Thursday, September 12, 2013

By The Numbers

It's a new beginning, of the 2013-2014 school year.

There's been a lot of changes taking place. First off, my son is now a Kindergartner at another school. I couldn't be prouder of him, but have been struggling a bit with him shedding his "baby blanket."  There's been staffing changes, good friends moving to new buildings or new grades, and then there's the numbers...

I have a high enrollment of 29 students in my class.  But I felt like this was the first year I was ready for it.  Seeing that I have enough Kindergartners to field two classes, my district has been looking for class-size relief.  In the interim a wonderful retired Kindergarten teacher / sub rose to the challenge of the first days of school to come in and help with all the bloody noses, the kid who bonked his head falling off the monkey bars and ended up needing stitches, sick kids in the office and the morning task of emptying ALL the take-home folders (and so much more).  She has all the qualities I would like to have more of: nurturing with the children where I can be a bit punitive, organized where I am flighty, and optimistic where I am cynical. But with her support I've been able to actually teach lessons and do plans.

The kids have also been great.  It never ceases to amaze me how quickly they just start to "get it" despite all the commotion going on around them. To minimize the commotion I have pared down my room to about as minimal as I can get it...and it looks and FEELS so much better to be in there.

Before our open house next week, we were asked to do a photo collage of ourselves "by the numbers" meaning we had to make big numbers and say why those numbers were significant. The only number I kept coming up with was 1... I have 1 son, I have 1 job. I am 1 teacher... it really didn't say much about myself or what I had to offer the kids, so I went with prose.  Plus, I felt like it minimized what I have to offer. I'd like to think I am a little bit more than the sum of my parts.

I think part of the reason I've been feel so positive, despite the giant challenge of teaching nearly 30 kids to read and write, is that this is the first year we haven't dedicated the first week or two to baseline testing.  I've been getting to know my students, ironing out behavioral problems, and letting the students play to get to know each other and observing them.  I feel so much calmer not trying to rush through 30 alphabet assessments just to count letters and crunch data on a rubric.

However, we haven't tossed the data piece overboard.  Next week my Kindergartners will have a computer program measuring their early literacy skills while I troubleshoot and try to make sure they have enough technology skills to operate a mouse to click on the answer they want.  Since this data piece is still something that is being required, I'm happy to let a computer do it so I can use classroom time to interact with the children and planning time to plan lessons instead of crunching numbers.  I think that is one of the main reasons I feel like I am finally getting a grasp of what is happening in my classroom.

I have finally been able to assess my students qualities before their quantitive data.  I am quickly learning what makes them tick, relax, excited or just plain happy to be at school.  And if they are happy to be there, they will be learning.  Our students, however many in a classroom, are so much greater than the sum of their assessments.  In Kindergarten I have the opportunity to see struggling learners grow into curious, creative, studious minds all as they develop from barely 5 years old to 6.

All of these thoughts were swimming through my mind (like fish on bicycles) until I found this online, and it really sums (pun intended) it all up...

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Home and Community

After our staff meeting the other day about huge demographic swings and our "school's report card," I got to thinking about my school and the students there.  I was thinking that most of our students don't know a single thing about the man our school was named after.  There is very little history in the school about the students who were there in the past. In fact, the most historical evidence of who we are as a school community comes only from the teachers who have been there for the last twenty years.  They understand who we are as a community, and they come through whenever there is a family in need or with a sick relative, or a baby is born with special medical needs.  Teachers understand this sense, but what about the students ? How can we teach them about what community means?  How can we foster a sense of unity and unified identity as "tigers."  What does it mean to be a "tiger?"  What are our strongest attributes and accomplishments?  We do address this by displaying student work.  Truly I enjoy walking down our halls and seeing what all the 4 to 11 year olds are doing.

Students spend the majority of their waking hours at school.  They need to feel valued as a student and community member to find purpose and meaning in the work they are doing there. They need to feel encouraged by their peers and teachers, to meet the high expectations that we have met before and will continue to pass with flying colors in the future.  There is a storyline to this.  We all have a story, and our collective students have a story about where they have come from and what great things they have done, and this is not accounted for in the "school's report card."

I came back to this theme thinking about my own personal life.  I have been living in Green Bay now for seven years. I don't have family there, but I do feel like I belong.  I feel like I have community.  Being a single parent, I have constraints to ensure my son spends his placement time with both his parents.  I came to think that home truly is where the people you love are, and when my son is away it doesn't feel much like home.  I have community but a shaky home.  I have grown to love my students and the people I work with much like family, and I feel very much at home where I work.  I want my students to feel that "homeyness" too.  Not all children go home to a place where they are cherished, but I hope that if they feel that way at school they will be glad to be there and do whatever it is we're doing.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Less is More

I recently finished the book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell.    To understand the premise of the book, I couldn't explain it better than the author.  Here is a snippet of Gladwell's summary, but you can read it in its entirety at .

"It's a book about rapid cognition, about the kind of thinking that happens in a blink of an eye. When you meet someone for the first time, or walk into a house you are thinking of buying, or read the first few sentences of a book, your mind takes about two seconds to jump to a series of conclusions. Well, "Blink" is a book about those two seconds, because I think those instant conclusions that we reach are really powerful and really important and, occasionally, really good."

From this book I took two lessons that apply to my teaching.
1.  When I come to a conclusion that resonates as illogical or untrue, I need to step back and reflect if I reached this conclusion due to biases or my own preconceptions.

I have gotten frustrated and impatient with students who are distracting in the classroom.  However, there isn't a single Kindergartner who simply lives to make my job difficult.  I have found the kids who are distracting in the classroom to either: crave attention, have a hearing deficit, unable to control their own impulses, or just want to make friends. This is something it has taken 6 years as a teacher to learn.  By finally realizing it isn't the students are against me, I have been able to deal with the distracting students much more effectively.  This preconception of naughty kids was impeding my classroom management.

2. In order to make better decisions, it isn't necessary to weigh ALL the variables, but only the ones that are key.  Relatedly, to make better decisions it is important to cut out the extraneous distractions and focus on what is truly making the difference.  The bare objective is the hinge on which differentiation hangs.

In the classroom I translate this into what are the objectives.  It is very easy as teachers to get wrapped up in the end product, or the project, or additional skills, when for many students these are distracting or too difficult. When students aren't meeting standards or expectations I have to do less, not more. I have to resurface the objective is and determine if the child understands what is being taught, and what skill is this child lacking.

 I have found that many of the kinder students who don't always look very successful on paper are quite bright.   In my memory I was one of these students: young with a summer birthday. I could imagine my drawings but they came out looking like I had sausage links for curls on my self-portraits.  People laughed, I withdrew.

I have one little student who cannot write.  Simply grabbing the pencil and forming letters or numbers is too hard for him.  He doesn't have the strength in his hands yet, but cognitively he is extremely bright.  For math, the spaces that are in the math book to write the numbers are too small. Already he is embarrassed and feels incapable.  What do I do? I have sent him to make a big copy of the page.  I let him work with a partner who invariably takes over and does it for him (I really need to train those Kinders better to be helpful, but not OVERLY so). Unfortunately with the insistence on testing and uniformity, we are cajoled into using the math program as it was written.  This little boy looks at those math pages and recoils.

There is a lot of print on the pages in the math book.  To some of the children it looks intimidating and "noisy." I would like to boil it down to the objectives, and make accessing those objectives engaging and appealing.  Can he add blocks? Can he add matchbox cars to his parking garage? Yes.

The other side of this coin is that students need to understand what the objective is and what information is extra.  My students are beginning to understand that, as evidenced in the following conversation,
Student - "Ms. Broo-ooo-wwwwn, he didn't finish writing his story."
Me - "Oh? Did he tell you what his story is about?"
Student - "Yes, he is just coloring his picture."
Me - "Pictures are important parts of stories. I'm glad he is working hard on it and that he has a good story that he shared with you."
Student walks away satisfied with response and leaves the other student to draw.
Here the objective is whether students students can represent a personal narrative in age-appropriate writing.  For this student, writing is centered around his picture.  His ability to write words is still in a very early stage of development, but age appropriate.

I have found that in cutting out what isn't necessary I have become much more focused, goal-oriented, and less stressed out.  Even physically, I have emptied storage and filing cabinets of materials that are obsolete, and in turn have made much more room for my students and their need to move.  To do more with my students I am doing less with them.  Fewer lessons, but more meaningful.  Fewer topics, but more deeply.  

Sunday, January 13, 2013

The Difference

This year I am enjoying having my own classroom with 25 delightful students.  My class is composed of 17 boys and 8 girls.  When I learned this is the beginning of the year, I was slightly put on edge with the thought of having so many little active 5 year old boys, but they have turned out to be remarkably well-behaved with a great deal of self-control. My class is also reading at a higher level than my previous students.  Of course there are a few outlier students: the young girl recently immigrated from Mexico who turned 5 at the end of August, the boy whose dad is incarcerated and that is all he can think about, and students with special needs.

What I have found with my students is that their parents this year are stepping up and making the difference.  Where before parents were hard to reach, I have parents consistently checking their child's backpack, sending notes with questions, and reading to their children at home.  In some of the single-parent households, I have moms and dads stepping up to do double duty, never faltering to be there for their child, and especially never making up excuses for their child or parenting.  On the other hand, I have one student whose parents make excuses for their parenting and for his behavior.  His mother is a cancer survivor, but the illness has seemed to cripple her spirit as much or more than her body.

The difference made in a child's life lies first and foremost with the person or people who love and care for them the most.  As a teacher, as much as I care for that child, I can never replace what a parent has done or failed to provide for their child.  The parents and children in my classroom this year have taught me that all students truly are capable of achieving great things when no one makes excuses for them.  Empathy shouldn't be construed into excuses or enabling.   Our students are capable of achieving greatness.

Friday, August 31, 2012


Freedom has a price, but it is always worth paying.

On a personal note, I found myself being grateful for a new plot of freedom today.  My divorce was granted after a two and a half year separation and three and half year turbulent, hellish relationship preceding the separation.  Six years later I am now legally free of someone, or to be more politically correct, a situation that I found suffocating and depression.  Thousands of dollars in legal fees and many  tears shed later, I am now free to move forward and live as an individual.

It sounds trite, perhaps, but I feel more patriotic or "American" today than I think I ever have.  As an individual now, I have the liberty to my own life and pursuit of happiness.  This is a freedom earned with sacrifice: tears, time, dollars, worry, life pursuits put on hold waiting for and workings towards a resolution.

On a professional note, I am starting the year anew.  In this year I find myself relishing freedom to plan following a new structure for our bilingual programming. I also have the freedom of space since I am no longer team teaching. I would consider the companionship and collaboration of team-teaching a sacrifice I have endured for the freedom of autonomy and space.  I will miss my co-teacher immensely this year, though she will just be up a grade and down the hall.

Professionally and politically, I am recalling a professor I had last summer.  Dr. Jean Erdmann and UW-Oshkosh said in lecture, "teaching is a political act." To paraphrase, when you educate a child you are engaged in a political act; you are raising them up rungs on the societal ladder. You are teaching them to think to make critical political decisions in the future.  You are empowering them with knowledge, to not be controlled by a tyrant. I think some of the meeker classmates found this statement a bit jarring, but I found it to be inspiring and true.  I often think of her lecture when my inner "chi" isn't sufficing and I need to seek out my inner "Che."  Even moreso in this political climate I am inspired to teach to the best of my ability.  I have seen where ignorance has brought us, and democracy won't hold on unless new generations of citizens are here to revitalize it with intelligent debate based in fact, and not inflammatory rhetoric based in fear.

In closing I am reminded of one of my favorite songs from one of my favorite musicals: One Day More from Les Miserables.

One day to a new beginning
Raise the flag of freedom high!Every man will be a kingEvery man will be a kingThere's a new world for the winningThere's a new world to be wonDo you hear the people sing?

This day is done. Now there is a new beginning for me, there is a new beginning for my Kinder students, and maybe a new beginning bubbling below the ballot boxes in this politically charged time.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Environment

In keeping with the theme of my blog I feel compelled to write about my students' learning environment.
There are some things I can't control about my classroom: physical size or number of students, but I can control what goes into the classroom, how it's arranged, and how tidy it stays.

This year we have had 31 students and 2 teachers in our classroom. As much as I like to keep a classroom environment flexible and adaptive, the students I had this year in Kindergarten seemed to require tomato cages or a trellis.  This year countless toys and books were broken or mistreated, furniture scrawled on with markers, pencils broken purposefully, crayons constantly snapped in half. It was frustrating to see this behavior, but I think I was also channeling a lot of the frustration my students were feeling about not having spaces to grow, be themselves, have quiet OR social activities, and to have more choices... to just be kids and breathe!  As am I cleaning the room and packing things away for summer, I am thinking about next fall already.

While I look forward to spending time outside this summer and doing light landscaping, I see in my backyard that plants always do better when they have their own space and aren't being taken over by weeds. I want the students to have spaces where they can explore through a variety of sensory activities, rather than constantly working with writing implements at their tables.  I want them to have room to stretch out, feel comfortable, and get their own needed time in the sun.
This year we simply didn't have a lot of room for much else. I want to weed out unnecessary furniture and get rid of filing cabinets and go as paperless as possible. This is a tall order for a teacher, as any teacher tends to be a packrat "just in case we might use it in the future."  I see so many inspiring pictures of other teachers' classrooms, through their blogs and want very much to be there, but I seem to not have been born with the organizational gene. Just like I have taught myself to like foods I didn't have a taste for (olives, anyone?) I am trying to teach myself to find a place for everything, and if it doesn't have a place, it isn't needed. I think part of me finds purpose in disarray. When things are disheveled I can look around and know where everything is. It's visually stimulating. My brain doesn't seem to handle calm well, which maybe is a good trait to have for a Kindergarten teacher.

But my classroom has to function for my students, not for me. I want to give them all their space.  Today in a visual survey of my room I estimated that "teacher only" areas account for at least 30% of the space.  This simply isn't right. Students deserve and require that space to have optimal experiences in Kindergarten. They need sand tables, listening centers, computers, dramatic play areas, construction areas, art areas and quiet reading areas, all of which was nearly denied to my students this year because of my inability to provide the space, organization, expectations, and framework for them to do these activities in. I want to whittle my teacher areas to having my desk with the computer on it and utilizing my guided reading table as a seating area for students when they all need to be working at their tables (like during math time).   Spaces that can be multi-purpose need to be, and centers areas that students will use daily need to remain set-up and organized for student use.

Although I am wholly responsible for my classroom environment, one obstacle I am find in teaching is that more and more of our Kindergarten curriculum is becoming "sit and get," which is antithetical to the way in which the majority of Kindergarteners learn. When we expect 31 young children to all be performing the same task at the same time, it becomes a game of herding cats, or turbo Whack-a-Mole. Of course there are times when we need all of the students to be together, but I believe if students are given more freedom throughout the day, these times of class gathering become more meaningful and less taxing for wiggly kids (and their teacher).

I'm looking to weeding my Kindergarten and having a flower bed ready for my new little sprouts in the fall.  In the meantime Pinterest is going to be my idea shop.  Here are a few gems I found from First Grade Fresh.

Listening Center
Meeting Area with directions, objectives

And more from

Student materials are low, teacher materials are stored using "up" space.

In other environmental news, our school is raising funds for a natural playground.  I hope that we can make this dream a reality for our students, many of whom come from apartments or trailer homes where having their own back yard isn't feasible. There is so much more to play than asphalt, balls, and slides. My favorite thing to do when I was a kid (and probably adult) was sculpt things out of mud and mix in pine needles like straw in a mud hut. I really think kids should be getting dirtier at school.

This is what I hope will take shape in our giant swath of grass. We have the space, let's mix it up!
The above design was created by Bienenstock Natural Playgrounds. I feel that our school is very fortunate to be working with this great organization.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Give up...

I got home tonight with my son. He saw kids riding up and down our street and called out to them, "Hello! Come play with me!"  For a few minutes I had one of those moments parents have when they finally are certain of the growth and change their child is making. He doesn't need me or want me around at all waking hours like he used to.  Today I saw him reaching out to kids he didn't know, out of his shell, and I realized my baby is nearly ready for school.  It can be a tough pill to swallow, or is it that big lump you get in your throat when you have to let something go?

I came up and checked my Facebook and saw a fellow teacher friend who posted this link:
I think that this article speaks to something I find as true, that we create our own happiness with what we have. It isn't the prize we earn when we finally get to point B, or the new house, a new car, or a diamond ring. It is the spiritual grounding you have in your own life and how we manage inevitable challenges.

Although there are 15 things to give up, I found the following from the article to be the most applicable as of late.

Be willing to give up your need to always control everything that happens to you and around you – situations, events, people, etc. Whether they are loved ones, coworkers, or just strangers you meet on the street – just allow them to be. Allow everything and everyone to be just as they are and you will see how much better will that make you feel.
“By letting it go it all gets done. The world is won by those who let it go. But when you try and try. The world is beyond winning.” Lao Tzu
There are many things I cannot immediately control: my class-size in number of students, my income (or lack thereof), etc., but I can manage them.  I find that I am sometimes fighting my boisterous students for them to be quiet so we can continue on, but there is really no way I can MAKE them be quiet.  I just have to find a way to manage their disruption so they don't find it rewarding to be disruptive and the rest of the students can continue on. 

about what you can or cannot do, about what is possible or impossible. From now on, you are no longer going to allow your limiting beliefs to keep you stuck in the wrong place. Spread your wings and fly!
“A belief is not an idea held by the mind, it is an idea that holds the mind” Elly Roselle

Kindergartners can achieve so much when they are given the right enriching experiences that inspire them to learn. They often remind me that learning is limitless when I see how much they achieve in 9 months.

 Give up your constant need to complain about those many, many, maaany things – people, situations, events that make you unhappy, sad and depressed. Nobody can make you unhappy, no situation can make you sad or miserable unless you allow it to. It’s not the situation that triggers those feelings in you, but how you choose to look at it. Never underestimate the power of positive thinking.
Lately I feel I have done too much complaining. Despite it being a tough year, no excuses.  I think I am going to start filing them away.


 Change is good. Change will help you move from A to B. Change will help you make improvements in your life and also the lives of those around you. Follow your bliss, embrace change – don’t resist it.
“Follow your bliss and the universe will open doors for you where there were only walls” 
Joseph Campbell
Sometimes I have a hard time determining my bliss. Yesterday I spun one of my students around in circles (he was having a bad day) and watch his face light up as he squealed with delight.  I love cooking, especially when it turns out, photography... I think though in many ways I have been trying to find footing in my personal life, and perhaps I am holding on and searching with my feet where there is no footing yet.
Not me, wish it was!
and lastly for tonight:
This is a concept that, for most of us is so hard to grasp and I have to tell you that it was for me too, (it still is) but it’s not something impossible. You get better and better at with time and practice. The moment you detach yourself from all things, (and that doesn’t mean you give up your love for them – because love and attachment have nothing to do with one another,  attachment comes from a place of fear, while love… well, real love is pure, kind, and self less, where there is love there can’t be fear, and because of that, attachment and love cannot coexist) you become so peaceful, so tolerant, so kind, and so serene. You will get to a place where you will be able to understand all things without even trying. A state beyond words.
I love my son beyond words, and I am growing to accept that it is okay for me to love the time I spent with him when he was a "baby." But I cannot keep him as a baby forever. I think as a single parent who misses out on some of the time with him, I fear losing him or his love.  I know that it is an irrational fear, but there it is, nonetheless.

I think anyone should check out 15 Things You SHould Give Up To Be Happy for a little bit of introspection and self-reflection.  I'm sure there is something there that anyone would feel they could work on.

This entry is for my grandma who passed a year ago today.  I love her and all memories of her. I'd like to think that her simplicity and sensibility guides me a little bit everyday.

And also to my mom, who cried on my first day of Kindergarten.
Happy Mother's Day, Mom.  Thanks for pushing me through those big, red double doors at Pitsch Elementary, even though part of you maybe wanted to pick me up and run back home.

Maybe it's a little gift for you to know I'm right back in Kindergarten where you left me that day, hair still wild and curly and glasses still thick and plastic, fashion sense only slightly improved.