What makes you happy?

I enjoyed hearing Pat share about The Happiness Project over dinner last week, and just started reading it last night on my iPad. It got me thinking about what makes me happy in teaching. I’ve had some difficult years where it was very hard to focus on what made me happy. Years where the days that ended in tears far outweighed the days that ended with a smile. Years where I really questioned whether I could stay in this career or not. This year, in my first year teaching kindergarten, I am happier than I’ve ever been in my teaching career. On my run this evening I reflected on why – what is it that has me being so happy as a teacher right now?

1. The kids. I absolutely love my students. They are funny, sweet, caring, energetic, loud, wiggly, creative, bouncy, squirmy, fabulous, thoughtful, inquisitive, wonderful little people. They love being at school and make our classroom such a happy place for us all to be. They force me to be in the present – in the “right now” – because that’s where their world exists. They celebrate the littlest things and help me see the beauty and magic in the 1/2 inch that our plant grows overnight, the magnets in our science center, the first words they put in their books and that first book they read all by themselves. Every day has little celebrations woven throughout. Even when things get tough (and yes they do get tough, as in any classroom) we work through the problems and end up back in our happy place. They seem to get, in their 5 and 6 year old wisdom, that life is short – fix our problems quickly so we can hug and go back to play. I learn so much from my students every day.

2. My team. I work with 2 dedicated, passionate, fun teachers and 3 amazing instructional assistants, as well as a wonderful ESOL team. I feel supported, encouraged and connected unlike any year before in my teaching career. It makes all the difference when you have team members you can share with, reflect with and create with. I never realized the power of collaboration until this year. I learn from these wise educators every day.

3. My school. I feel respected as an educator and trusted to make decisions in my classroom. This is huge. I am VERY aware of how little this happens in other schools around the country. Being trusted as a knowledgeable professional in your classroom and school is empowering and motivating and something ALL teachers should have. And it can make all the difference in how happy you are at work.

4. The play. Our day is full of play. Pure play, playful learning, playful discoveries, outdoor play, dramatic play, literacy/math/science play. Purposeful play that supports children in learning and growing in a developmentally appropriate way. How can you not be happy when your day is full of play? I work hard every day. I go home utterly exhausted. But I like to think of it as playing all day, because it rarely occurs as “work”.

5. The books. Reading books to kindergarteners is pure joy. I love sharing my passion for books with my young learners. They get so excited when I introduce a new book, they love reading books by themselves and with a friend, and they love hearing books read aloud. I get to plan great books to read for our curriculum and share them with my kids. It’s really one of the best parts of my job. Helping to cultivate a love of reading and writing through complete immersion in the wonderful children’s books that are out there is a tough job. But someone has to do it. 😉 I’m so happy it gets to be me.

What makes you happy? 

How do you stay happy in the face of the many challenges facing education and educators currently?

We are Versatile Bloggers!

A huge thank you to Cathy at Reflect & Refine for nominating us for the Versatile Blogger Award! This blog has been a fun adventure to keep us writing after Catching Readers was published. After accepting this honor we are asked to:

1. Thank the person (people) who nominated you and provide a link back to their blog.                                                2. Share 7 things about you (us).                                               3. Pass this award along to 15 other blogs that you have discovered.

So here we go! Enjoy!

7 things about Pat:

1.)   I’m an avid reader of adult fiction, professional books on teaching reading and writing, and children’s literature.  (My favorite authors are Barbara Kingsolver, Geraldine Brooks, and Ann Patchett.)

2.)   I walk 4-8 miles every day for exercise.  It’s when I do most of my good thinking.

3.)   I have four grandkids, two in Virginia and two in Phoenix, and love spending tons of time with them – going to parks, reading books, or just tickling and cuddling.

4.)   I love talking with teachers, veteran and brand new, about how they can support their struggling readers, or any aspect of teaching reading and writing.

5.)   I have over 30 years experience in education, mostly as a reading teacher in elementary schools, and I’m Reading Recovery trained.

6.)   I’m a storyteller and often tell tales in my grand nieces’ and nephews’ classrooms near their birthdays.

7.)   I enjoy dancing and even have a dance named after me called “The Aunt Pat.”

7 things about Katie:

1. I have a serious book addiction. I am in constant need of 1 more bookshelf. So there are always piles of books somewhere in my house (and Amazon boxes on my front porch).

2. I love to run. I recently started running ultra marathons (distances over the 26.2 marathon) mostly on mountain trails. I love spending time playing on the trails. Most of my writing & teaching ideas happen on the trail.

3. This is my 20th year of teaching. And my first year teaching Kindergarten. I’ve taught grades 1-8 (except for 6th), and have been a literacy specialist and a librarian.

4. I LOVE LOVE LOVE teaching Kindergarten. I laugh more every day than I ever have before. I love playing with the kids, and learning so much alongside of them.

5. I’ve taught in 8 schools (ranging from 100 students to 1000 students) in 3 states (CO, FL, VA)- and I’ve always taught in a Title 1 school.

6. I taught Kelly McGillis’ daughter when I taught in Key West. She was a very cool kid.

7. Helping kids discover new things is the best part of teaching for me. Whether it’s monarch caterpillars, a fun sensory box, making books, a Pete the Cat puppet or reading a book for the first time – it’s what I love about my job.

Here are 15 blogs to recognize. Enjoy!

1. Jenny at let the children play

2. Mari-Ann at Counting Coconuts

3. Zella said purple

4. Tom at Teacher Tom

5. Sherry and Donna at Irresistable Ideas for Play Based Learning

6. MaryLea at Pink and Green Mama

7. Look at My Happy Rainbow

8. Mrs. Mimi at It’s Not All Flowers and Sausages

9. Vanessa at Pre-K Pages

10. Patrick at All-en-A-Day’s Work

11. Yo-Yo Reggio!

12. Scott at Brick by Brick

13. My Mommy Reads

14. Langwitches Blog

15. Tammy at Apples With Many Seeds

Where have all the thinkers gone?

Life consists in what a man is thinking of all day.  

                           – Ralph Waldo Emerson

So I’ve been thinking a lot about teaching lately. I tend to spend the first several weeks of summer reflecting on the past year, looking towards the upcoming year and asking myself what worked and what didn’t. I go for long runs and bike rides and think about my teaching. I surround myself with other thinkers in my life – people who are constantly asking themselves “why?”, questioning, wondering and reflecting on their own best practices.  Twitter and blogs provide another place to think and read about what other educators are thinking, and allow me to question, wonder and grow as a learner. I can’t imagine teaching any other way.

But I’m worried. I hear a lot of the conversations in the teaching world revolving around a “tell me what to do” mentality.  I’ve talked with teachers who define their literacy or math block as, “whatever the teaching manual says to do that day”.  But where are the students in this plan? We expect a teacher’s guide, a pacing guide, a list of test items and a copy of the standards and we think we’re good to go.  This is what much of education has been reduced to.  It’s the only way that many teachers know. While all of these things are important tools to have, I think educators have to be thinkers. We can’t let other people do our thinking for us. We are the ones who know our students and who must be responsive to what our students do each and every day. A pacing guide or teacher’s manual can’t possibly do this.

I was at an inservice once for a basal reading series and I was asking several questions about how this “one size fits all” program could possibly reach the needs of my students. I was doing some serious thinking and questioning about the program our county was adopting. The presenter told me, “look, it’s all right here in the teacher’s manual – even your teachable moments. You don’t even have to think!” I told him that when I stopped thinking, I would stop teaching.

In this era of standardized testing and accountability it’s even more important for us to be thinkers and to teach our students to be thinkers. While a bubble test does have a correct answer, much of life does not have a correct answer. It requires problem solving, reflecting, questioning, wondering  and lots of thinking. I want my students to be curious and thoughtful, to wonder and ask “why” as much as they can.  I want to model this by challenging (professionally, of course) questionable practices or curriculum mandates that I don’t feel are in the best interests of our students. I need to be current on best practices and solid research to support my questions and be ready to propose an alternative plan. I need to be constantly thinking and learning. Not only for me, but for all the students I teach every day.

So how do you describe yourself ? Are you a thinker or someone who reflects on his or her teaching? Do you question what is asked of you if you feel that it may not be what’s best for students?

I hope teachers are resting up this summer, reflecting on their teaching and getting ready to make next year a fabulous teaching and THINKING year! What have you been thinking about this summer? We’d love to hear your thoughts!

photo from Wikimedia Commons

Choice

Conferences are always so inspiring. I love attending them and talking with like-minded educators, meeting new people and having time from my busy school life to reflect on my practice. This past weekend, Pat and I attended the Reading Recovery conference in Columbus, Ohio. We enjoyed meeting some of you and sharing our thinking at our sessions. We also enjoyed learning from the many smart people who presented. If you’ve never been, it’s a “must-do” February conference, so mark your calendars for next year!

I attended many fantastic sessions, but I continue thinking about Lucy Calkins’ keynote. She spoke about where education is today, and how we have a choice as to what role we might play in the future of public education. Her words, “as educators standing in this place in our field, we have a choice. We can look out and see problems and despair or possibility and promise,” have echoed in my brain all week as I returned to my school.

If we see our job and schools as sources of problems and despair, do we have the energy to make a difference with the kids we teach every day? Do we wake up full of joy and enthusiasm in our role as educators? No. But some days it’s very hard to look past the testing frenzy, the new mandates made by people who have never set foot in a classroom, the budget cuts, the overcrowded classrooms, the lack of support and so on and so on. It’s easier to see despair and problems over possibility and promise.  Easier? Perhaps. Justified? Absolutely. But it sucks the life and energy out of us as teachers.

So what if we focus on the kids?

As Lucy said, “not one of us can be hiding behind someone else’s proclamation of what we need to do as teachers”. We are in this profession because we love kids. We want to make a difference in the world and see teaching as the way to do it. There have been way too many proclamations about what we need to do as teachers. It’s time for us to stand up and bring possibility and promise back to our schools, our teaching and our professional lives. Focusing on the kids, and what we know is best for them, allows us to see possibility for who we are as teachers, professionals and learners. Standing up for best practices and for our students is empowering. When we can be passionate learners and passionate teachers, when “our teaching is alive and powerful”, when “we are doing work that feels big and significant” – it’s hard to see the problems and feel despair. It’s much easier to see possibility and promise.

Lucy ended her keynote with this question, “are we going to be who we say we want to be? We have the choice as educators.” I am taking this opportunity to really think about who I say I want to be as an educator. And then make sure that my actions, thoughts and words reflect that vision. I want to walk into school every day looking towards possibility and promise. I want to rekindle the passion in teaching that called me to this profession 19 years ago. I want to remember that my focus is on the kids, and that my work here is “big and significant”, joyful and passionate.

How about you? What choice are you making?

Do you love to read?

I am an avid reader. I’ll admit, it’s bordering on an obsession. There are stacks of books throughout my house, my office at school, and quite often, in boxes waiting for me on my front porch. I am passionate about books and reading and I love to share this passion with the kids I teach. Many former students have come back to visit and say the thing they remembered most was how much I loved books, and how I helped them learn to love books and reading.
 
But what if you’re a teacher who doesn’t love books? One who doesn’t read much beyond magazines, newspapers or articles on the web? One who doesn’t call herself or himself a “reader”? Can you still help foster a love of reading in the kids you teach?
 
One of my grad students recently shared that she really isn’t a reader. She recognized that this might be a problem since she’s expected to teach kids how to read and that she wants the students in her class to love reading. She decided to join a book club at her school, and shared with the class that it was the first novel she’s read since high school. I admire her honesty and willingness to be a learner alongside her students. I was thrilled when this same student came to class on the day we were doing our Young Adult literature book clubs saying that she was hooked on these kinds of books. She couldn’t wait to read the rest of the suggested books on our list and she was amazed at how quickly she had read her book. She discovered the hidden reader inside of her, and couldn’t wait to continue finding more good books to read.
 
I’ve always loved reading. It came easy for me, and I’ve always seen it as a huge part of who I am.  Perhaps teachers who don’t consider themselves readers just haven’t found the right book or motivation. So what if this grad student found her way in to the reading world by starting with Young Adult novels.  How we get there doesn’t matter.  It’s finding that porthole that counts — a porthole that we can slip through to begin our life as a reader. Being a reader makes being a teacher of reading easier – it really does. When we “walk the walk” and not just “talk the talk” our kids notice. And that reading bug of ours eventually bites them and they become kids who love to read too.

Is My Child Dyslexic?

If you have been teaching for a while you have probably come in contact with a parent of a child who is struggling learning to read who asks, “Is my child dyslexic?”  Here is what Frank Smith has to say about the term.

“This term is a label, not an explanation.  Dyslexia means, quite literally, being unable to read. Children are dyslexic because they can’t read.  To say that dyslexia is a cause of being unable to read is like saying that lameness is a cause of inability to walk.”

Is the brain of a struggling reader wired differently or is it permanently fixed as some parents and teachers might believe? With these questions in mind, let me digress a bit and share a story.

This past summer, my niece’s son, Josh (age 12) had brain surgery.  He had been experiencing seizures for the past year and a half.  Through all that time the doctors tried countless medicines to control the epilepsy but to no avail.  Surgery, to stop as many as 15 seizures a day, seemed the only option.  After months of tests to pinpoint the exact source of the seizures, a piece of his brain was cut out.  His parents were told that other parts of the brain would eventually take over the functions that were removed.

The good news is that Josh has been seizure free for several months now! Without going into too much detail, I will share that Josh lost considerable language skills and vocabulary immediately following the operation.   When questioned just days after the operation he could not come up with any answers to: “name some farm animals” or “name some video games” or “name some movies.” You can imagine the panic his parents experienced.  And yet after only 4 or 5 weeks, I saw Josh and his word retrieval issues had improved tremendously.  He recommended that I read Among the Hidden, a book he was reading for his English class. He then proceeded to tell me all about the book, including very specific details.  He is successfully functioning once again as a studious 7th grader!

This experience makes me realize all the more how malleable the brain is.  Carol Lyons talks about the plasticity of the brain. “Recent research in neuroscience shows that the brain can change its physical structure and its wiring long into adulthood through teaching and experience.”  She defines neuroplasticity, a power we have until old age, as “the ability of the brain to change in response to teaching.”

It is absolutely amazing what the brain is capable of! And yet, how many of us think that dyslexia is a permanent condition? How many teachers think that a child diagnosed with a learning disability implies that his brain is fixed forever?   How many doctors used to think that trying to rehabilitate a person with brain damage after a stroke was time wasted? I once heard the parent of an LD child say, “But he can’t do that because his brain works differently” as if there is a permanent situation that can’t be fixed. Now neuroscientists have proven all of those beliefs to be false.  This is great news!  Spread the word.

As teachers of reading we all have had those children who read ‘was’ for ‘saw’ or continually mix up b and d.  The longer the problem goes on, the harder it is to fix.  But there are ways to retrain the brain to work with these issues. And the earlier, the better. First and foremost, we need to teach reading as a meaning-making activity. A child who learns to read for meaning, will not mistake was/saw in. sentences such as, “Jesse saw the snake hidden under the rock” or  “I was having a hard time making up my mind between butter pecan and chocolate ripple.”  And if he does mistake it at first, he will quickly self-correct if he is reading for meaning.  You can also train the child to put a finger quickly under the first letter and make that sound.  It’s difficult to say the word ‘was’ if your lips are shaped and ready for an /s/ sound in ‘saw.” And vice versa.  Yes, these kids may have trouble with reversals, but we need to give them ways to solve those problems independently.

Ultimately the parent question I began with should really be, “Will you be able to teach my child to read?”  And hopefully we will answer, “Yes, I will keep working until I find the way to support your child in learning to read.”

What are your thoughts on this topic?  Do you believe that all children can learn to read?

To read more about how brain research relates to learning to read:

Lyons, Carol “Changing Lives Forever:  Looking Backward and Forward” Journal of Reading Recovery, Spring, 2010

Lyons, Carol.  Teaching Struggling Readers:  How to Use Brain-based Research to Maximize Learning, Heinemann, 2003.

Joy

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what brings me joy in my teaching life. Joy, by definition, is a source or cause of delight. I think back to my favorite teachers as a child, and it was clear that they found joy in teaching. I’m sure they had many of the same stressors that teachers today have, and yet, they remained joyful in spite of it all. Today, teachers are challenged daily with a zillion things that don’t hold a lot of joy, and in fact, some can be downright spirit crushing. But it’s up to us to create joy in our teaching lives, and share that joy with our kids and our colleagues.

Here are five things that bring joy to my teaching life.

  1. Sharing a new book with kids. I love books, and I love sharing books with kids. This week I shared a Piggie and Elephant book (We Are in a Book! by Mo Willems) with a class of first graders. Their laughter and excitement as I read the book was fabulous. They had such a hard time staying “criss-cross applesauce” on the rug – they wanted to stand up and get closer to the book.  And when I said they could find more of this series in the library they cheered. Seeing kids this excited about books and familiar authors is truly joyful!
  2. Inquiry. As a learner, I am most engaged when following a topic that I am passionate about and have a personal interest in. Inquiry projects with kids encourage questioning and allow them to pursue learning that directly relates to their lives. There is much joy in seeing a class constantly questioning and experiencing learning by co-constructing an evolving curriculum.
  3. Writing with kids. Teaching within a Writer’s Workshop is an amazing thing. I love how excited kids get when I share a new writer’s technique with them or when we discover something together about an author’s piece. I’m always impressed with how bravely and fearlessly young writers try on a new technique and play with it in their own writing. Sitting side-by-side with a writer gives me an opportunity to connect with that child and his or her writing and see the possibilities that hide within each writer. A child’s writing is something to celebrate and find joy in.
  4. Play. I believe in the importance of play. Through play we can learn so much about each other, the curriculum and ourselves. When we are playful, it is difficult to get upset, stressed out or cynical. Play should infiltrate our teaching lives (as well as our personal lives!).
  5. Kids. Kids bring joy to my life. The hugs, the funny things they say, the way they light up when they figure out a tricky part in a book or publish a story or solve a challenging math problem or discover a spider web on the playground.  My life wouldn’t be complete without a daily dose of kid joy.

What brings joy to your teaching life?