Who would have known what this year would bring, how the world would look so different from the promises we arose with in our minds on January 1st. We have made it another trip around the sun and tomorrow we start a new year, a new book so so to speak. Who knows what will grace this blog in 2017.
This was a year of change for my family. Theadora, our oldest, changed school districts, the twins, Ida and Oskar, started 4-K, and my husband left the construction business after 19 years to become a stay-at-home dad and also go back to school to pursue his dream of being a teacher. It seems in a family life of change, I was the only constant. A new book was published, another one almost written and so many opportunities to grow as a teacher. There were 154 posts published on this post, many of them involving literacy, many of them involving books, so which are the ones that stood out to me?
A post about our oldest daughter and realizing that while she does not learn in a typical fashion at times, she was never broken. Excerpt:
She’s got my eyes, you know.
Blue mixed with gray depending on the weather. She’s got my long legs, arms for miles, and a laugh that comes from her heart. Her hands look like my grandfather’s who gave her her name. And those feet of hers are just like mine, growing too fast for her shoes to keep up.
She’s got her daddy’s sense of humor, always ready to make you smile. And also his artistic eye, declaring one day she will be an artist. She will paint the sky with every color she knows.
But she doesn’t have my skills of sitting still. Of staying quiet. Of focusing in.
She doesn’t smile easy or understand when others are kidding. Friendships are sometimes hard to find.
Some would say she is a broken child. Some would say she is a broken child.
A post I needed to remind myself that while teaching is an incredible job it is not the only thing I want my life to be consumed with. Excerpt:
I get asked often how I do it all. How do I teach full-time, have 4 children, a happy marriage, and also write, speak, and all of those other things that I am so lucky to do without losing my mind. And the truth is; I don’t know. There are good days where I feel like I have succeeded in most things and there are days where I feel woefully overworked. There is definitely a chase of balance always going on. Yet, there are some things that have simplified my teaching life that I now take for granted. Things that used to take up a lot of time that I no longer do or have changed to allow me to not work as much as I used to. Because the truth is; being a teacher is a never-ending job. Your to-do list is never done. There will always be one more thing that should get done, one more idea to try. Knowing that, I knew I needed to change a few things, in and out of the classroom in order to save my sanity and have a life.
A post to remind ourselves that the need for classroom libraries coupled with a school library (and librarian!) does not end after elementary school. We need classroom libraries in all of our classrooms, no matter the age.
It took me 3 seconds to decide that I was going to move my entire classroom library into my 7th grade classroom. Coming from 5th grade I wasn’t quite sure what the use of a classroom library would be on my new adventure, after all, we would only have 45 minutes together, but I couldn’t leave my books behind. I couldn’t leave them in boxes. Even if we didn’t need the books as a class, I needed them. My books were home to me and when you change schools, when you change districts, when you change grade levels, you need all of the pieces of home you can find.
My husband carried every single box of books into my classroom. There were more than 100 and they took up an entire wall as I waited for my bookshelves to arrive. He didn’t mind too much, he has realized a long time ago that I my obsession with books is part of who I am. As I opened each box and shelved the books in their new home, I couldn’t help but wonder if any child would ever read them? If dust would soon become their second skin rather than the hands of children. Was there any point in my meticulous placement of books?
I have tried for the past three years to find time to confer with my students within the 45 minutes that I teach. It is so hard, but here are the ideas that have helped it become more of a reality.
Confession time; I am terrible at conferring with my students. This once proud foundation of my elementary classroom is now a crumbling pillar in my 7th grade English class. Call it a victim of the 45 minute I have to teach everything in. A victim of the so much to do. A victim of not quite knowing how to make it productive. Whatever it is, the conferring that I know I should be doing has simply not been getting done.
Yet a few weeks ago, I realized that the one thing I needed the most (besides more time, more books, more knowledge) was the simple conference. The one to one interaction with every single one of my students if even for just a few minutes. Because conferring is the one way I can really reach all students. Is the one way we can connect the best. Is the one way that I can really see what each child needs. Conferring is the best way for me to be a better teacher to all of the needs must of us are faced with. So even within the 45 minute English class, with almost 120 students spread over 5 classes, there had to be a way. There had to be tweaks that could be made to make it work so an experiment began.
Every spring I am confronted with the hours of tests my students have to take, this year was no different. I have realized though that the test does not care about my kids and it never will.
We teach our students to ask questions, to share, to discuss. We teach them to find help when they need it, take their time when they can, and to always use their tools.
They sit where they are comfortable in order to access the learning best. They reach out to those they trust and they use us whenever they are lost or just want to make sure that the path they are headed down is, indeed, the right one.
We try to create learning environments where discovering facts is only the first step of the journey, using them as a way to further understanding is the next. We use our shared ideas to further the knowledge of others. Where mistakes happen and we try again. We try to create learning environments where students have a voice, where they have choices, where we try to make it personal so that the experience they have makes sense for who they are.
Besides my own children my students have always been the biggest professional development I have received. So it made sense to share their truths as they told me what made them love or hate reading with the world.
I have watched in amazement day upon day as our 7th graders have fallen into reading. Have become still. Have been whisked away to other worlds with their books in their hands and nothing to do but read. I have listened as they have spoken of books, have handed them to each other, have recommended and requested. Have been in competition with one another to read the book first, have asked me for that one book that they just can’t seem to find.
I have watched as my 118 learners became readers. Not that they weren’t before, well some weren’t, but now; books are a part of who they are, at least in the 45 minutes we share. Readers who were dormant are now awake. Readers who were resistant are now in a fragile dance with books that entice them to keep reading. Readers who already read have found bigger challenges to keep themselves engaged. And I am so grateful. Because these kids gave me a chance and I now see the difference as we race toward the end.
So today I asked them; what do you wish every teacher would do for you as a reader and they told me, and then they told me to tell the world.
For years I have fought against the use of public behavior management systems for kids and yet I still see, hear, and read about them every month. Our job is not to publicly shame children, it never was, why do we seem to forget that?
When I was a 5th grade teacher, my classroom was the very last one before the buses. Every day, all of the school’s students would pass by and inevitably some of those students and I would strike up a conversation. Day after day, a little kindergartener would tell me about his day, his shoes, his new fish, or whatever else popped into his mind. One day, he saw me and beamed,”Guess what, Mrs. Ripp!” “What?” I asked. “Peter was on yellow today!” He told this news as if it was the biggest gift, excitement spilling from his little body. Momentarily confused, because wasn’t this child’s name distinctly not Peter, it finally dawned on me; he was talking about another student. “Oh yeah?” I said. “Yes, Mrs. Ripp, it’s exciting, he hasn’t been on yellow all year…” It was November. My heart dropped.
Here was a kindergarten student who every single day so far of the year had been on red. Who every day had their behavior dissected in front of the rest of the class. Whose classroom identity was being distinctly shaped by poor decisions and whose biggest identifier was his behavior. I can only imagine what my kindergarten friend would tell his parent every day about Peter.
Written as a reminder to myself, this post resonated with many when we spoke about the insanity of reading rules we sometimes create in our classrooms. I am grateful for the discussions this one continues to generate.
The number one thing all the students I have polled through theJust an ImmigrantJust years want the most when it comes to reading. No matter how I phrase the question, this answer in all of its versions is always at the top. Sometimes pleading, sometimes demanding, sometimes just stated as a matter of fact; please let us choose the books we want to read.
Yet, how often is this a reality for the students we teach? How often, in our eagerness to be great teachers, do we remove or disallow the very things students yearn for to have meaningful literacy experiences? How many of the things we do to students would we never put up with ourselves? In our quest to create lifelong readers, we seem to be missing some very basic truths about what makes a reader. So what are the rules we would probably not always follow ourselves?
Many people are not aware that I am not an American and this year I became even more aware of the privilege my origin and skin color carries. I had to write about it.
Eighteen years ago, almost to the day, I stood in a small office in the Logan International Airport, Boston, Massachusetts clutching a sealed envelope to my chest as I tried to slow my galloping heart. In the envelope was a copy of my chest x-rays, not seen by anyone until the official in front of me would open them up. My pile of papers had been handed over and he riffled through them, tossing those aside that seemed unimportant. I am not sure I took a breath at all. I knew that if he found a mistake, if something seemed out of sorts, if something was missing, or a box was not checked, that was it. No questions, no explanations, I would be back on a plane to Denmark and all of the time, money, and hoping would have been for nothing. Standing there as an eighteen year old, I remember feeling so little, so scared, and so unsure of myself. My fate was in the hands of a stranger and all I could do was smile.
“What are you doing here?” or something similar is all I remember being asked. I must have answered correctly, in my perfect English, because he finally stamped my passport and handed it back to me. “Welcome to the United States of America…”
What do we do when a class’ reputation defines them as a group?
My last year as a 5th grade teacher we were warned, in a friendly way ,of course, as these warnings tend to be. “Oh, you will have your hands full…” Oh, THAT group is coming up.” My team and I had seen these kids come up through the years, that is the beauty of elementary school. Yes, we had seen the tantrums, the fighting, the crazy behavior that made many label this group as the worst in (insert however many) years. But we also had seen the kindness, the energy, the fun that these kids projected and knew that while we may have our hands full, the year with them would be a year where we would always strive to look for the good, rather than the bad because although the bad was so easy to spot, it should not define a group of kids. Sure there were days where we could not believe what was going on but what I remember most about that year was how incredible the kids were. How much fun we had. How there were these incredible lows but also days that were some of the best of my teaching career. My team would agree with me on this. Yes we had THAT group but also loved THAT group.
Every year since then I have taken that same pledge; to always look for the good first. To always praise, to always point out how great of a group this group is. To change the group narrative in some small way. To always assume that this will be an incredible year no matter the reputation of a group. I think it is so easy to fall prey to the notion of the worst class ever. I think it is so easy to just want to get through a year as quickly as possible, I know there are days that seem never ending where we question everything we do. Yet when we do, we forget something very important; not every kid is going to have a bad day every day. Not every kid is going to have a bad class every class. Sometimes it may seem like this is the toughest day yet, but that too shall pass and just like we hope for a better day tomorrow, so do the very kids we teach.
I was asked to do an Ignite at ITEC, I realized that there was one story I wanted to tell above all; the story of Augustine and her much too soon arrival and how it reminds me that the least we can do is love the kids who show up.
On December 19th, 2013, our youngest daughter, Augustine, was born almost 10 weeks early. She came so fast that there was no doctor in the room, just the nurse. She came so fast that I now know what the big red emergency button in a hospital room does. She came so fast that I did not see her. I did not hold her. She did not cry. For the first minute of her life, I did not know if she was alive. It wasn’t until my husband, Brandon, told me she was breathing that I think I took a breath. That life started up again because for that longest minute of my life, with no wailing to calm me down, I had no idea if I was still the mother of three or the mother of four.
They whisked her away from me into their machines, into the equipment that would help her tiny body breathe, stay warm, and her heart keep beating. See when babies are born that early they need help with everything. And we can prepare all we want but it is not until they actually arrive and we see how much they need us that we realize that all of a sudden we have started a new journey, one that will take us down a perilous path where we might not be able to see our destination for a long time.
I have long chronicled Thea’s reading journey on this blog and how it has shaped me as a teacher and as a human being. This letter of gratitude to Dav Pilkey sums her journey up to now.
Dear Dav Pilkey,
You don’t know me, not unless you count the every brief moment I stood in front of you a few hours ago in your book signing line. Yet I feel like I know you, perhaps that is what happens when your books have shaped the reading lives of so many of my students, I have seen the power they hold to transform children, I am grateful. But just recently your books have taken on a new meaning for me.
You see, our oldest daughter, Thea, is what some would define as a struggling reader, we choose not to but instead just see her as a child who has not yet found her place in the world of reading, who so desperately wants to belong but still feels like she is on the outside looking in. Who is developing with every book encounter she has. Who has to work so hard when it comes to something that others find to be so easy. Who for all of the years of her school experience has been given support by extraordinary teachers who have helped her believe that one day those words will come off the page and come alive. Just not yet…
These kids we teach and the books we read, oh what a combination it can be at times.
Life is full right now. Full of so many wonderful things. Full of so many privileges, but also challenges, things that will make me grow as a person, as a teacher, as a human being trying to be a better human being. One of my privileges is to get to teach a class with some pretty incredible kids in it. They are bouncy, creative, loud at times. Sometimes they need reeling in that can take more than few minutes and yet every day as they walk out, although I am a little bit tired, I cannot wait for them to come back.
Today, the day after Halloween, I did not know what to expect. After all, one child had declared to me the day before that really all school should just be cancelled the week of Halloween. As a mother witnessing my own children’s lethargy this morning, I had to wonder what the day would bring. Would these boys even be ready for anything? Would it be a day of wasted time? As the day grew on and the kids seemed to wake up from their tiredness, I started to ponder just how loud the end of the day would be? Where would the crescendo hit?
Rather than viewing our children through what they cannot do, we need to view them as they are now; capable, changed, and facing a whole life of possibilities ahead.
For the past three years, on December 19th, I have written about the miracle that is our youngest daughter, Augustine. About her much too soon arrival. About the fear. The uncertainty. The guilt…
I have written about my hope for others to see how a child’s start in life may still haunt them many years later when they show up in our classrooms. I have written about how the very least we can do is love them when they come. How we can prepare all we want and yet never be fully ready.
Augustine’s much too soon arrival has shaped our lives in many ways, and yet…last night when I came home from school I did not see a baby that arrived too early. I did not see a 4 pound miracle. I did not see a child wrapped up in long nights and frightening futures. In machines and medical personel. I saw an almost three year old showing me her pig, Pua. I saw an almost three year old that wanted to watch that monster show. I saw an almost three year old that kept her siblings awake by making cat noises.
As I look ahead to 2017, I cannot wait to see what I will write about.