“Did you write me back yet?”

One by one they come, making their offerings.  Some with shy, downcast eyes, others with eager smiles, they place their colorful notebooks one atop another on my desk.  Our first entries are awkward – my students don’t know what to write.  I sense their uncertainty and distrust….is this some kind of gimmick?  What’s the catch?  Why would I spend so much time writing back and forth with a bunch of ten year olds?

The idea of dialogue journals, which I discovered in a post from cult of pedagogy , is very easy to implement.  Like so many things in my life, I jumped in with both feet, serendipitously introducing the idea to my students while reading the book Fish in a Tree

While reading the section about journals aloud, I paused and told them we’d be doing the same thing in our classroom.  Their eyes lit up.  I gradually handed out journals to students that day.  Each child received an ordinary spiral notebook with a friendly handwritten letter of introduction from me.

The journals are as different as the students.  Some have entries that are long and rambling, while most, at this early stage, are somewhat guarded, sort of a ‘just the facts, ma’am’ format.  I am encouraging my students to ask me questions as well as answering my queries in their writing.

In a class of twenty-four, it’s very difficult to get quality one-on-one time with every student.  Every teacher knows that there is a solid core of students dominating the conversation.  Dialogue journals, in my mind, are especially wonderful for students who rarely volunteer during group.  They follow directions, turn in work on time, and have exemplary behavior.  DJ gives these students in particular my undivided attention, for whatever they want to discuss.

Even Edgar – the surly one who doesn’t listen, struggles to follow directions and is an expert at covertly poking his classmates – will casually, with no eye contact, walk past me, saying, “Did you write me back yet?”  Yep, I think this idea is a winner.  Because really, which of my students is using his behavior to cry out for a relationship with me?  You guessed it…Edgar.

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Harden Not Your Hearts

We began brainstorming.  Historical.  Extremist.  Heartbroken.  Twin towers.  Miserable. Broken.  Freedom.  These are the words that, with minimal introduction, my fifth graders called forth to represent 9/11.  And now they sit, most of them engrossed, reflecting on this event which has had both minimal yet immense impact on their lives.  Many of them have never visited NYC, and don’t know anything about the Twin Towers save their symbolism.  They’ve grown up in a world that differs decidedly from pre-9/11 in terms of safety, vigilance, and privacy.

The talk of ongoing war has been a reality for my students throughout their lives. Military involvement in Afghanistan has turned into the longest-running war in U.S. history.  Especially as we elected our most recent president, conversations about immigration and deportation are ubiquitous.

The discussion about 9/11 is essential to telling our story in the U.S.  Our children have to know about it.  The temptation for some is to show patriotism by disparaging a group of people and spreading hate about a race or culture.  The fine line I must walk as an educator of young people is to help my students know this history of our country while keeping their hearts open and soft.

Martin Will Remind Me

 

Martin was struggling.  And I wasn’t helping one bit.  The beginning of school is a harried time, especially in a large school district.  Besides meeting your students and creating those relationships (ummm that’s kind of a big deal), there are meetings, assemblies, and paperwork.  I had fallen victim to the ‘get it done’ monster, at the expense of Martin.

It happened when we were in the library.  Never a slave to the clock, I was sometimes a bit off schedule.  When a lesson is going great, I run with it.  So this day in the library, we were a bit short on time.  Nonetheless, I am devoted to checkout time.  Students were browsing and casually discussing books.  The media center was a crowded place this morning, as our librarian was conducting a class at the same time as my students shopped for books.

Keep in mind that I had warned them before we left:  “If you are loud in the library, Mrs. Jones will yell at you.”  Martin wandered, not picking up any books.  He looked lost.  That was when it happened.  From across the room, boomed, “Fifth grade!  I am very disappointed in your voices!  I am trying to teach a class right now and you are making it impossible…” she went on.  My heart beat faster as she berated us.

I announced quietly, “Students, we will leave in two minutes.  If you haven’t checked out yet, please get in line.”  That’s when I saw Martin, again, floating like an untethered balloon.  Not particularly bothered, nothing urgent about him.  I put my hands on his shoulders and bent to eye level with him.  I whispered loudly, “Martin, you need to find a book RIGHT NOW!”

He responded by slapping his hands over his ears and screaming, “I don’t know!!!”  My impatience was right there embodied in human form.  The panic, the terror.  I immediately regretted my actions and adjusted my demeanor.

“It’s fine, buddy,” I began. “No big deal.  You tell me the book you’d like, and I’ll order it.  Don’t worry about a thing.”  I felt like the biggest heel ever.  How could I redeem myself with this boy?

He recovered quickly, nodding his head and moving to line up.  I patted his back.  Within minutes, Martin and I were fine again.  Thank God for children – truly.  If I do it right, with Martin reminding me, I can prevent this school year from being kidnapped by schedules, paperwork, and ill-tempered librarians.  I can make this year about what counts:  children and learning.

…only love can do that

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As a fifth grade teacher, I am no stranger to pre-teen female drama.  It’s a foregone conclusion that, at some point during the school year, at least two of my young ladies will be rife with angst.  This year is no different.

We welcomed Taylor, new to our school, in August.  No red flags initially, but it didn’t take long for me to realize that she was the “It” girl.  You know the one I mean…the girl, who, for no discernible reason, is immediately popular.  Everyone wants to be her friend. Exceptionally cute?  Not really.  Brilliant?  Nope.  Obviously I was missing something, because right away, Taylor engendered fierce competition among her female peers.

And she knew it.  Manipulative, double crossing, hateful….just plain mean.  I love all of my students, and Taylor is no exception.  I love her, and I am worried about her. Countless conversations with various adults made no apparent difference in Taylor’s behavior.  Early on, I changed her seat so that she was within arm’s reach.  I watch her like a hawk within the classroom, but there were many other opportunities where she could work her magic.

Inevitably, a triad emerged.  Anytime you have three girls together, it is trouble.  In this case, Taylor was playing two girls against each other.  Of course, these girls were fast friends before Taylor’s arrival – now they were rivals.  Though both girls were very smart, one was more secure in her social position.

I had to hand it to them – both of these girls could be just as mean as Taylor.  It was heartbreaking.  One day one of the two competitors was very upset.  A bigger girl, she mentioned that Taylor told her she was fat and needed to lose weight.  This beautiful young lady – smart, capable, tough – teared up as she sat in the hallway looking up at me. Her sturdy, strong exterior was cracking.

My fury was obvious.  I immediately sat down on the floor next to my crushed student, and said, “You are gorgeous.”  I lavished her with compliments about her hair, her eyes, her smile, and then got to the point.  “You are beautiful because you have a loving heart that shines right out of you.  You are exactly what God had in mind when He made you.”

Her mood seemed to lighten then, for a while.  That was a month ago, and the back-and-forth continues with a vengeance.  Did Taylor’s mom teach her these behaviors directly, or by example?  Was it because she was insecure and wanted her daughter to be safe?  Or was there even any thought involved?  I knew mom’s capabilities, having been her victim once via email.  She was adept at her craft.

Why do we train our girls to be vile?  Is it so they can be tough and survive?  If anything, we need to scale way back on the hurtful, spiteful, vicious language and actions.  This article, from Huffington Post, has some ideas for parents.  We need to stop being competitive in our parenting, and lose the sarcasm.

We must heed Dr. King’s words:  “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”  Empowering our girls with kindness, generosity, and grace will enable them to spread positivity and acceptance as they move through the world.  And that is more essential than any academic skill could be.

 

Putting More Meta into Metacognition

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I’ll admit it.  I thought I was killin’ the metacognitive game.  My self-aggrandizement was palpable.  Then I checked my email…those rascals at KQED and their amazing research acumen…..Seriously, MindShift does what just the name says.  Just when I think I’m galloping right along, I come across another intriguing post that challenges my thinking.

So…metacognition.  Thinking about thinking.  That’s as far as I typically get in my explanation to my students.  And I thought that was enough.  Nope, we can go deeper.

The thing about fifth graders, in my experience, is that many weren’t aware that thinking was part of the contract.  Like many of us, they just signed, without paying attention to any of the clauses or fine print.  This is often the reaction I get when I ask them to engage in actual thinking within the classroom.  Surface level, they’re totally in – regurgitation is particularly solid.  When asked to go beyond ‘what is the capital of Iowa?’, many students falter.  They’ve not been called to such a task before.  Questions beginning with ‘why’ or ‘what if’ leave them stymied and shrugging.  I have asked myself: How can they not be able to THINK?

One often looks to blame someone.  Last year’s teacher – what were they DOING?  Parents! Why don’t they get off their phones, for goodness sake!  Media – why have we allowed it to become so ubiquitous? But really, how often do most people think DEEPLY?  That’s another post.

Anyway, I don’t enjoy the blame game – I prefer a few rounds of ‘so…now what?’  My ‘now what’ will begin with See, Think, Wonder.  I always ask for questions while reading – whether I’m reading aloud, students are reading silently, or we’re partner reading.  A good reader always asks questions.  If you think of a book or TV show with which you were particularly engaged, of course you ask questions.  Reflexively, within your brain, you’re shouting, ‘Why did he do that!?!?’ or ‘Holy crap – NOW what is she going to do?’.

These are not dialogues that every brain has – especially brains of poor readers.  These students never got the memo that reading involves thinking.  To them, it looks like ‘good’ readers are scanning the words – very quickly – and closing the book.  Maybe writing down answers to questions.  Done.

Does it sound too complicated to begin with text?  I have an easier way.  There are many commercially available photo collections which are very engaging and conducive to questioning and conversation.  Though many of these are intended for use by speech language pathologists, they can serve multiple purposes.

Are you wondering how you’re going to fit this in between your basal lessons?  At the risk of moralizing, metacognition trum..(quick – a thesaurus – I can’t say that word anymore!) takes precedence over your basal lesson.  If students aren’t thinking, what value is a worksheet on cause and effect?  Trivial, indeed.

Critical thinking – it peppers educational mission statements all over the U.S.  So let’s focus – this is the real deal, people.  Think about it.

Are You Sure That’s a Memoir?

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During writing class recently, I was teaching my students how to write a memoir.  We were focusing on telling short, true, interesting memories from our lives.  As a 49-year old woman, I have plenty of stories to share, many of which are appropriate for children.

Where to begin?  I wanted impact….shock and awe….yes!  I had just the story. As my students listened in awe, I told them – THAT is a memoir.  I sent my charges off to draft their own narratives.  Most of them jumped right in, brainstorming stories from their own lives.  I told my students that accidents, illnesses and injuries were perfect fodder for a memoir. Surveying the room, I could see moderate engagement.  Over the next forty minutes, I had conversations with several of my fifth graders about their ideas.

Finally I came upon Alex.  He was very excited about his writing, and eager to share with me.  As I read his piece, I became aware that his essay – his impactful memory – a GREAT story from his life…..was about playing a video game!  I continued reading, unwilling to show my disappointment to this boy who took pride in his efforts.  It was, after all, his writing – not mine.  Who was I to judge what was significant in his life?

I asked Alex what he liked the most about his essay and gave him a bit of feedback – not about its substance, though, mostly just conventions.  I got to thinking…was that all he had to drawn on?  A video game?  Or had I simply not shared enough examples?  I hoped that I could get more out of Alex.  I hoped that the fullness of his memories wouldn’t be centered around graphics, AI, and noise-canceling headphones.

What I want for Alex is what I want for all children:  a generous, interesting, rewarding life worthy of a memoir.  That’s where the challenge lies.  Is it my memoir, or is it his?  It is sometimes difficult to be an educator and not foist my beliefs and opinions onto my students.  The breadth of what we as classroom teachers address with our students occasionally makes it challenging to draw the line.  To stop short of telling our students what to think, and instead, focus only on teaching them how to think.

My hope is that someday Alex will write about a great adventure, a heart-warming encounter, or a harrowing incident.  But that’s for Alex to decide, not me.

Red Bandana Sans Inhaler

I begged my mother to let me tag along with my sister, Sarah, to ride horses.  Sure, we all knew I was allergic to dogs and cats.  But horses?  Horses were never mentioned.  We were city people who knew little of horses – they were big and beautiful, the stuff of every ten-year-old girl’s dreams.  Pu-lease, I begged…..I’ll be FINE!!

Against her better judgement, my mother acquiesced. It was the perfect hot, humid, cloudy July afternoon.  Just right for cut-off jeans, a crop top, and a horseback ride. Ideal for an asthmatic who decided her inhaler would ruin the aesthetic of her outfit.  Kicking up dust along the country roads, we finally arrived and saw the horses.  Lustrous, enormous, and majestic.  I was going to look AMAZING atop one of these beasts.  I even brought my red and white bandana…because I was so country. (Yep, just a little narcissistic, even then.)

Shortly after mounting my horse, the symptoms came at me full force.  The weepy eyes, nose running like a faucet, incessant sneezing.  In the scheme of things, harmless.  I was, after all, an equestrian.  A little sacrifice might be required.  Dreams of being a horsewoman began to fade as evidence of my allergies appeared in earnest.  My multiple secretions were now joined by a steady, high-pitched wheeze, as my throat began to constrict.  Eyes swollen shut now….yep, time to dismount.  Even a rookie could see that I was in distress.

After trying to heal me with peanut butter cookies, my hosts eventually decided to abort the mission and get me home.  Finally home, I discovered that my mom had gone to a movie.  Dad was the backup – who really didn’t know what to do in this situation.  Even though I’d had asthma since birth.  Hospital?  Nah….let’s wait.  As I attempted to sob, but didn’t really have the lung power, he awkwardly patted me on the back, saying, “Now don’t cry….cryin’ ain’t gonna help nothin’.”

Thankfully, I heard my mom coming through the door.  She took one look at me and loaded me into the car. We drove straight to the emergency room, where I was saved once again by a shot of epinephrine.  My mother was never one to say ‘I told you so’, and this time was no different.  We’d hung out through countless IV’s, oxygen tents, breathing treatments, and doctor appointments.  We did agree, however, that I wouldn’t be riding a horse anytime soon.  I hung on to the bandana, though, just in case.

One-Legged Mountain Biker

mountainbikerVisiting Sedona, AZ, recently, I was impressed by many things.  I was inspired by the artists and artwork in Tlaquepaque Village, as well as in other venues around Sedona.  The drive through Oak Creek Canyon and Coconino National Forest was breathtaking and so peaceful.  And anytime I can witness a gentle stream surrounded by prodigious trees, I am a happy girl.

Despite my gimpy hip, we did some hiking.  Our group consisted of myself, my two older, stair-step sisters, and our 80-year old mother.  I kept up with mom – no record setting for me.  After my first shot of cortisone a year ago, I recognize my own mortality – or at least that of my hip.  Careful, measured steps took me through this wondrous terrain, the sun looking different than I’d ever seen it.

We took photo breaks, chatted up other hikers, and processed along the path.  While many hikers were younger, there were a fair number older than our group, too.   On the way back, we were passed by several mountain bikers.  My sisters and I were mid-congratulations on completing the three-mile trek when another biker flew past.  He wheezed ‘hey’ to us and I stopped in my tracks.  As his dust settled, I elbowed my sister. “Look!”  I whisper-shouted.

This specimen of the human body, this athlete, this biker.  Had. Only. One. Leg.  No prosthetic on the other side, just riding uphill on the trail with ONE LEG.  Peddling his lungs out with ONE LEG.  Navigating the rocks with ONE LEG.My sisters and mom and I marveled, immediately reassessing our athletic prowess and taking it down a few notches.

I see Mr. Mountain Biker as a metaphor.  Everyone has struggles – physical, mental, emotional, or some combination thereof.  It’s so easy to get tunnel vision when it comes to your own strife.  Easy to spend time planning your own pity party.  And the wallowing…..don’t forget about the wallowing. Right now, I can list a solid seven ailments with which I am afflicted. Certainly, they’re minor compared to those of others – perspective is everything.  Oh, and hang, on, let me check…yep, turns out I have TWO legs.

The next time I’m feeling embittered about my mind’s or body’s failings, I’m going to call up the image of Mr. Mountain Biker.  I rather doubt he was there to serve as my example or my inspiration.  Probably just there to ride his bike.  Even so, he reminded me that, even on those days when it feels like you’re up against a ten percent grade, keep pedaling.

Heartbreak and Resilience

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January in Nebraska can be very hard.  From a practical standpoint, it is cold, and bleak. The wind is relentless. Deeper than that, however, are the reasons that January is often difficult anywhere in the world.  The hoopla of the holidays is over, but winter remains. Less light, more cold, and increased isolation influence our days.

A good friend, and school counselor, often reminds me that the good thing about life is that it’s always changing.  As adults, we can find comfort in this certainty.  Children, though, struggle to remember this fact.  They and their underdeveloped frontal lobes are steadfast and certain that today’s tragedy will remain, unchanging, forever.

And so another young man, after grappling with this unwavering sorrow, has died by suicide.  It was a student I hadn’t seen for several years.  We were not exceptionally close, but not for a lack of trying on my part.  He was resistant to my woo, independent and, he believed, fiercely capable.  How he ended up in my reading tutoring program was a mystery to him – he felt it was an error.  Jeff believed the data I had collected was terribly flawed.

His father traveled extensively, gone for weeks on end.  His mother was quite ill, and so Jeff was left to his own devices.  He did okay for the most part, though it was apparent he didn’t have the guidance he needed.  Jeff came to school in some oddly matched outfits. With great conviction, he told wild tales of being in the rodeo as reason for his absences. Personality?  This kid had it.  Overconfident?  Unapologetically so.

Jeff gave many of us a run for our money.  Teachers use phrases like ‘squeaky wheel’ and ‘high flyer’ as metaphors for students who are going to leave their mark.  Jeff was such a student.  His independence and attitude actually made me fairly hopeful for him.  Even though he was a couple of years behind as a reader, he appeared to be equipped with a set of skills that would take him far.  His spirit and determination.  His charm.  His ability to spin a yarn.

Unfortunately, these talents were not enough to buoy him.  Jeff’s impulsivity and lack of foresight got the better of him.  What was temporary, he felt was permanent.  He didn’t see options for himself, and couldn’t envision what hope next week might bring.

As a teacher, I take this tragedy personally.  Yes, it was years ago that I knew Jeff.  But still….what did I miss?  What could I have done differently?  What skills could I have given him that would’ve helped him to still be walking the Earth?  I don’t know the answers to these questions.  But the questions weigh on my heart.  The grief will pass because life will get in the way of it.  I can only know that Jeff is at peace, and continue to try to create deep and meaningful relationships with every kid in my path.  Whether they want it or not.

 

 

The Soul Feels its Worth

“The soul feels its worth because we appear.  It has to mean that.” So go the words of Father Greg Boyle, Jesuit priest and founder and executive director of Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles, the largest gang intervention, rehabilitation and re-entry program in the world. Boyle’s thirty years worth of work helping gang members have made him an expert on heartbreak, sorrow, struggle, and joy.

How could the book Tattoo on the Heart have any relevance for me, a suburban elementary school teacher?  Simple.  My students are also experts on heartbreak, sorrow, struggle and joy.  They are only a few years younger than the young men and women with whom Fr. Greg works.  Their moms abandon them.  Their dads are incarcerated.  Their parents are divorced, and they exhaustingly alternate nights sleeping in each household. (ready?  pack up your prized possessions and settle into a different home…..comfy?  time’s up!  do it again!! name one adult who would put up with such demands!!)

“You stand with the belligerent, the surly, and the badly-behaved until bad behavior is recognized for the language it is: the vocabulary of the deeply wounded and of those whose burdens are more than they can bear.”  Some of my students freak out – lie incessantly – graffiti the bathrooms – disrespect adults – steal – soil themselves – threaten suicide – simply because their burdens are more than they can bear.  That kind of sorrow cannot be contained within the confines of an eight year old’s body – it is too great.  And when it comes out, that sorrow looks like rage.  It looks like surliness.  It looks like disrespect.

Does that mean we allow our students to destroy property, instigate fights, disrespect teachers?  Of course not.  It means that we acknowledge that these students come by this rage, this sorrow, this unrest….they come by it honestly.  We stand with them.  We cry for them, in the bathroom or in the car – where nobody can see us.  Then we wipe our tears, straighten our name badges, and resume our posts, with unwavering high expectations for our charges.

We teach them how to recognize and name their feelings, and how to appropriately channel those feelings.  We teach them about ambivalence – that everyone feels more than one way, all….the…..time.  As we teach vocabulary, comprehension, and higher-order thinking skills, what we REALLY want our students to know is just as Fr. Greg puts it: “You are so much more than the worst thing you’ve ever done.”