On Behavior, Santa, & Things Getting Complicated Real Quick #TeacherMom

Despite keeping the whole Santa/behavior thing fairly low-profile in our home, we worried our daughter was still internalizing it from various sources (school, movies, etc) pretty intensely.

Our fears were confirmed one day a few weeks ago as she expressed concern about “not being good enough.” She asked us whether other kids getting more for Christmas meant they were “good-er” than her.

Just to be clear, people. She wasn’t just worried about getting nothing (or coal) if she “was bad.” She had observed relative hauls among peers, and drew the logical conclusion that kids who get less simply aren’t as good as kids who get more.

If you’ve watched Pixar’s Inside Out, you’ll understand when I say that in that moment, all systems were in freak-out mode for a moment, and I’m still not sure if Fear or Anger were more in control. If you haven’t, let’s just say that the primitive mama-bear protective instincts were fully awakened.

And it’s why this tweet from Adam McKim got an amen from me:

Now, when it comes to behavior, I am perfectly fine with consequences, loss of privilege, follow-through, time-out–the works.

But we take great care in our family discipline to ensure our kids understand their worth is unchanging. She may make a bad choice, but she is not a bad kid. And because she is a good kid, we know she can make better choices next time.

Nothing–not a perfectly-behaved class, and certainly not Santa–is worth jeopardizing our kids’ notions of self-worth.

That’s why I believe that as parents and teachers, we must always be on the lookout for when our actions send unintended messages. Like when our praise gets understandably concentrated on the kids who are naturally more comfortable with speaking up. Or when our rewards become more about control than encouragement.

All of this is much easier said than done, of course–after all, I would never have guessed that my daughter’s interpretations of Santa had gone so far as to touch on economic implications, and I’m grateful she brought it up! We are all so different and complex. But as we continue to work to prioritize our individual relationships with our students, we will be more likely to clarify misunderstandings and grow mutual respect.

featured image: Christian Weldinger

Converting Frustration to Teaching Moments #TeacherMom

Last week, I asked my 6 year-old to get something from the car. I knew the item had fallen under the seats, so I added the instruction, “Make sure you look all over!”

She came back empty-handed, telling me it wasn’t there. Of course, with mom omnipotence (momnipotence?), I knew that item was indeed in the car and that she had simply not looked thoroughly enough.

Anyhow, I was ready to heave my usual sigh and go look for it myself when it occurred to me that “look all over” is a very vague and abstract concept for a 6 year-old. My mind jumped to an old-school Sesame Street episode featuring Grover we had recently watched:

I referenced Grover’s silly song about prepositions, telling her, “Try checking one more time, only this time, be sure to be like Grover and look ‘Around…over…under…and through’ all the seats.”

Though she did not end up finding the object during her second search either, she nevertheless took much longer and was clearly far more thorough (in the end I discovered it had fallen down into a remote and camouflaged corner).

As I reflected on that small teaching opportunity, I realized how often I take for granted what I think my kids ought to be able to do, yielding to frustration rather than teaching. In my classroom, I generally made it a point to help my students explicitly identify, “what does _____ look/sound/feel like” (ie, what does working respectfully in pairs look/sound/feel like?).

Yet there were still moments when I felt frustrated by shortcomings I felt my fifth graders should just know by now (penmanship, writing in complete sentences, group work skills). The reality was usually that they simply needed more modeling, more support, more patience.

I hope this #TeacherMom moment will help me better recognize those learning opportunities with my own children and my future students.

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

Top 10 Read Alouds for Upper Elementary from 2016

2016 has been an excellent reading year for me. I’ve renewed my use of Goodreads, enjoyed sequels in favorite series, and discovered a new genre I deeply enjoy (more on that later). My old lists of read alouds for upper elementary grades featured a lot of favorites I had read long ago (first list, second list), but not a lot of recent reads.

So to keep my recommendations fresh, and to help me keep up my momentum of reading more books, I want to start making a habit of sharing my favorites reads at the end of each year, starting today (note, these are not necessarily books published this year, but rather ones that I read this year). Hopefully this list will be timely for teachers looking for a quality winter-break stack (and for my own children and students down the road)!

#10: Confessions of an Imaginary Friend: A Memoir by Jacques Papier, by Michelle Cuevas

This book had me tickled by the fact that, without the title, readers wouldn’t even realize the narrator was not, in fact, a living breathing member of the family for the first several chapters. Rather, he seems more like just a kid with a lot of problems with getting ignored. This is a genre that I’ve designated as “other-worldly whimsical,” a personally-defined subset of modern fantasy of which I find myself constantly wanting more. A hilarious yet profound read about belonging and self-understanding.

#9The Boy Who Swam with Piranhas, by David Almond

This book originally caught my eye because of Oliver Jeffers. I was delighted to discover that David Almond’s style very much parallel’s Jeffers’. Follow Stanley Potts as he discovers his destiny far from his fish-canning home. You and your students will enjoy themes of courage, confidence, wonder, rules, and conformity. Also one I’d classify “other-worldly whimsical.”

#8: The Magician’s Elephant, by Kate DiCamillo

The Magician’s Elephant felt like a lovely poem or perhaps a dream. “We must ask ourselves these questions as often as we dare. How will the world change if we do not question it?” Peter Augustus Duchene changes his world by asking the question, “Does my sister live?” Readers then follow him through an enchanting and mysterious tale of truth and love.

#7: The War that Saved My Life, by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

Like the Pevensies of Narvia, Ada and her little brother are sent to the country away from war-torn London during WWII. There, they, too, discover a new world with their caretaker–one full of love, acceptance, and hope. This historical fiction will move and inspire your class.

#6: The Wild Robot, by Peter Brown

This outdoor adventure-loving girl fell in love with this book the moment I read the words, “If you stand still in nature long enough, something will fall on you.” It’s just so–real. Peter Brown helps us ponder what might actually happen if an advanced A.I. robot found herself on an uninhabited island. How might she adapt to her surroundings? Would she be able to learn the language of animals? And would she–a man-made creation–be able to find her place in the natural world?

#5: The Inquisitor’s Tale, Or Three Magical Children & Their Holy Dogby Adam Gidwitz

From the fascinating approach to narration, to the way we are invited to truly access life in medieval times, this is a fresh and truly unique story. I especially loved the idea of “illumination” as opposed to illustration, keeping in line with a common medieval practice. Learn of three children whose powers have the entire kingdom–from the king of France down–in awe, fear, and/or admiration.

#4: The Seventh Wish, by Kate Messner 

See my review here.

#3: Pax, by Sara Pennypacker

This is a tale of bonds that even miles and a war-torn country cannot break. Follow a story that shifts in perspective between Pax the fox and his boy, Peter.

#2: Lockwood & Company, The Screaming Staircase, by Jonathan Stroud

If you are looking for a series that will have your students begging for more, this is it (I actually read book 4 in the series this year, The Creeping Shadow, and am dying to find out when book 5 comes out!). Lucy and her companions, Lockwood and George, are teenage agents working to rid London of the Problem (a development in which ghosts return, wreaking panic and death among the living). Only children can see the Visitors, but Lockwood’s is the only company that consists only of children. It is a bit creepy, so you might want to run it by your students before choosing it as a read aloud–but if they aren’t too nervous, it will have them on the edge of their seats!

#1: Three Times Lucky, by Sheila Turnage

I just finished reading the third and final book in this series (The Odds of Getting Even), and I loved every moment of it! Mo is probably the wittiest and sassiest 6th grader you’ll meet, and her best friend Dale is an equally loveable character. Follow the duo as they establish the Desperados Detective Agency and solve a murder. Packed with hilarious figurative language, mystery, and small town charm, Three Times Lucky is simply a must-read!

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

What is the Ship? What is the Sea? 4 Ideas for Vision #TeacherMom

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These words turn my mind to all the spheres of my life, past and present. What is the ship? What is the sea?

When I look at my children, the ship-building vision comes readily: raising healthy, happy, and competent individuals. It’s why I require them to wear clean underwear, to eat vegetables, to brush their teeth, to say ‘sorry.’

When I recall my 5th graders, a similar ship comes to mind: self-aware and self-driven people who can drive their personal learning and growth. It’s why I asked them to write in complete sentences, to reflect with peers, to study out evidence for thinking, to keep track of goals.

I find it interesting how easily these tasks and expectations quickly slip from being part of grander vision, down to dreary repetition. In isolation, no one much wants to do any of those things. But when we elevate our sights to that “vast and endless sea,” our days change. A few ideas come to mind when I consider how we can help our children and students catch the vision of the sea, not only for their futures, but for their present daily experiences:

    • Constantly ask why, and help them to do the same. It’s tough because there is always so much to do in a perpetually tight schedule, but it’s worth the effort to slow down. Ensure students aren’t just “getting it done” so we can get it done. I admire the way Katherine Hansen brings the why into a simple yet effective place in her classroom:

  • Deliberately cultivate creativity and inspiration. Show videos of awe-inspiring phenomena, mind-boggling inventions, and stories of perseverance and possibility. Help them find their personal passion to help them drive their daily efforts.
  • Let them experience natural consequences. This is not really about “tough love,” grades, or getting them to see how correct we are in our requests for them to perform the daily tasks. It’s about helping them gradually discover the need for these tasks and skills independently. And it requires a lot of metacognition instruction on our part to help them think more about their thinking process so they can identify what is going wrong and what is going right.
  • Cultivate ownership, choice, and voice. Yes, they still have to wear clean underwear and write in complete sentences. But when we give our kids as many choices as possible and let them in on the learning plan, it makes a tremendous difference in their ability to see beyond the mundane daily to-do list. Check out this fantastic example of student agency by Charlotte Hills.

If we’re not careful, life can become like one long series of “gathering wood, dividing the work, and giving orders.” Elevate the vision. Seek the inspiration. And help all those around you to also “yearn for the vast and endless sea.”

I would love to hear more ideas for ways you help your students elevate their vision! Please share in the comments!

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

A 2 Year-Old’s Favorite “Things That Go” Books #TeacherMom

You know your local library rocks when even your two year-old can access his favorites with ease. One such accessibility detail includes sorting the high-interest books by category, such as ABC’s, colors, dinosaurs, princesses, potty training, and above all (at least in my son’s eyes), “Things that Go.”

Every week, he makes a beeline for that section, quickly piling books on tractors, buses, cars, boats, planes, and bikes (and every week, we face the immortal struggle as he refuses add his books to the bag, but he can’t carry his entire selection. I can’t be the only parent that has failed to convince their child of the purpose of the book bag, can I?).

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Over time, I’ve come to notice he has definite preferences. So, for other parents of “things-that-go”-loving kids out there, I thought I’d share those for today’s #TeacherMom post. After all, every book in their hands that helps them make significant personal meaning is what it’s all about. And right now, for my son, most of that significant personal meaning revolves around “things that go.” So here we go:

construction

His absolute most-selected “things-that-go” book is Sally Sutton’s “Construction.” It might be the attention to detail in constructing a building. Or the variety of tractors and construction vehicles. Or perhaps the fun rhythm and abundant onomatopoeia. Or all of the above.

night-driving

This is probably the most my son has enjoyed a black-and-white illustrated book. “Night Driving,” by John Coy depicts a special nighttime road trip with a father and his son.

sheep-in-a-jeep

Sheep in a Jeep” by Nancy Shaw has now brought multi-generational delight to my family. The spare rhymes offer endless laughter with hilarious illustrations to match.

the-plan

Alison Paul’s “The Plan” is an instant classic. For now, my son just enjoys the process of a child constructing a plane, but eventually, I’m sure he’ll come to appreciate the deeper themes, along with the simple literary construct of shifting one letter per page.

flight-1-2-3

“Flight 1-2-3” by Maria van Lieshout is another frequent choice. The graphic design and use of actual airport symbols engage my son every time.

axel-annie

A bus + an enjoyable story-line of perseverance = another favorite read. “Axle Annie” by Robin Pulver will have your child wondering what’s next!

little-blue-truck

Alice Schertle’s “Little Blue Truck” gets double points with my 2 year-old as it brings farm animals into the mix. And I love that it addresses what kindness really means.

who-sank-the-boat

Another oldie-but-eternally-goodie is Pamela Allen’s “Who Sank the Boat?” It’s always fun for little ones to guess who, in fact, will sink that boat!

on-the-move

“Little Explorers: On the move” by Ruth Martin is a recent nonfiction discovery that has also become an instant favorite. My son spends a good deal of time checking under every single flap.

little-reds-riding-hood

“Little Red’s Riding ‘Hood” by Peter Stein is a delightful vehicular fractured fairy tale. Little Red the scooter meets the big bad Tank–what’s not to love?

old-mcdonald-had-a-truck

“Old MacDonald Had a Truck” by Steve Goetz is another fabulous vehicles-meets-farm story, with an ending that reveals what Old MacDonald and Mrs. MacDonald have been working on all along.

duck-on-a-bike

In “Duck on a Bike” by David Shannon, Duck shares his bike-riding antics with all the other farm animals–and finds out what happens when a bunch of kids park their bikes.

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

If Only Parents Would…

My initiation to the parent side of the school table was abrupt and rather unpleasant. It was the first of many moments over the last two years that would expand my perspective and empathy as an educator. I have been reflecting lately on my old list of things I wished parents would do:

If only parents would

  • Practice spelling with their students for just a couple minutes each night.
  • Check their child’s backpack every day.
  • Sign the reading log.
  • Help their child practice math facts at home.

Interestingly enough, now that I have a first grader myself, my wish list for her teachers have very little to do with the list above:

If only teachers would

  • See my child as a person–not a benchmark result–first.
  • Help her con-construct meaning for herself rather than rely on worksheets.
  • Focus less on compliance and control and more on student voice/choice and ownership.

When I examine these two lists carefully, I have a few important takeaways:

  • My old “if only parents” list was more focused on grades and standards.
  • My new “if only teachers” list is more about student autonomy and powerful learning.
  • When I return to the classroom, my new “if only parents” list will undergo at least 2 important changes:
    • It will be transparent and more collaborative in nature (I hope it will become less of an “if only” list and more of an ongoing dialogue with parents).
    • It will stop assuming that parents who don’t worry about grades aren’t concerned about learning (because they are most certainly not one and the same).
  • Getting on the same page as teachers and parents is easier when we stop making assumptions and start finding better communication channels (not just #StudentVoice, but #ParentVoice, too).
  • I need to make it a point to find out my future students’ parents’ “If only teachers would” lists (ie, while I would personally be inclined to do away with homework altogether, I will be sure to work with parents to find out their thoughts and needs for their individual children).

Do you spot any other tips for me? How have you improved parent/teacher communication?

featured image: clogsilk

The Self-Perpetuating Cycle of Authentic Creativity

Earlier this summer, my daughter started expressing interest in all things behind-the-scenes-movie-making. Not only did she seem more attentive during the “bonus features” than the movies themselves, but she took rapt illustrated notes as she watched.

When she told us she wanted to make movies for Disney when she grows up, I sensed a learning opportunity. I downloaded a stop motion video-making app for her to explore (Stop Motion Studio on Android).

Though the first attempt was pretty rough, I was impressed that a 6 year-old was able to figure out a fairly complex creative app almost completely independently. After some time exploring, I offered her an additional resource: a camera holder. We Googled some solutions together, found a cardboard lid, cut some slots, and let her roll. Below was her attempt a few days later:

Over the months, I noticed continued exploration of the the app’s features and techniques, including altering the speed of the stop motion, adding music, and typing in titles to her videos.

She also wanted to watch examples of high quality stop motion videos on Youtube. Her favorites were this:

…this…

and this… (which included a particularly rich conversation as she watched with wonder and made hypotheses on how each shot was created. We paused, rewound, and re-watched frame-by-frame. It was a magic in and of itself to watch her try to unravel the mystery).

I was not surprised when our mini-film festival inspired her to create something new, with markedly improved technique:

But I was ever so surprised to find that as I went about my business later that day, I was suddenly struck with an idea for a stop motion video myself (having had a bumpy, less-than confident relationship with creativity in the past). So we brought “Goldilocks and the 3 Chairs” to life together (the “river” and “bridge” were her additions):

I would never have guessed when I first downloaded the app that this would have evolved into such an enjoyable shared pursuit. And I marvel at the skills that she is developing (no sticker charts, grades, or rewards needed here!):

  • Story structure Over time, I can see her getting better at developing a beginning, middle, and end of her stories. She’s also considering settings, characters, and key details that bring a story to life.
  • Phonics As she slowly locates each letter on the keypad for her titles, she is making connections about spelling rules and “rule-breakers.”
  • Speaking and listening I listen to her record her voice, listen back, and then rerecord over and over until she is satisfied with the way it sounds.
  • Media literacy All this device and app exploration has increased her confidence in navigating and wielding the device features.
  • PATIENCE Would you have thought it possible for a 6 year-old to spend hours going back and forth between snapping photos and making infinitesimal adjustments to her set over and over and over again? Me neither.

The teacher-side of me is reminded that when we allow ourselves to be authentic participants of the learning (and not just the ringmaster or director of it as it swirls or marches around us), not only is that learning exponentially enhanced for our students, but it is enhanced for ourselves. The entire process becomes self-perpetuating in an ever richer cycle. And the relationships are deepened in a way that worksheets and boxed units can simply never replicate.

featured image: r. nial bradshaw