In the Small Details

“When will I die, Mom?”

Oskar, our four-year-old son, asks it so abruptly that I am not sure I heard him right.  He looks at me, clearly waiting for an answer, after all, I am the adult in the room, I should have an answer for everything.  And yet the answer I give is weak, I know it, he knows it.

“We all die some day…” he takes it in and then starts to tell me a story about school.  As if I had not just dropped a huge amount of truth into his four-year-old lap that could give him nightmares for weeks to come.  But to him it doesn’t.  He asked a question, I provided an answer and now he has more pressing things to share.  His sense of the world as a child never fails to amaze me.  How can you so casually skip over the inevitability of death and go back to what is comparatively mundane; school and what you played with?

Yet, here is the lesson that my children keep teaching me.  Here is the thing I wish I could be so much better at.  Here is the thing that I think bears repeating; life is lived in the small stories.  In the small details.  Not in our worries.  Not in the inevitability of time, of death.  Of heartache and loss.  But of searching for the small moments of joy.  Of finding the moments we can enjoy so that we may sustain ourselves through the hard that we know will surround us and overwhelm us at points in our lives.

And we do this in the classroom as well.  We search for the BIG moments, for the defining characteristics, we internalize our worries about the students and their perceived struggles and then forget to see them in the small increments that they present themselves at. We speak of a child in terms of their struggles and goals rather than their successes and accomplishments.  We spend so much time worrying that we forget to enjoy the small.  That we make big deals out of everything, and then wonder why we are exhausted.

So perhaps we all need to be more like Oskar?  To recognize the large, the hard, the inevitable but then get on with life.  To not harbor, to not dwell, to not let this color everything we do, but instead to find comfort in the fact that it all of these things are part of their journey.  Of our journey.  To know that while a child may have had a difficult day, month, or even year with us, that this is not the only thing defining them.  That there will be good.  That life will continue to turn sometimes despite of what is happening.

If you like what you read here, consider reading any of my books; the newest called Reimagining Literacy Through Global Collaboration, a how-to guide for those who would like to infuse global collaboration into their curriculum, was just released.  I am currently working on a new literacy book, called Passionate Readers and it will be published in the summer of 2017 by Routledge.If you are looking for solutions and ideas for how to re-engage all of your students consider reading my very first book  Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.      Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.

 

 

 

 

What I Have to Tell Them

I watch them come in, hands clenched, eyes downcast, not quite sure what to think.  I tell them to take a deep breath, tell your story, there is nothing to be worried about.

Our students lead their conferences and while it is not perfect, it is incredible to watch their story unfold.  To see them decide what deserves their attention, to see what they find valuable.  To see those that come from home ask them questions and see them truly realize what we have known for quite a while; they have grown, they have changed, and yes, they are almost ready to leave us.

And so I smile and share the good.  Tell them how proud I am of them.  How I have seen them come in not quite sure what to think or how to speak up.  Not quite sure what this 7th-grade thing really is to this…these kids that have conquered almost all that we have challenged them with.  And I remind myself to tell them that I will miss them.  Because I will; these kids with their stories, these kids with their dreams, their kids with their hopes that this year would be different and for many of them it has been.  They marched right into my heart, threw down the door, and settled right in.

So before I forget I remind myself to tell them that they matter.

Before I forget I remind myself to tell them that I was the lucky one.

That they made me smile.

That they made me laugh.

That they made me cry too, sometimes out of frustration, but mostly out of pride.

That they pushed me harder than I thought I could take but that I am still standing.

Before I forget I remind myself to tell them that their stories deserve to be heard, that their work matters and that they, too, have changed the world.

That they can be more than they see themselves.

That they make people better.

That there is a place in the world for them, no matter the thorns they sometimes unfurl.

I came into this year not knowing if 7th grade was for me.  Haunted by the perpetual doubt of whether I was enough.  Whether I could handle the challenge of another year of second-guessing, of feeling lonely, of not quite fitting in.  Whether I was meant to teach this age, to teach just English, to be at this school.  It turns out I could because this year I was never quite alone.  The kids were right there, believing in me, believing in us.  Perhaps not every moment, but those that mattered.  And so in the end, after watching these kids with their hearts, their hopes, their dreams, and even their fears tell their stories and own what they are, I feel it is time for me to tell mine; I am a 7-th grade teacher, for better, for worse.  It turns out I just forgot to remind myself of that.

If you like what you read here, consider reading any of my books; the newest called Reimagining Literacy Through Global Collaboration, a how-to guide for those who would like to infuse global collaboration into their curriculum, was just released.  I am currently working on a new literacy book, called Passionate Readers and it will be published in the summer of 2017 by Routledge.If you are looking for solutions and ideas for how to re-engage all of your students consider reading my very first book  Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.      Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.

 

 

To the Very Last Day

She was nine, tall for her age, with shoulder length brown hair and parents who deeply cared about her, but not each other.  She looked to me as if I had all of the answers, as if, in our classroom, everything that was happening outside would be forgotten, would not hurt as much as it did.

He was nine as well, dark brown hair, the oldest in his family and already labeled the broken one.  The one that could not be trusted.  The one that did not care.  The one that heard his parents fight about his intellect even when they said they believed in him to his face.

He was ten.  Tiny for his age but solid muscle, hands clenched in fists most of the day waiting for the next threat, for the next person that would see him as an easy target, waiting to prove them wrong.  He hugged my pregnant belly whenever he could and whispered his words of advice to the baby.  “Be strong baby, be kind baby, come soon baby.”  I cried the day he left.

He was eleven and had already experienced the biggest loss he could.  As he placed the picture of his mother into my hands and told me it was the most precious item he owned, I sat in silence.  How could a child who had lost so much still trust me with so much?  How could he show up and want to discuss books with me when it seemed so irrelevant in the face of it all?

How could any child, who has faced trauma, possibly find relevance in what we do all day?  In writing, in reading, in speaking well?

And yet he did, and yet they did.  They came to class, on the first day and on the last, hoping that in this classroom, that within our school they would be seen.  They would be heard.  They would be loved, not just on the days where everything went well, but also on the days where it didn’t.  On the days where they pushed as hard as they could just to see if we still stood there when they were done.

And I think of my own kids.  How different they all are.  How none of them learn in the same way.  How all of them have their own loud personalities.  How all of them make me hold my breath as they enter new phases in their lives and I hope that wherever they go, they are met with open arms, because underneath all of the crazy, underneath all of the yelling, underneath all of the sometimes struggle, there are these kids that will love their teachers like only they can.  Underneath all of the things that perhaps do not fit into what a typical learner looks like, there is this kid that just wants to be liked and taught in a way that makes sense for them.  That will tell me to buy their teacher flowers, and please get the pink ones, because pink is her favorite color.  That will ask me how they can possibly go on to the next grade level because that means leaving this teacher behind.  That worry that perhaps next year they will not like school as much, and I hold my breath and hope they will.

Those kids with their stories.  Those kids with their broken hearts.  Those kids with their stoic facades.  Those kids with seemingly perfect lives that still come to us with such a chip on their polished shoulders.  Those kids that dare us to prove them wrong, that tell us they hate school, that they hate us.  Those kids who tell us they don’t need us and for a brief moment we believe them because after all, we are only human, and there is only one of use and so many of us, and perhaps, we are not the teacher that will make a difference.   And perhaps I am a terrible teacher.  And perhaps I have no idea what I am doing.

Those kids that tell us so many times that everything is stupid that we actually believe them and we are left with nothing but the fragments of what we thought made a great teacher.  Those are the kids that will push us to the very last day.  Who may fight us until the very last minute.  Who will continue to push, to yell, to tell us how little they care, just to see how we will react.  And so for them, we stand tall.  For them, we keep trying.  For them, we believe.  Because sometimes being a teacher simply means having more faith in the child than the child has in themselves.  And so that is my plan as the days count down.  To believe.  To try.  To love.  And to always remind myself that while I may not be enough right now, I am the teacher they have and so for that very reason alone, I have to keep believing I might be.

If you like what you read here, consider reading any of my books; the newest called Reimagining Literacy Through Global Collaboration, a how-to guide for those who would like to infuse global collaboration into their curriculum, was just released.  I am currently working on a new literacy book, called Passionate Readers and it will be published in the summer of 2017 by Routledge.If you are looking for solutions and ideas for how to re-engage all of your students consider reading my very first book  Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.      Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.

 

 

On Counting Down the Days

Do we really want to give students another reminder of how much they want to leave school

The other day I was asked, “What is the one thing you would tell teachers to stop doing as the end of the year nears?”  I needed no time to think because my answer is simple; the countdown.

I used to do the countdown with my students.  20, 19, 18 days left of school.  Each day the kids would get more excited.  “We are almost out of here, Mrs. Ripp!”  They got crazier as the countdown neared the end, energy barely contained, and I loosened the reins, had fun, did less curriculum and more community building.  Except the days dragged on.  The kids grew restless, and I even started looking at the clock, wishing the day to be over.  Was this what teaching the last few weeks of school would always be like?

Six years ago,  after a particularly trying week, I had an epiphany – one that many have had before me.  I was creating the excited mess unfolding every day in my classroom.  My choices in doing a countdown and stepping away from our routines were signaling to the kids that school no longer mattered.  That what we were doing no longer mattered.  That all they had to do was wait it out and then this, too, would finally be over.  As if our students needed any more reminders that school is not a great place to be.

So I stopped the countdown, I went back to teaching and have not looked back since.  Because while the countdown may be fun on the surface; another way to show off student accomplishment – you made it through 7th grade -it also sends a much deeper message; we are done with the year.  I am done with you.  I cannot wait to be done and finally get a break.   Is that really what we want to tell our students?

Yet, this is not the only reason I hate the countdown.  One year, a child cried under his desk on the last day of school.  Inconsolable, I asked him what had happened.  Had someone said something to him that I had not caught?  Instead, he looked up at me, tears running down his face and said, “Don’t make me leave…I don’t want to go on vacation, I want to stay here.”  I cried with him and did the only thing I could, hug him and tell him I would always be here for him if he needed me.  Yet, his words have stayed with me all of these years.  This child did not look forward to summer.  This child faced a summer of unknowns, of food shortage, of not knowing who he would live with, of who would care for him.  Summer did not represent a break, but a punishment.  Our classroom was his safe space.  In our classroom, he felt loved.  By counting down the days, I was reminding him every day of what was ahead after that last day of school; uncertainty, fear, hunger.  None of those messages were what I hoped to convey to my students.

So It is not that we don’t know how many days are left.  I have 38 days left to be exact and so much still to teach.  It is just that we don’t advertise it. We don’t actively remind children how much better summer will be than what we are doing.  It undermines the entire mission we have had all year of instilling the importance of the work we do.  It undermines every single time we have said that school is important.  So now, when a child tells me that they are excited about summer, I tell them I am too, but also that I will miss them, that I will miss our learning, that I will miss our classroom.  That we have so much learning still to do.  That we will work to the very last day because our time is valuable.  Because we need every minute we can get.

If you like what you read here, consider reading any of my books; the newest called Reimagining Literacy Through Global Collaboration, a how-to guide for those who would like to infuse global collaboration into their curriculum, was just released.  I am currently working on a new literacy book, called Passionate Readers and it will be published in the summer of 2017 by Routledge.If you are looking for solutions and ideas for how to re-engage all of your students consider reading my very first book  Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.      Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.

On Parent Assumptions and Fear of Change

“But how do parents react?”

Just this morning, I was asked again as my latest post about getting rid of homework was circulated.  I get the question a lot, I think we all do.  I think it marks a great educator when we ask, when we value what parents think.  And yet…often our assumptions about what parents will think of a change we implement are just that; assumptions.  Not based on actuality, not further pursued.  Not questioned, but instead assumed as true, because, perhaps, it happened to someone we know.  Or because there was that one time where it happened, so now it must be true for every time.

I think the fear of parent reaction holds us back as much as our own fear of change.  We assume they will protest.  We assume they will be upset.  We assume they will rebel against the changes we make because parents always want school to be like it was for them.  But it is not true, at least not always.  How do I know?  Because for the last seven years I have asked.

When I got rid of homework, most parents cheered.  They told me that they wanted their child to pursue other things outside of school and now could.  They told me how tired their child was after school, how much homework was a struggle between them, how it became one more point of contention in their relationship.  How they did not mind the learning, but the tediousness, the worksheets, the assignments that made little sense did nothing for their child.  Those who disagreed asked for resources and I gladly handed them to them, a list on a website sufficed.

When I got rid of rewards, parents told me that they were happy their child was not coming home with trinkets,  That their child did not need any more stickers, or pizza, or other things that had nothing to do with their accomplishment.  That they wanted them to feel proud of their learning, not to be handed anything.

When I got rid of behavior charts, parents told me of their relief, how their child had been anxious, how their child had not cared whether they moved their stick because they already knew they were a “bad” kid and the stick was just more proof of that.  They are still telling me in the comments on posts about Class Dojo and behavior charts.

When I changed the focus from letter grades to personal development, parents were still happy as long as they knew how their child was doing.  As long as it still made sense to them so they could understand their child’s journey, understand how to support.  Understand where they were still developing and where they had succeeded.

So if I have learned anything in these years of trying to be a better teacher,  in trying to create more student-centered classrooms, it is that we should not assume how a parent will react.  That we should not assume they will hate what we do because it is different, or new, or even a seemingly crazy idea.  They care that their child is happy.  They care that their child is challenged.  They care that their child is supported.  That that their child is accepted.  They care that their child likes school and does well.  It seems we perpetuate our own myths and create the barriers ourselves.

So when I asked parents how I could be a better teacher for their child, they told me when they had ideas, and I tried to act on it as best as I could, because it turns out that when we ask parents; they have a lot of great things to say.  They are not as set in their ways as we may think, they do not hate everything we propose.  So jump in, stop assuming, and start asking.  It will change the way you teach.

If you like what you read here, consider reading any of my books; the newest called Reimagining Literacy Through Global Collaboration, a how-to guide for those who would like to infuse global collaboration into their curriculum, was just released.  I am currently working on a new literacy book, called Passionate Readers and it will be published in the summer of 2017 by Routledge.If you are looking for solutions and ideas for how to re-engage all of your students consider reading my very first book  Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.      Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.

 

 

 

On the Need for Getting Rid of Homework

I realize I have not written much about homework the last few years.  Not because it is not worth writing about, but because I do not really give it.  Yet, the other day, as I presented a workshop on passionate literacy, someone asked me how much homework my students have, when I told her they are asked to read 20 minutes and that is pretty much it, she was surprised.

After all, how can we cover everything there is to do when we only have 45 minutes without giving homework?  How can I provide enough practice for my students without telling them to work on something at home?  How can I make sure they are ready for 8th grade, for high school, for college, for real life if I don’t ask them to work on things outside of class?

Well, it turns out that there is a way to do this, where I am able to ask students to read outside of class but almost nothing else.  I have written extensively about my decision to limit homework; some of the many reasons include the research that tells us how little benefit homework has for kids, how much it drives stress, the research on how much teachers versus students speak, but most importantly; my students telling me how they really feel about our homework practices.  I realized that the kids who needed the extra practice, needed further teaching, not more work.  That the kids who did the homework diligently didn’t really need to do it.  That some things that were not meant to take a long time did.  So seven years ago or so, I decided that I would try to limit the amount of homework as much possible, here is how we have done it.

We make a commitment. 

I start every year by telling students that in our classroom I will make them a promise; if they promise to work hard, then I promise to not assign homework beyond the 20 minutes of reading I expect every day outside of English.  One of the big reasons often touted for assigning homework is that it builds time-management and resilience in children, but so does hard work in class.  I make sure my students have enough work time in class to practice what they are learning.  If they decide to not work hard, then the natural consequence is that they still have work to finish once the class is over.  This approach has motivated many students to use their class time better, and it has definitely clued me into which kids are working super hard and still having a hard time understanding the work, then leading to further teaching.

We slow down.

Rather than doing many small projects, I have the luxury in English of focusing on several large projects, we call this being a part of the slow learning movement.  It is, therefore, rare that we have an assignment that requires being turned in the very next day.  We don’t have quizzes or tests either, and so the bulk of what we do takes a week or longer, therefore allowing the students that need extra help or practice to get it in class.

We work hard.

I used to take a more leisurely pace when I had the luxury of more time, but now a sense of urgency often drives us forward.  This doesn’t mean we rush, it just means that time is precious in our classroom.  At the beginning of the year, we discuss how to be more effective with our time and students quickly set up routines for this to happen.   Instruction/exploration time starts the moment the bell rings and ends when the bell rings again.  We don’t have a lot of transitions or downtime as students manipulate the learning environment as needed, most of the time, not waiting for me to tell them to get ready for something, find supplies, or any other small things that can end up taking a lot of time.  This means that most days, though not all, we get the most out of the precious instructional minutes give to us; 45 minutes to be exact.

We look at deadlines together.

The team I am on have a shared Google calendar that I try to keep updated with big project/tests deadlines.  This allows us to see at a glance where big things may collide and then gives us a way to avoid that.  While not all deadlines can be moved, many can, and I have no problem adding an extra day if it means students will not experience the unnecessary burden of multiple things do, thus being able to produce higher quality work.

We do bigger projects.

Another part of our slow learning movement is that most projects cover multiple standards.  That way I don’t have to constantly invent a project or an assessment and students are working on long-term goals, rather than short ones.  It also means that many students can find success within a project even parts of it are still difficult for them.

We have venues for extra practice.

In the seven years since I have severely reduced homework, I have had one parent complain about it.  Yet this is an assumption that runs rampant; how parents, other teachers, or even administration will react.  I certainly do encourage you to partner with your administration, a great way to get permission is to ask to pilot limiting homework, and also discussing with your colleagues.  Some may see it as a knock on their own practices, although it is not.  In regard to the one parent complaint, I have had, this parent wanted more educational experiences for their child and I gladly provided them.  I created a list of additional resources they could use with their child if they wanted to further practice their skills, in turn, I told them that I did not need further proof of their understanding and so all extra work could stay at home.

We spiral our curriculum.

Because I am dictated by a standards-based curriculum, I have the luxury of spiraling our standards.  That means that all seven of our standards are taught in more than one quarter.  Why does this matter?  Because it means that even if a child does not achieve proficiency in a standard the first time it is explored, that standard will come back again, allowing me to assess them once more.

I limit my speaking.

I really try to monitor and actively limit how much time I spend giving direct instruction to students, instead of thinking of various ways I can scaffold the instruction I need to provide.  Tools such as Google Classroom, anchor charts, and even extra handouts or other visuals (one of these years I will make videos as extra reference points) help students work through the progress rather than frontload all of the information.  Because the students I teach are at so many different stages it simply does not make sense for me to deliver most of my instruction orally.

We continually commit to it.

Limiting homework has been such a natural part of our every day, and yet, it is also a commitment I make.  It is not that all of my students “get” something the first time around, it is that I try to help them practice with the content in class, rather than outside of it. It is that I want to honor the commitment that kids bring to the work we do in class.  It is that it is my job to figure out how to do the work we do within the time we are given.  It doesn’t always happen, but most of the time it does.

It, therefore, sounds incredibly simplistic, and I do not mean it as condescending, but limiting or completely getting rid of homework really does come to down to us; to how we spend our time in class, to how much we stop talking, to how we do not waste any time, to how we look at our curriculum as learning explorations and not stand-alone projects.  To how we tell the kids that, in here, we will challenge them, but that means that they will get the reward of no work after if they rise to the occasion.  That it is on them to use their time, to ask the questions they need answering, to reach out if somehow they are missed.

Seven years ago I told myself that all of the extra work I assigned was not really worth the time of my students, and I was right.  It turns out they don’t need the extra work to learn deeply.

If you like what you read here, consider reading any of my books; the newest called Reimagining Literacy Through Global Collaboration, a how-to guide for those who would like to infuse global collaboration into their curriculum, was just released.  I am currently working on a new literacy book, called Passionate Readers and it will be published in the summer of 2017 by Routledge.If you are looking for solutions and ideas for how to re-engage all of your students consider reading my very first book  Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.      Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.