didn’t get to. I remembered the exhaustion and sadness and fear I felt. I remembered it was not the most organized, motivated, successful year I’ve had teaching. Now I remember.

You will rise. I nearly resigned my position. I had the letter written. I had the anger and feelings of betrayal all there ready to move me forward. I got in my truck several times with letter in hand ready to deliver. I never turned the key. I never delivered the letter. And I’m glad I didn’t. I have loved my job here; that may be part of such feelings of betrayal. But because I trust Badger (read the book and you will trust Badger too!) when he says I will rise I have begun planning my room layout, my lessons for the first week of school, how to build relationships with my new students, and I am realizing that I am rising. I believe that as I rise from the depths of insecurity and despair I will get back on track.

And without a doubt, I will find my way home. While we still have our president and cabinet that are hell bent on destroying our democracy and that still scares me to pieces, I also hold onto the belief and hope that our democracy will survive because we as a country have awoken. While the work is still urgent for us who consider ourselves protectors of the children, I realize that we are not alone. There are millions of us working for the children and because of this I realize that for me home means teaching. While home certainly means my husband and two biological children, I also know that home means to teach and so home for this year means to teach the children who will walk through their new classroom door in three weeks. There I will find home. I realize that the powers, the art, the knowledge, the intuition, the love that are necessary to do this job successfully are all there within me. I just needed to reawaken them. So I, without a doubt, am finding my way back home. I know so because Badger told me so. That is the power of a book, the power of an amazingly written character who shows strength, grace, and the ability to overcome darkness. Such books and characters have the power to give you hope when you lose it. The power to show you the way back home when you get lost.

May you find bravery and your way home if and when you are lost. May you work hard to be a protector of the children because they need you now more than ever. May you have a great year where you feel powerful. May you be kind.

Mary

 

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Something horrible happened this year! I don’t know if this has ever happened to you but it happened to us. The year ended so quickly and suddenly that we didn’t have time to finish our read aloud! This is horrible. My kids were so disappointed and trying to come up with a plan to hear the end of what they call the book of all books. YouTube they suggested! So YouTube it is. When you can use technology like this it is a lovely thing. I’ve been reading a chapter per video and uploading it to YouTube. I now have 9 subscribers… ha! We’ll see what they think and if this works. If it does I just may do this more often. The positive power of technology!

 

Technology Love

Ending the Year With Two Books to Empower Youth

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“You will get lost.

You will be afraid.

You will fail.

You will fight.

You will remember.

You will rise.

And without doubt:

You will find your way home.”

                                                          Badger

The Fearless Travelers’ Guide to Wicked Places

It began here … with The Fearless Travelers’ Guide to Wicked Places. When that line above was read aloud my kids made me stop. “Stop, Mrs. Dunn!” I wish I could remember the number of times they told me to stop. “Stop!”  When I asked why, I would receive a variety of reasons. “You need to just stop so I can think about what just happened.” Or “I need to think about that line, it was perfect.” Or “Stop, we need to write that down!’ Or “I just need you to stop for a minute so we can talk about what just happened.” Never, ever in all my years of teaching have kids told me to stop so many times so they could savor the words. Never! Every once in a while one boy who struggled to write all year long would be moved by something I read and would pull his chair up besides me and copy from what he just heard.

Predicting is something I’ve struggled with teaching. Not really understanding the power of it because it so often begins with, “Look at the cover, what do you think the book is about?”  A question that is bland beyond belief.  A bland question brings bland answers, so I stopped asking it. But in this book the kids predicting what they think will happen next was nonstop even though I never asked. Kids were constantly yelling what they thought was going to happen next and that would start a deep and often contested discussion. The fun part was that they were often wrong because of the incredibly creative twists and turns this book has and they loved that. It actually became a game to see if anyone could predict where the next turn would take us.

We started tracking it using a story arc. We finally gave up because we couldn’t keep up with the “hills”.  The kids came to understand the power and need for the valleys. “Oh no, here we go again. We’re at a slow part. We know what that means!!! We’re gonna start rising again. This is worse than a roller coaster.” Everything, everything I’ve tried to guide my kids to understand about story structure came to life for them with this book. I didn’t have to teach any of it. The book did it all and did it while holding the unwavering attention of all my fifth graders.  One very quiet girl in class was extra quiet when I pulled the book out. I asked her if she was bored by it. “Oh no! I LOVE when you read this book because it lets me go far away.” I don’t hear that line often but when she said that she moved me to tears. Yes! That’s what a good book does, it takes you far away and you can’t wait to go.

So while I had been stealing time from every period of the day to finish this book before the year ends another book arrived in my classroom. “For your kids,” the note said. A few wanted to know what it was. So I showed them…

As you can see this is about as different from The Fearless Travelers’ Guide to Wicked Places as we can get.  Yet, several asked if they could read it. I’ll be honest, I was surprised. The first line had them, “The only person left alive on the island was a baby girl.” As they read about this Ojibwa baby who survived a smallpox invasion of her village the questions wouldn’t stop coming. They often referred to a glossary in the back to help understand some of the Ojibwa words that were used. This was about a time and place they had little understanding of and the new realizations were deep, powerful, and meaningful. The few who finished agreed that it was a beautiful book. A beautiful story and beautifully written.

Both these books have something in common. They are about a strong young girl coming of age during a difficult time. Her strength and bravery guide her through the difficult times. I could not have found more perfect books to end our fifth grade year. Books that show that it’s ok to be scared before uncertain times. Books that give hope that bravery will take you through those times even if you’re not sure you’ll make it.

As my kids listened and read about the power of bravery in the face of fear while listening to and reading these books this line was the one they kept referring to and holding on to: “Bravery is the key to becoming who you need to be.”  Badger – The Fearless Travelers’ Guide to Wicked Places… I couldn’t agree more.

Now on to summer. Relaxation, reflection, rejuvenation… our spirits and bodies deeply need them so take the time for all and enjoy.

Mary