Monsters and Magic

The holiday season can be an emotional time of year with darkness creeping in and holiday expectations and perceived demands tugging at our sleeves.  This year the roller coaster of emotions for me has been more extreme due to the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary school.  Returning to school on Monday with just one more week till our holiday break was harder than I anticipated.  I wasn't afraid to go back but once I got there and was surrounded by children laughing, crying, learning, and struggling. . . the loss of it all hit me.  The idea of a monster amid the magic cracked my usual "Life goes on" resolve.

Like many of you, my husband and I reluctantly talked to our kids about Sandy Hook.  It is tricky territory for a parent to talk about a real life monster, knowing our job is to keep our children safe and feeling safe.  We followed a "less is more" guideline and basically revealed only that "Someone went into a school and shot some people."  We did not emphasise that it was mostly little children or even that they died.  It was a short conversation that ended in a visible look of relief on the oldest in particular when we mentioned the shooter was dead.

Later in the week, just days away from Christmas, the kids and I headed out to the grocery store when the usual wave of gun fingers and shoot'em up stuff began in the back seat, just like it often does.  So, as I often do, I reminded them before heading into the public domain that guns (fingers actually) must be holstered when we get to the store.  I cautioned them that "Especially because of what happened last week people are very sensitive and it is even more inappropriate for you to use those gestures and words at this point.

That is when my 8 year old replied, "I thought people would be over it by now."  I had to bite my tongue because he wasn't being flip.  His words were said out of innocence and childish resilience in regaurds to monsters.  "He is dead." resolves the problem in his eyes.  He didn't have all the facts, fiction, and faces popping up all week on phone, television, or computer.  We shielded our children from the most horrible truths, and I don't regret it, yet it made me pause, "Did we keep it too simple?  too matter of fact?"  That question paced circles in the back of my mind that afternoon.  Should we expect our children to appreciate the gravity of the event?

That evening when bedtime rolled around I read about a world of Dragons, magic and monsters.  I scratched and rubbed backs, pulled up covers, tucked in toes and kissed noses.  I headed downstairs to read and made it only a page or so before I heard my 8 year old , "Mom, could you come up here?"  When I returned to the room my boys share, he had watery eyes and a worried expression, not uncommon for this boy who tends to be the more anxious of my bunch, especially when tired.  "I'm worried" he said as if I never would have picked up on it.  What I didn't know for sure was about what.  I have learned never to assume that I know what may be worrying  at a child's mind of "what if. . . what if. . . what ifs."  Especially this boy for whom the presence of a smoke detector is purely a reminder there could be a fire--when he is tired.

On this night two days before Christmas, a new fear surfaces.   "What if someone comes into our house and comes to our room while we are sleeping?"  He didn't say, "and shoots us" but the words hung in the shadows of our conversation.  "I could punch'em if they were small, but regular grownups are too big for me to beat up. . ."  "What if someone tries to take Lila her door is before ours?", "what if, what if, what if. . ."

I reassured him, and older brother who I knew was listening though he appeared to be engrossed in a book, that Mom and Dad would keep all three kids safe, (from Monsters was implied).  I told him how we hear everything (magic is always involved where there is love),and how Lila still wakes and calls me with a tiny voice and I hear and I go in to find her curled on top of her pillow blankets off and shivering.  I tell him how when I cover, retuck and cuddle her I know she is asleep and I can go back to bed when she twists sideways and kicks her little girl feet in my ribs.  The story makes the boys laugh, which I know has to happen if they are going to get to sleep this night just days before Christmas, when I wish Sugarplum Fairies were their only concern.

Our conversation twined around in many directions and offshoots when at a point of self reflection (and perhaps the root of tonight's bedtime fears) my 8 year old tells me "When I hear about bad things that happen I picture myself in that situation and I can't stop worrying."  That is when that question stops pacing in the back of my mind.  I know that I gave him enough information for his active imagination to chew on.  I am bolstered in our decision to give the kids just the bare bones, because despite all our sheltering our children understand fears deeply and monsters all too readily.

Thankfully, they also believe in the magic of dragons, fairies, witches, heroes. . .and the Magic of Christmas. For our family Christmas fell at a perfect time this year, along with a sparkling dust of snow and wonder to distract us from fears and remind us of the power of love, family, and faith.


These are the images the media should be reporting

I am experiencing a pain in my heart for all the victims of the tragedy at Newtown.  I don't turn on the news, because I don't want to know more about the mind of a sociopath.  I don't want to hear his name or see his face and I am not going to even mention it here.  I don't want to hear how homeschooling, mothers, parents, autism or frankly even guns are to blame for this disgusting crime.  I especially don't want to see the anguish and terror that the survivors have experienced or will continue to experience till who knows when.  What I want the media to report are images like these:

(since I don't know the victims first hand, I am imagining what I would want plastered in print and pictures for all the world to see if those 20 children were mine, because they could have been any of ours)

  • The sweet scent of baby's milky breath on a Daddy's cheek when he lay on the couch exhausted, mouth open, warm bundle of baby on his chest.
  • Moms feeding newborns with bleary eyes, touseled hair, yoga pants and t-shirts.
  • Splattered carrots or cake from fingertips to toes and nose as baby grows big enough to "feed" herself.
  • The first birthday photos with moms politely opening all the presents as the baby cries and squeals.
  • Padded bottom waddles of the new toddler arms outstretched 'comin atcha' and a single tooth grin to light the world.
  • Four year old, fair hair floating like dandelion fuzz around a cherub face, pink from warm water and suds.
  • Cowlicky hair wet flat on a freckle faced head.
  • Gleeful faces of boys riding bikes and checking out their "awesome skid!!"
  • Cuties cuddling family dogs and cats (or more likely dragging them around by whatever means manageable)
  • The effervescent giggles that the word "underwear" stimulates in any self respecting 6 year old.
  • The smell of sweaty first graders and snowclothes.
  • Millions of lego towers, lego cars, lego creations and their most amazing builders.
  • "I Lov u MOM and DAD" written millions of ways by just learning readers and writers.
  • Blob people and amoeba people with legs hung on refrigerators.
  • Sparkly toed shoes, curls, and ribbons, and mom's lipstick all over her face.
  • Paper chains hanging all over the world.
  • Sleepy people eyes and crazy bedhead coming down the stairs.
  • Globs of young soccerplayers following a ball around a field.
  • Children's Soprano voices filling the room. .  ."Mr. Sun, Sun, Mr Golden Sun, please shine down on me" 
  • Children heads together reading their first words side by side, "whether their black, brown, blonde, or red"
  • Children Wide eyed, mouths open.  Kiddos watching delighted and amazed, as a butterfly hatches, and then as it flies skyward.
  • I could go on and on and on and on. . .
Is this really too much to ask in a civilized society?  Even after such a tragedy as this?  If we have to sensationalize something let it be Life.  Let it be Life and Love and Children in all their innocent glory shrinking every horrible thought and image to oblivion, smothering the horror with love.


Do your kids trust their teachers?

Trust.  Teachers are commonly introduced to Erickson's first stage of psychosocial development, Trust vs. Mistrust age 0-2, somewhere in their pre teaching coursework.  The theory is basically, if a child's needs from infancy to age 2 are met by the parent or caregiver the child will develop a sense of trust in the world and grow to feel confident in himself.  Conversely, if a child's basic needs for food, comfort, and rest go unmet the child will mistrust more, have less confidence in himself and others.  It is thought to be the beginning to establishing whether a child sees a cup as half full or half empty.  Well I would like to point out that from my parenting perspective, kids never grow out of this stage.  I believe anyone with experience with children will agree with me that a child at any age who has not had enough food, rest, or love spells trouble.   I especially want to consider the development of trust for children who are struggling with undeveloped social, emotional, or attention skills to name a few.  The invisible nature of those types disabilities creates a constant test of the trusting relationship between the child and those working or living with the child.

I think that schools and teachers are fairly aware of the general need for trust within the classroom.    Students need to be able to trust each other, to feel safe in taking risks, share responses, relate experiences,and essentially to learn.  But a precursor to students trusting each other is trust for the teacher.  Without trust in the teacher, I don't believe a truly trusting and safe classroom environment can exist.  To prove my point, picture the day of the substitute teacher. . .you know you have a story.  How many times has it happened in history that a perfectly well behaved class of children tranforms into Night of the living Dead.  I can remember thinking as a child, "Oh no.  Who will it be?  What will they be like?  What crazy thing are they going to make us do?"  Now as an adult working in several classrooms I have already seen a variety of substitutes in a variety of roles from teacher to support staff and 1:1 paras.  The most successful moments I have seen, have been when the sub keeps to the regular routines and "language" of the classroom.  Those who insist on doing it their own way often meet chaos, resistence, or worse, rebellion especially from those children whose hidden disabilities include black and white thinking and inflexibility.

To my mind, in a safe and trusting teacher student relationship, the teacher has made clear the expectations, and shown confidence in the students' abilities to achieve those expectations.  The teacher is fair, and realizes fair is not always equal, but does open up to everyone the same opportunities.  There is no place for favorites or scapegoats in a safe and trusting classroom environment.  But all this is so easy to talk about in general terms.

The test of trust starts when you have a really difficult child (maybe they are on spectrum, have emotional issues or ADHD?), or more, in your class or in your charge.  Let's face it, our classrooms are filled with a melting pot of abilities, needs and behaviors of the children we teach.  I hope to emphasize the importance of establishing and maintaining trust with the most challenging students.  Maintaing trust, that's the hard part I think because when a child proceeds to break the same rule repeatedly we teachers are like the frog in the pot of water.  (yes I have used this analogy before)  The frog (teacher) jumps into the pot of warm water (classroom at start of year) and doesn't notice the water is heating up (child with difficult and persistent behaviors) till the water boils (teacher breaks child's trust out of frustration and maybe even thinking that the trusting relationship isn't working).

Most of you know by now some of the difficulties I have seen with my own kids, my oldest in particular.  And I truly believe the key to his current success at school is that the teachers he is with have established trust and maintained his trust.  One test for teachers who work with kids with lagging social emotional or self regulation skills, or ones who have suffered abuse, both groups are in need of a teacher they can trust to keep a positive perspective on their challenging behaviors and to handle them respectfully and proactively for the long haul.  These kids don't turn around over night.  I have seen the difference like night and day when a teacher is able to maintain these crucial trust maintenance efforts for the long haul and when they give them up, thinking harsher discipline will achieve better results.  If you have one of these challenging students, especially if he or she had a hard year before coming to your class, the importance of establishing and maintaining that trust, consistent response, or proactive intervention for the long haul is even more crucial.

Next in line is figuring out how to keep this consistency when a child goes to specialists and recess and a sub comes in and . . .  It can be so hard to get everyone on the same page especially if the child appears to be fairly smart and is perceived as manipulative or choosing to misbehave.  These perceptions can greatly undermine the trust that he/she so needs in order to succeed in other areas of the school day as well.  My challenge is for all teachers and parents to look at their children through the lense of trust and notice how your view of the child changes.  Do you begin to see that misbehaviors occur when there is a sub? or when you react in an unexpected way?  Are you able to see when the child is not feeling safe, because something is off?


Thankful: A thread of understanding

Today I am thankful for my ability to see a thread of understanding woven through my experience in life, yoga, and raising or teaching children.  This whispy thread that lets me know sometimes the most helpful thing I can do is that thing, act, or feeling that seems directly contrary to what my intuition tells me is the right thing, act or feeling.  For instance, now that I have 3 children and my youngest is 4, I know that all that advice about never laying down in your child's bed with them or rubbing their backs, rocking or nursing them till they go to sleep else they become too dependent on me for their sleep, is hogwash pure and simple, based on the fear that our children will never outgrow their reliance on us their parents.  Obviously that one was made up by someone who:

  •  A. needed little sleep to function in life,
  •  B. had no kids of his or her own, 
  • C. never had a little person snuggle up to them with a contented sigh after a nightmare, or
  •  D. never experienced their child outgrowing hugs and cuddles
  • E. all of the above
I know this because my kids are older now and sleep just fine, they are not all piled into my bed requiring us to go king sized, and I know this because my two oldest are on the brink of growing out of snuggles and hugs completely. . . Lucky for them I know this trick.  Despite their pleas of  "aaagh!", I will continue to hug them whenever possible and be greatful for the memories I would not have had if I had followed the sage advisors.
As a parent of a child who struggled at school with unruly behaviors and hidden disability, I learned the hard way that following traditional parenting protocols would not help my son succeed.  I am thankful I accepted that the common practice of time out  or other consequences often had little useful affect on my kiddo's behaviors.  "Backing up" the teachers at home for difficulties at school resulted in a snowball of misbehavior and anxiety that grew like a monstrous blob into every area of our life.  I am thankful I learned that angry belligerence from my son met with angry belligerence from me resulted always in more anger, but met with understanding and time the anger receded like the tide revealing the scared child hiding in the sand.

As a Yogi, I learned that although my classmate insists it "feels better" to stretch her lower back, pressing it into the floor, my instructor's advice to keep a slight arch in the back while performing the excercise that day was wise and true and resulted in a much happier lower back for me.  I am thankful I learned to breath through pain rather than brace for it, it works for more than just physical pain.

As a teacher, I am thankful to understand that teaching is less about squeezing information into my students brains and more about drawing information out of their minds and hearts.  I am thankful I can see the possibilities that loosening the idea of stereotypical "control" over a classroom full of kids or even just one can result in more order and less defiance than I once dreamed.  I am greatful to have learned the power of a hug when a child's actions scream for an angry response.

I am thankful for the friends and family who have stitched into my brain the idea that when I feel like hating when you feel like hating, we should look for something, someone to love. . .

 Lila's wiggling hips and singing lips,
 the smile in Charlie's eyes when he is feeling wise,
 the kindness in Joey's heart that he wears on his sleeve,
 the pride on my husband's face during any of the above.

Love On and Great Thanks to you all for Reading this first year in my blog!!!


Getting in the swing of it . . .

I feel like my family just gets all the bases loaded and then the pitcher for the other team (who are we playing anyway?) strikes us out and sends us back to the outfield. Just about the time I start to feel like my family has got it together, a three day weekend pops up.  Don't get me wrong, we had a great Columbus weekend visiting the Fryeburg Fair in Maine, ferris wheels, farm animals, and fresh air for the day. Monday we dabbled at the coast for an afternoon of cool salty breezes, huddling in the warmish sand, and icy barefoot clam hunting.  At one point I just sat back and watched my family as they played.  I could almost see all the stresses floating away, out to sea like a migrating flock of geese.  It is Tuesday that follows that is the bugger.

Two out of three kids are suddenly transported back to beginning of school jitters and anxiety.  You would think the three days of fun and relaxed family time would refresh and rejuvinate them the way it does us adults.  But, nooooo, for these two all the relaxing did was remind them that they liked it that way, all relaxed with nowhere to go.  Why on earth do we have to go to school anyway??  Nothing like leaving a ghost faced little boy and teary eyed girl at their respective schools to make us wonder.  . .  Are school changes and early mornings the right answer for this anxiety riddled clan?

A week later though we were sliding back into the groove.  My son actually slipped in a few positive comments about his new school and how much more he likes his new art teacher.  My daughter was happily playing and engaged with her friends at pickup time all week, and am sniffles were on the decrease.

This week, I am still catching up from the three day break.  Had a monster grocery shopping trip, and am continuing the laundry battle through several nights in a row of four year old, nighttime accidents.  (She has a full sized bed.  All I can say is, there must be a better strategy for that issue.. .  My husband suggested a kid sized sleeping bag, then at least it is just one item to toss in the washer instead of sheets, blankets, quilts, afgan. . . oy!  She would be offended at pull ups at this point, and has gone months and months with no trouble, as a matter of fact, we seem to be already over this stream of curve balls.)  On the upside, we played hide and seek, carved pumpkins, baked pumpkin seeds, watched a movie, took in another weekend of brilliant fall as the golden foliage flamed against the violet hill tops.

Anyway, the way I figure it I will be all caught up and the kids will be really in the swing of it just in time for Thanksgiving. . .and Christmas. . . February break. . . April vacation . . .  Personally, I am waiting for the seventh inning stretch.



My Fall (first draft)

Autumn is the fancy word for fall, if you ask some people.
Whatever you call it matters less than that inkling of a first wisp of crispness in the air,
The bluer than blue sky against a yellow edged leaf on a green tree.
A picture perfect moment of flame red maple leaves scitter scattered on autumn green lawn, the
deep, grassy green we only see when the nights become cool and the sun soars low across the noon sky.
The minty scent of smooth skinned birch mixed with splintered, pungent oak, quartered and stacked near the back door.
The last straggling tomatoes, tastier than all the plenty before them and red veined chard growing- sturdy against the cool evenings.
The ominous orange orb of the harvest moon that warns of colder, greyer months to come.


Infomercial mania

This weekend while riding home from an early morning trip to the local store for a missing breakfast ingredient, I was sucked into the infomercial hour on a local radio station for the latest product, supplement, miracle drug to improve my health or that of my loved ones.  I have heard it all before, "Listen to find out the benefits of Fish Oil",  "Dr. So and So is here to explain to us why everyone should be taking such and such." But this time the lead was, "Find out how to reverse the effects of stress on your body."  So, I was curious, what would I hear?  "excercise"?, "eat right"?, or "change of lifestyle"?  The thing about the infomercial, it is very similar to a rumor, or a stereotype because it is based, at least some small fragment of it, in truth.  That is how they get us right?  That is the hook, the seed planted that causes me to, occasionally, doubt my own instinct to doubt.

The commercial further sucked me in, because it turns out to be a supplement for calcium and magnesium.  Did you know, "Calcium and magnesium are neccessary for over 300 reactions in the human body.", "Did you know that stress severely depletes the calcium and magnesium in the body?"  Then, the part that I found interesting was the implication that stress could cause a downward spiral in attention and anxiety, among other symptoms, and could effect a long list of conditions like ADHD, Autism, Heart Disease, Diabetes, cancer and More.  That is when I began thinking like a mom who sees a miracle around every corner,hears a miracle in every radio speaker, believes the word from any old infomercial doctor.  "Oh, it just makes so much sense!" I thought for a moment.  It was a stereotypically sunny little moment where hope shines, but is clouded by the knowledge that I am listening to an infomercial.  (Why don't our Doctors ask us if our kids are eating enough calcium rich foods?  Is there a test to find out how much calcium or magnesium is in one's system?)

Even still, my mind wanders. . .What if stress, which I already know has a giant impact on functioning, larger than most people realize is possible, what if that stress really does cause a depletion in calcium and magnesium, which then creates a downhill spiral in attention and anxiety.  Parents everywhere are looking more and more to diet, gluten, sugars, lactose, and other food allergies as a cause of increased anxiety, decreased attention, irritability and a host of other symptoms.  Many have found relief by paying attention to the details of diet.  Is it so far fetched really?  I know from the experience of others that it is not really far fetched, but diet also isn't the answer for everyone.

In the end, the 888 number has long escaped my memory.  I am not one to "Be One of the first One Hundred Callers. . ."  But I also find myself exploring the truthful nuggets for more information.  And I will have to admit, my kids did get a calcium rich shake for breakfast, and sunflower seeds (high in magnesium) in their lunch boxes.  My oldest was "high pointer" of the day today.  That means he earned the most points for appropriate and on task behavior in his class.  Maybe it was just a coincidence.  I have definitely not created a controlled experiment here.  Many, many factors are at play every day.  But still. . .something to think about, if not just about these two specific ingredients in our family diet our diet in general and how food truly does effect our and our children's bodies, minds, and development.


My New Oasis

I am loving my new job so far.  I feel right at home in this school of over 100 staff where I can easily focus on getting to know the people in my own neck of the woods without feeling pressured to get to know everyone.  I even love the kids, all 65 third graders, who are my main focus for the year.  I am learning who the quiet ones are, who the loud ones are, and who will try to get noticed for anything if we don't notice them for something positive right away.  As for teachers, every one I have gotten to know has different experience and knowledge to share, and I feel like I am in a good place to "hear" them, I am enjoying listening.

 In some ways teaching is like riding a bike, just get back on.  I am feeling pretty confident, and frankly more comfortable than when I was a para just out of college, or even as a twenty something teacher.  Back then I had very little experience actually working with children.  Probably funny for a trained teacher to say, but true.  I didn't get myself into the teaching profession because I had a lot of teaching experience or exposure to lots of children.  I chose it because I thought I could do a good job, because I had ideals (for better or worse) about how it should be done.  Now, I still have ideals, but I know enough to try not to let those block my view of real life problems or issues in the classroom or school.  If I have learned anything in the past few years, it is the age old saying "To assume is to make an ass out of you and me."

Coming into a new school, in a new era, also requires some learning.  Because as much as I have read about issues in education and new innovations and understandings about best teaching practices, the fact is the problems schools are facing right now preclude all that.  For instance even though the common core has been developed and really is full of innovative ideas, the schools in our state are still strapped down by MCAS tests and requirements that may or may not be aligned with Common Core curriculum.  Many schools are really diving into curriculum for math, reading, and writing to ensure a logical progression in instruction.  I can see the benefits, yet wonder and worry a little, what is the point in having a degree in how to develop an integrated curriculum with a focus on upper level thinking skills if we will be handed curriculum to follow?  I look forward to seeing what our classrooms this year look like once we get into the year, because I hear (and believe) it will look different and the procedural piece of the curriculum will give way to more integration.

After all that, I am not sure I have accurately conveyed why I am really enjoying myself so much, despite a crazy schedule for getting the family up and off to schools, and work.  What it really comes down to is the kids.  I just love getting to know them and how they learn.  I love hearing the stories of their lives, the good, the bad and the ugly.  I am fortunate to be working in three classrooms that are using the same curriculum and do planning together.  It is interesting to see how each group of children handles the weeks lessons, and almost more interesting to observe how three teachers make all the same stuff, look and sound just a little different.  I am like the fly on the wall watching to see what works and what doesn't for which kids.  And like the fly on the wall I will never tell :)  because I am not in this position to judge or criticize.  I am here to help, to teach, to watch, to learn, to enjoy. . .


Two hardest things about going back to work. . .

Week one down, week two ready.  We survived!!

Honestly, the absolute easiest thing about going back to work for me so far is being at work.  The hard part is all the rest of it.  First hardest thing. . .  When on earth do people find time to cook and clean and do laundry?  Or should I say, When do people have time to hang out with their kiddos.  It seems like bedtime comes in a blink of an eye and I spend half our time together cooking supper.  I try to save any cleanup for after they are in bed.

So, Sunday I spent about three hours in the kitchen preparing french bread, eggplant parm from the garden, a gigantic shepherd's pie to eat during the week, and two apple pies.  Did anyone else notice it finally felt like fall?  ahhhhhhh.. ..baking weather.   Just trying to lessen the load during the week.

Ok, the second hardest part about being back at work is dressing up.  I've got to be honest people.  I love cotton!!!  I love jeans!!!  (especially the well worn kind)  I triple love cotton t-shirts.  I love bare feet.  I love comfy and often ugly shoes.

I don't like foo foo fashionista clothing made of rayon polyester blend or even silk, they make my skin crawl. I feel overheated, sticky, and yuck (especially in this summer that I thought till Sunday, would never end)  Shoes that are cute and comfy till I actually wear them all day, on my feet through recess, lunch duty, and umpty billion trips to various places in the school, can stay in the closet thanks.  I especially don't like last minute plans that result in me wearing a flowered skirt and silk blouse with a water stain (there since my shower that am) to the county fair, chili dogs and roller coasters while the sun burns down on me in it's final days of summer and swarms of people clad in cotton mill about in every direction.  

I am going to slide back in to my old cotton habits soon, maybe one cotton item, with one dressy item. . .
Hmmm. . . 


New Girl at School

It is tricky to be the new girl at school, especially as a teacher in a new school, in a new position, and with a new team of teachers using some new curriculum.  I am now faced with getting to know 65 children and three classroom teachers, as well as a dozen other teachers and support staff, just in my corner of the school.      I am excited about it, and I want to make sure and do this well.

I am in this new, and not clearly outlined position, because this group of children represents a diverse mix of needs and abilities that is bound to confound us weekly, daily or hourly.  I hear keep the principal's words in mind, "lots of executive function difficulties".  I can offer an added perspective to help share understanding of how some of these kids operate.  When I make suggestions, my intention will be to help the children feel good about themselves, and about school, and to ensure their brains are in a learning place, rather than a place of stress/ lockdown.  I know that children who learn differently, particularly those who struggle with the executive functioning skills (skills others learn seemingly with no effort), quickly get the message that there is something 'wrong' with them, even from good teachers.  I can see already that each of the three teachers and classes is probably going to need something different from me because they are all different, and that is ok.  I am going to do my best not to step on any toes along this new road.


First Day, 1,2,3

Today was the first day back to work for me in almost ten years.  That just doesn't sound real to me.  This was just a partial, training day for me, but I enjoyed it and had a little time to get to know the teachers I will be working with as well.  Over a hundred new names, faces and stories to hear, I was far from getting to know everyone, and truly only scratched the surface with the folks I will be working closely with.  Happily the feel I got from the staff today was genuinely welcoming, and my impression is that there is a true feeling of acceptance there.  Of course time, and children in the building will tell.

 My middle guy had his first day at a new school today, and alas he hates it just as much as the last one :)  What a turkey!  You have to know this guy to appreciate this.  Some of you who know him remember his Charlie Scowl from way back when he was a toddler.  He has this look when he is displeased or things aren't going according to his master plan. This won't be an easy transition for this anxious, black and white thinker, but I could tell also that he is already beginning to make friends.  I realize also that if I were thrown into a new school with all new kids, teachers, and routines, I would have been a mess!  I can't quite believe that we have been driven to this, but frankly I still think it is a better option than staying where we were.

So, tomorrow is my oldest son's first day as well.  First day with a new bus routine to a familiar room with familiar people at a familiar school where he says, "All the teachers are nice there."  I am so happy to be able to confidently say he is going to have a great year.  If you have ever had a child who has struggled in school with academics, or behavior, or social issues, any reason really, you know the relief when you finally find the right fit.

Then comes my little girl, next week is her first day of preschool.  I know she will enjoy it.  My biggest concern is the sudden and long days away from family.  My other two sort of eased into that, starting with half days.  For number three that isn't an option right now, so I am hopeful it will work out for the best.  I am confident that she has been much more outgoing than the other two right along, and that is part of why we were able to make this decision.  (**make it so, please**)   But still, ((sniffle))  I am a little sad about this piece of the picture.  I must say the best part of my day today was the happy, hugging greeting from my kiddos when I came home :) 


The Lost Days

Last night a friend's child gleefully offered up a praying mantis for me to see, and the insect billowed gracefully to my bright violet shirt, presumably he knew that shade would complement his chartreuse body and legs, and it was not merely self preservation that brought him to me.  Then this glorious, clear skied morning, when I walked onto my porch, I spotted a tiny something glistening on the floorboard.  It turned out to be the tiniest iridescent green feather I have ever seen, most likely lost by one of the zillions of hummingbirds who have visited our feeder in recent weeks.  So, I decided I should write about nature, wonder, and the surprises we can experience in the "Lost Days of Summer".

Days and hours are dwindling away as the beginning of a new school year sneaks up on us ready to kick the last days of summer out from under our feet like a skilled soccer player.  It took me years to realize and be truly conscious that summer doesn't really end with the start of school.  Once I did, I tried to keep a hold onto it despite the change in daily schedule.  That was the year I wore my new, summer beach hat, silly thing with a red and white flowery pattern and short brim that I could crumple into a purse or back pocket if it got too hot.  I wore that hat as often as I could right into fall that year.  It was my way to keep a little piece of summer near.

When my kids came along, I wanted to do the same for them, and it was pretty easy till they began school.  That was when I scooped them off to the local swimming hole after school, for a bike ride around town, or fishing in a nearby pond or stream.  I wanted them to keep enjoying the outdoors and summer even after the new schedule was in place.  I felt they needed those things even more once school was in session and they were confined for hours indoors.  I feel that way still.

So the "Lost Days of summer" to me, swiftly follow the dog days.  My Mom and Step Dad found them out years ago and began taking trips to shore in Maine or Cape Cod during September when the water is at its warmest and the sun is still strong.  I definitely, feel one last trip to the shore is in store for my family this year, with our last back in July feeling hundreds of years ago.  I am also thinking, "What else can I do on a daily basis to keep a spark of summer alive for my children once school begins?"

Since I will be picking the kiddos up in locations within a larger radius from our home this year, I am beginning to think about what lovely bits of summer we can capture and hold close along our path home.  I am already planning meals in my head to prepare in advance so we don't have to buzz home in the busy bee mentality that usually overcomes us once schedules are imposed.  Some of our local swimming holes are at their most desirable  when the masses have returned home to their schedules and schools.  With the sands cleared of people, there is time and quiet to see and hear the little gifts that were invisible to the summer crowds.  Fall hikes or trips to the orchard can keep us outside till the days are too short to light our way. What will you do to keep summer alive for your family? 


It fits!!!!

After a summer of fretting and second guessing myself, after two years of wondering silently, "Is it really too much to expect a school to be on the same page as me?"  I have finally found the right fit!  Not only did I rock the interview, with only a single moment of mental shutdown, my temporary blip was met with kindness and understanding and reassurance that they could see that I knew, but just couldn't pull out the words.  When it is all said and done, I know this is a place I want to work.  I am actually now gratefull to have been over looked till now, because I would have been selling my soul to the devil.  Tonight I not only accomplished my goal of getting a job, I also received affirmation that all my thinking and writing this year about how children learn, how they should be taught, and ways to best help our kids succeed is not just the frivolous and fluffy pipe dreams of a stay at home mom wanna be teacher.   This school is right there trying to get it right. Ya know that crazy lady driving a minivan and bopping around behind the wheel to River music, and commercials, and weather, and more music. . . yeah that's me.
Short and sweet post tonight folks!  Time to hit the rack so I can thoroughly enjoy my munchkins tomorrow.

Oh yeah. . .icing on the cake. . .Husband says, "So I guess this means you will need to go shopping for new clothes. . ."  Gotta love a guy who knows his gal!  :)


Waaaiiiting, Endings, and Beginnings

My writing schedule has been a bit out of whack for the past couple weeks.  I have been a little preoccupied with job hunting and my current position of summer moderator for three unruly siblings with constant quarrels on their minds.  But seriously, in the ideal world, wouldn't schools all know their school choice numbers and what teaching positions they would need to hire for all on June first.  Then kids and adults would all know where they were headed by the first of July.  Children would know what school they are headed to and be able to relax and enjoy their summer.  Parents would we able to prepare kiddos for any possible change in school according to the child's needs.  Perspective teachers and school employees would be able to focus on   planning for the school year and or relaxing, rather than planning for interviews and fretting.

For the first time ever, my oldest child has a clear plan for the upcoming year that we can be confident in.  He has displayed none of his midsummer sleeplessness and doldrums that usually plague the Dog days of his summer.  This time it is the rest of us who are in flux.  Lila is off to preschool, away from me for the first time ever and it is starting to look like she will be jumping into full days away from a suddenly working mom.  (I will get to that in a minute, slow down! :)  I haven't talked to middle guy yet about school and where he is headed, though he knows who his teacher is if he stays at our local school, we are still waiting to hear from a school choice option.  Ten days to go and we are still waiting.  Tom Petty is totally right, "The waaaiting is the haardest part. . ."

As for me, after planning and fretting the summer away, I can't help but feel a bit wistful that my last summer, very last weeks as a stay at home mom have frittered away with planning, wondering, and worrying about the next step for me.  I am looking at a full time job possibility this week, if our meeting goes well, that will allow me settle into the work life without requiring me to take it all home every night. That is a sweet perk that more than makes up for the less than stellar salary at this stage in my life. The more I think about it, the more logical and practical it sounds.  After all, I cannot discount all the teachers I have spoke with lately who have said, "This job is just so time consuming now."  To do so would be a foolish disservice to me, my family and the children in my charge as teacher.  So the option I am looking at would be working as part of a third grade level team to support the children and teachers in endless, yet so far undetermined, capacities.  I have some thoughts on what the needs will be just from what I have seen with third graders in my past job and discussions I had with parents and teachers last year when my son was in third grade.  It can be a tough year for children, the point when the wobbly wheel finally falls off the cart.

So with this meeting pending over the next day or so.  I am determined to find cleats for two boys who have grown out of yet another pair, and find an appropriately fitting athletic cup for the oldest, and have fun doing it darn it!  I am going to take time. . .like right this minute to call the kids to peek out the window at the entire turkey family walking by our window as I type. (Be right back). . .

Ok.  We are back, and it wasn't the entire family, "Just the women" my middle son informed me.  I just realized we have gone the whole summer without a day trip to Great Grammy's or lunch trip with Grammy Gail, sheeeshh!  Haven't seen Super Grampy since who knows when!  What have I been doing all summer??  Well, we did do two weeks in Maine, and three weeks of 4 day a week swim lessons which was great fun, but seemed to fast forward us through the middle of summer.  So lets see how much fun, friends, and family we can squeeze into the next ten days or so.  Still haven't been to Mystic, Holyoke children's Museum, or the Montshire Museum, all of which were on my mental list buried under resumes, cover letters and application questions.  So let's dust off and see what happens.

 As for my writing schedule, I am going to make major efforts to keep to a Monday morning blog post (maybe posting Sun evening) and a mid week post as well.  That seemed to work this summer, before I slid off track.  Happy reading all.  Enjoy the last wistful moments of summer, while looking forward to the crisp air of fall and where leaves fall to feed the soil of days to come.  


From "I can't". . .to "I Can"- Mindset and Learning

Lately I have been thinking about how a person's mindset can effect their ability to succeed.  When I taught, one of the hats I wore was Reading Recovery Teacher.  The Reading Recovery program was based on the work of Fountas and Pinnell, who knew that though some children read almost intuitively, others need to be taught explicitly, in increments how to look at text, notice the pieces of text that work together to form words, sentences, stories, and make meaning from what they are seeing.  An incredibly important part of that program was to help the children who even in first grade, such a short time in school, were beginning to see themselves as "incapable".  My first job when working with these children was to help them restore their confidence, so they would be comfortable taking a risk.  For some of these kids a "risk" is as simple and small as trying the first sound on a tricky word.  These kiddos are smart.  They know how to "hide" in a group, blend in with the others.  They copy and memorize, anything to prevent the teacher from seeing what they think they know about themselves. ie. "I can't read.", "I can't write.", "I am stupid."  So the first part of the job was to make sure the child felt safe, show them what they knew and help them build on that, help them build their confidence, help them change their mindset from "failure" to "learner".  After returning to classroom practice I continued teaching children to read keeping my experience with individualized instruction in mind.

As a parent, I have looked for ways to help my children become confident, resilient members of the world.  I am concerned for my son that seems to take an "I can't" attitude when the going gets tough.  The son that is easily frustrated by things he perceives as difficult tasks or situations.  I have wondered, is he destined to be the underdog?  Will he always step into line after his older brother for whom new skills or challenges seem to come easy?  The fact is, neither boy is a slouch.  They are both very capable and learn quickly, especially when motivated.  Still, the younger son is much less confident and resilient.  Is there something I can do or say to help him overcome that, as I did with my reading students?

And then there is me.  I have been working hard to prepare myself for a return to teaching.  Yet, there is this giant obstacle in my mind.  "I do not interview well.", "I have such a hard time speaking articulately about the issues, even when I think I am prepared", "I wish I could write my way through my interview."  I realize that I am suffering from a "fixed" mindset.  I see myself as incapable at interviewing and it becomes a self fulfilling prophecy.  Last week, some friends helpfully pointed out that my mindset was holding me back-though they didn't use that precise term.  The next day I revisited some information on Mindset Theory.

Carol Dweck has youtube videos, websites and books  dedicated to her research on Mindset, learning, and success.  The main ideas of her work being that people with a "Growth" Mindset feel capable, persevere through failures and take on challenges, while people with a fixed mindset see a failure as evidence of their inability and generally feel like they are stuck in their level of ability (inability), incapable of improvement.  Though I don't think this is me in the broad sense of intelligence as she applies it, it certainly does apply to me and my sense of my own verbal intelligence.  Unless I persevere, keep improving, and have some confidence in my own ability to take on the challenge, I will always be stuck under the fixed mindset "I am bad at interviews."  Like a bug under a net, I will be looking out at the world wondering why I can't get out there and do something wonderful.

The implications of Mindset Theory for me are twofold.   Personally, my Mindset is effecting me and my ability to move forward with my career.  I am stuck unless I change my mindset.  On the bright side, I know I can do this, because I have done it before.  It is the basis for why I became an educator (though I didn't know it at the time)  I can still remember that light coming on when I made the connection in college that I was capable of being an artist.  I could work hard and learn skills and I didn't have to be born with innate talent in order to pursue art.   I made the connection next, that I wanted to be the kind of educator who opened up possibilities for my students rather than close doors.  I knew the way a person teaches children makes a difference in how children see themselves and their future.  I have seen how being talked to like a bad kid making bad choices simply created a mindset for my oldest son that he wasn't able to lift on his own.  I have also seen how a learning disability can effect mindset.  When that son's disability was not attended to at school , he came to think of himself as dumb.  He was unable even to see the areas where he was strong, all was clouded by what he couldn't do.

I can relate to the ideas Dweck brings up concerning the language adults use with children that encourages a fixed mindset and discourages growth and learning.  I believe Mindset Theory can have large ramifications in education.  This video 'The Effects of Praise on Mindset'  with Carol Dweck really shows how simple language changes can make or break the learning experience for children in school.  I believe teacher language is a key component to why teaching can be so successful, and probably also explains some of why it isn't always.  Any teaching that occurrs is vulnerable to operator error.  Surely if a teacher, or parent speaks to a child in words that discourage growth mindset, the program, the learning, will be undermined.  In my thinking, Mindset is a crucial piece of the puzzle in helping at risk students move toward learning and success.


Do I know how to juggle?

Teaching is a lot like parenting, in the sense that there are so many things to know, or proverbial balls to juggle, it can be difficult to keep them all in the air at the same time.  In this time of advances in educational research, understandings, changes and standards, it can be a bit difficult to be on top of it all, but even more so for a wandering soul like myself trying to find a school to teach in.  In parenting we don't always know what color the balls will be or how many we will be expected to juggle.  A child has diabetes, we learn to juggle that ball.  A child comes down with a mysterious illness or not so mysterious stomach bug and we juggle another.  A child has autism, we learn to juggle another, and on it goes.  That is what it feels like to me right now interviewing for teaching positions.  Each school I have interviewed with has asked me to speak about a different set of what they feel are the most important colors to juggle, or get a read on.  For a person like me who doesn't think quick on her feet in an interview, being prepared has felt like a nearly impossible task.

In two instances recently, I was asked to speak about methods of assessment that I would use in the classroom.  So just as I am feeling comfortable giving a reasonably comprehensive response about that, (and please note I am comfortable using many current assessment methods, it's the talking that gives me trouble) I am asked about the kinds of feedback I give my students.  This was one of those times when I thought, "Oh brother, I know I give feedback, but there are so many and I can't think of them all and where do I start?"  but first I thought, "I haven't been asked this before, or have I?"  ugh. . .

I know I have given lots of feedback in many forms.  There is feedback in just about everything I do, or more for everything our students do, from behaviors and procedures, to participation in discussion and verbal questioning and check ins, to feedback on assignments and projects.  Feedback is closely related to assessment, because we are constantly checking in with our kids throughout the day and need to return the information to them, reflecting it like a mirror so they may see which side of the head still needs hair combing.
Sometimes feedback is verbal and simple, "good job" when a child has got it down.  Often feedback is more detailed, "You did a great job with x, y, z.  I also noticed you had a bit of trouble with w"  Feedback for written work requires prompt, constructive feedback and opportunity to learn or clarify a difficult point.

I began to think tonight, could I make a list of types of feedback?

  • verbal feedback short and positive
  • verbal feedback more involved
  • smile/ thumbs up 
  • hand on the shoulder and stern look
  • sticker on paper for good work, with a specific comment for the child
  • conference and/or reteaching for work that is incomplete or misunderstood
  • using stoplight signal for behavior or being on task 
  • A specific note praising a skill or behavior modeled by student
Then, I started to wonder, my brain is slowing down, is there more to this?   What else do I need to be thinking of in terms of feedback?  So much of how we teach is intuitive, so it is critical to bring it forward in order to be thoughtful and improve.  So I Google "teacher feedback methods" or something like that, and I get this page:  (go ahead and check it out and come right back :)

The article brings feedback to the front of my mind.  The page looks at the intricacies and types of teacher feedback as it is tied closely to assessment and further instruction, as I read this I feel as if, when asked about feedback recently, I missed the forest for the trees.   Yet, I know I do give these kinds of feedback and use them as a teacher.  Feedback goes in both directions from child to teacher and teacher to child.  As a teacher I use little daily assessments to gain feedback and insights into what or who needs reteaching.  I group the children together who need to be retaught the same skill, because that makes sense.  I try to be as immediate and specific as I can with feedback. 

Alas, I am juggling balls, guessing which direction they will fall from, confusing which color will fall faster, mixing up which hand to catch with and dropping balls left and right.  Perhaps I should have begun this post by saying "Interviewing is a lot like parenting." :)


The More I Learn. . .

It may sound cliche, "The older I get, the more I have to learn", yet it is so true.  I have had my nose to the ether for months now and I am constantly making new connections and gaining new insights on teaching and parenting.  My thinking is constantly changing and stretching so that posts I write three months ago, three weeks ago, sometimes three days ago, no longer quite fit my thinking of today.  I wonder if I should place a disclaimer on my blog.  "Each post is a snapshot in time, my thinking or understanding in that precise moment."  I have never in all my years of schooling been as much a learner as I have been in the last two years or more precisely the last 6 months.  I find it no coincidence that my greatest leaps in connections and understanding have occurred since I have been writing this blog.  For me writing is thinking, on a protein shake.

I read recently the idea that 21st century teachers must be learners and be able to learn alongside their students rather than leading their students by the nose.  The idea is not a new one, but it made me think.  I have really always been a learner.  I went from grade school through graduate study with barely a pause then right into teaching.  But, I had so much schooling that I started to think that, at the ripe age of 25, I knew stuff.  Till that time, my learning had mostly been directed by someone or some institution other than me.  As I reflect, I can see that experience shaped the teacher I was back then.  I was versed in integrating curriculum and arts with learning goals and standards of the day.  I was skilled at creating an environment that kids wanted to be in and created with them an environment safe for learning.  But one goal that eluded me was facilitating inquiry learning on the large scale and in areas other than science.  Small scale projects or lessons were all I could manage.  It frustrated me, because I knew that this was key to my growth as a teacher and to expanding the learning of my students, and I just couldn't wrap my head around how to pull it off in a large scope.

After being home a while and sending my children to school I became passionate about leaerning all I could about ADHD, Autism, Giftedness, learning disabilities, and the neurological factors of learning.  Now, thinking about returning to teaching, that passion had turned to learning how to apply those new understandings to classroom practice in this new and exciting age of teaching.  I have become an internet Wonder Woman surfing through heaps of information online and off, and sifting through the junk to get to the jewels.  Most important of all, I have discovered my learning self again.  I am a learner in my own right and not solely led by an institution, but self directed by my own growing understandings and questions.

I am there.  Right now, I am "In the zone" of learning and I can see why this place is so important for teachers to be in.  Now that I have learned, once again, to ask my own questions and make my own connections I can see how important it is to ask the same of my students and children, but more importantly I can see inquiry everywhere.

For instance:  What is community?  Community is a first grade concept.  It is a universal concept that withstands time and place.  Whenever or wherever you live, community exists in some form.  Community encompasses a whole world of learning for first graders still exploring the people and world around them.  Every piece of the curriculum, math, literature, science, history, civics, economics, writing, arts can be tied in to it's place, or importance to the community, be it classroom community, school community, town community, or country community.   But what do six and seven year olds know about community? What questions do they have?  How can they contribute to the community in a developmentally appropriate way? And how can I use all these questions to guide my teaching?

The concept provides a whole to a curriculum we may risk seeing as lots of parts.  How deep can learning go if everything we learn about is then reflected back to it's place in the larger scheme of Community?  This method of organizing the curriculum provides meat for students already craving opportunities for comparing, classifying, executing and critiquing,(to name just a few) and provides the framework necessary for others to learn those skills as well.  Now having asked my own questions and sought my own answers I feel better prepared to facilitate this type of inquiry in a classroom.  But surely, some may ask, what about the parts?  There are so very many parts, bits of information that these kids need to learn, how do I make sure that the nuts and bolts are firmly in place at the end of first grade?  In all my glorious revelation about inquiry, I know that explicit teaching of certain skills must occur as well.  For some reteaching, and practice will be required to achieve certain skills.  The amazing thing that teachers need to remember is that though certain skills elude some children and require a larger effort and close monitoring and assessment by teachers,  the apparent disadvantage does not need to prevent or preclude the children from making large connections in their world that are meaningful and important to making sense of and being prepared for life in the 21st century.

Of course, as I have said, these are my thoughts today at 9:31 am on August 1st, 2012.  I am a learner and all thoughts and ideas are changing in large and small ways at all times.  It is my goal to return to teaching or somehow use my understandings to help improve the learning or teaching of others and most importantly myself today and in the future.


Changing Seas

You may know, if you've been reading here before, that I am on a job hunt this summer.  And despite my somewhat long hiatus from my teaching career (to be a SAHM), I aim to teach.  Each position I have applied for has had more than 100 applicants.  Oddly there have been 4 openings for first grade teachers this year, which happens to be my area of expertise.  I take that as a sign that I am meant to go through this process now.  Change is in the air for me and I know, whether or not I land one of these teaching positions, that I am capable of great things.  So with each interview, I go in and give the best that I know how at that given moment.  I come home.  I process the experience.  I dig deeper.  I learn.  I grow.  I am studying, researching and planning for the year as if I already have a job to plan for.  I realize that is the only way that others will see I am ready for this leap.  I must truly feel ready and confident.  The only way I know how to accomplish that is "Just Do It".

What happens, then, if I don't earn one of these coveted teaching positions?  After I spend the summer emerging myself in Core Curriculum Standards and pondering the best use of technology and methods for instilling, or engaging, or more aptly allowing children's love of learning to exist, develop, and grow. . . how will I handle it if I am not chosen for this role?  What will I do with all the checklists and organizers I have printed off?  I know I will be disappointed.  Yet I also know change will come this fall in any case, and for that I am ready.  I feel like I am poised on the edge of the ocean looking out and wondering what fine creature will crest and take me for a ride on this fine day.

Change is imminent for our family whatever the outcome.  My baby will be off to preschool, she is going to love it.  My oldest will start the year off knowing he is going to a place he is loved, for the first time since preschool.  My middle son is still standing on the edge of the ocean with me as I try to navigate our options for his education, a dolphin? a blue whale?  definitely not the shark, lest he fall off and become chum.  I want him to ride with someone who will not turn on him if he slips, someone who will lead him to great things and lift him up for air or to check out the view when needed.    Someplace he will not feel like a snail hiding in his shell among the pinchered crabs. Do we choose friendship? He is assigned to the same teacher as his best buddy at our local school. Or do we choose a better, kinder education?  I try not to be frustrated we have to make that choice.

Change is constant.  I can ride the waves of change to shore, or struggle against them, but they will come one after the other after the other. I know, sometimes, just when I think the tide has gone out and left me ashore, a rogue wave will come in to buoy me or at the very least, freshen the water where I stand.   So my plan is to try hard to swim with the current, not against it, and to see where it takes me.  Maybe there is a nice inlet full of sunshine, blue sky and glittering water just down the coast.  Maybe there is a ship headed to a foreign land who will find me bobbing along and pull me on deck.  Whatever the outcome of my search, wherever I find myself next, I aspire to embrace the change and all its dichotomous dependability and invigoration.


Look at Education Issues from an Outsider

I have been “out” of the teaching field now for 10 years.  I am very aware that is a serious strike against me in the job search process.  I also have done a total of 3 interviews in my entire life (a few weeks ago, that number was only one), and although I love to bring lessons alive for children, being put on the spot in front of strangers,  to answer detailed questions about my teaching, is not my strong suit.  That is not to say I have given up trying to improve, and I believe I am improving.  But I realize the area where I have struggled to make myself “heard” is the area of modern educational challenges, core curriculum, differentiation,  RTI and educational Technology in education.  One thing that has made that a particular challenge is that it can be difficult to know ahead of time which schools are up to their neck in which current education initiatives. 
 My personal strengths lie certainly in my ability to work with all kinds of children in a friendly, supportive way, my experience is grounded in in depth study of reading and writing instruction as 1:1, small group, and classroom teacher who has worked successfully as part of a team who made learning  to read and write possible for children who may otherwise have struggled.  I  also have a Masters in Curriculum and Instruction , the level of which Common Core and other current research in education seems to call for.  I am experienced in aligning and designing curriculum to standards that were in place at that time.  I am also practical, I know I don't have all the answers, that colleagues have a wealth of knowledge in the changes over the last 10 years and I will have some learning still to do to make this happen.  I am motivated to do so.

I am a lifelong learner who has continued to pursue education issues even as a stay at home parent.  As a SAHM I have participated in parent trainings and self study around diverse learners (those with ADHD, ASD, Dyslexia, Dysgraphia, social skills deficits, and executive function challenges)  I have been very interested in Positive Discipline Strategies and am intrigued by the combination of Responsive Classroom methods with PBIS.  The methods are surely compatible and an important step to making the classroom environment accessible to diverse learners.

So then it comes down to the fact that I just haven’t been in the schools in a role other than parent or volunteer,  for quite some time now.   Instead I have been reading about innovative schools who are having success.  I wonder about the wide range of schooling going on in our county.  Are the stresses and challenges put forth by MCAS and the need to make Adequate Yearly Progress motivating schools to teach progressively or are they digging into the “practice, practice, practice” mode?  My thinking is it should be a healthy, well thought out combination of both.  Certainly the kids who need practice should get it, but the others well they should be doing something else.  But that is not just my thinking really.  One method of dealing with this dichotomy in the classroom at a school I read about last year was to look at the data.  Have a time on a certain day of the week specifically to engage in practice or reteaching for kids who don’t understand the weeks material, and provide enrichment activities for those that do.  

I have read the common core standards and I actually like what they have to say.  Not just the standards themselves, which are quite comprehensive, but also the support materials and reasonings.  I like the changes that have been made and I believe they are valid and necessary to preparing our children for life in the 21st century.   There are calls to integrate curriculum, and use overarching themes and concepts to organize curriculum over the span of a year and across grade levels.   I also believe they serve as a guideline for reforming, and revamping the practice of teaching children in engaging ways that meet the needs of our children who we hope to become lifelong learners, able to solve problems and work collaboratively in an ever changing technological world.

 In the same light I believe RTI (Response to Intervention) may be a necessary evil.  I know the school where I worked already was screening children to identify ‘at risk’ students in reading and writing before they began to struggle.  The biggest plus from RTI as a parent is that the goal is to avoid the “wait for the child to fail” approach.  I have a child of my own who has been a struggling writer since first grade (but wasn’t enough below grade level to get help).  He now just finished 3rd grade and is finally identified as needing help.   Now, when the pace is triple that of three years ago.  I can see why something needs to change, at least in this system where we are.  But I have only seen this from the parent perspective, will I think differently as a teacher?

I gained in depth understanding of how children learn to read through a yearlong, intensive, and hands on practical study of teaching reading using the methods of Fountas and Pinell.  I am skilled at teaching reading and writing skills to new learners of all levels, and am experienced at identifying and meeting the learning needs of at risk readers and writers on my own and as part of a teaching team.  With response to intervention  the first tier is a high level of classroom instruction.  I believe my experience teaching children to read as  Reading Recovery teacher(1:1), Title I teacher (small group and teacher collaboration), and classroom teacher (managing differentiated reading groups for readers of all levels) qualifies me to provide a high level of classroom instruction at this level.

 The curriculum calls for an interdisciplinary approach, actually screams for it, how else could we possibly cover all that information within a year. . .and ensure children become lifelong learners prepared for the 21st century?  My Masters in Ed is in Curriculum and Instruction: Integrating the Arts in Education, from Lesley College.   This statement is not to be read as “Fluff Degree”.   This is a Curriculum major that prepared me with tools and lots of practice for designing interdisciplinary curriculum that engage children.  It focused on content areas and carefully planned  integration of the arts in order  to engage higher level thinking skills and enable or increase learning in students at all levels of ability.  I am highly capable of creating and teaching a curriculum that is solidly grounded in the learning goals of the Core Standards.   I recently attended an assessment course which among many possible assessment tools both formative and performance type, focused on inside out lesson planning.  I was refreshed that we were encouraged to begin with what we want and need to teach and design a learning experience to achieve the learning goals, and that method very much fits with my experience and what I know about designing curriculum.

Oy.  That question. “ What did you do in your classroom to incorporate technology?”  I thought, wow, it doesn’t seem like there was any technology available to use compared to today.  What was available, I used.  Internet access made a lot possible, we used the computer as an information resource mainly.    Just one or two classroom computers with no computer lab available was somewhat limiting.   Children could use certain programs to practice math or literacy skills or to research a topic of interest.   I used a digital camera to document student work, provide students with a prompt for writing about their learning, and in multiple other ways throughout the classroom.   One big change was the use of email to communicate with parents who chose that option.  It really streamlined information sharing. I also had just learned how to create a powerpoint as an instructional tool in the classroom.  Currently I use the computer to research information, keep in contact with others, and to communicate in a blog, but I also have experience with my own website and online newsletter, which I used to share literacy ideas to other parents.

 Now, there is just Soooo much more out there for teaching.  I am actually excited, not intimidated by that, because I believe if used to my advantage technology will make my life as a teacher easier, and learning for my students more engaging.  There are tools for teachers to design curriculum and create lessons with links to materials and online resources and core standards.  Tools for organizing class information, and keeping track of who has learned what.  There are sites out there and coming along with activities designed for children to help them learn and practice common core skills and  sites where teachers can find resources and lessons aligned to the common core.  There are sights that help children organize their writing, or express their ideas as comic strips, videos, and flip books. There are ipads, and laptops, and smartboards which put creating lessons and providing engaging, goal directed learning at the teacher’s fingertips and there are resources for newbies like me to access smart board lessons and ipad apps that can be readily used to teach core skills.  I have been collecting resources to use for all these purposes in and out of the classroom.  I hope to include them here in this blog soon.

I see the advances of technology as tools that I am already learning to use to build learning in my class, much as a builder uses a nail gun, a cordless drill, or a  level to create a house.  Like the builder, it is not merely how to operate a nail gun  or drill that is important, but also understanding how to use those tools best to create an operable, safe, well designed house.  I have a firm concept of how to construct learning experiences that are built on a foundation of imperative skills, and I know how to do that in a way that will engage the 21st century learner as an active and willing participant.  I do not look at technology or the arts as add-ons in education, but as integral to the creation of meaningful, thought provoking curriculum design.

If you are reading this as a parent or even just a community member, I hope you take a minute to investigate some of the core curriculum (which is a state led initiative-states working together, not led by NCLB or other Fed influence) as well as the parent page for the site for 21st CenturyLearners  and parent resource for RTI.  There is a lot of really good stuff that should be going on in schools these days and if your school doesn’t seem to be participating or perhaps they are just not being transparent in their efforts and including parents, you should want to know why, you should let them know you are interested in the changes going on in education today and that you want to know how they are meeting those needs and how you can support them and your children.  Strangely, and sadly, some teachers and schools are taking a somewhat backwards approach, bombarding all the students in a tidal wave of practice sheets, whether they need them or not.  They are taking a bottom up approach, and claiming there is no time to teach “extra” to students who already grasp the basic skills.  I don't write this to badmouth other professionals, only to make everyone aware that strong leadership and strong community support are crucial to helping our children succeed.  The core curriculum is clear, it is a minimum, and it should not be used to limit what is taught in schools.



Parenting in Public

Yesterday we were on a mission.  I had a child who wanted to build a store that he could go into and use to sell us apples.  He tried desperately the day before to use several small boxes, masking tape was strung around like spaghetti, but to no avail. . .and LOTS of frustration and tears.  So the mission was to get some BIG boxes.  We headed to a local appliance store and left happy and full of ideas for what to use the other two boxes for.  We talked about other important places in our town, and the kids narrowed it down.  Yes the Town Hall is an important place, but it is summer and these are kids, so our three most important buildings would be Mim's Market (kids think "candy"), Library (they love the library), and the Creamie ( I say no more).

After scoring the boxes, we headed to a small park for lunch under a big tree, then 15 minutes on the playground.  It was midday and the shade of the tree and the playground did not intersect.  I knew they would lose their play power shortly and be ready to go work on the big box project.  There were a couple guys on the caged tennis court nearby, and excepting the pong of the tennis ball and squeaks of their shoes it was quiet, till I sat down to read a teaching article on my iphone while the kids played.  Then one of the tennis player says loudly to the other.  "Have you noticed the decline in care since the invention of the iphone?!"  . . . He said it with the same self righteous tone I heard a teacher use with a child a few weeks ago when the child tossed a banana peel into an untraveled wooded area when he was done with his lunch.  The boy replied, "But it was just a banana peel.". . but that's another story.

I felt a bit of a sting.  Was he talking about me?  Just last summer I was praised by a stranger for actually talking to my daughter in the stroller while walking along the cove road on the lake.  The man felt it was such a rare sight to have a parent engaged with her child rather than in adult cell phone conversation that he just had to tell me I was rare and special. No sting. I might have even felt a little righteous.  Hmm. . .Then I had to wonder, "Why do I care what this stranger thinks?"  And I realize it is not so much about caring what one stranger thinks of my parenting as it is knowing that when I am in public. . .well, uh. . . hmm, darn. . .I care what a perfect stranger thinks.  The teacher in me wants to model good parenting skills.  The parent in me enjoys the little boost from positive feedback.  Plus, if I didn't care what others thought, just a little, I can't imagine I would be a very good parent.

On the other hand, I have been in some pretty tense parenting moments that happened to be in public places.    When as a parent I have struggled with what appears to onlookers as a misbehaving child, everything a I do or don't do in response feels like it is under scrutiny.  I have heard the term, "It takes a village. . ." most people have, but I don't think that is what is meant.  (Let's criticize them till they get it right?) Is it? Why do we (as a society) praise parents who are having a good day already?  Why do we feel it is alright to criticize or judge parents who are struggling? I can attest that the parents who are struggling need more kind words and encouragement than any of them will ever get in their lifetime.  Parenting is hard.  For some it is really hard, not neccessarily because they are doing it wrong, but because of their circumstance or the child's.

So, yesterday, I shut off my phone.  I pushed my girl on the swing.  I did some swinging myself, umm. . .blah... wish I didn't get motion sickness from swinging.  And we all went home to build Mim's store, a Library and a Creamie.  We played under a big tree in our yard all afternoon.  I ate 7 pretend icecream cones, drank lemonade and read real books at the pretend library.  My oldest came home and added crochet lessons on the lawn to the afternoon's activities. 

 I wonder when, or if, that man will learn to recognize his righteous side, and see that it isn't neccessarily a positive trait, I have learned that from people like him and have tried to loose that kind of judgement of others.  I wonder what more I have to learn about myself.  I believe every person we come across in life has something to teach us if we are open minded enough to learn it.  I wonder if that man will learn too. . .and I hope it is not learned in a hard way, like having his child melt down in a public place while onlookers glare disapproval.   


Looking Up

I have been away from my blog for a few weeks, and have been getting into the new summer groove.  I am planning to resume my regular writing as of . . .now.  So here goes.

The summer is coasting along smoothly for my little family this summer.  Kids spashing, screaching, and stealthily scoping out frogs in the bog makes for a little bit of time for mom, to watch a cloud or two wisp over the blue summer sky, or listen to the warm summer breeze whisper through the trees. 

The best looking up moment though had to be on the Scarborough Beach (near Old Orchard Beach in ME)  Zeus's fireworks on the 4th of July were just absolutely breathtaking while we waited for the manmade display to begin.  Imagine yourself on a crescent of coastline, waves surging into shore.   Dark storm clouds looming and circling, lighting up and letting loose, then crawling away to sea just in time for the more colorful displays of weeping willows, rainbow fountains, blossoming sprays, and a unique display my son dubbed "barnacles".  (It really did look like barnacles! and we had spent the day at the beach climbing barnacle covered rock in search of hermit crabs and other tide pool loving critters. . .perhaps he had barnacles on his mind.)  The lightning continued at a safe distance dancing from cloud to cloud occasionally stretching to earth in a grand show even as all the fireworks around the crescent celebrated our freedoms.

I skedaddled home a day earlier than the rest of the family to an absolutely lovely job interview for a first grade teaching position.  Wow.  They provided water and mints, and a quiet place with music and a list of the questions they would be asking while I waited.  I was welcomed and the conversation rolled along nicely.  I left feeling good and feeling like, even if this isn't "the" job, (but I hope it is), things are "looking up".


Dawn of a Musical Family

Day is dawning at 4:30 am or so here in my neck of the woods as the summer solstice approaches.  I have beeen up for a bit watching the blackness that is trees and mountain become silhouetted againsts the slow brightening of the pre dawn sky and listening as the birds awake one by one.  Slowly the cacophany of birdsong, simultaneously repetitive and chaotic, builds in intensity as the day approaches, then fades off as day breaks.  Music on an almost summer morning.

I have always hoped my children would love music, whether from nature or manmade.  I tend to sing, a lot,  around the house.  For better or worse, I sing, because I want my kids to know it is ok to sing for the joy of it, even if you don't have the voice of Adele, Whitney, Emmy Lou, or the latest Idol stars.  I recall teaching first grade and feeling sad that each year a student or two refused to sing with the class.  I didn't pressure them, and I am glad, because now with children of my own I realize they don't all want to sing.  I just want to be sure they know that it is safe to try. 

I recently purchased a ukelele, half planned, half spontaneous, because my 3 yo is becoming so fond of playing at storytime at our local library.  The storyteller reads, and sings songs with our preschoolers and has brought in extra ukes for the kiddos to try.  They are perfect for little hands and with just on or two fingers little ones can play a few chords and practice strumming.  My middle son has been silently longing to play an instrument, he is a singer/noisemaker at heart, and this year at school has spent the year being told to be quiet.  I would love him to gain the confidence to let his music out for the rest of us to hear.  (Right now he sings when he thinks no one is listening)  My oldest doesn't sing much, so I was pleasantly surprised that he has already been reading the little booklet that came with the uke and is practicing several chords on his own. Perhaps my next classroom will have a uke or two for the non singers to play.

With three kids and no money for lessons right now, I was hoping the uke would fit the needs of my family, and I think it will do the trick.  Besides being the cutest instrument invented, I have easily been able to master several chords and the kids have at least one in less than a week. (not that it is a race, but the ease is motivating).  The uke is also a quiet alternative to the guitar or keyboard that always gets cranked to it's highest volume.  There are tons of online resources for songs, techniques, and advice for teaching kids and I am currently looking for a book that my oldest might use to soak up ukelele info and music, because that is how he enjoys learning.  I think we are all on our way to becoming a musical family.  


Eve of Summer

It is raining this morning while I write.  Drops tappity tapping on our metal roof and running off like an outdoor shower into the stones that surround our house.  Kids are cozied up in their beds snug under blankets.  One had his light on and was already reading when I tiptoed past their doors and down the stairs.  I put on some tea and sat in a comfy chair to look out at the morning, rain,  and life in this moment, and in a flash I am already on vacation, though the kids won't be out for another week.

Thoughts float in about summer as a dual edged sword of fun activities playing at the beach, looking for frogs, wind in our hair as we skirt across the lake, then of summer as an extendend transition time.  Summer, where too much of a good thing, not enough to do, too much togetherness, can bring down the house.  I reallize conciously my oldest will go to a summer program in July, first time ever, a mixed emotion rises in me.  My mind wanders to my middle child, he'll need lots of social time this year with friends.  Then there's the baby, ummm. . .3 and a half year old.  She is craving play with kids her age right now. Preschool on the horizon just past the summer morning sunrises over the lake.  

I briefly reflect on my need to seize the day, seize this season, this moment.   I am a firm believer in "Don't create problems in my mind that don't yet exist in my life."  I gently push away the thought, the idea of a summer overcast with change.  Instead I enjoy this rainy morning, and waking children on the eve of summer.  I listen to the raspberries and laughter as  the three land in the biggest bed to become fully wakeful creatures together.  I enjoy this fleeting feeling in a snip of time, summer. . family. . .life. . .


Social Emotional Education: Teacher's hold the Key

Social Emotional Education is a big buzz phrase in teaching these days and for good reasons. We have known for a while now that children learn better when they feel safe.  And now we know there are kids (people) who do not learn about social interactions and emotions through everyday  interactions the way most people do.  These folks need to be explicitly taught.  You probably know someone like this already.  Is there someone who rambles on as if they don't notice you are yawning and giving other signals you are bored of the conversation?  Well, they probably really don't notice.  How bout that one who interrupts a conversation to interject their ideas and are a bit off topic? In the classroom there is the child who shouts out answers in class despite being told repeatedly to raise his hand.  There are the children who don't seem to understand how their actions make others feel in some moments. Some are not always sure what they are feeling themselves.  

When I was in college one of our textbooks was Teaching Children To Care, by Ruth Sydney Charney.  It was a pivotal book that led to many schools, including the one I worked at, to acquire staff training in the Responsive Classroom Method.  Responsive Classroom addressed classroom management, community building, and social emotional education.  The pieces were all there:
  1. Create a safe, nurturing classroom environment
  2. teach skills explicitly.
  3. Provide time to practice- particularly using role play.
We did this with everything from procedures for handwashing and using new classroom tools or supplies to how to ask someone to play at recess or handle sharing with a friend.

Nowadays, with 8-10% of kids with ADHD and Autism Spectrum Disorders on a steep rise over the last 10 years, it is becomming more common knowledge that some children need explicit instruction in recognizing emotions in themselves and in others, and in handling social situations many people take for granted.  How do you know if people are interested in what you have to say?  How do you  know how another person is feeling at a given moment? 

More and more schools are adopting social curriculums and asking for teachers who have experience with Social Emotional Education.  I know that I myself have continued to build my skills in this area, not because it is a trend, but because it is essential in helping all kids have the skills they need in life.  I am a little leary of SE Curriculums that are in a box, "We are going to do SEcurriculum now children".  What about the rest of the day or the specific needs of the class?  Making time for explicit instruction and practice of new skills is truly important, yes, I won't argue that ever.  But I am concerned about a prescribed approach.  Integrating the "practice", the "positive",  for the visual, auditory, or tactile learner in a way that doesn't single out one or two children is also a vital piece of the puzzle.  A piece that can be addressed through focus on one skill classwide, with some form of visual/tactile reminder as a stoplight card on a desk or as a necklace.  Green, good; yellow, warning,slow down or change direction; red, Stop!  This system can be used all day for all the kids, just with eyecontact and a pointed finger.  Love it. 

The other component, is to create a safe, nurturing classroom environment all day, every day, for every child.  In order to ensure that the classroom environment is that nurturing, teachers need to be in firm possession of a positive discipline style, that capitalizes on positive moments, and does not overemphasize the mistakes or problems.  The kids who have the most difficulties in the area of Social Emotional Learning can be some of the most frustrating for some teachers.  These are the kids for whom ordinary discipline strategies don't work well if at all.  Sometimes these kids can come across as unlikeable to peers and teachers alike. 

This is where the teacher truly holds the key.  For these kids it is my experience that they will only succeed or thrive with a teacher that can love them anyway, despite what others may percieve as rude, disruptive, or uncaring nature.  A teacher who can see the sweet child through the spectrum of odd and or unlikeable behaviors, will do more good for the child's success and attitude at school than any mandated curriculum.  Love alone is the basis for the tone in the classroom and the foundation for building positive peer and teacher relationships within the class.


Rhythm of Life: It's a radio

Rhythm is one of those things that I crave.  I think it may be a part of human nature to seek it out, or maybe just Amy Nature.  When I hear a beat on the radio, or let's say "Your the one that I want. . ." from the Grease soundtrack, I tap my toe or beebop around in my seat like some crazy girl, then the next song John Travolta is crooning, "Stranded at the Drive in, branded a fool, what will they say?  Monday at school...Saaaaaanndyyyy"  arghhhh. . .blahhh. . .hummbuuuug.  Always have hated that song!  (no offense if you loved it, just my little opinion in a big world)  A rhythm can be a pickup or a let down, but of course it is all relative and sometimes the slow is good and calm and ahhhh. ..Whatever the rhythm, I feel it, so when it is a jolting change from what I want, or expect or need,  well. ..insert John Travolta crooning.

So, it is not really new to me, mom of three, that the rhythm of parenting can sometimes be too fast, too slow, too monotonous.  This week, it is like the song "Sandy" on repeat. . .My three year old who has been potty potty trained for over a year now, but lately accidents, accidents, accidents, and Hannnnnging from my shirt saying "Mommmmmeeeeeeee, I neeeeeed you!"  Don't get me wrong, this little girl is one of the most precious little peeps in my life.  I love her snuggles, her nose kisses and her wildly addictive laugh.  I love when she stands with her hip jutted out and tell one of her big brothers what is what.  I adore when she says, "I will call him George." in reference to the little toad she spotted and captured all by her three year old self, with pudgy three year old fingers, and sharp three year old eyes. 

But. . .when I spend every waking hour with said three year old and she tugs on my shirt, climbs the chair I am sitting in and says those words. . ."I neeeed Youuuuu!" or "I had a accident."  I have to admit, I forget to be greatful for her presence.  It is the mournful truth.  But, I will not beat myself up over it, because sometimes being a parent is downright frustrating.  It is "Sandy" all over again.  We just need to wait it out, rock with it let it flow on till the next song picks us up again.  Raising kids is like that.  You feel the rhythm, get on a roll, and just like that. . . the song changes.  Sometimes you get a few good songs in a row, and then Bam! Commercial break, soiled clothes, and then "Sandy".  Sorry kids life is not an iPod.  You can't program what comes next.  Parenting is. . . Life is . . . a radio.