The School Supply Blues

Shopping for school supplies is a ritual that some meet with excitement and others dread. No doubt about it, it is packed with emotions. There is the pure overwhelming joy that a 7-year old might feel about sparkly folders covered in Bulldogs wearing sunglasses. There is the calm repose of a parent deciding which supplies to leave off the list, for now, because providing a healthy meal for this weekend is more important. There is the absolute frustration of a parent whose kid tells them, “We don’t even use those things at school!”

I fall somewhere in between, being a parent of a kid who is obsessed with combination locks and tape dispensers and being a teacher who really gets happy tingles when I see a deal on bulk composition books in rainbow colors.

Recently a friend was shopping for school items and overheard some parents complaining about having to buy so many supplies. They lashed out at teachers for asking so much. They expressed indignance at buying supplies they assumed other children would use. Their kids heard them complain as they filled their carts. My friend was understandably upset. Her cart was full of items for other people’s kids, being an Administrator without kids of her own. A debate ensued on social media about what kind of life lessons were embedded in this experience for all involved. All of these perspectives have value and a foundation in reality but they really all boil down to the concept of trust.

I get it – in today’s political and social climate, it is very hard to have trust for people we do not know well. There are important implications for trusting people. It makes us feel vulnerable and protective when we put our trust in people, and sometimes it doesn’t work out for the best.

I never quite understood how much a parent has to go through when they drop their kids off at school until I had a child of my own. They are trusting us with their most precious nonrenewable resource. They will have fewer opportunities each day to speak to or hug their child than an almost complete stranger. We are asking a lot of parents to put aside their protective natures and trust us, from the first day we meet.

I have been so fortunate to have my son at the same school where I teach. I can feel a visceral clench when I think about how hard it would be for me if I did not have that luxury. As he gets older I know I will look back on these elementary days and be so grateful I had him close. I know where my child is at every moment of the day. I have confidence in my colleagues because I am confident in their training and their intentions.

I can stop by his room for a quick hug and there is almost a daily opportunity to wave across the hallway as we pass each other in transition. I can walk him to his classroom door instead of kicking him out of the car at the curb. I can meet him in the nurse’s office if he is hurt and hold the iced sponge to his injury and celebrate with him when he decides he’s okay to return to class.

To each and every parent who will trust me with their child this year, I promise I am here to do my very best for them. I will gladly make sure they know someone cares for them if they fall. I will tell them I believe they are capable until they feel more confident. I will hug them if they need a hug. I will cry with them if they need to cry. I will wave at them in the hallway and smile back when they smile. I know your trust is a priceless gift. I can count on one hand the number of teachers I’ve worked with who didn’t share this feeling.

But trust goes both ways. If you can trust that your child really does need 5 different colors of composition books and a boatload of pre-sharpened pencils, then I can promise you I intend for your kid to use every supply we’ve asked them to bring.

If you trust me enough to talk to me about the difficulty you might have in providing everything on the list, I promise I will make sure your kid gets what they need without passing any judgment. Every day – even in March – if I have to go walk the halls and scrounge for pencils in forgotten corners, I will make sure your kid has what they need. If I can’t find it, I will ask someone else to help me provide it.

If you trust me enough to keep your kids safe through tornadoes and floods, traffic or teasing, you can certainly trust me to create a school supply list that is intentional and necessary.

I am not suggesting that school supply lists should be accepted without question. If I don’t understand the need for something I am reluctant to spend my grocery money on it. But please, don’t complain about it in front of your kids while standing in line at Target. Don’t buy that supply that is making your wallet hurt or your forehead crease.

Trust that when you come to school on the first day you can ask me why something is necessary and seek justification and I won’t get upset. Show your kids that not only do they have the right and responsibility to question the status quo, but they have more power to change situations when they stop complaining and seek communication.

Choose to show your kids how navigating hard financial choices can be easier if we see each other as partners. Instead of grumbling out loud to your kids, stifle your frustrations, put the supplies back you can’t afford, and talk to me about what you need or ask me why something is necessary.

Don’t let shopping for school supplies taint your trust before we even have a chance to work together. Choose to show your kids how making hard choices can be easier if we see ourselves as partners and we seek to build trust in the big things instead of tearing it down over the little things.

 

 

 

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Oh, snap! I haven’t cleaned the baseboards yet!

I am making a list of all the things I think might be possible and are probably necessary before summer break is over and I return to my classroom. I mentally cataloged all the little things that are so wonderful in the summer that tend to not happen during the school year. I get a little nostalgic as July comes to an end. Here’s what I love and will miss most about summer.

  1. My kid is the most important kid in my life.  Spouses and children of teachers reap excellent benefits and make countless sacrifices. People ask me why I chose to only have one child and the very real answer is that for 10 months out of the year, other people’s children get much more of my attention than my own. I am helping to raise hundreds of other people’s children and in the summer it is so easy to make my son the center of my attention. In a week I will begin strategically planning my days so he gets at least an hour of my undivided attention and we get to read together before bed.
  2. I get to make breakfast for my husband. Summer is a wonderful chance to make sure my best friend eats a great breakfast. I’ve always been much more of a brunch lover than a breakfast eater and summer allows us to share many more meals together. During the school year, I am usually out the door before 7 a.m. and often on a sparsely fed stomach. I have time to make sure my kid gets breakfast before we go, but I miss the satisfaction of everyone eating breakfast together.
  3. I read guilt-free for fun. When you work 60 hours per week (and I usually do), it is so hard not to pick up a novel or a “cheeseburger book” instead of grading essays or math tests. During the year it is so difficult to deny my most favorite activity. I don’t check out books from the library or talk to people about what they are reading. I make sure all my own favorite books, the ones I have read a dozen times, are not on bookshelves where I will see them. If I allow myself reading time, I will choose it every time over the hundreds of individual student papers I have to read each week. And reading before bed is harder, as I will choose books over sleep. I’ve happily read thousands of pages this summer (more to come on that topic soon).
  4. Watching t.v. for mature audiences is possible. During the school year, there is certainly isn’t much television at the house. However, programming that isn’t suitable for my 8-year old is non-existent during the school year. After a typical 10 hour day at school, we come home (that’s if there are no errands, to be done after school) and dinner needs to be made, pets cared for, laundry needs to be done, homework, showers, bedtime. By the time 9 p.m. rolls around I haven’t sat down much all day and as soon as my rear hits the couch I can barely follow my own thoughts, much less a complicated storyline. This week I am binge watching The Handmaid’s Tale. The challenges involved in watching a series like this all at once are self-explanatory.
  5. Planning my fluid intake and bathroom visits strategically is challenging. If you teach, you already know this is no joke. This is the schedule that sort of works for me during the year. As soon as I wake up I down 16 ounces of water. Then I drink 1/2 to 1 cup of coffee. One hour later I visit the bathroom just before leaving the house. As soon as I get to school I drink 8 ounces more water and then 2 minutes before the door opens I visit the bathroom. I then hope that I am sufficiently hydrated to make it through the morning. During my 15-minute lunch, going to the bathroom is necessary, and I also have to drink enough water to allow me to converse for the next two hours but not enough to need the bathroom for that time. All this depends on my actually remembering to drink water while being interrupted dozens of times and having to make several hundred other important decisions each day. If you are fortunate, you have teammates who are willing to coordinate bio breaks so that you don’t have to choose between bladder infections and supervising your class properly. The struggle is so real.
  6. Watching the birds out my window in the morning is a wonderful way to wake up. Though the birds are active at dawn with me in the early mornings between August and May, the absolute splendor of listening and watching the bluebirds, towhees, hummingbirds, and migrating tanagers in the gamble oaks outside my bedroom window between 7 and 8 a.m. is a special activity that epitomizes summer break for me.
  7. I might write a novel before I retire. It’s been 8 years now since I started my novel and it didn’t get done this summer either. The 10 hours per week I now spend blogging and writing creatively is soon to be filled with about 10 hours per week of writing lesson plans, newsletters, learning objectives, parent communications, and individualized education plans: dusty dry stuff. I will give the juicy writing one more go this week, as I participate in the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writer’s Novel-o-Rama, encouraging writers to pen 25,000 words in a weekend. My 8-year old novel (now at 20,000 words) will hopefully reach a total of 25,000 words by Monday.

There are other simple joys of summer that could make this list, but if I spend too much time writing about them, I won’t go do them. I’m looking forward to the next few weeks and going back to school and I’ll let you know all about that as I transition. But for now, I need to go clean the baseboards in the kitchen, because that certainly won’t happen before Thanksgiving break if it isn’t done now. Cheers!

 

 

“Waltzing with bears…”

Three days ago, as the rain fell softly on my mountain house after dinner, I looked out the window and made eye contact with our resident juvenile neighborhood bear. “Hi bear!” I said. The wet bear looked right at me, smiled I swear, and playfully romped up the hill to my driveway to jubilantly enjoy a butcher paper wrapper before skipping on. I was glad to be inside.

I’ve never seen a bear up close, but it was the happiest bear I’ve ever seen. Last night it knocked over the dumpster across the street. Naughty Bear! So, today I have outdoor safety and learning on my mind.

As a scientist, I am a supporter of outdoor learning. There is just so much world out there! As a 4th generation Colorado native, I believe quiet time in nature is something that is essential to growing up in any region. However, kids growing up in Colorado will have to face some intense challenges. Kids we raise in the Rocky Mountains will have to care about outdoor issues, like water conservation, manage the balance of 9 separate but evolving ecosystems across the state, and guide how human increases in development will impact the plants and animals that also live in Colorado if we want that balance to remain sustainable. They will need to know how to “waltz with the bears!”

In the interest of encouraging teachers to get their kids outside this year, away from ceilings and carpets, consider this first installment of ideas on how to incorporate outdoor spaces into rich learning experiences.

  1. Start and maintain a school garden. More on this subject to come.
  2. Walk the perimeter of the school, using compasses to find little geo-cached items. Great to reinforce following step-by-step directions, orienting by local geography, describing locations and conditions, looking at local weather patterns, or measurement. Can be incorporated into mapping, narrative writing, vocabulary building, and team building.
  3. Looks for bugs. This is self-explanatory! You can work in population counts, area surveys, food chains and webs, birdwatching, nature journaling, poetry readings, or scientific classification studies.
  4.  Take a texture walk outside. Kids use a crayon, broken and without a label, to create rubbings of things like sidewalks, pavement, tree bark, leaves, or engraved words. Texture rubbings can be works of art for their own purpose or can be an introductory experience before writing with textural sensory language. Discuss what makes the sensory experience of the world through texture and touch distinct from the senses of taste and hearing or consider how senses overlap. Collect natural objects with both visual and tactile textures.
  5. Sit quietly and do nothing for just a few minutes. If you have a welcoming spot on your playground to have kids just sit and listen to the sounds around them or transition into calm from recess, allow them just a few extra minutes outside listening and watching the sky. Try making a sound picture! I learned this activity at the Keystone Science School. Draw the sounds you hear while sitting. What does the sound of traffic look like? How can you show the buzzing of a passing bee? What kind of line would you draw to show the Doppler effect of a passing motorcycle? Learning needs to connect to the larger world.
  6. Invite students to create original animals who are specially adapted to your playground habitat. How would this imaginary animal get food, shelter, water, and space? You might also encourage students to consider how your school mascot would be able to live on your campus. What would a loyal school tiger need to live on your playground?
  7. Make observations of real animals that visit your campus. Discuss with kids how to attract animals like birds and butterflies, while discouraging mice or raccoons. Discover the debate on responsible practices for dealing with animal populations that cause problems on school grounds, like redtail hawks and groundhogs.
  8. Use a duck call, or some other natural sounding instrument, to call your students in from recess. I used to see falcons and hawks regularly when I used a duck call. My students loved the novelty of a non-shrill sound, and they got to see our school mascot, the falcon, watching over us, curious where we were hiding the duck! Whistles are tools of behaviorists, coaches, and drill sergeants.
  9. Enjoy music inspired by the outdoors. I first heard “Waltzing With Bears” done by Gordon Bok, Muir, and Trickett but also found it attributed to Seamus Kennedy, who gave music to a poem by Dr. Seuss by the same name. Teach kids what a waltz is, or learn music associated with animals on different continents. Play some musical instruments outside and add your rhythm to the neighborhood.

“I gave Uncle Walter a new coat to wear,
When he came home he was covered with hair,
And lately, I’ve noticed several new tears,
I’m sure Uncle Walter goes waltzing with bears!

He goes wa-wa-wa-wa, wa-waltzing with bears,
Raggy bears, shaggy bears, baggy bears too.
There’s nothing on earth Uncle Walter won’t do,
So he can go waltzing, wa-wa-wa-waltzing,
So he can go waltzing, waltzing with bears!”

This subject is ripe with possibilities and I’ll probably come back to it. Should you have any ideas to add, please feel free to comment and share. Like most teachers, I am eager to share and borrow all the best ideas that bring deep and meaningful learning to kids of all ages.

Waltzing Matilda

Sometime in the last few weeks of school my tenth year of teaching, I was complimented by a dear friend while stopping by the front office. I had known her a decade as a colleague and friend, but until that year, she didn’t know I love to sing. Several hundred kids in the building have had me serenade them over cleaning the floor, transitioning to new activities, and for moments of stress relief. I realized that most of the adults I work with don’t know that part of me.

At that moment I started to think about all those places where my different lives intersect. I wear so many hats in the course of one day. I am a mother, a wife, a professional, and an artist. These are the most prominent of my roles. Of all the parts of my personality that have persisted since childhood, being a singer has enriched my educational life deeply. I say that confidently. It is a thread that runs through every chapter of my life. As a kid, I learned to read music and learned work with an instrumental ensemble early.  I was never on fire for the clarinet, so in high school, I started singing in choirs. I participated in a jazz choir and a chamber choir, and in college, I helped establish a student -directed a cappella group that, 25 years later, is still producing amazing music as it evolves.

We started as a group of kids who just loved to sing and when we were on, we sounded pretty damn good together. Our group coalesced through experiences of rehearsing and performing together, over disagreeing with each other, and by harmonizing with each other. We were the first to prove the campus was bursting with musical talent, as two more a capella groups were created in our wake. It is an incredible thing to go back to a Room 46 concert after 25 years and meet the new kids: to know that they will always have these powerful memories of performing and how that one decision we made as youngsters, to participate in a group in creating something out of nothing, has changed hundreds of lives since. I can’t help but want to share that in some way with my students.

Even if you don’t have an angelic voice, you can encourage kids to sing together. It’s a great way to transition them to something new or be silly for a moment. Song can sooth them after an active recess. Instead of bells and buzzers, we use music to transition kids to new class periods at my school. We welcome them in the door in the morning with a song. I feel less like Pavlov running a kennel and more like a human being teaching other human beings about all the amazing things human beings can do; it’s a stroke of genius.

Likewise, working on a common purpose, like learning to play music as an ensemble, brings out amazing qualities of cooperation and cohesiveness in a group. My favorite moment from last school year was attending an informal handbells performance. My 20 students, who normally barely went 10 minutes without challenging each other’s ideas, didn’t argue or incite each other for an entire hour. It was the most wonderful example of synergy I witnessed with this group of kids all year.  Handbells, of all things.

Music is so easy to incorporate into a classroom these days thanks to technology. If you want your kids to remember their multiplication tables or learn the structures and functions of cells, or the order of operations, go find those things on the internet and play them. Want to motivate your students to complete a project, reward their diligence with a DJ day,  when they can suggest music to play while working or during a break.

A word to the wise, always, always, ALWAYS preview the music suggestions before playing them for a class. (I’ve been duped before).

As I get ready to go back to school in a mere two weeks, I’m preparing lots of things. I have a new literature I want to introduce, a revised structure for my math class, exciting new technology for myself and my students to master and incorporate.  I’m listening to plenty of new music and seeking out new artists so I can share that part of our culture with my kids. I am also warming up the pipes and dusting off the classic tunes when I’m in the car or doing dishes because, surprisingly, ‘Waltzing Matilda’ continues to be a big hit with the kids.

Below are two related blogs that I enjoyed while musing over this post today.  I offer them to you, in case you are also on summer break and looking for some harmony. Enjoy!

https://wordpress.com/read/blogs/13296940/posts/6130

https://wordpress.com/read/blogs/19930669/posts/5160

“Slow down, you move too fast…”

W.C.Gloucester,_VA_Flower_Basket_on_lamp_post._-_By_Chuck_Thompson_of_TTC_MediaI remember fondly my first mentor teacher, Jeannine. For a semester in the fall of 2005, I helped in a first and second-grade classroom in an iconic Denver school building, called Steele Elementary. It was there I met a parent who would later become a force for seed-to-table gardening in a new movement aimed at improving school nutrition and agricultural education in Denver Public Schools. I’ll expound on these wonderful memories and connections in a future blog. Back to Jeannine.

I learned how to make books and how to make them with first and second graders. It was so much fun! Jeannine was very active in giving her students hands-on learning experiences all day long and she also made them read for a really long block of time every day. She read with everybody, one-on-one, all the time. Kids who finished their books were encouraged to reread them once, even twice, if they had time. Reading was about intimate practice. Making books was about community creativity and the process invention.

At strategic times during her semester, she would engineer big class book projects that became community expressions of common experiences and responses to literature they read, or structures they built, or science experiments they conducted. Each book became part of the classroom library and was part of the shared story of the kids.

I believe she knew someone in Ache, Indonesia, when the tsunami struck in 2004. Instead of simply teaching kids it had happened on the other side of the world, it became an opportunity for her students to connect with pen pals. Simultaneously it began an altered book project that became each student’s chance to express what peace and love meant to them and their families.  Jeannine found an old, linen-bound book, the type you might have found in your grandparent’s basement, without the mold.  Each kid would take home the book for a week, choose a page, and make it their own. They wrote poetry, drew pictures, used paint, ink, white-out, fabric, or any art materials preserving the flatness of the book. She taught her young students how to transform a tragedy into a new kind of understanding about the world and their place in it. It was hard not to be inspired and I consider myself incredibly lucky to have been given the opportunity to learn from her.

She taught her young students how to transform a tragedy into a new kind of understanding about the world and their place in it. Somehow, she helped a bunch of 7 year-olds in Colorado, make a connection to a community with whom they had nothing in common, except perhaps their humanness. It was hard not to be inspired. I consider myself incredibly lucky to have been given the opportunity to learn from her.  Jeannine taught kids that reading is intensely personal and completely connected to human experience.  I was a profound and humbling experience for a young teacher on the cusp of a career.

She also started her day, every day, by welcoming her students with music. They walked in at three minutes till the bell to Simon and Garfunkle’s “Feelin’ Groovy”.  Whenever I hear the song played I always think about Jeannine and it stands as a powerful reminder to slow down and experience the art of teaching.

Sometimes when I puzzle over why education is in such a crisis, I think that teachers have forgotten, or been encouraged to forget, how much of an artist you must be to do it well. It has always been difficult for artists to justify (to their parents or governments), why art is critical to humanity and can be a calling in and of itself. It helps me to remember that these summer months are essential for me to seek inspiration.

It helps me to remember that these summer months are essential for me to find my muse; (she often disappears during the testing months of  March and April) and I spend May cleaning the studio. My job during the year is to see all the hues of each individual kid and mix them in a palette that compliments the whole canvas.  I have to manipulate the metal of their armatures to help them create the structures that will support their layers of experience. I have to take risks, trusting that my decisions will sculpt the fundamental shape of their brains in positive and lasting ways.

If you are a teacher but don’t consider yourself an artist, you should. You might be Picasso, Rembrandt, Klee, and Hurst all wrapped up in one person. You are creative, expressive, and visionary. You are not meant to simply analyze data, attend professional development meetings or share memes about coffee.

Teacher friends, enjoy your summer vacations, find your muse, for soon, we will all be called back to the canvas to engage in work that can be both beautiful and emotionally powerful.

 

 

 

 

“There is no oxytocin…”

One of the benefits of teaching kids on the verge of puberty is that we all laugh and laugh and laugh when we have to talk about it.  Tweenagers are such interesting animals! Their social sensibilities are developing, their political awareness is beginning, and their sense of humor is not quite the miracle of sarcasm that Middle Schoolers perfect. There are many opportunities to express laughter and excitement in any classroom, but 11 and 12 year-olds are my favorite group, by far. Not only are most of them still grateful for the advice and life skills you teach them, but they are more able to tackle the sometimes tragic and often challenging topics that make life poignant.

Another benefit of teaching kids is that you sometimes get to work with amazing people from the community. One year, I was so lucky to welcome some nursing students into my classroom for the end of the school year. My school sat right next to the Nursing College, but in the 15 years the school had been open, no collaboration had happened. I hope both schools are still partnering. The Nurses were completing their practicum classes and most of them were on the verge of graduation. They had all seen some pretty tough stuff. Not only did these folks get to observe kids in their natural developmental states, they helped in so many ways in the class.

They read with students, shared riddles and puzzles, made copies, filed newsletters, organized curriculum files, participated in games, danced, listened. It was a great experience from my point of view. Andrew came up with the quotation that begins this new blog. During a particularly awkward discussion about hormones and deodorant with very squirrely 5th graders, he quipped, “There is no oxytocin to dull the pain of 5th grade.” Perhaps not, but laughter is abundant and does a heck of a job.

Connecting students with a possible career is one of my goals. I teach the middle years when kids’ bodies and brains get weird and you can make much more of an impression on them as a human being than you can as an authority figure – or an assessment coordinator. At this age, teaching is so much about relationships and about helping kids see into the future.

I’ve recently read many differing perspectives on how to attract more teachers to the profession. My home state, Colorado, is facing extreme budgeting problems and a teacher shortage, despite being the healthiest economy in the region. News Flash – Colorado’s excellent culture boom will not last unless the state solves a very serious education problem. What Tech Executive is going to send their kids to a public school that can’t attract skilled professionals to educate their kids? It embarrasses me to know that Colorado was at the bottom of the heap in education funding three decades ago when I was a kid and has remained there.

Of course, salaries are a concern for teachers. Improving teacher salaries is a band-aid, and will always make us feel a little bit better if applied with gentle, loving care. The answer to solving our very real education crisis in this country is all about connections.

In an age where you need never talk to another human being, or wait more than a few minutes, to investigate most anything that makes you curious, what we lack as a country is a human connection. When schools and teachers seek opportunities, beyond field trips, to connect with skilled and compassionate adults, everybody wins.

These relationships are hard to quantify and are not the most immediate resources that come to mind in the current education climate, driven by data analysis and funded by governments. Nor are they a defensible reason to increase teacher salaries, despite being one of the most complicated aspects of my job and for which I have the most training. I have enough experience to know that no matter what standards we apply, which tests we administer, or what data points we track, there is no way to justify the value of human connections in a child’s life. And that is why I teach.

Welcome to the blog! I hope to continue to write about education and my experiences in teaching and I hope you tune in for further ramblings. I look forward to making a connection with you and maybe convincing you to pay that connection forward. Support a teacher, or a school by participating and we will all win.