Sunday, September 10, 2017

Struggle is Real

Sometimes, when I read the various blogs I subscribe to or scroll through my Facebook and Instagram feeds, I wonder how everybody but me manages to make everything work all of the time.  I realize that's not the case, but it is easy to be caught up in the perfection projected by so many on social media.

Where are the posts about the days that just don't work?

Because I could use one of those right now to let me know that I'm not the only one who is having a hard time keeping it all together.

Don't get me wrong... I love my kids and I love my school and colleagues.  My struggle right now has nothing to do with them and everything with me.  Each day when I sit in my room after the kids have gone and reflect on the day, I am left with the feeling that something's just not right.  I can't figure out what that thing is, but I can feel it.

Maybe it's the fact that last year at this time, I was running on pure adrenaline.  I was learning so much as I went that I barely had time to think about how things were going.  Maybe it's also the fact that it's easy to forget what the beginning of the school year is like - I remember how smoothly everything ran in late May but not necessarily all of the hard work it took to get there.

Maybe it's the fact that I'm hard on myself.  I know what I do MATTERS, that I have a huge responsibility to do the very best every day for the kids in my class.  I don't cut myself much slack, and I don't really like to ask for help, even when I know that I should.

So here I am, staring week four of the school year in the face, and I'm wondering when I'm going to hit my groove.  It'll come... I know.  And if it's like past years, there will be a moment when everything just clicks and I'll be on my way.

And next year, when I'm thinking about how hard the beginning of the school year is, I can look back and read this and remember that I've been here before.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Get off the train, Mindi!

Photo via Creative Commons. Attribution here.

I am about to start my third week of school.  As I sat at my desk at school yesterday (yes, I went in on Sunday), surrounded by my teacher's editions and unit plans, I began to feel a twinge of familiar anxiety - how am I going to get everything done that I need to get done so that my kids learn as much as possible during their third grade year?  How much more quickly can I move through the math chapters so that I cover all of the important concepts before PARCC testing?  How are we going to finish this social studies unit before we switch over to science?  Chug...chug...chug....

This feeling of faster...faster...chug...chug... is a familiar one for teachers.  Pacing guides, teacher's editions, and the publishing of test scores underscore this need to move and move quickly.  And to be honest, we want to make sure our kids are learning and growing as much as they can in their 180 days in our care.  We want to be effective.  We want to do our jobs well.

But here's the thing.  Getting on the curriculum train doesn't help our kids.  "Coverage" of content does not guarantee a student is deeply learning.  I have to constantly remind myself to slow down, to allow time for my kids to think about what they're reading, writing, and learning, to encourage them to explore the aspects of our curriculum that they are especially interested in, and to allow them time to research their own passions and then share their learning with the class.

I've seen for myself the difference in learning when I make myself slow down and let the kids show me what they need and when they're ready to move on.  When I ask the class what they're interested in learning about and then let them go, I find that they usually hit the learning targets the district has set out for the unit and much more.  They are also learning other skills... how to develop a research question, how to seek out and synthesize information, how to present that information in a way that is interesting and compelling.  And more importantly, they are engaged in their learning and excited about it.  THIS is what will make a difference in their retention of new knowledge.

To be honest, this has been easier for me to do in my literacy block and science and social studies  periods than it has been in math.  I think this is mostly because I lack the deep understanding of mathematical practices that I have in literacy.  I've written about this before, and the work of learning the "why" behind math is work I continue to do.  The pacing guide in math also contributes to this as well.  It's a much tighter progression through the units than we have in the other subjects.  Luckily, I have colleagues who can help me work through how to make the math learning deep and meaningful rather than just surface knowledge that is easily forgotten.

So here I am, at the beginning of my third week of school, reminding myself to get off of the train, to listen to my heart and my kids, to take a deep breath and dig in to the work that matters.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Building Stamina

The transition from the freedom of summer to the routines of the school year can be difficult, even for teachers.  During the summer, I can wake up whenever my body decides I've had enough sleep.  I can eat when I'm hungry.  I can read when I want for as long as I want.  I can talk... or not.

Students, too, have this transition.

They, and I, have to build stamina to do the hard work of learning and growing.

The kids have to get used to using their Level 0 or 1 voices during the literacy studio and I have to get used to talking to both the whole class and small groups, and more importantly, giving ample wait time.  We all have to get used to eating lunch later than we might like and waiting longer than we might like to go to the bathroom.

We often think about building stamina within the definition of the literacy block.  At the beginning of the school year, students and teachers work on building stamina in silent reading.  Each day the students should be able to read without getting distracted for a longer period of time.  We might also talk about writing stamina - the length of time a student can write, which hopefully gets longer each day.

I've had to do some serious thinking about my classroom management and stamina this week.  The things that worked for me last year don't seem to be working this year.  I need to really take a step back and do some kid-watching in order to make decisions about changes we (because it will take BOTH the kids and me to change things) need to make in order to create an environment conducive to learning.  I have to remember that when I think about last year, I am remembering END of the year third graders, but the kids who are sitting in front of me are BEGINNING of the year third graders.  Some of them are just now turning eight.  I have to remember to cut us all some slack as we adjust to each other and build our learning community.

So tonight as I sit here thinking about the year so far, I am kind of ok that I need to make a course correction.  If I thought things were PERFECT, I'd be deluding myself.  Instead, I need to be realistic but also pragmatic.  I need to remember that this school year is a marathon and not a sprint.

And marathoners need stamina.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

The Decisions Series: Knowing When to Turn Off the Light and Shut the Door

Today at 5pm, I turned off my classroom lights and shut my door.  This was the last thing I saw as I left my room:

I felt a sense of satisfaction as I walked through the door.  I GOT the job done, and now I get to enjoy my last weekend of summer before I meet my new students on Monday during Meet the Teacher and then on Tuesday when classes start.

I won't lie... I spent a LONG time getting my room ready for 2017-2018.  Since early August, I have spent an hour or two (or three) almost every day unpacking Rubbermaid bins, reorganizing and refurbishing my classroom library, arranging furniture, making my classroom decorations, pumping yoga balls, making lists, and making plans.  I met with my new classroom assistant (whose kids I had when I taught 7th grade) and met with the preservice teacher who will be joining me for her fall semester clinical.

But there comes a time when you have to decide you're finished - or at least finished enough.  Teaching is a profession that can easily consume you if you let it.  There is always that pressure to do one more thing, read one more book, complete one more form, grade one more paper.  I had to learn early in my career that it didn't do me any good to stay at school until 9:00 at night.  And once I had kids, I had no choice; I had to leave in time to pick them up from daycare, get them fed, and get them to bed.  I had to learn what I could reasonably do in the time I had and just be okay with leaving things unfinished.

People talk about work-life balance.  I'm not sure such a thing is ever truly possible, at least not for me.  When I'm at home, I'm thinking about school, and when I'm at school, I'm thinking about all of the things I need to do at home or all of the places I have to drive my daughters.  If I'm caught up at school, then my house is a mess and vice versa.  When I see people who seem to have it all together, I wonder how much is real and how much is a great cover, put on because of pressure to be perfect.

So here's how I come as close to balanced as I get:

  • My house is tidy (mostly) but not perfect.  I have help every other week with my heavy cleaning.  This was my gift to myself when I returned to work after Abby was born. I do not feel guilty about not being a great housekeeper.
  • I try to do as much of my planning and grading as I can during the school day.  This can be difficult, especially on days when meetings are scheduled during my daily plan time.  I find that I am more productive in the morning, so I try to get to school as early as I can.  My goal for this year is to have plans and copies made before I leave on Friday.
  • I no longer do my daughters' laundry.  They are 13 and almost-16.  They can use a washer and dryer.
  • I make a plan for meals for the following week and my grocery list on Friday night (I know.. exciting) and then Dan and I do the shopping on Saturday or Sunday morning.  Making the plan helps me spend less at the grocery, and we're less tempted to go out to dinner during the week.  I'm also more likely to cook healthy meals.

Ever since Molly was in Kindergarten, I have taken the Friday before school started and we've done something together.  When the kids were little, that meant heading downtown to the American Girl store and having brunch in the restaurant followed by some shopping.  Now that they've moved past dolls, we go to a museum or head to Woodfield to finish up our back to school shopping.  It doesn't matter what we do; it matters that we're together.  This is non-negotiable.

So is EVERYTHING finished for my first week of school?  Mostly.  I have a few things I'll do this weekend, but they're small.  Do I feel ready?  Mostly.  I've never in my career felt completely ready for the first day.  Is my classroom done enough?

You bet.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

The Decisions Series: Part 3 - Classroom Environment

Once upon a time, I thought it was important that I cover every inch of wall space in my classroom with inspirational Argus posters (think kitten dangling from a branch with "Hang In There" written in a cute font across the top).  I thought the brighter and bolder the border on my bulletin boards the better.  I thought I needed to make up for the fact that the classroom was "on the garden level" of our building and the only way to make it a place my kids would want to be was to make it NEON!
 These photos are from my 7th grade ELA/US History classroom from about 2003 or so.  Notice the premade bulletin boards.  Notice the lack of any space for my students to have input in the room.

There were some things I did right back in the dark ages.  I replaced those god-awful all-in-one desks with tables and chairs.  The tables were positioned in such a way that would allow for discussion.  My teacher desk (and the desk of the other teacher who taught in my room) were pushed up against the wall and out of the way, leaving more room for kids.  It's not the most awful classroom space out there.

My thinking about my classroom space changed about eleven years ago when I had the opportunity to spend two days in classrooms in our elementary buildings.  I noticed how different parts of the classroom were used for different kinds of activities.  I noticed the anchor charts and student work on the wall.  The classrooms felt warm and welcoming, like places where ideas were shared and encouraged.  I decided I wanted my classroom to feel more like THOSE rooms and less like a traditional secondary classroom.

So I set out to make changes.  I got an easel that I could put chart paper on. I got a couch.  I brought in some old area rugs I had at home.  I moved the desks apart so that they were spread out around the room.  I stopped hanging so many pre-made posters and saved wall space to reflect our learning.

Yes, I pulled my seventh graders into our "living room" for our group instruction.  We had class discussions here.  Kids loved to read here during independent reading.  It was a start.  I could definitely feel a different vibe.  But classroom environment is not all about furniture and rugs.  It's also about the community that is created by the teacher AND the students.  It's set when a teacher takes the time to get to know her students and incorporate their passions into the curriculum where possible.  The environment is created when a teacher steps back and gives kids choices in where and how they will work and in the books they read.  The environment develops when kids trust that their voices will be heard.

Now I teach third grade.  I spend a great deal of time thinking about the environment my students will encounter when they enter my classroom next week and that we will continue to create together.  I want them to be able to tell what's important to me, and I want them to have some say about the changes we'll make as we begin to do the hard work of learning together.

So here's the latest iteration of my space:

 The desks are grouped into pods so kids can work together throughout the school day.  Each pod has a little tote that has basic communal supplies and a three-drawer storage unit that holds math books, white boards and markers, and extra paper.  Together, we'll figure out what, if anything, else should go in those drawers and that supply tote.  The kids are the ones who will be using these, so they should have some say in how they access supplies and materials.

My easel is on wheels, so I can move it to whatever area of the classroom I happen to be using at the time.  Kids still gather in our large meeting space in the front of the room for most of our whole-group instruction, but during independent work time, they can sit anywhere.  Last year, I had kids who really liked working under the small group tables.

The kids can also choose their seating.  I want them to be comfortable.  If they like the chairs.. great!  I also have wooden stools, wobble stools, yoga ball chairs (which I also use at my desk), and lap desks for sitting on the floor.  They can move freely around the room and work wherever they feel most comfortable.  In our first days together next week, we will set expectations for how to work in a flexible environment.  The kids will be an active part of creating our learning community.


As you can see, my walls don't have a lot on them.  Some of my bulletin boards are done.  That one above my desk is a hassle, so I put something up that will stay all year.  The others will feature kids' work, our "star of the week," and I have one board that the class will decide how to use.  This is not just my work space... it belongs to my fifteen students as well, and they need to have ownership of how we work in it.

I want my students to feel at home in room 301.  I want them to know I honor their voices and stories, and that I want them to take risks and stretch themselves in order to grow as learners and people.  I want them to learn how to work together and solve problems, and even get along with people who you might not like or who you might disagree with.  I want them to think about big ideas and hard topics and begin to find their own truth.

The environment is where this all starts.


Tuesday, August 15, 2017

The Decisions Series: Part 2 - The Teacher Desk

Many teachers, both in my school and in my extended network, have decided to get rid of their teacher desks.  Their reasons vary:  some of them have very small classrooms and want to maximize space for students; some of them prefer to sit at a classroom table to plan; some of them had really old desks that should have been retired ten years ago.  Whatever the reason, the teachers I know who have moved away from having a teacher desk are very happy with their choice.

I have decided to keep my desk.

There are some things I know about myself as a worker.  I need a space that is mine.  I need to have my materials around me, and I need to know where everything is.  I need to have a bright light, which helps me read without tiring my eyes.  I need a comfortable chair so that I can focus on getting my work done without my back aching.

So yes... I still have my desk.

But notice where my desk is... it's in a corner of my classroom away from my windows.  It's pushed up against the wall.  This is not a place to sit while students are in the room (unless they are having Spanish class, which means I have a plan period).  That little corner is the only place in the classroom that is truly mine.  Everything else is for the kids.

I know there are people who think I should get that mammoth desk out of the room and make the space available for my students.  And I get it... I do!  I could make another cozy reading nook there or I could fit two or three more bookshelves.  But I also know that the work I do planning for instruction is important as well.  If I am going to spend time carefully planning my whole- and small-group instruction, reading exit slips and other written assignments, considering formative assessments that will tell me what each student needs the next day, I need a place to do it.  If I am going to do this work in a timely manner that allows me to get home in time to drive my daughters to dance class and cook dinner for my family, I need a space where all of my materials are handy.  Just as I allow my students to find a "just right" place to do their work, I need such a space for mine.

For a while, I felt guilty about keeping my desk.  But after I spent time thinking about why I felt I needed to keep it, that guilt went away.  I strive every day to be the very best teacher I can be.  If having a few square feet of classroom space for my work helps me reach that goal, well... I'm okay with that.

Monday, August 14, 2017

The Decisions Series: Part 1 - My Classroom Library

I spend a lot of time thinking about my classroom library. For me, this is the heart of my classroom. Community is made here. Thinking happens here. Eyes and hearts are opened here. Kids find themselves and the world here.

I've invested a great deal of effort and money in curating my classroom library. I'm careful about the books I add, but I also buy books my students request. This means that there are books that I might not choose to read but that THEY love. That is as it should be... it is their library, too, and I want to make sure they feel ownership of it just as I do.


The biggest decision I've made about my classroom is how to organize it. Way back in the dark ages when I first started teaching 7th grade ELA, I had all of my classroom library books spine out  and alphabetized by author's last name.  It was fine.  Some kids used my library, but they mostly checked books out from the school library or only read the whole-class novels that formed the base of our curriculum.  Like I said... it was fine.  But I always thought it could be MORE.

When our school district started working with Ellin Oliver Keene in order to strengthen our literacy instruction, I had the opportunity to spend time in several classrooms in our elementary buildings.  I noticed some things about the libraries in those rooms.  Books were all face-out.  They were in baskets. And they were sorted by genre, series, or author.  I began to think about what would happen if I reorganized the library in my seventh grade classroom.  I wondered how long it would take me to sort, label, and store the hundreds of books I had on my shelves.  I decided to let the kids help.

To be honest, it was a mess for several days.  But then.... then it was GLORIOUS!  Kids knew what was on the shelves!  They found books they wanted to read!  They began using the library!

So when I moved to third grade last year, the answer to the organization question was a no-brainer.  Face out. Sorted by genre, series, author. Informational texts in their own section. User friendly for the kids and for me. This is important, because in my room kids get to choose all of the books they read during Literacy Studio.  They are not required to read in a certain level or for Accelerator Reader points (thank goodness!).  I won't tell them a book is too easy or too hard.  I will talk to them about who they are as readers and what they can do to grow.  This choice in reading is a non-negotiable.

My greatest wish is that when the kids come into my room next Monday for Meet the Teacher, they won't spend much time talking to or looking at me.  I want them pulled like magnets to my library.  I want them to flip through the books.  I want them to ask me if they can put a particular book on their desks so they can read it on Tuesday.  I want them to find some old friends and maybe make some new ones as they look to see what's in all of those black baskets.

I want them to love our library as much as I do.