Friday, December 19, 2014

Why I'm Not Counting Down the Days Until Break

Ok, the name of this post isn't entirely true. I know there are only two school days left until our holiday break. It's hard to not know that. I have not been counting down the days though. In fact, this year, it feels like time is slipping through my fingers and I wish it would slow down. I haven't felt this way at the mid-point of the year since my second year of teaching and I'm so, so grateful this excitement and joy is back!

There are many, many reasons for this excitement and joy. I'll save you a super long post and give you just the most important reasons why I'm not counting down the days until break.

  1. The most important reason of all: my unbelievable group of amazing first graders! I feel like I say this a lot, but I have a fantastic group this year. They make me smile each day, and they are almost always the reason I can get myself out of bed at 5:00 in the morning. Is everyday perfect? Absolutely not. They don't always meet my expectations, and I know there are days I disappoint them as well. However, we have times like this afternoon where every student is focused and on task and becoming better versions of themselves. We have moments like this morning where we read the book Penny's Christmas Jar Miracle while I fought back tears and they excitedly shared predictions and commented on what was happening. I'm going to miss those moments during the almost two weeks I'll be away from my kiddos. I'll miss them. 
  2. My coworkers. I work with an amazing group of teachers, and I'm so grateful to have them in my hallway and school. I spent three years working in a preschool located inside a church. Until my last year there I was the sole teacher at the preschool, which meant I had very few contacts with education backgrounds. I had no idea what I was missing. Since my move to my current school, I have found "my people." We can bounce ideas around together and plan amazing things. When we have rough days, we support each other. We laugh about the fun things our students say, and we worry about our students together. We are truly a community, and I wouldn't trade it for anything! I'll miss their camaraderie and friendship.
  3. Play. I had no idea what role play would have in my teaching life until I took my first teaching job as a preschool teacher. I took so many classes that first year as I earned my early childhood endorsement and worked to get up to date on the state expectations for preschool. My whole philosophy of what school should be changed in that first year. The type of playing my first graders do is much different than the play my preschoolers did, but it is play none-the-less. We explore all kinds of new things each day. We explore books and writing. We explore math tools and play math games. We explore technology (my favorite!). It makes me smile from ear to ear as I see them playing with a new tool to create or learn about something new. I'll miss that excitement and newness.
  4. The challenge. As I've already mentioned, everyday is not perfect in our classroom. With that, comes the challenge. Dealing with everything from stealing to pushing and shoving to keeping our classroom clean and organized keeps me on my toes. I know my students are good, sweet, caring people. They are young though. Part of my job is to help teach them how to operate as good citizens in our world. This is harder than it sounds. On top of character education comes the challenge of good lesson planning and teaching methods. I do my best to go day by day and not be overwhelmed by everything I should be doing. At the same time, I try to make each day better than the last. This, too, is harder than it sounds. I wouldn't be doing this if I didn't love every second of it, though. Teaching is my passion. Becoming an even better teacher than I was yesterday is my goal. This doesn't stop over Christmas break, but it is nice to have a break from the intensity of school. I still have Twitter, and I can still think about the second half of the year. I will just lose my sandbox - my safe place to play and explore. I'll miss that.
  5. Finally, the routine. As much as I don't enjoy dragging myself out of bed at 5 a.m., I do like knowing the basic schedule of each day. No day is identical to the day before, but I know all of the key components will be there. Who knows what's going to happen during the break? We don't even really have our family Christmases scheduled yet. The lack of schedule sometimes makes me more tired than school does. I will miss waking up with a fairly clear picture of what my day will look like. 
Don't get me wrong. I'm looking forward to sleeping in late, staying up late, and wearing jeans or comfy pants everyday. I'm looking forward to reading books for fun and writing about topics I choose, and I'm looking forward to spending some time with my family. I will miss school though, and I'm certain I will be excited to go back in January. (I'm such a nerd...)

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

I Am Enough

I wish someone would have told me how competitive teaching is. It most likely wouldn't have stopped me from following my dream, but I would have been prepared for it. The push to have the classroom with the best use of higher-order thinking skills or the best use of technology or the students who do the best academically is enough to drive me crazy. 

We had an afternoon of PD today, and, for me, it was a hard one to get through. We just went 1:1 in grades 2-12 this year, and each K-1 classroom has 8-10 iPads for student use. Our big focus is the implementation of this new technology. Today, we worked on going through our district's technology standards and creating a document of the different ways we have used technology to meet these standards in the past. This, in and of itself, is a valuable use of time. It allows our district to see what we have done and identify areas of weakness to focus on in future PDs. That's a great purpose, and something we definitely need to do. What bothers me (and this might just be me - I can only speak for myself) is that I felt an undercurrent of insecurity and feelings of inadequacy. I looked at the list of standards, which is very similar to the NETS standards which I'm familiar with, and felt incredibly defeated. There were very few things I could think of to go with these standards, and that realization crushed me. 

This afternoon is not the only instance of these feelings. It's hard to not feel jealous and inadequate when I read on Twitter about the super cool things other teachers are doing. Simply walking through the hallways of my school can elicit those feelings as well. I think, "Wow, that project is really cool. Why didn't I think of that?" or "Look at her kids' handwriting. It's beautiful. My kids aren't writing like that. What am I doing wrong?" There are days I want to just lock myself in my classroom with my class and pretend the rest of the world doesn't exist. It can be hard to find confidence in myself. As I sat at my table this afternoon with my PLC, which consists of teachers with many years of experience, I could feel how even they felt overwhelmed and lost by what these standards were asking of us. 

Why do I feel so much pressure to be Teacher of the Year? I don't know how this compares to other professions - I've only ever been a teacher. Does this pressure exist everywhere? If so, why do we do this to ourselves? I'm not sure where all of this competition comes from. I can only guess that it comes from the increased focus on teacher accountability and standardized test scores or from the transparency of our classrooms through social media. On thing I know for sure is it's easy to compare myself with those around me.

It takes all of us, though, to make the best schools. I might be good with one thing, but my teacher neighbor might be good with something completely different. I have to keep telling myself that I am enough. I do enough. I care enough. I can have dreams and aspirations - I should have those - but I need to remember I cannot do everything all the time. 

I am enough.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Highlights from Teaching Like a Pirate

After fully participating in my first #tlap chat on Monday, I decided to dedicate this week to making engaging and fun learning opportunities for my students. I constantly question myself, but I think it was successful. By today, I had many students begging me to do some of the opportunities over again.

First of all, one thing that made this week so exciting was wrapping up our science unit on balance and motion. We had studied balance and gotten through the second chapter on spinning. This week, we were working on rolling. We use FOSS kits for our science curriculum, and I'm a huge fan. Coming from the early childhood realm, I have a deep passion for inquiry, play, and exploration and these kits are based on those three concepts. With that being said, please know that I'm not taking credit for these lesson plans; they were planned out for me. They were so much fun, though, and this is exactly what I think science should be like for students.

We explored rolling with three different materials this week, First, we made wheels out of disks and shafts and played around with how they rolled down a ramp. We got them to roll straight, to turn corners, and to do a wobbly roll. On Thursday, we explored the way cups roll. After discovering that they curve as they roll, I challenged them to see if they could get their cup "car" to roll off the ramp and park itself underneath it. Many students found success with this, so we moved to the second challenge: roll the small cup so it falls off the edge of the ramp and lands on its opening. This was the hardest challenge of the day, but many of the students were successful by the time we finished. Friday, we explored rolling with spheres (marbles to be exact). This was my favorite day! The students took styrofoam runways and built all kinds of ramps to see how they could get their marbles to roll. They built tracks with hills so their marbles would go up and down and up again. They built tracks with loop-the-loops. They built long tracks and short tracks.

Science was a blast and a half this week, and I wanted to keep the momentum going. I knew I needed to do something with my math lessons. My kiddos and I have been exploring using Kahoot in our classroom, and we have been loving it! I even had a student ask me if they could do Kahoot during an indoor recess on Monday. (I'm currently brainstorming ways to see how I can flip this around and have the students create the quiz for each other.) After a request like that, I knew I needed to find a way to work a Kahoot quiz into our week. On Wednesday, we were learning about a trick to help us memorize addition facts called "making ten." Essentially the students manipulate the addends to make ten and count on to answer quickly. We used tens frames to help us with this trick. After learning the strategy, we put it to use. I had created a ten question Kahoot quiz with addition facts. The students worked in teams to solve the fact; one student made the first addend on their tens frame and the other student made the second and then they worked together to make ten and find the answer. Let me just say this - it is the coolest thing in the world to look around my classroom and see every one of my students actively engaged in solving a problem while working together! It made my teacher heart so stinkin' happy!

Thursday was the ultimate of days. I hooked my kiddos with a board message as they were coming in. It simply said, "Get ready for the best snowball fight of your life!" As they filtered in and read the board, the buzzing immediately started. I wasn't talking though, and the lack of details was killing them. We made it through our rolling exploration and the students headed out for recess. I immediately set to work transforming my classroom into the snowball fight battlefield. (I have pictures, but I forgot them at school. I'll add them when I get back.) I tipped all the tables on their sides to be the forts and organized them into a circle around the perimeter of the room. I taped a square into the middle of the circle of tables. Behind each fort, I placed a stack of "snowballs" (wadded up papers with math problems). As the students came in from recess, I greeted them in the coatroom and said, "The room doesn't look the same as before, please be careful." After only a few seconds, many of them figured out that it must be time for our snowball fight, and the excitement in the air was palpable. They came in and I explained the rules.

  1. Your tablemates are your teammates. You will be working together to solve math problems to earn points.
  2. One teammate will be in the square in the middle. When I say go, the other teammates will be in their forts (behind the tables) and will throw "snowballs" to the teammate in the middle who will try to catch one.
  3. When the middle teammate catches a snowball, S/he will bring the snowball into the fort and the team will work together to solve the problem. 
  4. When the problem is solved, the middle teammate will bring the snowball to me to be checked. The first team to get theirs correct will receive 5 points, the second team will receive 4 points, and so on. 
What ensued was an hour of the most fun test review I've ever had. The students worked together magically, and I had nearly 100% of the students focused the entire time. They have been begging me to do this with them again.

Needless to say, by today, I was exhausted. The extra effort I made this week was so worth it though! I plan to continue looking for ways to "teach like a pirate!" This will be more difficult now that we're done with science for a little while, but I refuse to put a limit on the possibilities that can occur in my classroom. Monday, I have a camping adventure planned for my kiddos who collectively have read 500 books this year. They're bringing flashlights and sleeping bags. I'm bringing the "campfire" and the tent. Can't wait for the fun to continue!

Saturday, November 22, 2014

The Beginning of My Classroom Transformation

This summer, I blogged about what plans I had in place for my classroom this year. I promised I would write again with the results of my work. Tonight, I'm going to finally do that! 

In my original post, I listed three main goals. They were:
  1. Create flexible seating
  2. Work on the classroom decor
  3. Improve the lighting
What I've done so far can only be described as baby steps, but I'm still excited about them. The way my classroom operates just feels better than it did last year. There are many factors involved in that feeling, but I'd like to think the way I've set up the classroom makes some of the difference. 

Goal 1: Create Flexible Seating

 The kiddos love this old moon chair of mine. This is a favorite spot for Read to Someone and blogging. We do move it around the room from time to time to enjoy its comfort in different locations. Since it is purple and sparkly (What can I say? It was a high school graduation gift...), I'm thinking about making a slip cover for it so it fits in with my color scheme and is a little less distracting.

 This is our loft, which is another favorite spot for my kiddos. Last year, I had my library up here, but it was too difficult to use when that was the case. I moved the library down to my main floor, and this space has become a place where kiddos can curl up and dig into books, writing, and math games. The purple pillow (another high school graduation gift...) needs a slip cover, and that beanbag has seen better days, but they work for right now. Like the moon chair, we move these around the room to find the perfect place to work.

This was the only purchase I made in terms of classroom seating so far. The students are using this in ways I hadn't expected. I wanted to give them a space where they could sit in a different way to do their work, and that's exactly what they do. Frequently, I'll see students laying on the pillows and reading or working on their bellies. They also use it as a place to work on their knees. My favorite way they use this, though, is to create caves for private work spots. They lean the pillows up against the side of the coffee table and slide in with their feet sticking out. This always makes me giggle, and I definitely appreciate their creativity.

This is the area I'd like to work more with. Investing in seating options can be expensive. The few additions to my classroom have increased the number of places students can sit, but one of the biggest changes for me as a teacher this year is to eliminate my seating chart. It took my students a few weeks to really understand that they could choose where they'd like to sit on a daily basis. At first, they sat in the same places everyday. When someone asked if they could change and I said yes, they began to explore the room more. Now, there's rarely a day when the students choose to sit in the same seats they sat in the day before. I do have a few who find comfort in routine and they often choose to sit at the same table, but they are the exception.

Goal 2: Classroom Decor

The first thing I did to make my classroom decor less distracting was to get rid of all of the store bought materials on my walls. I took down my shape posters, alphabet posters, and number posters, and worked to create my own. The posters in my room are all done in various shades of brown. They make the classroom feel like home without being super distracting. I also added plants. I have a plant in each window which adds a little bit of nature. One thing I'd still like to change is my carpet area. I currently have one of those classic early childhood classroom rugs with the bright primary colors and alphabet animals. It sticks out like a sore thumb, and I'd like to put that in storage and to get a nice brown rug. 

 My plant! It's bigger and more full now, and I enjoy looking at it each day. Hopefully my students enjoy it as well.

 It was not difficult to get rid of the old alphabet train posters I had. Before I used this cupboard space to showcase the students' work, but this year, it's my word wall. It's useful and way less distracting. 

I gave up my regular rotation of bulletin boards this year. Instead, I use this bulletin board to showcase pictures of our learning. The Welcome First Graders! banner will stay up all year.

Goal 3: Classroom Lighting

The last step in my classroom make-over was to see what I could do about the lighting. We, like many many classrooms, have the bright florescent lighting. All of my research this summer talked of the distraction this type of lighting can cause, and I wanted to see if I could find some lamps to use instead. I currently have four lamps in my classroom. They allow me to leave off two of the three sets of florescent lights every day. I always have the blinds on the windows pulled up to let the sunshine in, which helps as well. I've had many teachers comment on how home-like my classroom feels as a result of this lighting. The students, too, make comments about how they like using the lamps instead. If I turn the lights on for any reason, they'll ask me if they can shut them off. 

I didn't take any of these pictures with the lights off. What a silly choice! Here's my library area though. The lamp makes it bright enough to see in while making it feel more like home. Notice the cozy brown rug, which was a new addition this year, and the pictures on the bookshelf too. This is my favorite part of the classroom.

I didn't take a picture of my classroom as a whole when I snapped these, but hopefully you get a fairly decent feel for what it looks like now. Like I've said, there is still a ton of room for improvement, but I am excited about these changes and I can't see myself ever going back to what my room was like in the past. 

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Why I Chose to Not Use AR

Wow, it's been a long time since I've posted. Writing another blog post has been on my mind for quite some time, but I just couldn't get myself to share anything. After some deep reflection, I realized I just wasn't feeling very passionate about what was happening in my classroom. Sure, good things were happening. We've been using our technology a little more everyday, and the students are growing in many ways. The things that were happening just felt very ordinary to me. This last week changed my mindset completely.

(Before I share what sparked my passion, please know that I don't mean to offend anyone. It needs to be okay for educators to feel differently about instructional practices - that's what makes each one of us so valuable. I appreciate differing opinions as opportunities to grow in my own abilities.)

The school I teach in uses Accelerated Reader (AR) to supplement its literacy instruction from first grade through eighth grade. As the year has progressed the other first grade classes have started identifying reading levels, choosing matching books, and taking daily tests. My coworkers were gently reminding me to get started with my students whenever the topic came up. I kept pushing it off and making excuses about how I was struggling to keep up with teaching a new grade level. I finally worked up the courage to confront my actual reason for putting AR off last Monday.

After researching the philosophy behind AR and looking at research on its results, I began to identify pros and cons and to formulate a plan. I wrote an email (a book might be a better way to describe it) to my principal late Monday night. In it, I shared my real reason for not starting AR: I don't believe it's in the best interest of my students.

Personally, I did AR all through elementary and middle school. It did weird things to my reading habits. I stopped seeing books as opportunities to learn, explore, and question and started seeing them as the point value they held. In 7th grade, I read over 300 points in order to get a trophy. I was a good reader, but I didn't enjoy what I was doing. It was just another job - another way to earn a good grade. Plus, I really liked seeing my name at the top of the points board in Mr. Mitchel's classroom.

I'm not the only one with stories like this. My older brother, who still holds the record for number of points in a year at our middle school, read books way beyond his comprehension level to get the points he wanted. My husband got terrible grades, because he read the books he wanted to read instead of the books that had AR tests. My younger brothers struggled with reading, and trying to reach their point expectations was torture for them.

Their were other aspects of the program bothering me as well. I cringed at the idea of telling a student what color of book to choose from the library.  When in life outside of school are we only able to select a book based on the color tab on its spine? That's not authentic. I value the idea of teaching students how to identify whether or not a book is a good fit for them. If a student is empowered with the skills to evaluate a book and judge whether he should read it, imagine what that can do for his reading level and self esteem. Not to mention the fact that students catch on to that color system pretty quickly. Having one student brag about what color he is reading to another student is not something I want to happen in my classroom.

As I was putting together my argument to not use AR in my classroom, one question was a part of each of my thoughts. Why do we read? I read to have fun. I read because I can experience places/events/people I wouldn't be able to experience otherwise. I read to learn. That's real life. I don't read to get a certain number of points. I don't read as a competition against my peers. Why would I ask my students do that? Once again, that's not authentic.

I sent my book email to my principal and prayed he would take it into consideration. The next morning, he emailed back wanting to set up a meeting to discuss other options. We planned for Thursday, so I spent Tuesday and Wednesday nights putting together a document with details on how I was going to build readers in my classroom without using AR. I'll go into those details in future posts. For now, I want to focus on his reaction. As we sat down, he told a story about a conversation that happened around his dinner table earlier that week. One of his kids, who was reading a Diary of a Wimpy Kid book, sat down and said, "I need to finish this books so I can get my points." What ensued was a family conversation about why we really read and what's important with reading. His story is exactly why I was struggling to ask my students to do AR. Needless to say, after a good 25/30 minutes of conversation, my principal was on board and gave me the okay to continue with my plans.

I went back to my classroom, and that afternoon I shared my plans with my students. After some assurance on my part, the students started to feel excited too. It was a little harder for the students who have older siblings who have done AR for a few years to come to grasp with not earning points. I understand that; it would be hard to see other people receiving awards while they are not. This lead to one of the best conversations we have had together all year. When one of my kiddos said, "Well, ****** already has 10 points." I knew that was my opportunity to talk about why we read. Together, we brainstormed all the different reasons we read. We talked about how important it is to get better at reading and how the best way to do that is to read and read and read. By the end of that conversation, one of my little critics looked at my assistant and said, "I think this is going to be better than AR!"

I have a lot to do to build this up, and I'm not sure what criticisms I'm going to get as a result of this decision. What I do know is that I'm teaching with my heart. I'm sticking up for what I believe is right for my students.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

The High Highs and the Low Lows

This week has been odd to say the least. I spent the weekend preparing for Dot Day and doing gobs of grad school work. When Monday rolled around I felt like I didn't really have a weekend, which is not how I want to go into a full week of teaching. As a perfect example of how this week has felt, I forgot to wear my glasses today. What? I have had my glasses since I was a junior in high school and I have never forgotten to wear them... until today. Odd. I experienced some high highs and some low lows this week, and I'll honestly be glad when this week is over and I can actually take a break.

We had an amazing day on Monday celebrating International Dot Day, and I'm certain it will be a day the kiddos remember about first grade. The highlight was doing a Google Hangout with a first grade classroom in Canada! This was the first GHO/Skype/Face Time experience for me as a teacher and for my kids as students, and it was awesome! I announced to the kiddos on Monday morning that we would be meeting up with a classroom from another country, but I didn't tell them which country. I held that over their heads for a few hours, and when I finally let them in on the secret the kiddos went through the roof. We spent the rest of the morning researching Canada and coming up with questions for our Canadian friends about life in their country. By the afternoon, we were more than ready for our first GHO; we had practiced our questions and statements and we had talked about expectations. The actual GHO was incredible. The kiddos learned so much about our friends and were excited to hear about our similarities and differences. Each kiddo had a chance to tell our friends how they were going to make their mark, which was the greatest part of the experience for me as it connected us to our friends. What an exciting day! Here are a few of the dots we made:

These dots are actually on their way to Canada for our friends!

Unfortunately, Tuesday and Wednesday paled in comparison. I found out yesterday that I have to pass up the opportunity to see Peter H. Reynolds in living person because of grad school, which was a major bummer. We did our normal thing and I'm hopeful the kiddos learned something. Nothing sparkled like Monday did, though, and I felt sad. It's like how a girl feels when her wedding is over and the honeymoon has been had and all that's left of those exciting days are a few souvenirs and a ton of thank you cards to write (and of course a lifetime to spend with the person she loves, but it can be easy to feel down about the special-ness disappearing).

I finally felt happy again today. I'm feeling more in control of conferencing during Daily 5. I met with seven kiddos today. We set measurable goals, we had some great conversations, and I felt the time was useful. I'm not going to say I'm completely there yet, but I'm getting closer. Also, in the spirit of doing things for the first time, I ate school lunch today. It was chili and cinnamon roll day, and I just couldn't resist. I'm so glad I did too. It was quite tasty!

The greatest of all of the moments of today was this:

After lunch today, we had a guest speaker scheduled to come in. She and I had our times mixed up though, and she ended up arriving 20 minutes later than anticipated. This extra time with my kiddos was a blessing in disguise. I have been wanting to start a "chapter book" as a read aloud for a while, so I took this time to start one up. I chose Dinosaurs Before Dark - the first book in the Magic Tree House series. After talking about how this read aloud would be different than others because I wouldn't have pictures to show on every page, we got started. It was 20 minutes of pure bliss. I have never truly experienced the feeling of having a whole classroom hanging on my every word until that moment. Not only were they listening, but they were understanding! Occasionally one of them would make a quiet prediction or exclamation as I read, and they excitedly answered every comprehension question I asked. That, my teacher friends, is a win in my book!

Who knows what tomorrow will bring? I'm just grateful it'll be Friday. This weekend, I'll try to get my spinning world back under control with the hope that next week will be more stable.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Growing a Passion for Reading

I'm fighting a inner battle between philosophical differences with reading instruction this year. Our district uses the Houghton Mifflin reading series starting in first grade. Coming from four years in preschool and kindergarten, this is the first year I've had to use a series like this. There are things I appreciate about having a scope and sequence created for me, but I also have many "issues" with the series.

To begin with, I don't agree with the idea of all students reading the same thing, especially at these beginning stages of reading. The range of reading abilities in my classroom is huge. My highs are not being challenged by the ease of the reading material, and my lows are trying to read something that is simply too hard for them. I feel uncomfortable knowing that I am not meeting the needs of my students during the times we are reading these stories.

Also, I worry that, in many ways, the "extra stuff" (phonemic awareness and phonics activities, writing activities, and (ugh....) worksheets) is not motivating and inspiring my students to become better readers and writers. I believe in accessing student interest; I also believe in creating authentic reasons to read and write. When my kiddos are able to write a story of at least 8 sentences about something that happened to them to share on their blog, it just seems silly to me to give them an worksheet on which they write a new ending to the story we read in one sentence. The whole one-size-fits-all mentality of the series is a concern with this "extra stuff" too. Most of my students could, using inventive spelling including long vowel sounds, write the word "sprayer," yet the phonemic awareness and phonics activities for the last three weeks have solely been focused on CVC words. Certainly I have a few (two maybe three students) who still benefit from this practice, but the majority of them need more of a challenge.

I'm doing my best to consider what I know about best practices in literacy instruction to supplement this reading series. We don't do all of the worksheets (to be completely honest, we typically only do about one a week), and I try to include some phonemic awareness and phonics activities for my higher-ability readers. My students are well established into Daily 5 now, and we're quickly adding to our CAFE menu. They know how important it is for them to read and to write in order to become better readers and writers, and the power of their own choice of what to read and write has proven to motivate my students to do so. I have been working with small groups on specific strategies, and my goal for this week is to beef up those strategy groups and to really start into conferencing. My conferencing notebook is ready to go, and I'm ready to fill it with notes and ideas.

My whole point in all of this is that I'm really feeling to disconnect between certain state and district expectations and what I know to be best practice this year. As I was writing my plans for next week, I kept telling myself that whatever I do I need to do it confidently. I have read the research on Daily 5/CAFE, and I believe it to be true. Donalyn Miller's The Book Whisperer and Reading in the Wild echo this same research. Giving students the time to read and write is a powerful use of time. My job is to fill in around the edges; I'm the scaffolding. By staying true to what I believe, I know my students will improve.

Already, I'm seeing the impact of the message of Daily 5/CAFE on my students. On Friday, a parent joined us for lunch. During recess (inside because of rain) afterwards, I walked into the classroom to see this kiddo showing his mom the CAFE menu. He was reading the strategies to her and talking about what they all mean. Bless his little heart! He made my day! Another example of this impact happened a few weeks ago. I had taken the class down to the library to check out books for home. One of my kiddos had forgotten his books at home that day so he couldn't check out new ones. He was discussing this with me when he said, "Yup. I'm going to bring them back tomorrow so I can get new ones. That way I can get better at reading!" Score one for me! The cherry on top of everything though has been watching two specific students read to each other. They almost always choose to read together, and they are typically reading a Pidgeon book. One of these kiddos can be difficult to motivate, and our reading block, especially writing activities, can be a challenge for him. With that in mind, watching him read to his buddy is the neatest thing! He smiles and laughs, and he is completely focused on the book. He is experiencing the true joy of reading and it's amazing!

Sometimes it can be difficult to go against something that has been established for so many years. I often find myself in arguments with my mother-in-law about this exact thing. If it used to work, why not continue using it? My challenge is this: what if something works better than what used to work?

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

A Whole New Set of Challenges

We've had eight full days of school now, and I can say that I was not wrong to fall in love with this group so early on. They're hard workers full of personality, and they have brilliant thoughts and ideas to share with the world. In my class, I have:

  • a handful of sports stars - Seriously, ask them anything about wrestling or football, and I think they'd be able to answer.
  • a superhero expert - This guy loves him some superheroes, and he will excitedly share his knowledge with you at the drop of a hat.
  • a Transformers expert - He has shared his "research" (his terminology, not mine) on Transformers, and he knows way more than I ever knew a person could know about them.
  • a handful of introverts - They're quiet, but I know they're learning right along with the more chatty kiddos. I can't wait to get more into their worlds this year.
  • a handful of kiddos who march to the beat of their own drums - They make me smile multiple times a day with their laughs and off-the-wall questions and comments. 
  • some amazing readers and writers - I can't believe what these young people are doing! It simply amazes me!
I'm completely blown away by how much more mature my students are than they were at the end of last year. They are "trained" in how our school operates, and they follow directions quickly. They just know so much more than they did last year. It's the greatest feeling in the world! I still find myself grinning as I walk down the hallway with my class, and my favorite answer to any question about how my year is going is, "It's fantastic!"

This year has been the polar opposite of last year, but with that difference comes a whole new set of challenges. Because I don't have to worry about the behavior and management issues I had last year, I have more time to think about my actual instruction. I'm constantly asking myself if I'm being everything I need to be for my students. As I've mentioned before, I read Teach Like A Pirate by Dave Burgess this summer. In the book, Dave talks about the importance of creating a classroom environment that students want to be a part of. As I walk around the room watching my kiddos fill out their handwriting worksheets and workbook pages, I know I am not living up to the potential Dave would say I have. That bothers me. 

I keep telling myself that I have time to become that teacher. Unfortunately, as in life, some things we have to do even though they aren't incredibly engaging. I'm working to be more okay with this idea; not everything can be filled with un-containable energy. (I wonder what that would look like anyway...) It's okay to be calm and focused on simply getting better from time to time. On the bright side, we have had a handful of successful, highely-engaging activities. We blogged last Friday, and we made these movies on Thursday. My kiddos latch onto the use of technology, and I can use that excitement in the future. They also love to laugh, so I've tried to be silly from time to time. I incorporate a number of brain breaks to keep our brains active and to be respectful of the fact that we're a room full of 6 year-olds and sometimes we just need a break. GoNoodle can wake my kiddos up in the matter of minutes.

I hope to continue adding little details here and there to evolve my classroom into the highly creative and engaging environment Dave describes in his book. In the meantime, I'm trying my hardest to be content with what I have done so far. After all, I am only one person with only a limited amount of time to spend creating. It's not going to happen overnight. 

Friday, August 22, 2014

Blissful First Days

Okay, I'm totally going to gush for just a little while, and it's going to be absolutely ridiculous. Don't worry. I'm aware of how green and naive I might sound. I'm also very aware of the fact we have only been in school for two days and I am definitely counting my chickens before they hatch, but

I am head-over-heels in love with teaching this group of first graders!

I loved teaching kindergarten. My group challenged me in ways I never could have predicted, and I am a much better teacher because I taught that group last year. Let me tell you something though, it changed my perspective on what early childhood education was. My first day as a kindergarten teacher was an absolute nightmare. Within the first five minutes of school, I had the principal and guidance counselor in my room helping me deal with an issue. All day long, I felt completely under-qualified for my position, because, for the life of me, I could not get my kiddos to follow my directions. To top it all off, I managed to put two of my lovelies on the wrong buses to get home. It was awful, and I left that day sure I was going to win the award Worst Kindergarten Teacher In The History Of Ever. (It got better fairly quickly, but, holy cow, that first day was one for the books.)

I went into yesterday (our first day of school) expecting more or less the same. I knew I'd be better than last year simply because of last year's experience, but I was still a little hesitant that it was going to be yet another train wreck. Within the first fifteen minutes of the day, I knew this year is going to be different. Here's how it went:

I got to school at 6:30 in order to make sure I was ready to go. My plans were set, my materials were gathered, and I was at my door ready to greet my 19 lovely first graders as they filtered in. I quickly got to work dealing with the various supplies and notes the kiddos were bringing me and got the students all busy coloring the covers for their take home folders. Because I was so busy, I didn't notice it at first. When I got on top of all the "stuff," I finally noticed how not chaotic my classroom was. I turned from my desk area and noticed this: 

Every single one of my kiddos was sitting at their spots doing their work and quietly talking to their neighbors.

My first thought was, "Huh. I didn't know kids could do that." I found myself standing there with this stupid-wide grin on my face, and all of my fears melted away. When my associate walked into my room, I looked at her and said, "This. This right here. This never happened last year." The rest of the day followed suit. We were able to launch Daily 5 right away. During our first practice run, we were able to maintain our stamina for four minutes! (Four minutes! On the first day of first grade!) We managed to make it to recess, specials, and lunch on time and in a respectful manner, and by the end of the day, our room was full of smiles and budding friendships. 

I'm not going to lie. I was a little afraid yesterday was a fluke. This morning, I sat at my desk rechecking plans and praying I had good content and activities to make the day worthwhile. As my students started coming into the room and getting busy, I realized we were going to start our day in a very similar manner as the day before. Before I knew it, it was lunchtime and, once again, we had had a successful morning (including maintaining Read to Self stamina for 8 minutes!). Our afternoon went just as well, and, again, the kiddos left with smiles on their faces!

I haven't smiled this much in a long, long time. Last year was just hard. We had so many successes, but we also had many setbacks. Often, I found myself caught up in the setbacks, and I lost sight of the daily joys taking place in my classroom. When I left school at the end of the day last year, I felt defeated and tired. I know I'm going to have days like that this year too. That's the nature of teaching. I needed these two days though. I needed to remember the goodness children bring to the world and the wonder with which they view it. I needed to be able to smile at the music coming from the music room because my mind wasn't so bogged down with worry to miss it. I needed the peace I felt in knowing that my kiddos were safe and learning without distraction. I needed to be able to build relationships with my students from the very beginning and to remember those relationships are important. 

No one can say for sure where this year is going to take us, but I'm ready for it! I'm so, very grateful for the blissful first two days of school, and, even it's hard, I'm excited for this year!

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

When Teaching Hurts

I recently came across this post by Ashley Hurley (@ashleyhhurley) in which she encourages bloggers to blog for themselves. It inspired me to blog about something that is very close to my heart - something I've been afraid of even mentioning here. When I created this blog, I wanted it to be about my teaching heart - my passions, my hopes, my dreams. It's impossible for me to ignore this post for any longer and stay true to that goal.

Sometimes teaching absolutely breaks my heart. Not only in the sense that many teachers understand in the pain I feel when I get a glimpse of what my students are going through outside of my safe haven, and not only in the sense that teaching takes every ounce of me until there is very little left, teaching breaks my heart because it is, at it's soul, a career of loving, caring for, and inspiring children. My life revolves around children, and I love them dearly. What hurts is that those children are not mine.

There is no course in college to teach new teachers how to deal with teaching while battling infertility. Luckily most teachers don't have to deal with. I have been dealt these cards though. My husband and I have been fighting this war (and if you know what I'm talking about, you'll understand that it truly is a war) for two and a half years now. I've had surgery, been on all kinds of medications with ridiculous side effects, and prayed harder than I've ever prayed. Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought I would be 26 years old, married for almost four years, and have no children. This whole battle takes it's toll personally. It occupies some portion of my mind at all times. Recently, as much of my hope seem to be slipping away, I rarely have a day where I don't shed a tear or two when I wake up in the morning and realize there isn't a sleeping child in the room next door.

That personal toll has impacted my teaching in so many ways and I'm tired of it being a factor.

I'm tired of going home at night to think about those kiddos who are struggling only to find myself thinking, "I could do better." That's a ridiculous thought, and I hate that I've thought it.

I'm tired of kids repeatedly asking me if I have kids of my own and, when I answer no, asking me why. More importantly with this one is that I'm tired of feeling upset when they do ask me that. My war is silent and invisible; there are no physical signs that I'm hurting. It's a war that is way beyond what my students can understand. I cannot fault them for innocently asking questions.

I'm so stinkin' tired of Mother's Day. I love my mom and celebrate her every year on this day, but it hurts to know that I'm not a part of that group. Mother's Day is big in schools, too. The amount of time I put into getting my kiddos' gifts to their mothers ready weighs very heavily on me. Last year, we actually put on a whole circus (literally) for the kiddos' mothers on the Friday before Mother's Day. I had to wear a clown costume in front of a gym full of mothers, and I hate that I was the teacher who had to leave in the middle of the performance to cry in the teacher's lounge.

I'm tired of having a legitimate excuse to spend every waking hour at school. I don't have kids to take care of at home, and my husband works long hours. Why should I go home?

I'm tired of having the room in my heart to love my students as if they were mine. I'm tired of pretending and laughing it off by saying, "Well, luckily I have 19 lovelies at school who need me."

I'm tired of feeling my heart break a little bit more when some sweet mother brings her newborn infant to school to have lunch with her school-aged child. The kids all coo and giggle and crowd around, and I stand back wishing that was me.

I'm tired of feeling sad when the teacher next to me in the teacher's lounge who already has multiple children talks about how she plans to have many more. It hurts to know she'll probably get just that. What about me?

I'm tired of looking at the staff Christmas cards posted in the lounge at Christmas time. Sure, my husband and I send out a Christmas card each year with a picture of us, but I don't feel worthy of the Christmas card bulletin board yet. I so want to be worthy.

Above all of this, I'm tired of being tired of these things. I want to be that happy teacher without these dark pieces hidden in her heart. I want to be able to forget all of this and be okay with being an amazing teacher. Most days, I can do this. Sometime, though, being a teacher hurts.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Hangin' Out with Children

This week's #kinderblog14 challenge is to write about the parts of our job that make us laugh the hardest. Here are a few of my examples from my four years in teaching:

(After finishing a song and dance at circle time, here's what one three year old had to say)
Student (with attitude): My mom has moves like Jaggar!

Student (4 years old): My dad doesn't live with my mom any more.
Me: He doesn't? Where does he live? (Keep in mind that her mom was president of my parent advisory board and a good friend of mine. I knew this child was telling stories.)
Student: In a green house down the street.
Me. Wow. I didn't know that. I'll have to ask them about it tonight at conferences.
Student: ..... Just kidding!

(Scenario: My preschoolers are outside playing during our outside chunk of time. I'm supervising)
Student (4 years old - playing nearby): singing Jesus loves me and my father and my mother and my brother, but sometimes I don't like my brother.... (She continued to sing random thoughts for about 3 minutes.)
Me: Wow, that was a really cool song. Where did you learn it?
Student: Menards!

(Scenario: Morning announcements had just finished up and my kinders were coloring at their tables while I submitted attendance.)
Student: Mrs. Hansen, if you were just a little bit bigger, you could be principal.
(That's what's holding me back - I don't meet the height requirement!)

(Scenario: Same student as above. Her name is Kendra. It's the 100th day of school and my kinders are writing about their favorite memory of kindergarten so far.)
Student: Mrs. Hansen, come look at mine!
Me: Can you read it to me?
Student: Sure: My favorite day of kendragarten was....
(At this point, I lose track of where she is in the reading, because I notice she wrote exactly that - "kendragarden." Her name was Kendra, and she thought she went to "kendragarden." I nearly died.)

(Scenario: I had run into a student and her mother at Target one weekend. We chatted for quite a while in the check-out lane. On Monday, this is what she wrote in her weekend journal, which, by the way, she promptly asked me to read.)
I saw Mrs. Hansen at Target. We got her a gift card, but I didn't say a word!

Student (kindergartener): Mrs. Hansen, I have a supervisor!
Me: Really?
Student: Yeah! It's a visor and it's super! Get it?

(Scenario: I went to a 8th grade baseball game with a teacher friend to watch her son play. She had her soon-to-be 4th grader and her one year-old with her.)
4th grader: Do your kids like Frozen?
Me: Well, I don't have any kids.
4th grader: You don't? I thought you did. Does that mean you're going to be pregnant soon?
Me: I don't know. We'll just have to wait and see.
4th grader: Okay, well if you do get pregnant, tell me, okay? Maybe you'll get pregnant with triplets or four triplets or five triplets.
Me: Maybe. How many babies do you want me to have?
4th grader: Like, 5 babies!
(Yikes! That's a lot of babies all at once!)

Hope these made you smile!

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Finding Passion in DC

Kyle and I just returned from our first trip to Washington DC. This trip served dual purposes: one to see as much as we could, the other to visit and spend time with my husband's best friend, also named Kyle, and his wife, Shannon. Our friends are spending the summer in Bethesda, Maryland while he interns with the government. We landed in Baltimore around noon on Thursday. Kyle and Shannon picked us up at the airport and we grabbed a bite to eat. Then we headed to their home for the summer so we could drop off our things and plan the next few days.

We decided to stay in the Bethesda area for the rest of the day, and I'm so, so grateful we did. Shannon mentioned she had heard good things about taking a tour of Clara Barton's home in Glen Echo, so we decided to make the short drive there to do just that. Clara Barton is the founder of the American Red Cross and her Glen Echo home served as its headquarters starting in 1897. While I was there, I was introduced to two people who let their passions drive their lives. I couldn't help but think of my incoming first graders. I hope I can help them begin to identify their passions so they might make a difference in the way these two people have.

Kyle and I outside Clara Barton's home.

First of all, I was introduced to Clara Barton. I had heard her name, and I knew she was famous for her work as a nurse during the Civil War. That was the extent of my knowledge of her until I set foot in her home. What I had no idea about was how passionate Clara was about helping others. She knew she had gifts to offer, especially in times of disaster, and she challenged many thoughts at the time about what women should and shouldn't do. She not only served as a nurse during the Civil War, but she used that strong desire to help others to start the American Red Cross. Also, she used her passion for the things she was doing to give lectures to all kinds of audiences in the hopes of inspiring more people to step up and help. That's amazing!

Secondly, I met our tour guide, Kevin. He was by far the greatest tour guide we had during the trip, because I could tell he was doing something he loved. Kevin let us take the last tour of the day even though we got there about five minutes late. (We didn't show up late on purpose. We just didn't know about the timed tours.) We were the only people in the group, and he treated us as I imagine he would treat a group of important officials. He knew Clara Barton. He could answer any question we had, and I could see and feel his respect for her and her home. He spoke of many of the hardships Clara had to battle (e.g. starting the first public school in New Jersey but not being allowed to be principal because she was a woman) and it was almost as if his heart broke each time. About halfway through the tour, I realized how passionate he was about the history in that building and what it meant to our country and I found myself close to tears.

Clara and Kevin were certainly not the only passionate people I met during this trip. Our tour guide at the Capitol building was pretty incredible too, one of the rangers outside the Lincoln Memorial was able to answer all of our questions, and the ranger inside Ford's Theater was passionately answering questions about Lincoln's death and the moments leading up to it. In all of them, I could feel their love for what they were doing, and it made a significant impact on me.

Standing beside the Washington Monument

Just outside the Capitol

I want to be Kevin for my students. I want them to see my passion for learning and to be inspired by it. More importantly, I want to help them identify their own passions and share those passions with the world around them. In a sense, I want them to be little Kevins. My hope is for my classroom to be so much more than reading and writing and math and science; I want it to be a place where my students can come to explore their world. While I will certainly push to meet standards, I don't want them to be the focus. I don't want to get lost in the world of numbers and percentages. My students are people with real thoughts and feelings, and I want to respect them in every way I can. My trip to DC was unlike any trip I had taken before. It was filled with wonder and learning, and I want to duplicate that in my classroom.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

What Will My Room Look Like?

The prompt for week 3 of the #kinderblog14 challenge had two options. We could write about where we live or we could write about how we design our classrooms. I'm choosing to write about how I design my classroom.

Here's what my classroom looks like right now:

This is the view from my door.

From the back of the room looking forward

North to south view

South to north view

Last year, I didn't put too much thought into how my classroom was designed. I didn't really have time to. Going into last year, my biggest focus was surviving in an elementary school setting and in a new grade level. I was never very happy with how my classroom looked. It was this weird collage of student art work (I wrote about how I feel about that here) and random teacher store materials. Creating an environment that encouraged collaboration and learning was far from my top priority last year. 

This year, I've been putting much more thought into this. I've been in my classroom about once a week this summer trying to get things organized and visualizing my final product. Also, I've spent a good chunk of time researching how the environment impacts how the brain works. Today, I participated in a webinar with Erin Klein (@kleinerin) which was all about incorporating brain research into classroom design. I think I'm finally at a point where I can jump into actually designing my classroom.

I have three main goals this year. First, I want to create more flexible seating. I didn't offer my students many choices in where they'd like to learn last year. This year I want to go away from a seating chart and not require that my students work at their tables all the time. To help with this, I'm hoping to create a few more areas for students to choose to work. Right now my tables are set up in a u shape. My hope is to find a small coffee table (or some kind of shorter table) to put in the middle of the u with fun floor cushions to go around it. This would offer my students a chance to get away from the hard plastic chairs and find a spot that might be more comfortable to them. I also want to work on my classroom library area. My library is currently located on the loft on the north side of my room. I want to bring it down to the main floor and create a cozy area with a rug and some fun options for sitting (more floor cushions and a fun bowl chair). 

Secondly, I want to work on my decor. In the webinar today, Erin talked about the importance of color choice, especially in the primary grades. I'm hoping to replace the teacher store materials with homemade materials in warm browns and cream colors. Since most of my furniture and the cupboards are red, I'm going to try to work a little red in too; however, I want that to just be a highlight color. Erin also talked about the importance of including plants, so my goal is to find a couple of house plants to go on my windowsills. Just for elements of home, I've been contemplating adding a few fake flower arrangements here and there and maybe some fun picture frames.

Lastly (and this is the one that might not happen this year), I'd like to work on the lighting in my room. The two big windows on the east side of my room let in a lot of sunlight, so there were times when my students could work without the overhead lights last year. It's still a little dark though, so I'd like to pull in a couple of lamps here and there. Throughout my research, I found numerous studies that showed that natural and incandescent lighting is less distracting. Why not try to create the least distracting environment I can?

I don't know how much of this will actually happen this year. The whole process is not going to be easy on my wallet. My ultimate goal, however, is to create an environment that is brain-pleasing and allows my students to collaborate and grow. As I continue working on this, I'll try to update my blog to show pictures of this process. Nothing gets me more fired up than a good challenge for my students!

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Taking the Next Step

In a meeting with my principal early last year, he and I were discussing my not-so-easy class. That day, which happened to be a Friday, I had had a bit of a break down. It was ugly and horrible, and I wish I had been able to control my emotions better. At that point, though, I had been working so hard to get my class to look like the other classes that I just didn't have anything left to lift myself up. After discussing my desire to incorporate more of my own teaching philosophy into my classroom, I was feeling much better. Then he asked me, "Are you living to work or are you working to live?" I know he was trying to encourage me to relax a little bit and to take some time away from school. He was absolutely right; I needed to do just that. I was more burned out during that meeting (which happened in September...) than I had ever been in my teaching career. That question, though, is one I have struggled with since that day. I haven't fully decided whether or not it's a good thing, but I think I live to work.

I have to follow that up with this: I believe teaching is a calling. I fully believe God put me on this planet to inspire, care for, and challenge the children in my care. I believe he gave me the strength to put in the intense effort it can take to be a great teacher, and I believe he gave me the heart to love other people's children as if they are my own. He gave me the passion to fight for what's best for my students and to create awesome learning experiences for them. This is why I'm here.

The hardest part, for me, in being called to teach is that my teaching journey has not been easy. I have never had solid job stability, and I live year to year praying I have a job come August. It is stressful and depressing. There are many days when I struggle with the fact that I so badly want to teach and I feel I have great things to offer, but I still haven't found a place that will fight to keep me past the next year. This year was particularly difficult for me in this way. I can't count how many times I have wondered why, if I am truly called to be a teacher, I have to fight so hard to be one.

At the beginning of the summer (the last day of school to be exact), I was approached about a new opportunity. Our district was looking for a new media specialist and someone had recommended me. I applied and interviewed, but I wasn't offered the position. I'm completely okay with this (and I'm not just saying that - I really am okay), and I think it was a blessing in disguise - divine intervention. In that crazy few weeks where I was exploring all that teacher librarians do and the impact they have on students and staff, my eyes were opened up to something new.

I really could be a kick-butt teacher librarian. I fully believe that. (For those of you who don't know me personally, it might be hard for you to grasp the full effect of that statement. I never say anything like that about anything. My confidence in myself is nowhere near where I would like it to be, and I can easily talk myself into believing I am not really good at anything. Saying I fully believe I'd be a good librarian is saying a lot.) The job incorporates my two strongest passions: books and using technology to connect to the outside world. Not to mention that I'd have the opportunity to impact more students and teachers in the course of the year than I can as a classroom teacher. Back in January, my district invited Shannon Miller (@shannonmmiller) to be the keynote speaker at our technology conference. She's amazing, and even then, I wondered about what it would be like to have her job.

In all of this thinking and praying and trying to decide what I'm supposed to do, I decided now is the time to do something about it all. In June, I was admitted into a grad school program where I will receive my master's degree in school library studies. Tonight, I submitted my request to enroll in my first two classes.

Holy. Scary. I am a planner and a sure-thing kind of girl (which is probably why I've been having such a hard time with my lack of job security). There is no guarantee that having this degree will get me a job. Not to mention that I've been told over and over again not to get a master's degree until I'm in the district I will be in for the rest of my career because then I will cost too much and no one will hire me. What if I make this investment in my career and it doesn't work out?

Despite being completely scared to death and overwhelmed by the work that will be involved in this process, the biggest part of me is excited. This could be a good thing - a life-changing thing. I'm choosing to focus on that excitement. While it's so hard to fight for what I believe I should be doing, my fight's not gone yet. I'm hoping this next step will lead me to something awesome and fulfilling.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Exploring My Passions

After hearing so many wonderful things about Dave Burgess's Teach Like a Pirate, I quickly ordered it on my Kindle around the end of June. I am so thankful I did. If there has ever been a book that challenged me to better myself, this was that book. The ideas in this book are fresh and forced me to think in all kinds of different ways about the way I was teaching.

I blogged about my thoughts on immersion here, but today, I wanted to share some of my passions. Dave breaks passion down into three categories: content passion, professional passion, and personal passion. Thinking about my passions in these three different categories surprised me in so many ways and I learned a lot about myself in doing so. (That's why it took me so long to blog about it. :) )

Content Passion - What do I love to teach?

My ultimate passion when it comes to content is teaching about books. I took a class on Daily 5 and Cafe at the beginning of the summer, and I am itching to get into the classroom and put all of my new-found knowledge to work. Putting books into the hands of children and teaching them how to use them (both to gain knowledge and for pleasure) puts that spring in my step. With teaching reading, I am constantly challenging myself as a teacher and trying to find the best way to meet my students' needs. This is important to me as a teacher. 

There are a couple of science/social studies topics that keep me going throughout the year too. I love, love, love to teach about the ocean! My husband and I went to Hawaii on our honeymoon, and my eyes were opened up to a whole new world. Having lived in (very much) land-locked Iowa my entire life and never seeing the ocean before our trip, I had no idea of its beauty and mystery. While in Hawaii, I had the opportunity to go on a submarine trip. At the deepest depth, we were 128 ft. below sea level. We saw all kinds of amazing creatures and habitats. It was fantastic! I love creating all kinds of beach/ocean-like experiences for my students. (Like this one!) I think I come alive when I'm teaching about these topics.

Another topic that puts the extra bounce in my step is farm. I grew up on a dairy farm. At times, we also had pigs, sheep, and chickens on our farm. As a kid, my life revolved around milking the cows, making the hay, immunizing the pigs, and feeding the calves. My dad loves to tell the story of the three year old me who was desperate to watch him milk the cows in the middle of the winter. After getting all bundled up and getting me to the barn, I think I lasted about 15 minutes before I was desperate to go back to the house. In my heart, the farm will always be my home. I love how naturally inquisitive my kiddos tend to be about the farm, and I love being a part of helping them experience the wonder of the farm.

Professional Passions - Why do I teach?

Three reasons:
  1. Watching students become great world citizens - There is so much more happening in my classroom than reading and math. Every day I have the joy of teaching students how to operate in the world. I teach about manners and kindness, and together, we work to better ourselves as people. This is why I teach. Nothing can make me smile bigger than hearing students share how kindness made a difference in their lives and how they plan to use that kindness in the future. 
  2. Being there - I have very little clue as to what my students are dealing with outside of school. Some students are more open than others, of course, and I know that many of them are dealing with things adults struggle with. For this reason, I teach to provide as safe place for my students. I challenge myself to take the time to love each and every child in my classroom and to make sure that their time with me is as caring and worry-free as it can be.
  3. Connecting and inspiring greatness - I want my students to know that there is more to this world than what is inside our four walls. I want them to know that what we are learning, doing, and creating within those four walls is important to everyone outside of those walls. I teach to inspire my students to be great and to explore their own passions to create something awesome. Then, I teach to create ways for them to share their passions with the world. I want them to be great, and I want the world to know it! 

Personal Passions - What do I love outside of teaching?

Anyone who knows me well knows that I cannot turn down a sweet to save my life. (This is the reason why I run.) For this reason, baking is one of my all-time favorite things to do. I recently tweeted this picture of the cake I made for my birthday. Let me tell ya', that thing tasted even better than it looked! I also make some dang good cinnamon rolls. My husband frequently requests them, and they have become a Christmas morning staple for both of our families. 

Another personal passion I have is books. Most Saturdays during the school year involve hours of losing myself in a good book. I won't disclose how much time I spend reading in the summertime. It's quite embarrassing. It's a good thing I am very conscious of our budget, because if that wasn't the case, I'm certain a huge percentage of our monthly income would go toward new books. Instead, I make weekly trips to the library and delight in rereading my favorites. I'm currently working my way through the Harry Potter series again, and I'm just as excited about them now as I was when I first read them. 

Now that I have identified all of my passions, I need to determine how I'm going to use them in my classroom. There's no doubt that I'm looking at this year in a completely different light than I did before. I'm hoping to focus on engagement and planning with my students in mind. After taking a few weeks off of school (although it is really hard to completely detach myself from school), I'm finally ready to get back and I'm so excited to see where this year takes me and my students!

Friday, July 18, 2014

The Cute-ness Factor: Is It Worth It?

The #kinderblog14 week 2 challenge is more difficult than the first challenge, that's for sure! This week, we are supposed to write about an article that "pushes our buttons." I didn't find a specific article that fit this purpose because there are far too many about this topic to narrow it down to just one, and I didn't want to pick on a specific person. Also, confrontation is hard for me (what if I offend someone who has worked hard to create something for their students?), and I have a difficult time believing my opinions are worth being heard (what if I really know nothing about what I'm talking about?). Challenge is the perfect word to describe this post.

I've been in so many early childhood classrooms that revolve around cute. Every worksheet (ugh...), project, writing paper, and center is cute. There is cute clip art everywhere, and cute "art" projects hang all over the place. Teachers make all kinds of money selling their cute "art" projects and worksheets on Teachers Pay Teachers; they use their cute blogs to promote their cute products. I am certain you all know exactly what I'm talking about - those cute bumblebees the students created by cutting out the pieces and gluing them all together just so. They all look the same, with the exception of a few crooked stripes or wings here and there. Cute is everywhere in the early childhood realm. Last year, my classroom fit this mold. All year long, I asked myself, "Why am I asking my kids to do this "art" project?" (Is it really art if the artist is recreating something someone already created in exactly the same way?) Rarely could I actually answer that question, and that bothered me. I think what got me to fall into this pattern was the pressure to appear like the other classes; I didn't want to be the one classroom that looked less put-together or not kid-friendly. I had a deeply ingrained fear that parents and outsiders would notice how un-cute my classroom was and think I was less of a teacher because of that. I thought the best way to ensure I avoided all of that was to make project after project to hang all over my classroom.

To say I was conflicted is an understatement. I taught preschool for three years. In those three years I never did a prefab craft with my kiddos. My students created art. They used paint in all kinds of interesting ways. They built 3D structures with clay, pipe cleaners, and craft sticks (and whatever else they could get their hands on). They cut and glued and wrote and colored and explored art in meaningful ways. It was messy, fun, and open-ended. I believed in the process; I believed in the importance of allowing children to manipulate their environment and to use their imagination to create something. When I found myself in a kindergarten classroom in an actual elementary school , I lost that piece of me and I'm sad about that. As a rough estimation, I think my students did three prefab craft projects each week last year. They took so much time, and they stressed me out. By the end of the year, I simply gave the kids the tracers and the paper they would need and showed them an example of what the end project should look like. It was just too much to try to organize 19 5- and 6-year-olds to do the same thing at the same time. (How developmentally appropriate is that anyway?)

I recognize the fine motor practice involved in the cutting and gluing in these projects. I also recognize the power of a brain break; creating a fun something-or-other is a great way to give the brain a break from the academic demands of school. What I'm not sold on is the idea that creating cookie-cutter projects is a valuable use of time. I believe in creating authentic experiences for students. When in real life are my kiddos going to be presented with an example of something and asked to recreate that exact same thing in the exact same way using the exact same materials? Taking it a step further, I wonder if I am I teaching the value of creativity and individuality by asking my students to create the exact same thing? Also, can my students get the fine motor exercise in a more creative way, and can I structure the art project to be more open-ended to ensure students are exploring their creativity while giving their brains a break?

I'm not exactly sure what the perfect answer is. What I do know is I want to be the type of teacher who encourages students to share what they know with those around them in meaningful ways. I'm not convinced I am doing this when I ask my students to recreate something I've already created. What if I provided them with the materials and let them decide how they presented their knowledge? Let's say I'm doing a unit on zoo animals with my kiddos. Instead of giving them tracers and paper to create a giraffe from an example I have already created, what if I asked them to choose their favorite animal and use whatever materials I had available (paper, paint, pipe-cleaners, cardboard, etc.) to create a 2D or 3D representation of their animal? This way, I would be giving them creative control over their learning while still providing them with the fine motor practice they need and a brain break from the academic demands.

Next year will be different for me - that much I know. I want to get back to the core of who I am as a teacher and see where it takes me. I hope to say goodbye to prefab crafts and work to cultivate my kiddos' imaginations in more creative ways.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

I Don't Have Kids. I'm Still a Good Teacher.

I'm coming a little bit late in the game to the #kinderblog14 challenge. I have a good excuse though! The topic for week one was to write the post that has been sitting in your draft folder or brewing in your mind for some time. There have been many topics I've wanted to write about, so I took some extra time to think about which post most needed to be said. Here goes nothing!

Unfortunately I was confronted by an upset parent about an incident on the playground at the beginning of last year. The parent was in tears when she came to me, and I honestly didn't even know anything about the incident other than that it had happened. (I wasn't on duty that day.) During this confrontation, she spoke words that hurt me to the core and that I haven't been able to get out of my mind. First she asked, "Am I remembering right that you don't have any kids?" When I replied in the positive, she said, "Okay, then you just don't understand."


This isn't the first time someone has said something like that to me, but it was the first time it was directed at me in a negative way. Many of my cooperating teachers for various practica and student teaching told me they became better teachers when they became parents, and that that would likely happen for me to. In those situations, though, their intent was never that I was a lesser teacher because I wasn't a parent, just that I would become even better because of that. When the comment was directed at me in a way that implied I wasn't as good or qualified to be a teacher because of the fact that I am not a parent, it hurt.

Of course, in the moment, I remained calm. I remained calm while discussing the incident immediately afterwards with my fellow kindergarten teachers and my principal too. The second I got to my car that afternoon, though, I broke down into tears. How dare she say that to me! She didn't know a thing about my life, and since it was the beginning of the year and I was new to the district she didn't really know much about me as a teacher. I felt torn down and deeply disrespected.

I wish I could have said this:

Here's what I know about my ability to teach and care for children:

  1. I have been trained in child development, effective teaching strategies, and differentiation, and I understand what to expect from my children I work with.
  2. I have cared for hundreds of children in many different capacities for 11 years including: babysitting, before/after school care, daycare, and teaching.
  3. I know how to keep kids safe, and I go out of my way to do so. (I was that teacher at the end of the year school picnic who was spraying down children with sunscreen as they ran past.)
Here's what I know about what it means to be a teacher and not a parent:
  1. Because I do not have children of my own, I have a ton of time to devote to my classroom. I spend nights and weekends researching and planning for ways to make my classroom better fit the needs of my students. I can do this, because I don't have to put my own children first.
  2. Because I do not have children, my heart is completely open to love my students. After God, my husband, and my family (who all live far away and who I wish were much closer in spirit), come my students. I've got a whole lot of heart left for them, and they quickly fill it up. At night, I think about my students; they often keep me up at night (out of excitement just as much as worry). I plan for my students constantly and think of them frequently when I'm out and about. I pray for them every day. I spend a good chunk of my paycheck on them, because I want what is best for them. (I am not saying teachers who are parents don't do this. I'm simply saying I can do more of this since I don't have children of my own to think of first.)
  3. As a teacher who is not a parent, my students become my children. I talk about "my kids" all the time, because that is how I think of them. For the year I have them, they are mine. My kiddos last year occasionally referred to me as their school mom. I take my job seriously, and "my kids" mean the world to me. At the end of the year, I am more sad than happy because it means "my kids" are no longer mine. All summer long, I can't wait to meet "my new kids," and I love nothing more than getting to know "my kids" throughout the year.
I am not in any way saying that I am a better teacher by not being a parent than those who are parents. I want to be very clear about that. In fact, I want with every fiber of my being to be a parent, and that is a daily heartbreak for me. I am 100% certain that becoming a parent would make me a better teacher and I would understand on a deeper level, and I have a profound respect for the teachers who do such a beautiful job of balancing being teachers and moms/dads; however, I am not a bad teacher because I am not a parent.

I didn't have a chance to say any of that to this parent (nor would it have been very professional for me to do so), but I've wanted to say those words since that day. I am certain I am not the only person fighting that perception, and I am more than happy to be a voice for those in this battle with me.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

First Grade Bloggers

Last year, I decided to go out on a limb and created blogs for my kinders using Kidblog. I wrote about my initial attempts here, but I never followed up with my final conclusions on blogging. First, let me show you some of the incredible thoughts my kiddos shared on their blogs last year.

Kindergarten Blogs

Sometimes we used our blogs as weekend journals. One of my kiddos decided to write about the addition of bunk beds to her bed room.

Another time I provided the students with the prompt: write about a time you got hurt. This student went above and beyond and wrote and wrote and wrote. I had to stop her at the end of our scheduled computer time!

At the end of the year, we used our blogs to reflect on our year together. This student did a beautiful job talking about the people who impacted her and what she had learned during the year.

I think, more than anything, blogging last year helped my students find a love for writing and communicating. They not only enjoyed writing their own entries, but they LOVED responding to their friends. This process opened up all kinds of opportunities to talk about digital citizenship. We talked about how we needed to be kind in our responses and we needed to respond in ways that made sense. There were many teachable moments, like the time one of my kiddos responded with "Hi" on every person's blog, and we used those to stretch our thinking and ability to come up with good responses. We talked about reading for understanding and many different reading strategies in this process too. My kiddos begged for blogging days, and I was more than happy to oblige.

I also enjoyed the fact that I was able to give them quick responses to their writing. With our traditional weekend journals (physical notebooks), I never responded to them. It simply took too much time to go through each one, find the page they chose to write on that day, and hand-write a thoughtful response. With blogs, I could quickly write back to my kiddos with the responses they deserved. I didn't have to carry any bulky notebooks home, and it took me just a few minutes of my time to get through them. They were so excited to see what I had written.

Another really cool thing was that I blogged too! I tried to have a blog entry ready for each of the prompts I presented the kiddos with. This was a great way for them to get to know me. I shared pictures and stories about my family, I talked about my niece's birth, and I wrote about my passions and interests. My students loved learning about me. This was also a great way for me to model good writing. I used full sentences with spaces between the words and punctuation at the end, and I talked about those things as we looked at the entries. It amazed me to see how quickly my students picked up on these aspects of writing and began to include them in their own writing. 

First Grade Blogging

I created my students' blogs for this year this morning, and I cannot wait to see where they take us. In planning for this year, I want to continue in a similar pattern but I am hoping to add a few opportunities for my students. Last year, my students blogs were completely private; only classmates could view them. This year, I'd like to open up a way for students to be able to connect with students in other places through their blogs. 

One way I hope to do this is through a process called Quadblogging. (You can learn more about it here.)  In this process, four classrooms from all over work together to connect their blogs. Each week, one class takes on the challenge of blogging while the other three classrooms read and respond. This continues for four weeks which gives each classroom a chance to blog and to practice writing great comments. While I loved having the students read their own blogs, I feel opening them up to the world and having a greater audience will be even more motivating for them. My goal in all of this is to help them become better writers, so motivation is absolutely key.

Quadblogging will be a big project, and I am excited about its possibilities; however, I'd like to do a few simpler things as well. One of which is to simply make connections with other Kidblog users. I have already made contact with another teacher in a different state about making this reality. Once again, my goal is to widen my students' audiences. I want them to have an authentic reason to write; these connections will give them this reason. I know there are teachers in my school who are blogging with their students as well. Hopefully, we can connect at some point this year.

There is a lot I need to get done before I can make this happen. I need to be connected, for one. In order for me to connect my students, I have to make those connections first. Yikes! For an introvert, that's quite a challenge. I am confident I can make this happen though. I want to get started right away to give my students as much practice as possible. I'll be starting right in with the digital citizenship lessons and writing lessons to ensure their success.

Blogging is the perfect example of redefinition of instruction. Never before have we had the chance to give our students authentic audiences like this, and I am honored to be able to offer this opportunity to my students. The beginning of school cannot come soon enough! (I'm sure I'll regret saying that when that time has finally come. :))