Heartbreak and Resilience


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.”

Fifth Grade Loves Dr. Seuss!


At first blush, Dr. Seuss books aren’t for fifth graders, right?  I mean, come on….Fox in Socks?  Green Eggs and Ham?  Fifth graders need something more substantial.  More age appropriate.  FALSE.

This week we have embarked on an author study of the famous and infamous Theodor Seuss Geisel.  Oh, the books that we have ahead of us!  Dr. Seuss is one of my favorite authors because he is so versatile and subversive!  Learn more about the ‘story behind’ some of his stories  here.

While reading  Yertle the Turtle I asked them to reflect on how this story might relate to real life.  Several students mentioned having a boss who is mean or a teacher who is mean like Yertle.  Then we moved on to The Sneetches, and I again asked them to consider how this story could represent any part of real life.  Immediately afterwards, several students shot up their hands and mentioned segregation and discrimination.  Fifth graders can understand symbolism!

Still ahead we have If I Ran the Zoo and The Butter Battle Book.  What are my kids learning through this author study, besides rising action, climax and falling action?  They’re learning that words are powerful.  They’re learning a person’s a person, no matter how small.  And if you’re a person, no matter how small, and you know your way around a word or two, YOU ARE POWERFUL.

Settle down, skeptics.  We are also using these books as vehicles for learning about good, old-fashioned reading and writing: rhythm, theme, character traits, problem/solution, inference, comparing and contrasting, engaging the audience, and so much more.  We’re going to tackle a challenge similar to that faced by Seuss with The Cat in the Hat:  writing a book using only 236 words.  Oh, the thinks we can think!

Trying Something New

Wanna know a secret?  I don’t use my basal reader.  It’s true!  And I’m not sorry!  Really – think about it.  Just. One. Book.  All year!?!?  I know this isn’t the intent of the powers that be in my school district.  But for some classroom teachers, that’s exactly what happens.
I challenge all of my colleagues to step out from behind the comfort of the basal and try something new in reading instruction.  Trust your instincts – you know good literature, right?  If your answer is ‘no’, then I urge you to consult your media specialist, reading specialist, or any other teacher in the building who is ‘killing it’ as a reading teacher.  Ask around.
The starting point is always the state standards.  Find your grade level and take a look at what the state of Nebraska is expecting students to know and be able to do.  Then find amazing literature, or better yet, a fantastic author, and use that as a vehicle for addressing the standards.
Let’s say that I’ve perused the state standards, and I’m going to do an author study of William Steig with my students.  I can start with this handy Scholastic resource, or go rogue and design my own plans. The books I would choose are the following:
Sylvester and the Magic Pebble
Dr. DeSoto
Brave Irene
The Amazing Bone

•Nebraska State Standard LA 5.1.5 Vocabulary: Students will build and use conversational, academic, and content-specific grade-level vocabulary.

This standard is effortlessly addressed via these books because they are bursting with rich vocabulary.  While reading aloud, I would have students listen for great vocabulary and note it in their journals.  Making connections between the author’s words and synonyms and antonyms is an important activity.  There are myriad ways to reinforce this vocabulary knowledge.

•Nebraska State Standard LA 5.1.6 Comprehension: Students will construct meaning by using prior knowledge and text information while reading grade-level literary and informational text.

Teaching comprehension using these five excellent books is fun, interesting and engaging.  I would have students compare and contrast all five books, or just two or three.  We would discuss characters and their character traits, themes, literary devices, problem, solution, setting, and unique characteristics of the author’s writing.  Students could create a culminating project reflecting their understanding of the book(s) and the author’s message.
Real, meaningful, authentic discussions.  Not a worksheet in sight – yet you can still take grades on student work.  Students are learning together – cooperatively – improving their language skills as they wordsmith a project or justify their answers.
Did we cover the state standards?  Yup.  And we had a great time doing it! TRUST yourselves, guys!  You are professionals!  You are competent!  your students will LOVE the authenticity with which YOU present your love of literature.  You can do it!


First Cry of the Year

Well, it’s happened…the first cry of the school year.  Mine, that is.  Don’t think that I’m a weeping willow – I’m not.  But it does happen once in a while, and will probably happen again before the year is over.

The catalyst?  My good friend Patricia Polacco!  (She’s not my friend…that’s just me using voice in my writing.)  As part of our PP author study, I was reading Pink and Say to my students.  I didn’t plan to cry.  But when I got to the ending, where the author describes the fates of the two main characters, Pinkus Aylee and Sheldon Russel Curtis, I was overcome.  This wasn’t even my first reading – I’ve read this book multiple times.Obviously, this is my favorite of Polacco’s works.  The story itself is devastating, infuriating, and promising, and when told through Polacco, I just don’t see how one could NOT cry, or at least tear up, at the ending.

As my voice broke and my face gave way to small tears, my students were unsure of what to do.  I could see many of them really analyzing my face to see what exactly was happening.  Though rapt with the story, they were glancing at each other – ‘do you see what I see?’  Finally I finished reading as tears streamed down my face.  It felt good – real, honest, genuine.  As one of my students brought me the tissue box, I explained my reaction to the story.  “That is one sign of a great writer, folks,” I commented, as I composed myself.

A few of them chuckled, obviously relieved that everything was okay…that I was still the teacher, still in charge, still there to care for them.  I’m glad to share my vulnerability with my students.  Sometimes by fifth grade, students are trying to be cool and not acknowledge their emotions.  Not me – I mostly have my heart firmly appliqued onto my sleeve.  I often laugh loudly, I occasionally display my annoyance, and, rarely, I even cry.  I am so thankful for the authors who bring me to these places, and I hope that by seeing me, my students want to visit those places, too.

Sale of my Dreams


Don’t you just LOVE  a good garage sale?  I visited one Saturday and got so much more than books.  The sale was out in the middle of nowhere, and it took my husband and I about thirty minutes to get there.  I thought to myself ‘this isn’t even garage sale season….I doubt there are any bargains.’  Boy, was I wrong!  There were HUNDREDS of books. And lessons.  And books with lessons attached in ziploc bags – you know what I’m talking about.  This gal didn’t want you to JUST BUY THE BOOK – she wanted you to get the book AND the lesson, and pass on the love to your own students!

This angel, a freshly-retired, 35-year first-grade first-grade veteran, was selling her possessions for twenty-five cents each.  Yep, you read that right.  Only a quarter a piece, unless otherwise marked.  BUT WAIT, THERE’S MORE!!  If you spent $25, she would give you another $10 for FREE!  Somebody pinch me!

This lady, whose name I still don’t know, was meticulous in her collecting of wonderful primary picture books.  All of my friends were there:  Jim Arnosky, Dr. Seuss, Patricia Pollaco, Ruth Heller, Jon Scieszka, William Steig, and so many more.  I told her that I was a fifth grade teacher, not a primary teacher, so some of the books weren’t for me.  Then I thought about writing instruction and added more titles to my stack.  She smiled knowingly.

With my saintly husband trailing behind me, arms heavy with books, I was finally ready to settle my bill.  (Of course, I got the $10 free – was there ever a doubt?)  After giving her my money, I was overcome by the need to hug her.  I thought about all of the lives she had touched in her thirty-five years of teaching.  What lucky souls.  Her hug did not disappoint.

She radiated sunshine on an otherwise gloomy Saturday morning.  As she told me I made her day, I knew it was MY DAY that had been made.  Not only did she give me her books, but her enthusiasm…her attitude….her joy.  In about ten years, I will be in her shoes, hoping to pass on my teaching materials to some deserving soul.  I plan to make the most of that time!

Monday malaise

My first post!  The pressure!  My students are always somewhat sleepy on Mondays, but even considering their mild malaise, they really showed up for our close reading activity today.  We analyzed the Beatles’ Yesterday together, and who knew some of my kiddos had such deep thoughts!?  Great discussions emerged from that analysis activity, and one thing THIS teacher learned today is that I need to expect more from my students!