Be the change, being a teacher, being me

Take Care

There are currently two distraught children in my house. One has locked her door to signal her anger, another is blasting her recorder as loudly as she can to let us know, only pausing to yell at her younger sister whenever she gets too close. The discontent seems to be a common visitor in our house these days as the world continues to be paused, as the cancellation of life events continue to roll in. As school continues in its now familiar humdrum of video, worksheet, record, submit.

We are doing fine, we are not in dire need of money yet although the financial strain is getting larger, nor is our health threatened. We have it better than many, we know it, we count our blessings. We search for the good, for the moments of joy when the kids are not yelling, when we can laugh together and don’t have to referee yet another sibling fight. When we don’t have to plead with a child to please get dressed because pajama day cannot be every day, when we have to ask them to please get back to their school work because it does need to be done at some point, in some way. And the hours we spend will never be enough to replicate what their teachers do because school is so much more about production of work.

We stopped pursuing a schedule a long time ago, rather just playing it by ear, knowing full well that there will be good days, and not so good and spending an entire day arguing with a 7-year-old is no one’s idea of joy. We have fallen into to an uneasy routine, counting down the days until school is done, and yet also dreading the news that come through our door every day, not quite sure what the usual magical lazy days of summer will hold for us.

And my own teaching continues. Yesterday, in a meeting we started to discuss what September might look like if we are online. As my heart rate increased, and that uneasy feeling in my stomach grew, we discussed the potential contingency plans that are being planned where hybrid learning may be offered – perhaps it will be entirely online, perhaps it will be every other day, perhaps it will be half days. It may be as close to normal as we can hope or it may be anything but.

Except for us teachers, it won’t be.

We will be expected to teach full-time in whichever way we are asked. We will be asked to create meaningful lessons that not only cover the standards, but also engage every child, value every child, meet every child where they are at. We will be asked to create meaningful bonds with students we potentially have never met. We will be asked to learn new technology, train ourselves if the professional development is not available, convert all of our learning to online “just in case.” We will be asked for new ideas, ideas we haven’t even dreamt of yet, all for kids most of us don’t know beyond their data and files, to be everything we can be for unseen children. And we will be expected to do it with a smile because that’s what we signed up for. Because that’s what teachers do.

And I will pick up the work and carry it on my back because I cannot fathom giving up now. Even if feels too heavy at times.

And yet, I have also once again come to the realization that right now we may know that the kids are not alright, but neither are the adults.

So I am going to make a few promises to myself as we continue to face this unknown future. I will set a few goals because at some point I need to remember that I do not have unlimited power reserves. That I do not need to solve every problem at that time.

I will fight for educational funding. In a time where schools are stretched beyond their capacity, where the glaring inequities that exist within our structures loom even larger than before, I will do what I can to shine a light on the need for funding of our schools, on funding for every child.

I will continue to reach out to those doing the work with me both locally and globally because together we can do so much more than we can alone.

I will set boundaries for myself. Allow myself to do what I can and then take a break.

I will seek out professional training that speaks to what I believe in; equity, seeing the whole child for the amazing being they are, and pushing my own biases and misunderstandings. I know I have much to learn.

I will plan day by day, sharing as I can with others so that others may have it easier.

I will continue to rely on what I know is best practice; that every child deserves a chance, that every child deserves choice, that every child has the right to feel safe, that there is more to the story of every child and it is up to them to decide whether they trust me enough to share it.

I will speak up against practices that harm rather than help.

I will stay silent when it is not my turn or my place to speak so that other voices can be heard, and lift their voices when I can.

I will read books when I can and not fault myself when I can’t.

I will plan for time off, sticking to it much like I would a work schedule.

I will seek inspiration in my own children.

I will stay informed but turn off the news when I need to.

I will say no when I need to.

The road ahead is uncertain, it may be filled with more hurt than we could ever imagine. I do not have answers for problems I cannot see yet, but I can continue on this path as much as possible.

To take it day by day, to continue the fight, and to take care of me so that I can take care of others. I hope you do as well.

If you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page. I offer up workshops and presentations both live and virtually that are based on the work I do with my own students as we pursue engaging, personalized, and independent learning opportunities. I also write more about the design of my classroom and how to give control of their learning back to students in my first book, Passionate Learners.

being me

This Is All We’ve Got

Our youngest daughter has just slammed her door for the fifth time this morning. At least, I think it’s the fifth, I’m not sure by now. Wedged in between her epic door slams have been big statements. “I hate school!” “I don’t want to do this!” “Why do we have to ever learn anything?!” She comes back out every few minutes, tries to sneak her school issued computer into her room so she can go on it. We stop her, ask her gently to try again, she does, and then throws another fit. We have yet to get through her teacher’s 42 second morning message. Perhaps another break is needed? Perhaps let’s try something else?

Our other daughter isn’t far behind. “I hate Spanish!” “I want to go back to school!” “I don’t get this…” but instead of slamming her door, she slams her computer, slinks off the chair, buries her head. Goes into her room to listen to music. Then comes back out and asks to try again. The minute the words pop up, she is trying hard to hold it together, but soon the frustration takes over again. “I can’t do this!” Slam the computer, run into her room. Rinse, repeat.

Our son is happily clicking through as fast as he can, not really reading what he is supposed to do at times, sometimes pausing for just a moment and recognizing what he needs to do. We are trying to slow him down. Trying to have him reread directions, actually watch the videos, slow down, do it right, stop clicking random things. Did you actually do it or did you just submit? How do you unsubmit? Oh you can’t, ok, well then that’s what your teacher will see. He says he is done within 15 minutes. He is not. We try again. One-on-one support to see if that makes a difference.

Our oldest is 5th-grade independent, holed up in her bedroom where she is hopefully doing her school work in between Youtube, zoom hangouts with friends and lots and lots of tutorials on stuff she hopes to do every day. She sends emails to her siblings throughout, “Hi!” they say with lots of emojis. She comes up once in a while. We ask her to check her work, she shows us, doesn’t want our help. Tells us she’s got this in that way that 5th graders do (I love 5th graders) and goes back to her room.

My husband? Trying to help us all as he finishes his last semester college classes virtually, helping us take deep breaths. Helping us start again. Mediating when it is needed and pulling from his infinite source of calm, he helps us all while trying to do his own work.

And me? I am on my 3rd cup of tea, trying to be present for my own students, answering their emails, planning lessons, reaching out, meeting virtually with colleagues while sitting next to whichever child wants my help. Trying to come up with activity ideas that will sneak learning in without them even knowing it. Taking a deep breath when needed and trying again.

So you could say that this whole emergency remote teaching homeschool online learning business we have been in for the past week is going great.

And so we take the breaks.

We offer choice.

We give snacks.

We step away.

We come back.

We try again.

We limit when we need to.

We direct when we can.

We try again, and again, and again, and again.

And we hope that perhaps this next time we try again, the result will be different. And if not, then we will try again.

Because here’s the thing. This is not because of what they are being asked to do. Their incredible teachers have created age-appropriate, fun-filled, choice-based mini activities for them to do. They have broken it down, recorded videos, given them hands-on learning, checked in with them as much as possible. They are standing at the ready, eager to answer questions, offer help, tuned into the needs of each child and telling us to do the best we can.

And it’s not because my kids are hungry. Or don’t have a safe place to stay. Or have a lot of insecurity in their lives. They are luckier than most, more privileged than many. They have what they need yet it is not enough because we cannot provide them with the one thing they so eagerly long for; normalcy. Despite having everything we need, my kids still feel the world as acutely as we, adults, do. They long for the every day, for the back to school normal, and when they fail to find the words to tell us, they show us instead.

When I speak to the caregivers of my own students, I keep sharing that it is difficult at my house as well, that I trust them to do the best they can even if it means not doing the work. That they know their child best and I trust their decisions. That right now, learning might not look like what we would like it to, and that’s okay. We will figure it out, because we always do.

It has to be okay because this is all we’ve got.

So I write this not for pity or for ideas (we’ve got plenty) but rather to share what it looks like here. In a house that should be fine but is decidedly not at times. In a home that has two teachers present, kids who are generally decent at school despite their specific learning difficulties. In a home where we have the tools to make learning accessible and interactive. This is not homeschooling. This is not remote learning. This is not online school. This is recognizing that we will all do the best we can and that sometimes that means we don’t do the school work. Sometimes that means that we take a break and we try again when we can.

As I write this, our youngest daughter just yelled out “I already know this, ugghhhhh!” as loud as she can. I told her to try it any way to show me. She has a lot of work still to try. So we sit down together, I grab another cup of tea, brace myself for the next outburst and find my calm.

Later, we will shut all of our computers off and go read a book. Ask our kids to go play. Take a break, clean their rooms, perhaps go outside if they bundle up. We will keep learning somehow.

And for now, that will be good enough.

being me, Reading, Reading Identity

My New State of Reading

Normal Design

I haven’t really been reading much. Not like I normally do. Not like when I am home and the days are long and my to-be-read shelf beckons every moment I pass by it. Where I swallow a book a day, share it with the world, eager to pick up the next one.

Right now, my shelf makes me feel guilty. The abandoned books piled around the house. Starting the same book over and over again because I am sure it is good if I can just pay attention. Reading comes in short bursts between kids needing me, my computer pulling me away, my phone a distraction. The need to sleep. To simply sit and ponder. To be outside trying to connect with a world that feels very far away right now. It’s simply hard to read right now.

It’s hard to read when my children demand attention through their yelling matches and “I’m bored, Mom…” and their school work consumes hours of our time and it hasn’t even really begun yet.

It’s hard to read when my favorite genre, dystopian, hits a little too close to home.

It’s hard to read when the to-do’s of my job keep piling on, navigating new territory every day, not quite sure if what I am doing is even close to effective.

It’s hard to read when you worry.

When breathing is harder.

When loss is present.

When sleep is elusive.

When worry is a constant companion.

It’s hard to read when the world outside is scary.

(Even when I sit in my heated house, with a fridge that’s full and my paycheck still intact.)

I read to learn. To escape into worlds and stories unlike my own. To relax. To have my imagination lit up. To be transported and while right now may seem like the perfect time to escape, the tethers that hold me firmly in place are thickened steel, and my mind refuses to settle.

I cannot be the only one that feels that way. I am not the only one that feels that way.

My students tell me that they haven’t really been reading. That they sleep a lot. That there is so much work to be done now that school is back in session whatever this means. That they don’t have books. That they can’t find a good book. That they don’t like reading digitally. That they read the only book they had. That they tried but they have to keep going back to reread, hoping to grasp the story that slips through their concentration. That they don’t know what to read next because nothing sounds good.

And I get it. My assignment of reading 2 hours a week is merely an aspiration at this time. Of saying I hope you’re safe enough to read. I hope you are fed enough to read. I hope you are okay enough to read. That those taking care of you have what they need so you have what you need.

And so we send books to those who don’t have any (a survey and Amazon direct shipment helped us out with that). We send them links to digital books. We fill our Audible account with great books. We leave book reviews on Flipgrid in case they have a way of ordering books. We read aloud to pretend that we are still together.

Because that’s all it can be right now.

An invitation to those that are in a place to receive it.

A way to offer up a slice of normalcy for those who can access it.

Not as a way to punish or grade.

Not as a way to go on with life as normal, because it is everything but.

To demand someone read right now is to fail to recognize what may be happening in their world. Is to ask for the impossible for some.

That doesn’t mean we stop hoping but it does mean that we ask a lot more questions than we might usually: Are you okay? Are you safe? Are you feeling ok? Do you have what you need? Food? Heat? Books? Do you have a safe space to read? Do you have enough time to read? And we respect that students may not tell us their truth because they don’t have to. That all we can do is ask and try, not demand and want.

And we wrap our students in patience rather than demands. In understanding rather than expectations. And we fully sit with the knowledge that this reality is not like anything we have seen before and therefore our approach must change as well.

That perhaps a child can read but not think clearly. That perhaps a child doesn’t have the room for deep analysis right now. That perhaps they don’t have the energy to write but could speak? That perhaps a whole book seems much too much but a short story is accessible. That perhaps picture books are all they can do right now.

Choice, personalization, and giving options for students has to be central to what we do right now, to what we do all through the year.

That what we may be working through in our tiny slice of the world may look nothing like what our students face.

That if we, professional adult readers, are struggling, how does it feel for the kids?

Today, I am going to try to read. I have been fighting what my doctor assumes is Covid-19 but a mild case and the exhaustion is all consuming. I am going to get through 2 or 5 or 10 pages and then congratulate myself. Be happy that I tried, even if normally I would be able to finish a book quickly. Even if I normally would feel lazy if I didn’t read at least a book a day.

Today I am going to try again because yesterday I tried too. And I am going to encourage my students to try and to to keep trying. But I am going to continue to know that sometimes trying is all we can do. Trying is what will happen rather than completing and that is good enough for now.

Right now is nothing like normal. Let’s not push normal expectations on kids either.

If you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page. 

being me

Good Enough

We got the news last Sunday at 2 PM, while we were standing at our public library, stocking up just in case. “Schools are closed until April 6th.” The two days of goodbyes we had planned for getting food, devices, and books to kids no longer an option. Of giving phone numbers and reassurances. No “see you later,” no clean out your locker, no what do you need? Nothing.

So, as parents, we went home and did what we do best; plan. Create a schedule for the very next day where some sort of home learning would have to happen. Try to explain to our own kids, ages 6, 7, 7 and 11, what this meant. Answer their questions in a factual way without scaring. Try to come to grip with this new unprecedented reality. Take a deep breath and simply do the best we can.

We have been doing the best we can since then.

We all have.

And now as we face schools being closed indefinitely, we will continue to do so.

Yet the best we can is very much dependent on the day. Yesterday, I felt on top of the world. My kids did their academic work we have scheduled for an hour each day. They invented adventures together, I baked a cake with my son and it tasted good. I wore earrings as I prepped for my Facebook Live in our Passionate Readers community. The kids liked dinner. We laughed, we danced, we went outside, and we learned things about the world, letting our curiosity guide us. This whole deal – we got this.

But today, my kids slept in, they didn’t want to get up. They decided it was pajama day. They decided that they didn’t have to follow the rules of math that have been around for thousands of years because they “don’t like them.” They didn’t want to hold their pencils right, or trace the words, or read because “reading is stupid.” They couldn’t do their enrichment packets sent from their schools because all of the instructions are in Spanish, and their dad and I don’t speak Spanish. They left a mess in the kitchen, upended my teaching supplies, and decided that they were done. Just in general done. As my son exclaimed, “I hate the Coronavirus.”

And so I tried different methods, and I took a deep breath and tried again, and I gave them choice, and I gave them rewards, and I listened to their feedback, and I chunked it out, and I problem solved with them.

But the learning; that still wasn’t happening.

Despite having the tools. Despite having the time. Despite being an experienced teacher. Despite being able to provide a life filled with privilege when it comes to the basic needs of us all.

And so I yelled, even though I knew better. I shared my frustration because even though I am the adult; the world seems really scary to me right now too. Because my worries are stopping me from sleeping; I am the lone income in my family and while I am grateful for my teaching job, with my extra work all being cancelled, the threat of financial insecurity is real. I am worried about my students. I am worried about the community that is lost. I am worried for our economy. For all of the many inequities we see play out and how it will affect the future we are looking toward. And the worries are real even though I know they are not helpful, and much like my kids, I am just trying to do my best.

And the yelling did nothing. Only splintered the day more. Instead, I stepped back, let my husband take over and crafted a new plan.

So today, we are doing recess. We are doing art. We are doing bike rides. We are doing reading if we want. Games if we want. Videos if we want.

And we are going to call it good enough for today. Good enough for right now because right now is all I can influence.

And so I share this as reminder; that what we are doing right now is not homeschooling.

That we cannot ask the adults who care for our students to become teachers overnight. That we cannot ask adults who are carrying the weight of their families on their back to also shoulder the responsibility of becoming their teachers.

That as schools plan for this remote/virtual/online learning that we are all expected to be able to do now, that we cannot for one moment think that it is going to be like school. That even if we invent amazing learning adventures to go on using online services, those websites may not be able to handle all of our traffic. That even if we provide devices and hotspots that doesn’t make our learning equitable. That we cannot ask our students to sit in front of screens for hours each day, trying to patch together what would have been the learning we would have done together. That we cannot expect our students to be in a healthy place for learning. That even if we send home work to do, it may not get done. And we need to be okay with that.

Because we are not together. Because we are not there to support. We are not even there to hand out paper, or pencils, or ideas if needed. So how can we expect those at home to take over?

What we can do though is simple; be ready. Be ready to pick up the pieces and help the students that return to us wherever they are in their learning journey. Be ready for push back. Be ready for the reality of what this new path will look like. Be ready to be okay with good enough. Be okay with being partners and not always leaders.

Because right now is maintenance. Keeping kids in the game of learning. Of drilling down to the most important essence of what education can be; community, connection, relevance, and grace.

That while the adults surrounding our students are facing an unsafe world, we need to make sure we do not do more harm than good. That we push back against district mandates that will further inequities. That we keep our reality in stark focus so we don’t add further stress to an already unpredictable world.

Right now is not normal, and nothing we invent or create or implement will make it normal. So perhaps like I had to, we all just need to take a deep breath and be okay with good enough for now.

And my kids? Well, I have recess to go do. A new adventure awaits and tomorrow we try again.

Take care, I’m here to help.

being a teacher, being me, conferences, Literacy, Reading, Reading Identity

What’s Important in Your World – A Small Question to Boost Conferring

I have been having small conversations with students. Isn’t that what teaching is in so many ways? Much like we live life in the moments in between the big, we teach in the moments in between the big as well, the big assignment, the best draft, the presentation. We go throughout our day using our voice to connect, our bodies to show our listening, our eyes to show we care. We seek out those moments in between hello’s and goodbye’s to make sure that with us, these kids, our kids, feel seen, challenged, and cared for.

So in thinking about how I could structure more conversation to build trust, I have been starting each reading conference with a simple yet meaningful question. Inspired by Sara Ahmed’s work in Being the Change, after I have asked them how their night was, how their day is going, I then ask, “What is important to you in your world right now?” It took some finessing with the question, in some conversations it flows seamlessly and the students latch onto it and take it in the direction they need it to go. Others ask for clarification which I typically bumble through, but what it shows me each time, is that continued need to connect that drives everything we do in room 203.

That there is still much to be done.

That all of the community we think we have built is still not enough. That each child is still carrying so much within them that ties in with their day, their mood, their thoughts, their actions, their dreams. From the worries about homework as the end of the quarter nears, to friendship issues they are navigating. From coming to terms with sports ending and figuring out what else to use their time on, to not quite knowing what to do with something they know, these kids take that question and allow us one more glimpse into their lives. One more way to build a way for them to trust us with the emotions that are tied into the work we are doing.

Because I can start a conversation asking just about their book.

Because I can start a conversation getting right to the skill.

Because I can start the conversation by asking what they are working on as a reader.

Because I can start the conversations moving into the work as quickly as possible.

But what that will never do is build the kind of trust we need to have with each other when kids tell me how they really want to grow. Why they worry about reading. Why they worry about writing. Why they worry about being in a community where some seemingly don’t understand them. Why they worry about grades, about the future, about the news.

So for now our conferences are taking a little bit longer. So for now, I am not quite sure how the conversation will go. I am not sure when we will get to the work they are doing as readers. But we will and we do.

But before then. Before that.

I get a tiny glimpse into their world and isn’t that what teaching is also about in so many ways? A tiny glimpse so we can help them capture the world the way they want to.

It is for me.

If you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page. If you like what you read here, consider reading my latest book, Passionate Readers – The Art of Reaching and Engaging Every Child.  This book focuses on the five keys we can implement into any reading community to strengthen student reading experiences, even within the 45 minute English block.  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

being me, new year

Here’s to Life in the Mundane

Seated around the breakfast table with our kids this morning, it was hard to not get wistful for a moment. To take a moment to appreciate the last decade, the wonder of the ten years that have passed, a decade that brought us three more kids through the miracles of medicine. A decade that started with me in my second year of teaching, ready to give up on it all but instead beginning a blog, which led to a book and then three more books, and then to travels around the world trying to be a part of the solution rather than the problem. A decade shaped by new friendships but also lost ones. Of more love, of new wrinkles, of back problems and first world privilege. And a year that was for the most part uneventful in the best of ways, a year that came in quietly and leaves us in a flurry. As the kids made funny jokes, threw mini tantrums, and we celebrated Thea’s 11th birthday, we asked what they loved the most about the last year. What stood out?

A few things were crowd favorites; travels to Costa Rica , Taiwan, and New York, going to school and starting new classes (phew), getting Piglet, our hedgehog after many months of research. All extraordinary events that shaped our year. Events out of the ordinary. Events that we counted down to, saved up for, commemorated in our albums of pictures. And yet, it was in the moments after that my thoughts gathered. The little moments that make our years, the routine and ordinary. The life lived in the mundane that truly shaped this year.

Taking long walks with Brandon as we contemplated our lives and tried to figure out the everyday trials and triumphs of parenting.

Reading books in small moments, whenever the opportunity presented itself.

Text messages received from family and friends. Emails, phone calls, and letters.

A fresh cup of tea awaiting in the kitchen when I came home.

A car with heated seats, finally.

Friday movie nights ensuring us that our love of Star Wars was dutifully passed on.

Bike rides.

Pool time naps.

Quiet work time before the students show up.

Thea trying out a new sense of humor.

Ida discovering her dyslexia super strength.

Oskar making sure to say I love you.

Augustine deciding that school is fun even it is work.

Saying thank you. Saying please. Saying yes.

This is when we lived. These are the moments that have shaped us. That will continue to shape us. All of the everyday decisions and breaths that we take that make up our entirety.

And while 2020 will carry many extraordinary events into our lives; Brandon’s graduation with a degree as a tech ed teacher (need a teacher in your school?), my 40th birthday, travels to Iceland and Puerto Rico, Thea starting middle school, it will be in the mundane that we live. In the moments for small contemplations. In the moments of quiet. Of loud. Of sameness, routine, and commitment. Of embarking on a year of yes and more. Of stretching ourselves to the fullest when we can and retracting when we want to. Of looking up, as Joanna Gaines, reminds me to do, of soaking it all in, of shutting down and tuning in. Commitments to a life best lived not in the magnificent margins but in the everyday extraordinaires.

I am so grateful for 2019, for a life lived in the daily. Perhaps our paths will cross?

A quiet moment with a cup of tea in the middle of the rainforest in Costa Rica