Sunday, April 30, 2017

Remembering to Breathe

Prince Ea's video

I've been in education for twenty years. I've taught in urban areas as well as rural towns, from districts that have money to districts where money is tight, in classes of thirty kids to classes of six, and in kindergarten classrooms to middle school. I know kids. I can sense a bad day from the way they walk in the room. Usually I can talk, joke, and relax it away. That being said, I've also had words thrown my way, along with chairs. Teaching is not for the meek, this I know.

I also know middle school kids. Even without teaching them, I have two of my own. I know the emotional roller coaster that is the brain of a middle school adolescent. Even without the middle school psychology class I had to take last summer - which was a bit ridiculous - I know this age group through my own boys, and their friends.

All this is to say I should have known better.

And yet, last week, I screwed up. I know these kids by now. Out of the 75 I am currently teaching, I taught over half of them in fifth grade as well. This was one of those kids. A former student who had become a current student once again. A student not without faults - in fifth grade or in seventh grade - but a student who I dearly love. Last week this student didn't have their homework done, a poem written. When I asked about it, anger spilled out in their voice as they mumbled under their breath. Not wanting to embarrass them in front of their classmates, I asked them to step into the hall, that I'd check in with them in a minute. They looked at me with anger and didn't move. 

Here's where I screwed up. The late work didn't bother me. Things happen. The angry voice when I had pointed out the late work irritated me. The blaming me for the late work really started to tick me off. Then, the blatant refusal to move got under my skin. I stopped. Looked at them. Repeated my request firmly. They went to the hall.

I continued checking in with kids, but my mind was in the hall. What did they think they were doing? They were wrong, but they were going to treat me like dirt? After all I had done? I thought I had calmed myself down as I took a lap around the room before going out to the hall. I hadn't.

I came out in the hall and gave a lecture worthy of my Irish Catholic ancestry. It was peppered with Irish guilt. My grandma would have been in awe. I talked about what they had done wrong, how much I loved them, but how hurt I was. My student stared at me, never uttering a word, and we came back in the room.

I was steaming as I walked back to the front. Congratulating myself on not yelling, but calmly stating my case, at first I felt vindicated. My student had been wrong, after all. I had to teach them to be respectful, to own up when they didn't do an assignment, etc., etc.

We gathered at the front of the room for our quick write next. With the lights off, I turned on a video. I was sharing a video from Prince EA - I am NOT Black, You are NOT White. I could tell the kids were hooked on the video. As soon as it ended, we all got our notebooks out, I set the timer, and we began to write. In the split second before I began, I saw my student's face - the one from earlier. 

It was miserable.

Guilt washed over me. I knew I hadn't done anything wrong, I had treated them like I would my own children, and yet, I had missed one huge piece. Respect. When I went out in the hall earlier, I should have begun with asking what was going on. I normally do. I normally check in, see if something is up, let them talk. But today, for whatever reason, I was so keyed up myself, that I hadn't asked. I hadn't wanted to get to the bottom of their behavior, I had wanted to fix it instead. 

So, I wrote with my kids. I scribbled quickly, filling up a page in my notebook in those two minutes. Writing what I wished I would have done, instead of what I did. I ended with writing, "How can I fix this now???" And my phone's timer went off.

As my students turned to talk to each other about their notebook, I watched my student. They were subdued. The end of our first period together came. Kids went into the hall to use the restroom, talk to friends, and others milled around the room, talking, waiting for our next period to begin. I waved my student to my front table.

They came up and sat down. I took a breath and looked at them and said, "I'm so sorry. I completely screwed up earlier. I was so mad that you treated me the way you did that I didn't stop and ask if you were ok, if there was anything going on, if I could help. I'm so sorry and I hope you will forgive me for that. Are you ok?"

I know my eyes were welling up as I spoke. I looked straight in their eyes, which were now streaming tears. They said they were so sorry too. That they had no idea what got into them this morning, but they never meant to treat me that way. They promised to get their work done. We laughed, wiped our eyes, fist bumped, and decided to start our day over.

Kids can get under our skin so quickly. Our job is beyond difficult. We have to think on the fly, react on the fly. I would think, by now, that I would have this down pat, but I don't. What I hope I never lose, however, is the ability to own up when I'm wrong. I'm glad I decided to start over. I'm grateful that my student saw my sincerity in that act and met me in that place to begin again as well. From there, anything is possible. 

I think we have to remember that we are all human - teachers and students. We can have bad days, but that none of us is perfect. No, I don't want my students to treat me with disrespect, but I hope I don't climb so high up on my high horse that I forget what it is like to be thirteen. I hope I can remember to treat them with respect as well as expect it from them. I hope I can remember that they are just kids.

Two great articles I read this weekend can be found HERE and HERE. Both deal with student behavior if you'd like to read more. 

Have a great week! 

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Connections through Books

In case you are wondering, I identify as a reader. If you aren't new to this blog, this is no surprise. I read a lot. Less than many of my friends, but more than the average person I'd venture to guess. I talk about books ad nauseam. To everyone. Getting my teeth cleaned, having my eyebrows waxed, taking a ride in an Uber, getting a drink from a bartender - all times in the last six months that I have recommended a book to someone. 

One of the reasons that I'm so vocal about my love of books, so free with my recommendations, is that I want to be a resource for my community. There's the saying, Bloom where you're planted. Well, I'm planted in the middle of some corn and soybean fields in central Illinois. Our town is tiny, around 5000 people, but most folks here know me and know my love of reading. I recommend books for gifts, suggest books to former, current, and future students struggling to find a match. I've had a book group for friends who wanted to share a story together, run reading camps from my home, and donated more books around town than I can count. My goal is simple, I want everyone to find a book they love. I want everyone to have a reading role model in case they don't live with one. I know the power of that role model. I know the power of a love of reading. My goal is next to impossible, but it doesn't mean I will give up.

A colleague recently teased me about my passion, telling me that I could relax and let go a bit. Yet I can't. I believe we all have a purpose in this world. This is mine. I connect to people through books. I also connect people to books. It is the best job in the world. 

This week I've had two parents kindly share with me a story that made my day. My week even. One parent texted me early in the morning. I was driving back from swimming laps at the Y in a nearby town before school began. I looked at the text message and saw that it was from a former student's mom. I had told him to read Winger by Andrew Smith. He had just finished and told his mom that he had never cried over a book before. My heart soared. When I saw him at school I smiled and said, "Winger?" He grinned and told me not to worry, he was already reading Stand Off. A reader and book (and possibly author) had made a match. Yes!

Then tonight a friend posted on Facebook the post below: (reprinted here with her permission) 

There is so much I love about this. I love that my mom read the March trilogy because when she subbed in my classroom last month, my students begged her to read it so they could talk with her about them the next time she came in. I love that she recommended them to her friend (my friend's mom) as a gift for Easter for her grandchildren. I love that her grandchildren, my friend's children, loved them so much they begged their parents to read them. And the parents recommended it to more of their family. And then the dad (also one of my childhood friends) went to DC. 

And then he met John Lewis. 


Seriously, I have the best job in the world. I talk about stories. I connect to kids through their reading and writing. Some days are easier than others, but every single day I feel like I'm making a difference. 

Stories connect us all. I firmly believe that. And if we could just get more people to read. If we could just read about more people who are not like ourselves. If we could learn to see ourselves in others. If we could walk in their shoes, just for a bit. This world would be a better place.

That is my dream.

That is my mission.

I'm going to get there. One book and one kid at a time.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Flexible Seating: Student Thoughts

Today I shared with my first class our plans for the day. It was to be a busy one. We needed to check off some pages of the poetry books we're creating for the kindergarteners, read for ten minutes in our choice books, head outside for a quick write, share a book talk, have our read aloud, learn about the next two pages in our poetry book for the kids, and create those pages.

I'm exhausted just remembering it.

Also, I needed a favor from the students. I told them I had written a loooooong blog post on Sunday about our classroom. (You can read it HERE). They weren't too interested. As one of them said, "You always write about us." Touché. 

I then explained it was on the seating choices in our classroom. They perked up a bit. I told them that teachers are always trying to learn from each other. That I had wanted to share the pros and cons of our seats to help teachers who were just starting to add seating choice to their classrooms. They nodded at me, puzzled about why I was telling them this when we had so much to do. Then I explained that by writing that blog post I had received a flood of questions, messages, and comments. Most of them revolved around two things - what did my students think and how was their behavior in this environment? Before I let them speak, I'll try to give my thoughts.

Overall, I think student behavior is excellent in our classroom. While we have our moments - for example, I'm not a huge fan of the "spinners" that are the current fad at our school, by and large the students are respectful in our class. That being said, I've never had a huge issue with student behavior - before or after the change to this type of seating. This could be attributed to the kids I teach, the relationships I build, or now - the age I am. I think it can be easier to get them to focus when you are the age of their parents. 😜

Yet, I've taught in Chicago, I've taught in districts where the free and reduced lunch rate was the school's student body, I've taught kindergarten (God bless you all), and now middle school. My typical behavior "issue" is too much talking. However, as I pointed out years ago in a blog post, when I realized that every year I lamented that my class was chatty, I finally realized that there was one common denominator - and that was me. 

The truth is, I don't love a silent class. I like my class to have the perfect balance of being on the quiet side, because I need quiet to work, but also being allowed to say something to a friend in workshop time, because this is not a prison. It's hard to achieve that balance and I feel like I'm constantly working at it.

Here's what I've learned about classroom management and student behavior in a nutshell. One, students behave better when they know you care about them. Students also behave better when they know you have invested in their surroundings with purpose. Not decorate necessarily, but when they know I've bought books for them with my own money, when they know I've thought about the room environment to make it meet their needs, when they know I gave up my giant teacher's desk to give more of the room back to them - those actions have consequences. The consequence I've found is that the kids are more at ease in our room. They have less behavior problems. They tend to relax more. It's just a good place to be.

This is what I believed. I still do. But then I turned this idea over to my students today using Padlet. I told them I was sharing this with you all - what were their thoughts on our classroom? The comments are all over the place, but hopefully, if you were one of the folks wanting to know more, this helps. As a reflection for me, it worked wonderfully. By and large, I think these seventh graders are happy in this space we share together. But, judging from my the comments from my last class (near the top), some aren't getting to sit where they'd like. This is something to work on. One thing I absolutely believe is that we can always improve. 

Made with Padlet

Wishtree by Katherine Applegate - It's Monday. What Are You Reading?

Well, let's be real. I didn't read a ton this week. I did read a lot of poetry - online, in books, poems my students had written, etc., but not a lot of books. 

We're deep into a poetry unit and I spent a lot of time reading with them. Read The Highwayman poem for the first time. Whoa. That one is a bit deep. (Side note, I wanted to play this song for them and tell them it was the same thing, but I restrained myself. Do love the song though...)

At any rate, my reading life was saved on Friday. I came home to this box:

I was not at all cool. I might have screamed a bit. Then I curled up with the book and didn't move for two hours. Quite simply, Wishtree by Applegate is a book we all need right now. There is a tree in a neighborhood and it can talk. Well, all trees can, we just don't know it. This tree has been around for over 200 years and has seen generations come and go. At one point an Irish immigrant made him a wish tree. And now, years later, a young Muslim girl has a wish. She wants a friend. And so, it begins.

As I read, and wept, this book found a way into my heart. I dearly wish it was out already. I want to buy it for all of my students. I want to buy copies to give away this summer when I am presenting. I want everyone to read this. 


And yet, we have to wait until the fall. Until then, trust me, put this on your preorder list. We need to talk about this book. We need to share this book. We need to simply breathe in the goodness of this book and be reminded of the kindness that lies in all of us. 

And then, we need to actually do something about it. 

Wishtree comes out September 26, 2017.

I love joining Teach Mentor Texts and Unleashing Readers each week to share my reading life.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Flexible Seating in the Middle School Classroom

I'm hoping that this post will serve two purposes. One, I answer a lot of questions about alternative, or flexible, seating in my classroom. I hope this will be a resource for teachers looking to jump into this type of arrangement. Two, this year I received a grant for several types of alternative seating arrangements. I want to report back on what worked, what didn't, to help to pay it forward and let others learn from this year. Apologies in advance for the length of the post.

To start out, some background. One, I'm blessed with a district that has administrators who have embraced any different types of seating in our classrooms and fire codes that allow fabric. Wanted to acknowledge that up front. So, why change up student seating? I'm coming to middle school from the elementary world where I've spent the last twenty years. Over those years my room became less and less traditional in furniture. I've never been a decorator, and didn't spend a lot of time thinking about what looks cute - no issue what that, just not my focus. What I thought about constantly was if I was a kid, would I feel comfortable in this classroom. Did kids feel an ownership in this room? Was it my room, or ours? As a result, my desk left the room, as did several cabinets. I tried to think of what was really necessary. 

In my years in fifth grade I moved from desks to tables. It began as a practical move - I never had desks by themselves or in rows, so tables were a natural fit. They took up less space. Once I did that, old furniture from my house began trickling its way in. A few floor pillows were added. Eventually a group of stools that allowed students to move. I kept tweaking the arrangements, trying to find a way to fit the needs of all students.

When I decided to move to middle school last year, I knew that not all of the furniture would move with me, some belonged to the elementary school. My concern was if this type of classroom would fit at the middle school level. I turned to an expert, my thirteen year old son. I asked him about the desk/chair combination in his middle school classroom. He informed me that he hated them. At almost six feet, he didn't fit well in them. He also told me they hurt his butt. At first, I laughed. But as I took my endorsement classes for middle school, I realized why he said this. Our middle school students, as we all know, are dealing with puberty in our years with them. Part of that development is that their bones begin to ossify, or harden, through these years. One of the last bones to undergo this transformation is the tailbone. That alone made me resolved to give my students somewhere to sit beyond a hard surface when they were in our room.

Below I'm going to share all of the options my students have for seating in our classroom. (Click on the name of the seating to be taken to where I purchased it, if available). I'll let you know the pros/cons of each. I will tell you, after surveying my students extensively throughout the year, there is not one magic seating out there. Some kids love the bungee chairs, for example, while others hate them. I think the key is offering up options and letting the kids sit where it works for them. We do have days each kid gets certain "spots" in our room. (A chart with the spots listed and clothespins with their numbers on them, rotated daily.) They can always turn them down and sit somewhere else, but this allows everyone to have a fair shot at each spot.

Old Living Room Furniture - free or cheap

One of my couches was from our house, had just outlived the purpose here. The black couch I purchased for $50 off of a retiring teacher in our district. Another teacher gave me a blue armchair a year or so ago. And just this week I put out the call on Facebook for TV trays, which we are decoupaging an old book to the top. The couches are, by far, the favorite spots in the classroom. 

Pros: Cheep when you find donors, very comfortable, kids love it
Cons: Some fire codes would be issues, lice (yuck!), take up a lot of room

Hokki Stools - around $100 (we have the 18 inch)

I wrote a Donor's Choose grant for six of these almost four years ago. 

Pros: Help kids that like to move, well made
Cons: Some kids like them, some really don't like them. The soft gray part on top is easily marred by pencils. (Still useable, just lots of impressions.) 

Video Game rockers - around $50

I purchased these specifically for this year. At first I was worried that seventh graders would be too big for them. Wrong. These are loved by the majority of the class and used daily.
Pros: have held up well, portable, loved by lots of kids
Cons: kind-of expensive

Bean Bags: Big Joe - Around $45

Ugh. I have a love/hate relationship with these. I originally purchased two of the Big Joe bags and brought in an old one from home (blue in the picture below, when the other two were almost flat halfway through the year.) 

Pros: The kids LOVE them, they are portable
Cons: the two I purchased were almost completely flat by Christmas (less than six months). Now they stack all three together to use. Refills are expensive and I wonder how long they'd last. 

Bungee Chairs (around $40)/ Butterfly Chairs (around $30)

The kids love these too. The bungee chairs have held up better than the butterfly, which you can kind-of tell in the photo right above. While not as portable as a video game rocker, the kids do move them around at will.

Pros: Comfortable, portable, meets the needs of a variety of kids. Bungee chairs allow you to bounce.
Cons: Butterfly chair's pocket to keep it secure has broken in one year. Bungee allows kids to push through so they are hanging down. Not sure if this will last well over time.

Rug (around $200 each) and Floor Pillows (around $20 each)

I'm not sure my students would consider the carpets "spots", or maybe even the floor pillows, but they use them a lot. They lay down on the carpets when working more than the floor. The pillows are often added to the hard chairs to make them more comfortable. 

Pros: Carpets have held up extremely well. 
Cons: The pillows had buttons originally, but they've all popped off. Fine other than that. 

Standing Desks - $250 each, local builder

The standing desks were built by a relative of my administrator. He made them adjustable so that they could be desk height, but we just leave them up. I did bring in stools because some kids wanted to sit, but like the extra height. And the standing desk allows one of my students, who wears a brace, the comfort of standing and stretching where desks cause her pain.

Pros: Extremely well made, allow students to move.
Cons: Expensive

My desk - free, brought in from home

As I mentioned before, I don't have your typical desk. Mine is a side table from my house. In the picture with students, it is covered with books on the right side, in front of the window. In the picture above, March is resting on it. Point being, I couldn't give up a desk completely - I wanted a space in the classroom to meet with kids, to confer out of the way, to write during our quick writes, it just didn't need to be big. Kids sit at it all the time, it can be one of their "spots" too, but it is perfect for me. I love it.

And there you have it. I think I hit all of the seating options we currently have. When looking ahead to next year, I'd love to get some more armchair like chairs - along with some coffee tables or side tables - and get rid of the traditional student desks completely. The kids that like the "desks" told me they like that it is their own space, not a table. They don't want to be crowded, but actually hate the hardness of the desks. I'm hoping this will help. 

I'm also looking to get rid of the mindset (my mindset) that they need a spot at a table, that the couch (or what have you) is "extra". I'd like them just to be able to work at the couch. That's why I grabbed some TV trays. We might add more of those before the end of the year. In one week they have become very popular already.

Finally, I'm looking to add more lamps to our classroom and avoid the overhead lights if at all possible. The kids love it when I use the one lamp I currently have.

I'm beyond grateful to my district, our education foundation, and local bank, for sponsoring grants that have helped me get some of this seating in the classroom. I'm also grateful to my husband Chris, who has help to supply the rest. It takes a village, folks!

If you have any thoughts or tips on alternative seating, share below. Can't wait to hear from you!

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Posted by John David Anderson Blog Tour

Last year in my fifth grade class I was blessed with an advanced copy of John David Anderson's Miss Bixby's Last Day. My fifth graders loved the book and insisted, as I packed up my room to move to seventh grade, that Miss Bixby's was certainly a book that needed to travel with me to seventh grade. When they had me again, as they were sure they would, they wanted to "see" their friends from the book. As a result of their connections with Anderson's characters in Bixby, I was certain I would enjoy his new book Posted when I saw it at NCTE. 

I was right.

I couldn't wait to travel home from NCTE last November to begin reading it, I began the minute I got back to my hotel from a dinner. It was one of those books that I wanted to keep reading, even though I knew I needed to get some rest for sessions the following day. It was that good.

Posted takes place in a middle school and follows the story of four middle school boys. Kind-of misfits, they have inexplicably found each other and formed a friendship. They each go by a nickname: Frost (the main character), Bench, Wolf, and Deedee. (You figure out the story behind their nicknames as the book goes on). Life at school has just got very interesting. A new girl named Rose has joined their team of four and the boys have varying opinions on her presence. Also, and most importantly to the students at school, cell phones have been banned completely from school grounds. As a result, kids begin to leave post-it notes on lockers to pass messages. While this begins as a harmless means of communication, it quickly spirals out of control and has negative consequences. 

When I book talked this to my seventh graders, I read several passages. Their reaction was that the kids seemed "real", and I would agree. Anderson does a brilliant job of taking relatable characters and situations and making my students immediately want to know more. Combine that with the articles I shared with them on the post-it notes that were being left in the NYC subways after the elections (one article here) and we began a discussion on writing as communication, acts of kindness, acts of kindness gone wrong, friendships in middle school, bullying, and the role of the bystander. Pretty rich conversation indeed. 

The true test of a book, however, is what the kids think when they read it. They are just as big of fans of Posted as I am. It passes hand-to-hand in our classroom, rarely languishing on the shelf. We highly recommend you check out this book when it is released on May 2nd of this year. 

Posted Blog Tour
17-AprLibrarian's Quest
Walden Media Tumblr
18-AprNerdy Book Club
19-AprFor Those About to Mock
20-AprTeach Mentor Texts
21-AprUnleashing Readers
22-AprNext Best Book
Read, Write, Reflect
23-AprBluestocking Thinking
24-AprLitcoach Lou
Book Monsters
25-AprKirsti Call
27-AprThe Haunting of Orchid Forsythia
Ms Yingling Reads
28-AprMaria's Melange
Novel Novice
29-AprThe Hiding Spot
30-AprThis Kid Reviews Books

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Connecting through Writing

We had one of those moments in class today where you have to stop the direction you were heading and discuss what happened. As we came to the front of the room for the mini-lesson, a student stopped to read the Blackout Poetry wall. She commented to another student that her poem was sad. Several kids got up to read it. It made me remember...

Four years ago I had a similar experience with my students. I wrote about it here. So, I pulled that blog post up and shared it with my class - and then the two classes to follow. I told them how Joey's post (and Lexie's reaction) that March had inspired this post I wrote one month later, in April, when my dog Bally passed. We talked about how we can connect to others through their writing. How powerful poetry can be, because there are so few words. I shared some more of my own poems and then sent them off to write their own.

I wrote one too. One inspired by this article I'd read in the Chicago Tribune this morning. Here's mine - unpolished, a first draft, but somewhere to start. What I know for certain is that I love the feeling of sitting in a room of 24 kids, all curled around laptops and notebooks, absentmindedly staring off into space as they contemplate what to write. The room felt alive with possibility. 


My Wish for My Students

Reading over the article from the Trib,
thinking through what Gen Z means,
I look at the faces before me:
full of promise,

They can make this world better than it is.
They can solve the problems we have created.
They can care about all humans,
all creatures,
our planet.

What a burden we have left them with.
Their shoulders are so narrow,
can they carry this load?

I feel a renewed sense to do,
to act,
to fix what I can, while I can.

I know the future is bright when I look at them.
These kids have stars in their eyes,
work ethic that matches mine,
and pure hearts.

But the mess we’ve left is unfair.
We need to learn to work together.
We need to listen to all of the voices,
not just the echo of our own.

Our future is their future.
Let’s make it the best we can.