Dear Fifth-Grade Teacher, 

I know we haven’t met. In fact, we won’t learn your name till the end of the summer, and even then, chances are I won’t know who you are. However, as my daughter’s teacher for the next school year, there are some things I’d like you to know.

My daughter was never one of those children who cried on their first day of school, not even in the early years when she was dropped off at Pre-K. She’s always been eager to learn, eager to play, and eager to please. Every day when I would pick her up and ask her how her day was, she would tell me, Great! Amazing! Awesome!

Even if she couldn’t articulate why, her enthusiasm spoke for itself.

This last year, however, things changed. Many a day I would hear her describe school as boring. While she still never complained about going, come morning, it was a little tougher to get her out of bed.

On the return from Spring Break, a glorious two-week reprieve from school, we sat in the car at 7 am outside in the parking lot as I prepared to drop her off.

“Are you excited to go back?” I asked. “To see your friends?”

“I’m excited to see my friends,” she said, “but not to go back.”

“Why not?” I asked. “I thought you loved school.”

“I used to, but now all we do is test.”

Oh, Fifth-Grade Teacher, I watched as she walked away with her backpack slung over her shoulder and my heart sank.

Believe me when I say that I don’t blame her fourth-grade teacher. I blame the system. It’s a system that I know needs to be changed, and as an educator myself, I also know that in many ways, we are powerless to change it.

Still, there is hope, and that hope lies with the teachers who decide, every day, to teach students, not standards. Teachers who focus on creating relationships, who really get to know their kids, and who use that knowledge to make them love learning.

So, as you tackle the enormous task of taking on another class of students this next school year, these are the things I want you to know about my daughter:

Should there ever be a thunderstorm, you will find us sitting on the front porch to watch the sky; she’s been known to bring in facts about lightning that she’s researched and written down to share with the class. This is a girl who talks of one day becoming a meteorologist (that is, if she doesn’t become a veterinarian or a preschool teacher or an artist who lives on a farm). Her dreams stretch wider than the horizon, and I want nothing more than for her to continue dreaming.

When given the chance, my daughter still creates things out of Play-Doh and when she gets a Lego set, she doesn’t stop building till it is complete. She won’t let me sell her Lincoln Logs at a yard sale either, and it’s not uncommon for her to bring home treasures she’s found on the ground—a broken pen or scrap of metal—for what purpose, I’m not sure, but she collects them all the same.

I want you to know that she is good at math, but she doesn’t think she enjoys it. She’s been given packet after packet and she has told me, that when she has one, she stares at the clock and wishes time would speed up so she can go to lunch. Yet when she and her sister organized their Beanie Boos alphabetically by name, they created a graph of the data, and from her time spent in the kitchen with me, she understands fractions and units of measure, and she can tell you firsthand what happens to a sticky toffee cake when you mistake a tsp of baking soda for a TBSP.

If you take my daughter to the swing set, I know she could learn physics. If you allow her to build a bird house, she will learn about angles, but if you put another worksheet in front of her, I fear she could lose math forever.

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My daughter will tell you that she doesn’t like reading, but when a graphic novel is placed in her hands, she will devour it in one day, yet from the time she was little, she’s preferred non-fiction. Many a night we sat on her bed reading What Do You Do With a Tail Like This? As the child of an English teacher, my daughter will never want for books. Still, when I’ve tried to read the classics with her, beloved titles from my own childhood like Where the Red Fern Grows, we both gave up, and we only made it through the first of Harry Potter.

When my daughter began school, she was eager to learn about bones and bugs, and over the years, we’ve watched every nature documentary available on Netflix. When she asks a question we don’t know the answer to, like what makes a cat purr, we look it up. When we’ve had nothing but clear Nevadan skies, she searches for lightning storms on YouTube.

You see, in this world of technology, there’s another thing we will never want for, so it’s no wonder why she tires of writing her spelling words in ABC order week after week.

The other evening, we sat on the back deck and I asked her, “If you could learn about anything you wanted in the fifth grade, what would you want to study?”

I’d just finished reading What School Could Be by Ted Dintersmith, a book I believe every teacher should read.

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{via Goodreads}

She thought seriously about my question for a few minutes before she answered.

“Animals,” she finally said. “Like the human body, only animal bodies.”

We talked at length about which animals she’d study and what she hoped to learn before she asked, “Wait. Do you know who my fifth-grade teacher is going to be?”

I didn’t.

“So how do you know I am getting to learn about whatever I want?”

I spoke honestly. “I don’t.”

“So that’s not what I’m doing next year?”

Disappointment shadowed her face. “Oh man, you had me all excited.”

This. This is what I want you to know.  

There are a hundred embers burning in my child. I’m trusting you to kindle them. Ignite her imagination. Watch as they turn into sparks that jump into flames. Make school a place where she can be on fire.

Between the tests, between the things we cannot change, make sure there’s enough oxygen to keep them aglow. Do whatever it takes to not let them die.

My daughter is counting on you.

We all are.

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Why I Teach

Yesterday I hung “Tearable Puns” all around my classroom and outside my door. My freshman students are reading Romeo and Juliet and these free printables from Laura Randazzo make my students chuckle more than William Shakespeare does.

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At the end of the school day, I sat at my desk and heard several students giggling outside of my classroom door as they took a pun or two.

This is why I teach.

Today, I walked into a colleague’s classroom in the morning to say hello. As I was getting ready to leave, a student I had taught last year walked in. He was just as happy to see me and I was him and we hugged. I remarked that he is “a true gentleman” and his current teacher agreed. In the wake of that compliment, he beamed.

This is why I teach.

I’m teaching Animal Farm for maybe the second time, the first being many years ago. I rely on the AP History student in the class to make connections to Stalin and The Great Purge for us. I am no Russian Revolution expert, but he is, and he becomes the one we all turn to for clarification.

This is why I teach.

A hard lesson in plagiarism. An essay that makes me cry. A student who says something new about the content I’ve taught for over a decade that has me consider it in a whole new way.

This is why I teach.

From the occasional happy hour with colleagues where we commiserate over our frustrations in education (of which, there are many) to sending a parent a positive email on a Friday afternoon—getting a response filled with gratitude and knowing I just made that kid’s weekend.

This is why I teach.

The untapped potential of every student, our world’s greatest natural resource. I spend my days trying to draw the possibilities out of them and get them to see the power and hope and wonder they possess.

This is why I teach.

In my class, we hold Socratic Seminars where students learn to use accountable talk, to listen to the ideas of their peers, and to disagree without starting an argument or placing blame.

But, they also learn how to craft an argument, one where they acknowledge the counterclaim, and then refute it.

This is why I teach.

Fake news stories? We analyze them. Logical fallacies? We study them. Credible sources? We find them.

I teach my students to think. I teach them to dig deeper. I teach them to know when to call bullshit.

I teach, “Enemies to peace…throw your mistempered weapons to the ground.”

And, “Simply because we were licked a hundred years before we started is no reason for us not to try to win.”

And, “The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.”

I teach my students to yield their words and I show them how to use them, for I believe that “The Pen is mightier than the Sword.”

 Yet, you want me to teach while armed with a gun?

That—is not why I teach.

That—will never be how I teach.

That—is not the solution.

Those students? That’s why I teach.

Those students. They’re the solution.

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Gym Subs vs. School Subs

Minutes before my Saturday yoga class was scheduled to begin, I ran into a colleague at the gym. The class she was in had just let out and as we chatted, she mentioned that it was terrible.

“We had a sub. Hope yours is better,” she called over her shoulder as she made her way to the locker room.

I got into class and rolled out my mat only to realize that we also had a sub that day. A man walked up to the front of the room and I noticed the regulars around me start questioning, “Where’s Kim?” But before long, we were meditating and there was no more time for questions.

After a challenging yoga class, I thought about the role that substitute teachers play.

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{photo courtesy of @musclesmusicmotherhood}

How is it that the expectation for subs is higher at the gym than it is at schools?

My yoga teacher didn’t have to write out a plan for her sub. She didn’t have to tell him how to spend that hour of class time. He came in understanding it was a power yoga class and he taught one.

He didn’t come in and say, “I can’t find the plans, so you can talk quietly amongst yourselves.” He didn’t try to get rid of us by sending us to the library elliptical machines. True, it was not the same experience as when our regular yoga instructor is there, but I still left with the benefit of a power yoga workout. In fact, I had a personal best when it came to my crow pose and I enjoyed experiencing a different teaching style that day.

For teachers, it’s almost not worth it to stay home sick or take a personal day. I spend hours writing out detailed plans, making sure all the copies are there, and labeling with sticky notes which stacks of papers are for which classes. I make sure there are instructions on how to use the technology in my room, instructions on what to do if the lesson doesn’t get completed, and instructions for what to do if there is remaining time. I even include who to go to in my hall if there are problems and send them an extra copy of my plans, too.

Just because I am out for a day, shouldn’t mean that my students stop learning.

Yet despite this, there are still days when I return to work after having been out and the plans haven’t been touched.

I think the worst was when I was teaching a class of juniors. We were studying Macbeth at the time, but someone in the office had mistakenly handed the sub a DVD for another teacher in the school who taught history but shared the same first name as me. That day, my students watched a documentary on The Civil War. I wasn’t sure what annoyed me more: that the sub didn’t question the content of the film versus the content I teach, or figure out that the plans I had meticulously written (assuming he read them) didn’t mention a DVD, or that my students never said a word.

Imagine if this happened in the gym?

The sub for yoga comes in and sees the exercise bikes in the corner of the room.

“I guess you guys are supposed to spin today. You brought shoes, right?”

It doesn’t help that there’s a shortage of substitute teachers out there either. You would think that having a colleague cover a coworker’s class might help matters.

It’s sad to say, but often it’s worse. Many a teacher prep subs grudgingly. Regardless that they are getting paid to do so, mentally they are still on prep. I get it though. We need our prep time. Still, when the “lesson” doesn’t include some busy work or a film, they get miffed.

Let’s take it back to the gym.

You ‘re stretching on your yoga mat waiting for class to begin when, at the last-minute, the aerobics instructor walks in. There’s a sheen of sweat on her brow from the class she just got done teaching. She saunters to the front of the room, tells the class to get into Savasana, then sits down with her protein shake to crochet a new pair of leg warmers.

Many a teacher has gotten so tired of their plans not being followed that they stop writing them. Instead, they leave a movie because it’s easier—but I still can’t bring myself to put my student’s learning on pause just because I had jury duty or my kids got the flu. Even if the film connects to our content, I know they won’t watch it. They’ll silently Snapchat while the substitute sits at my desk and naps.

If the subs at school were like subs at the gym, I wouldn’t have to write plans at all. What the sub taught might not be what I would have taught that day, but they might come in with their favorite poem—a poem that I may never have included that year, one that might spur a student to check out the complete works of Cummings or Dickens or Giovanni. Or maybe they’d bring in The New York Times and get my students writing opinion pieces on current articles. But whatever they had them do, it would be something they loved about literature or writing, something that would challenge my students’ minds, and something that might actually give the “real” teacher a break.

Hey, a teacher can dream, right?

Actually, I can’t. I need to start writing up my plans for when I take my personal days come May.

Hopefully, I’ll get a good sub.

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Taking Matters Into Our Own Hands

In Oklahoma, a third-grade teacher by the name of Teresa Danks stood at a highway intersection panhandling for money to buy school supplies for her class.

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{via mediaweb.fox23.com]

Not long before I heard about Danks, my friend and I had joked about doing the same thing. We envisioned our colleagues uniting–holding signs and strumming guitars–as we found a creative way to raise money for things like paper, printer ink, and toner for the copy machine.

While Oklahoma ranks 49th out of 50 states in terms of teacher pay, Nevada is 49th out of 50 in both education and per-pupil spending, so I understand the frustration that drove Danks to wave that sign at passing motorists.

Here in Northern Nevada, the economy is on the rise, although our schools face a 13-million-dollar budget shortfall. Despite whisperings of teacher layoffs, early retirement incentives, and increased class sizes, the district is still looking for ways to make ends meet.

In the week before the school year began, custodians wheeled additional desks and chairs into my room to accommodate the bodies that would soon sit there. In my classes of honors freshmen, there are 38 eager adolescents. There are 38 students raising their hands. There are 38 kids who have questions they’d like answered. Thirty-eight of them are trying to share their writing or present to the class, and there simply isn’t enough time.

The day I looked at my rosters and saw 38, tears of frustration pooled in my eyes. For me to lose composure at my workplace is rare, but in that moment, behind my back, I felt the ropes tighten around my wrists.

Yet this is just one of the struggles I’ll face this year. Like every year though, I will do my best.

I will sit for hours on a weekend grading essays. I will meet with students before school and at lunch to give them the one-on-one attention they cannot get during class. I will answer their questions via email and text throughout the evening as I cook dinner for my family and make sure my own children get their homework done. I will find innovative ways to arrange my desks so that we can get up and move around without tripping over backpacks and books.

I will give my all till I am completely depleted.

I will vent to colleagues and I will vent to my husband. I will sit in meetings where the mission of “every name and face to graduation” is spouted, and then I will walk back into a room filled with 38 names and 38 faces and I will try to develop relationships and build rapport with all 38. Every day, each time the bell rings, I will do that again for another 38, and another, and another.

The contradictions in education are exasperating. We want students to achieve, but we limit available resources. Despite endless research supporting the correlation between smaller class size and student success, we continue to pour pupils into desks. We are expected to be twenty-first century teachers, yet it is suggested we reach into our own pockets to buy bulbs for projectors or audio equipment that might enable our students to listen to a TedTalk or take part in a Skype session with a guest speaker.

Come May, my wrists will be rubbed raw.

Here is where I could talk about teacher burnout. I could share with you the statistics on how eight percent of teachers walk away from the profession every year, and how hundreds of thousands more aren’t even pursuing it to begin with. Even though I know why they are leaving, and even though I don’t blame them when they do, even though I see how other career paths would be more desirable, I have never regretted my decision to spend my days in a classroom.

Much like Danks though, I have been driven to a place I never thought I would go. I am panhandling for my classroom. Rather than on the side of the road, I have taken to the internet, to DonorsChoose.org.

donorsThrough DonorsChoose, I am asking for contributions towards books for my students. My project, if met, would allow me to place high-interest texts of both fiction and non-fiction into the hands of all 38 students in both of my honors classes. Books that deal with issues like the cultural and social impact of technology on the adolescent psyche, mental health, racism, the immigrant experience, and the achievement gap. Books that they can relate to that will help them to build empathy for others and to make sense of their world.

Because, let’s face it: often our world doesn’t make sense. When I look at education in this country, it most certainly doesn’t make sense. But at the end of the day, I can complain about it, or I can work towards a solution.

DonorsChoose is my attempt at a solution. It won’t change the number of students in my classroom nor will it affect the district’s budget, but what it will do is allow me to wiggle my wrists ever so little, to help this teacher to burn on rather than burn out.

To contribute to my project, visit DonorsChoose.org

 

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And We’re Off…

The 2016-2017 school year has officially begun. The students are present, the bells are ringing, and the emails are finding their way to my inbox.

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Every year I require my students to read books independently outside of what I assign them to read. I pick our class novels and other literature that we study; they pick their books for independent reading. This is where students get to read more high-interest books that will hopefully turn them into life-long readers.

Even teaching honors students, many of them still don’t like to read. Every year I wrestle with the independent reading requirement and work to find the magic recipe that will make it less of a struggle. I’ve had years where students had to read a certain number of pages, years where they earned points based on the quality and length of book they selected, and years where students had to read one book a month. There were years where students had to complete projects for their books, years where they did a combination of projects and presentations, and last year, where they simply had to conference with me about their books.

I actually liked conferencing with my students. It was nice to have face-to-face, one-on-one conversations with them about books. The problem is that I had to have ten conferences per student throughout the year. I had over 120 freshmen honors students last year. Go ahead, do the math. These book talks would not take more than five minutes, but that’s still 6000 minutes or 100 hours outside of class time talking about the books they read. Granted, not all of my students read their ten books, but I still spent hours upon hours in conferences. Add in the fact that high school students often wait till the very last minute and what I would get the week of a deadline was a line of students snaking out of my classroom door beginning at seven in the morning, all through my half-hour “duty-free” lunch, and again after school.

This year, I was given a fifth section of honors English and I knew that there would be no way I could strictly conference. I also know that research supports that assignment tied to independent reading are counter-intuitive to instilling a genuine love for reading, but if I just “trust” that they will read, we both know what will happen.

Last year’s students said that a book a month (ten for the year) was too much. The result: drop the requirement to two books per quarter (eight for the year) and give them four ways to “prove” they’ve read the books.

The first is still the conference with me. Like I said, I enjoyed talking to my students about books. Not only did I get to know them better and build relationships, but I also got some great book recommendations for myself and to share with the rest of my classes. Yet by making them only conference with me on two of the eight books for the year, I should only be putting in about 28 hours of my time outside of class.

Another thing they will do is present two of their books to the class. They get to create any type of presentation they want—a video, a Prezi, a PowerPoint, or even a book trailer. They can read passages from their book or simply convince their audience why they should or should not read the book.

Twice they will need to write a letter to me or a friend sharing their thoughts on their book. Easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy.

And then twice, I have asked my students to talk about their book with their mom or dad. (GASP!) I know, I know…I am requiring teenagers to speak to their parents. Since I am not there to witness these conversations, I have asked both student and parents to write a brief response about their discussion. I suggested a half-page of writing.

Then I sent home the requirements along with a slip of paper for parents to sign saying that they were informed of the independent reading expectation in my class, and I went home to bed thinking I had it all figured out.

What I hadn’t planned on was defending the purpose behind asking parents to write a response.

Educators are asked, heck-evaluated even-on how we build partnerships with families. We have school statements that affirm things like: we believe parents are an integral part in their child’s education. We are asked to find ways to involve parents in our classrooms, something that becomes harder and harder to do at the high school level.

Visit an elementary school on Back-to-School night and see the halls swarming with parents; visit a high school and you may get as many as five parents in a class of 35 who actually show up. Parents love to volunteer in elementary classrooms. In sixteen years of teaching, I’ve never once had a parent offer to volunteer in my class. When I have an assignment that involves parents in what we are doing in my class, I see it as a win-win.

When we study Romeo and Juliet, I ask my students to interview their parents on “the perfect mate.” It’s always an animated class discussion when students compare the type of partner their parents would choose for them versus the kind of partner they would choose for themselves. I envisioned a similar outcome for this assignment.

Just the other night, I sat at my own daughter’s Back-to-School night and listened as her teacher said, “I don’t know how you all feel about this, but the third grade teachers have decided not to give homework packets this year.” That’s not to say that the kids don’t have homework. They are expected to read nightly and they will do math practice on the computer, but the third grade teachers won’t be sending home the traditional homework folders that my daughter grew accustomed to in first and second grade. They came home on Monday and went back on Thursday and every night she completed a worksheet or two.

Sitting there I thought: Oh, ok…How do I feel about this? And then I immediately thought, I trust my daughter’s teacher to know what’s going to be the best approach to educating my child. Because that’s her job. My job is to be the parent, and her job is to teach my kid. If she, and all the other teachers of that grade, think this is best, then it probably is. I will support her however I can. If that means buying extra Kleenex for the class, I will. If that means helping my daughter memorize her multiplication tables this year, I will. And if that means that I simply trust in the decisions she is making in the classroom, I will.

You see, we teachers really do plan and reflect and revise in an effort to get it a little bit more right each year.

I can only hope that the parents of my students will also trust me as their child’s teacher. But I also secretly hope that they will participate in these book talks with their children and have really nice conversations, ones that don’t center around emptying the dishwasher or feeding the dogs, ones that don’t involve discipline or disappointment, ones where maybe they gain an insight into their children that they didn’t have before. Because these kids grow up and change so fast.

Lately, the eight-year old version of my daughter has a totally different mind than the one I knew a few months ago. I’m awestruck each time I talk to her these days. And these days, she still wants to talk to me. When she’s fourteen or fifteen, I don’t know if that will still be the case. So when she is, if her teacher makes her talk to me, the only thing I might communicate is my sincerest thanks.