A REAL Teacher Appreciation Day

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Last night I went to a post wedding party of one of my former students. Her wedding was held in December and I couldn’t attend because it was also the weekend of my family Christmas celebration.

I was disappointed not to attend, but this post wedding party was for all of us who were too involved in the holiday rush to do so, and I was thrilled with the opportunity to spend some time with her.

IMG_1913 This family is really special to me, because we HAVE stayed in touch, and  they laughingly call me their “family teacher.” I taught Liz in Kindergarten and second grade and her brother, Mason, in first and third grades. I have stayed connected to these folks since they moved from my school (after Mason was in third), and have even had the kids stay overnight with me camping and on a beach vacation for a couple of days.We’ve shared birthday parties, graduations, ball games and other various events where we’ve had a lot of fun over the years.

Cool kids, cool family, and last night I knew hardly ANY of the people who were attending this spaghetti supper celebration. Each and EVERY single time Liz introduced me as her Kindergarten teacher, though, the response was, “OH, so you’re the one responsible for this wonderful girl.” Or, “YOU’RE the reason why she turned out to be such a wonderful person,” or “You’re who we have to thank for her turning out to be such a fabulous human being.”

Liz and I would make eye contact and laugh as she would agree with whomever was giving me kudos, and my response became, “Well, maybe I can take a tiny bit of the credit.”

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She–and her family–really are amazing people and I am blessed to have been involved with all of them. Last night was really special, not only because of the bond I have with them, and how much fun it was, but also because of the kindness shown to me as a teacher by complete strangers.

As I drove away, however, I couldn’t help but think of the difference between that experience and what teachers usually face daily–questions, concerns, challenges, etc. My friend, though, hit the nail on the head when she summed the night up like this: “Well, that was a room FULL of people who appreciate what teachers do!”

WOW!  I left, feeling like a celebrity.

Today, I feel humbled and honored by those remarks.  We DO make a difference–good or bad–and we all need that kind of feedback.

So, when your child asks what to get the teacher for a gift-giving holiday or the end of the year, when she or he comes home with a cool story of the great day s/he had at school, make it special to the teacher too, by picking up the phone and telling them that, or having your child write them a thank you note–and add a small one of your own at the bottom.  THOSE are the REAL Teacher Appreciation Days–when it happens unexpectedly!

Incidental Learning #2

This post is a continued reflection of me going  into a Kindergarten class to do a series of lessons on graphs and wondering about the incidental learning K kids are doing while I’m in there.  The set up for this series of posts can be found here or here, I cross posted it.

So on Thursday, I went and introduced myself to them with a book called “Once Upon a Time”  where “A boy and his parents move to a new house where it seems there’s “Not much to do. / Not much to see.” As the book continues, the boy remains by the cottage, but familiar faces begin to dot the landscape: a golden-haired girl chased by three bears, a trio of pigs each toting a bundle of different building materials. Young listeners acquainted with classic nursery rhymes will quickly recognize the game and begin searching for their favorite characters.” (The quote is from Amazon’s review, and the picture below is from Amazon as well.) I was using it to see how well-versed the kids were about what are supposed to be familiar stories for young kids, so I wanted kids to call out and I wanted to see how many could name the characters as they entered the pictures.

onceuponatimeIt was hilarious–kids were giggling, fidgeting, talking to one another and the teacher and I were just howling with some of their comments. It was also a hit–the kids couldn’t wait until I returned the next day to help them tell a story with “just dots and lines.”

So the next day I came back, read a fairly traditional rendition of The Three Little Pigs (Paul Galdone’s verison) and then I pulled out the paper where we were going to make a line graph and tell our story with “just lines and dots.” I modeled doing the worksheet shown here, and we then sent all of the kids to their seats to make their own story to take home.  What an eye-opener–just ask any teacher what they can see when you ask K kids to do a worksheet on the 17th day of school when you’ve just done it in front of them. You can see the kids who have preschool experience who have learned to “play school” well–they want to copy yours exactly.  You can see the kids who have little experience with writing… you can tell the kids who know how to line items up well and those who don’t get that detail…you can see names written (or not) and as they work together, you can clearly see kids who need support.

So I’m standing by a table with several kids who are struggling to do the dots and lines and I’m helping them along.  This activity isn’t set up to see who can do the worksheet perfectly, but to help us see who gets the concept of lines going up and down to symbolically represent high and low feelings of fear in the story.

As I was helping one child, two boys at the other end of my table began the “he wrote on my paper” call outs. I moved to lean down beside the closest one to me and a third child also said it, pointing to the boy beside her. (I’m beside a black kid, looking across the table at two white kids.) I immediately turn to the boy beside me (to stop his continued tattling) and  as I do so, I think to myself, “Dang, what are they thinking with me talking to the black kid first?”  I KNOW how kids watch everything the teacher does and read into it… so I’m now thinking,”This is a predominantly white school, and many of these kids haven’t much experience with other races. Are they reading into my looking to the black kid first that I think he’s guilty when the two white kids aren’t? I know I did it because he was closest and I can have a semi private conversation with him if I need to, but they don’t know that. What can I do to take any possible stigma away here?”

So I say, “How did you feel when he wrote on your paper?”  The kid is STILL saying “He wrote on mine first” and, looking at the other boy,”You did it to me first.” He was clearly trying NOT to be the first one in trouble, and staking his claim as simply doing back what had been done to him. I literally leaned forward more so he could no longer see the other boy and repeated, “How did you feel when he wrote on your paper?” He stopped cold in the middle of another disclaimer and looked at me.  I asked it again, and he and I both were conscious of the whole table watching and listening. I repeated my question again, adding, “Did it feel good?  Did you like it when he wrote on your paper?” He simply shook his head no. I then backed up so the two boys could see each other again and asked the white boy how he felt–did it make him feel good when his paper was written on. He also said no. I then asked him if he meant to make the other (black) kid feel bad.  He said no.  I then asked the kid beside me if he meant to make the other (white) kid feel bad, and he said no.  I completely ignored the girl who had tattled, as my goal was NOT to get into who did what when.

I then looked at both of them and said, “If you didn’t mean to make the other boy feel bad, please think of that next time you start to write on someone else’s paper–think how you’ll make them feel.”  And I backed off and went back to the kid I had been helping. They looked at each other and then went back to their own papers.

I hope they learned it’s not about placing blame.

I hope they learned I really don’t care who started it.

I hope they learned it’s about how you make someone feel.

Shaping behavior in a classroom is ALL about how you make them feel.

And when teachers shape behavior, we have to be cognizant of ALL the nuances–what kids might be learning incidentally if we always look to certain children first, or if we always choose certain children to be our helpers, or if our messages are not consistently about taking care of each other and not making others feel bad.

Shaping behavior in a classroom is all about how you make them feel.

Wisdom and Wonder

Been thinking a lot lately about my years as a Kindergarten teacher.

Saw a tweet the other day that said something like, “We could learn a lot from watching a great Kindergarten teacher.”

Used to have this poem on my classroom door:

All I Ever Really Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten

– by Robert Fulghum

Most of what I really need to know about how to live, and what to do, and how to be, I learned in Kindergarten. Wisdom was not at the top of the graduate school mountain, but there in the sandbox at nursery school.

These are the things I learned:

    • Share everything.
    • Play fair.
    • Don’t hit people.
    • Put things back where you found them.
    • Clean up your own mess.
    • Don’t take things that aren’t yours.
    • Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody.
    • Wash your hands before you eat.
    • Flush.
    • Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you.
    • Live a balanced life. Learn some and think some and draw and paint and sing and dance and play and work some every day.
    • Take a nap every afternoon.
    • When you go out into the world, watch for traffic, hold hands, and stick together.
    • Be aware of wonder.
    • Remember the little seed in the plastic cup. The roots go down and the plant goes up and nobody really knows how or why, but we are all like that.
    • Goldfish and hamsters and white mice and even the little seed in the plastic cup – they all die. So do we.

And then remember the book about Dick and Jane and the first word you learned, the biggest word of all: LOOK . Everything you need to know is in there somewhere. The Golden Rule and love and basic sanitation, ecology and politics and sane living.

Think of what a better world it would be if we all – the whole world – had cookies and milk about 3 o’clock every afternoon and then lay down with our blankets for a nap. Or if we had a basic policy in our nation and other nations to always put things back where we found them and clean up our own messes. And it is still true, no matter how old you are, when you go out into the world, it is best to hold hands and stick together.

I just keep thinking we’ve lost sight of the goal of school–and that, for me, is to support students becoming self-reliant, independent learners who care about themselves, others, and the world and who will “always put things back where we found them and clean up our own messes.”

“Wisdom was not on the top of the graduate school mountain.” Is it in our schools today?

“Live a balanced life. Learn some and think some and draw and paint and sing and dance and play and work some every day.” Is this Google’s 80/20 philosophy? Is it Gardner’s multiple intelligences?  Is it learning styles? Does it matter what we call it as long as we provide out students opportunities to “draw and paint and sing and dance and play and work some every day“?

“Be aware of wonder.” Do we even provide time for this in our classrooms? I remember little ones bringing me four leaf clovers.  I remember painting ice in the winter with food colored water and seeing the delight in the faces around me as they squirted the bottles I had so meticulously saved. Do kids have time to even look for clovers in the 10 minutes of recess the state defines? Do they have time in their day for wonder?

I wonder: Why do I teach?  Why am I still in this job after 35 years?  Why do kids like my classroom better than some others?  Why do they find it a “safe haven” in a relatively benign school building? What do I do–what do I teach–how do I talk to kid that makes them want to be in my room? What are my goals for them while they are in there?

For me, the curriculum of factoids comes last–because the big ideas in our core content areas are more important for students to understand than who rode a horse shouting “The British are coming, the British are coming!” WHY was someone shouting that?  What difference did it make? Who cared and why did they care?

For me, it’s not about totally unfettered learning, or completely student- directed learning, but tying student’s prior understandings and experiences to some common springboards. And I believe those springboards should help our next generation tie history and math and science to their world in meaningful ways that help them make sense of their lives and build ideas for the future–for their next generation.

And while it’s not about preparing them for their future world of work, for me, it is sort of, in really important ways.  We should teach our children to live their lives today so that they can make informed choices in the future–so that they have understandings of MANY areas of study and can find-or share-the things that ignite their love of learning and fire for exploration. We should teach our children about the choices they have and give them practice making choices in our classrooms so they can learn how to evaluate their choices to get better at making wise decisions.

For me, it’s about supporting our students to become wise–to think before they act, to look at issues from many perspectives and always listen to learn before responding. It’s about helping students understand themselves and how they learn best; helping them understand social code switching and developing the social skills necessary to get along with all others.

It’s about understanding differences and similarities–and honoring both.  It’s about supporting each other and sharing and celebrating and creating rituals that mean something to the group.  It’s about building relationships of trust and caring that transcend the factoids and instead move to deep understanding and thoughts and questions and challenges that help us all grow and change as we work together and support each other’s independence and interdependence.

And, for me, it IS still true:  “no matter how old you are, when you go out into the world, it is best to hold hands and stick together.”

Mimicry-Ya Got That?

As I’ve been working on thinking about “LEARNING”  for the project at Thinking About Words Through Images,  my camera has been my constant companion at school.  That’s not unusual, for me to pull out my camera and snap pictures of my students working, but the difference is that I have told them WHY I am taking pictures and some of what I am thinking.  I have shared the link to that wiki, and it’s been interesting–knowing that I am collaborating with educators from all over the world seems to have had an impact on my students. I notice them commenting on each others’ wikis more, offering strategies in class more explicitly and asking each other questions that imply accountability to the community (like, have you finished your  geometry wiki page, I’ll call you tonight to remind you to bring in your iPod, etc.)

But, I wonder– am I seeing these things more because I am looking for specific instances of learning to photograph?

I have learned a lot in the first week of January, trying to take pictures of “learning.” First, it’s HARD trying to capture a still picture of the active learning in which my kids engage. I find myself wanting to describe the pictures, to explain what’s going on, to share the amazing thinking I see in my kids. While the images can capture some of what is going on, I need words as well.  I find myself posting my lessons (both adult and student ones) to the web, describing what happened and what I was hoping to happen. It’ll be interesting to see what I think and how I’m looking at the world through the lens of my camera at the end of the month.

What else I’ve learned is that it doesn’t matter what age kids are, they still mimic their teacher.

In teaching kindergarten, one of the funniest things to watch was when kids were in “free choice” time and they chose to play school.  I would hear my words coming out of their mouths, just as in housekeeping, I would hear their parents’ words.  It was eye-opening in both situations, and I often changed the ways I worded things based on the feedback I received watching my kids mimic me. (In parent conferences, I often told parents I wouldn’t believe half of what their kid told me about them if they’d promise me the same–because we ALL know that age also has a very active imagination!)

Yesterday was a hoot–the mimicry happened with fifth graders. In my class, when students are explaining their thinking, I often play confused so they have to be more explicit in their explanation and they learn how to explain their thinking more logically, sequentially and in depth.  I check for understanding with the group listening frequently by stopping the explainer periodically and asking the group things like, “Do you understand what s/he is saying?”  or “Did you get that?”  or “Does everybody know what s/he means when s/he says. .. ?”   I guess my most used is, “Did you get that?” Kids in my class don’t hesitate to ask for more explanation because this is part of our day-to-day conversations, AND they see me model confusion and asking clarifying questions.

Ms. White, Tzstchr

In a lesson where these pictures were taken, I was playing my confused self.  I had been taking pictures, but sat down at a table to probe a student who was making an assumption she shouldn’t have been making. Setting my camera on the table, I began asking the child to show me her thinking. After several minutes of interaction, another student picked up my camera and began taking pictures of our interactions. I paid no attention to that and continued with my questions.  She put the camera down, and throughout the next 5-10 minutes, several students took turns picking it up and taking pics as others gathered around to hear the conversation and support the child being questioned if they could. watchingThe pictures they got were pretty good (I had to leave out two because they have students whose pictures may not be put on the web.)

However, the funniest part was Toria taking over the explanation for the child I had begun with and explaining to me the way she saw to work the problem.  (She describes class on her wiki page, MathIDidToday.)   She was showing me her way, and I made her do it three different ways, apparently not understanding each time. (I asked her to, NOT because she didn’t get it, but because she was so adroit at thinking flexibly, choosing various shapes and changing her approach and modeling descriptive language for the others watching.)  By the third time, she was getting a wee bit frustrated with my lack of “getting it”, so she finished and, (truly) standing up, with a hand flourish, asked,  “Ya got that?”

The class erupted in HOWLING laughter. . .that’s why they all left with the red faces Toria describes!

UPDATE: the kid who picked up the camera first just wiki-mailed me and asked if I had ever figured out whether S4 was half of S5 (which was the problem we were working on that’s described in this blog.). I wrote her back this message:

Hanna, I’ll share a secret that you cannot share.
Please read this: http://tzstchr.edublogs.org/mimicry

PW

Her response back to me was simply priceless:

wow that is so cool i have never known but i did notice that you ALLWAYS didn’t get what we were telling you

Do We Send Him to K or Wait a Year?

Last night @JonBecker and @BeckyFisher73 were tweeting and mentioned me, so I joined their conversation. Jon is struggling, as so many parents do, with whether to enter his son in Kindergarten when his age says he can go or wait a year. He’s tweeted often about his son, so I know a bit about his behavior in some situations.

I have spent over half of my career teaching early childhood, with 17 years specifically being in Kindergarten and/or First Grade or a K-1 combo (MOSTLY K). I have a Master’s in Early Childhood from the University of Virginia that I got in the early 90’s when they actually had an Early Childhood department. I am now a Gifted Resource Teacher and have taught in 6 different elementary schools in our division, from the smallest and poorest performing (at the time) to ones who are extremely advantaged (i.e., the principal can pretty much ask the parents to fund anything and someone will write a check) to ones who are succeeding in all traditional measures to ones with diversity and ones with little diversity.

So, when Jon tweeted that he was looking for opinions, I certainly have one, as I usually do.  🙂

In a series of tweets broken into 140 characters, poor Jon had to read over time as my slow connection allowed me to post.  Here’s what I shared (with some minor additional explanations sometimes):

Let me just say that young boys often enter at a disadvantage…sometimes due to teacher bias and/or inexperience, or traditional school expectations (the not-so-hidden curriculum of sit down, be quiet and listen) which is not only inappropriate, but getting worse and expected more in the schools I’ve seen. I counseled my daughter in law to NOT enter my grandson, an August birthday, into Kindergarten when he was just barely 5, but she did and he’s still struggling…not necessarily ONLY because of the early entrance, but also because he’s a gifted LD kid. He’s one of those who has only had the LD part worked with and most teachers do not give him a chance to show the brains because they can’t get past his disability–or worse yet, the label. He’s an incredibly frustrated kid who hates school, but loves learning OUT of school.

Jon’s next question: but what if I’m like every other parent and think my child is Uber-gifted “academically?”

Fact is, Jon, your kid has the rest of his life to learn in school-like situations. Do you push him into a system we, as educators, KNOW doesn’t typically meet the needs of the extremes, or do you enjoy him and make sure he gets to be a kid as long as he can before having to face the brutal realities of the world out there at age 5 or 6? Another fact is MANY parents are holding their kids out, so the age of kids in a grade is not only a wider span, but often has more older kids. So, if you enter a young one on time, he may be almost 2 years younger than some in his class. And, what do you do now for his uber-giftedness?  Can you not do that another year and let him grow socially into being comfortable with his emotions and other kids in more able ways?

Another fact is that gifted kids DO grow asynchronously and often their emotions are way behind their intellect–one of the challenges of parents of gifted kids is to remember that their ability to reason and talk and think at a high level is the anomaly-their behavior is often RIGHT ON TARGET for their age. When they temper tantrum or cry or act like a baby out of jealousy of a new sibling, they are simply acting their age. Parents often struggle when the kid talks so much like an adult, or can handle their own in a very sophisticated discussion but then acts in other situations like–OMG–a KID!

(Others joined the conversation here and the rest is a conglomeration of tweets to Jon and others, (with slight modifications to allow for context) and additional thoughts I have had since last night.)

It is CRUCIAL that early childhood teachers be nuturers FIRST and academians second–but GREAT academians who can meet those emotional needs WHILE fostering or extending a love of learning. MOSTLY you want an Early Childhood teacher who dwells on competence rather than deficits. They simply have to recognize the strengths of kids and make that public daily in ways that support the kid, and allow others to see those strengths as well.

Too many times kids, especially active young boys who don’t do the hidden curriculum well, get constantly fussed at for not sitting quietly, for asking questions out of turn, for blurting out answers, for fiddling with stuff, and those constant reprimands from the teacher say to the other kids that this kid isn’t smart. Think about it–isn’t it a sign of intelligence when one WANTS to engage, when one wants to ask questions, when one is so involved in the conversation that conversational turn-taking falls by the wayside, when one is constantly looking and fiddling with the stuff in one’s world to figure out how things work? Well, some K teachers–heck, some teachers in all grades–see their job as one where they are supposed to teach kids to play the game of school and learn how to sit down, shut up and listen. In many schools and most Kindergarten situations, kids are expected mostly to learn how to conform to the teacher’s (and parents’) traditional expectations for school behaviors.

Well, you and I both know smart people often DON’T conform. When that brilliant child needs that question answered and perseveres to ask it, s/he may get put in time out–or a safe spot–or sent away from the group for interrupting or not listening, or not doing what the teacher asked him/her to do. When that happens, tears may come as the kid is outraged at the injustice and/or may be hurt (crushed!) at the exclusion from the group. (Gifted kids also have an exaggerated sense of justice and fairness, too-and situations like this only amplify their outrage.) When other kids see that kid go to time out, or be fussed at constantly, or cry, they recognize these are NOT appropriate school behaviors–and no matter what the circumstances, the child who may be simply TRYING to engage is seen by others as perhaps a “bad boy”, a “crybaby”, “not smart”  or worse.

That’s why I say the teacher has to recognize strengths and display them publicly.  I can chastise my 5th grader in one moment for his misbehavior and in the next talk about WHY I perceive him shutting others out, explaining to the group that he’s involved in his own thinking and input from others may not allow him to work out HIS thinking just yet.I honor HIS style of learning while showing him he may need to adapt his behavior NOT to say “Shut up and leave me alone” to say “I need a few more moments to think, please. Can you be quiet and let me think?”

I spoke all the time to my K kids about how we are not in school by ourselves, but part of a group, so the conversations HAVE to involve turn-taking–and sometimes all of us will blurt out because of our excitement or enthusiasm, but it can’t happen all the time. I point out the REASONS behind the behavior and WHY some conformity is necessary. I speak to why I am asking the kid to leave the group–NOT because I am kicking him/her out, but because I need a few minutes to get the others going on something before we can have a private conversation. (Reread my first two blogs, “Why TZSTCHR? (Teasiest Teacher)” and Rules-Schools Have Too Many!” to see other ways I deal with shaping behaviors while respecting individualism.)

As parents,

As grandparents,

As people who LOVE our kids,

we all want to see our children grow up in happy situations, in places that will be safe emotionally and that will allow them to grow and stretch intellectually. Fact is, school is an institution and the social mores and groups determine (more often than not) which path we take in school.  Give your child the best chance by NOT sending them emotionally insecure to begin with–by enrolling them when they are ready and have the adaptability skills to handle the social/interactive piece of school and the various interactions they will encounter–and that includes traditional situations, various cultures, new situations, schedule changes and evolving routines. You can always push a bit later for the academic needs to be met, but let him/her grow, adapt, learn how to settle in a bit and adjust first. The social needs, for a young immature child, are paramount right now.

PS–the gifted teacher in me HAS to add, “Just don’t let go of the academic needs forever!”

Rules–Schools have too many!

Rules in my Kindergarten room were few–I hated having to enforce all the stupid ones schools make many times. (1 pack of ketchup at lunch, 1 napkin, etc.–how many of us adults use ONE pack of ketchup on our french fries?  I saw things like that as control issues, NOT rules that made sense.)

So I narrowed mine down to three:

1. Be safe. (I told the kids the first day of school that the most important rule for each one was to not get hurt in anything you do here at school and for you to always take care of yourself so that you stay healthy and safe.)

2. Be considerate (I often explained they were not the only child in my classroom and since there were a lot of us, we had to learn in ways that didn’t bother others who were also trying to learn.)

3. Be a thinker (After all, school is a place to learn and thinking is part of learning.  The more you think, the smarter you become too.)
Debbie Shelor, a friend who also adapted these rules to her room, explained it this way:
“Everything we say and do in our work and play together can be defined by these  simple but powerful guidelines. When there are problems that involve a number of the children or decisions to be made that affect us all, we have a class  meeting to work things out together.”
I used them as conversation starters–if a kid was running down the hall, I could ask either “are you being safe?” OR “Could your running be bothering others in classes who are trying to learn?”  if a child hit another one, I could ask “Are you being considerate?”  Getting a kid to OWN and name their behavior is a critical step to getting them to talk about it and make a plan for changing it.  I didn’t accuse them or fuss at them, simply asked if they were following our class rules.  Asking questions is a great way–IF THEY ARE THE RIGHT QUESTIONS–to get kids to think–about behavior as well as the world around them.

Why Tzst Teacher?

I believe in teaching kids to think, so when I taught Kindergarten, I would often play with them with language–if they asked “can I go to the bathroom?” I would respond, “I don’t know, can you?” They soon learned to ask “May I go to the bathroom?” I would then respond, “Of course you can, you don’t have to ask.” (We had a bathroom in our room.) They soon learned to just go when necessary.

Or, when a child would come up and say “Can I ask you a question?” My response would be “Of course not, You’re not allowed to ask questions in school.” Some little ‘uns would then turn to walk off. . . .(I would catch them) but some would stand there a second and look at me, pondering what to do. I would tease them a few more sentences worth and then let them ask their question. . . but what happened is that they began paying attention to how they phrased questions and thinking about my responses.

I would give silly answers whenever I could–especially to questions they already knew the answer to, so they would say “No, that’s not right.” I could then ask them why they asked me if they already knew the answer. My goal was to get them to think and engage the other person thoughtfully.

They would often say “Ms. White, you’re teasing again!” One child, Aynsley, called me the teasiest teacher. I was actually pretty proud of that label. 🙂

The next year I moved to another school and again taught Kindergarten. In that school, I had another child, Joseph, say almost the exact same words–“Ms. White, you’re the teasiest teacher in the whole world!” At that point I knew what my vanity license plates would be and promptly ordered them–VA license “tzstchr”.

The name has stuck, and when I began a blog, I knew that had to be the name of it.