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.