Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Of Visqueen, Duct Tape and Shorts Too Tight...

At my school, I have to do morning and afternoon duty. I actually like it. My duty is the parking lot. I get to make sure the cars keep moving and the kids are safe. I like it, though, because it allows me to greet many of our parents in the morning. I think the added benefit is that I get to glimpse their world even if it’s only for a moment. It helps me understand just why some kids behave the way they do.

My school serves children who come from a wide socio-economic status range. We have the kids who are fed and clothed and cared for extremely well. They are kissed an hugged and reminded to do well on their spelling test when they are dropped off at school. They are well-dressed with hair perfectly in place.

And we have those kids who are fending for themselves as they figure out where their next meal is coming from. They are often yelled at, as they, disheveled at best, struggle to step over papers, trash, toys, and other “stuff” just to get out of their cars. Their backpacks are often open and books and papers are spilling out. Their shoes are untied. Sometimes they are not completely dressed.

Recently, I was in the parking lot and I started to notice a trend. Many of the cars that transport our disheveled kids in the morning are held together with visqueen or duct tape. I didn’t really think about it too much except that I remembered when my car window was stuck down a couple of years ago, I couldn’t get that visqueen on there tight enough to save my life. It ended up ripping when I drove and I was freezing. Many of our parents, though, are almost masters at this. Their “windows” are on tight and appear that they will not rip anytime soon.

Today, a car was sitting in our drop-off area and not really going anywhere. Sometimes this means the child simply doesn’t want to get out. Sometimes it means they are still half asleep. I went over to see what was happening. As I peered through the visqueen window, I could see a young boy (age 7) was in the back seat crying his eyes out. Mom was frantically trying to get him out of the car. He didn’t want to come. Suddenly, she handed me a $10 bill and said (in broken English), “His shorts too tight. Buy new.” She told the boy that I would help him in his native language. It took a few more minutes (and some words that I couldn’t begin to translate), but he finally got out of the car.

She just trusted that I would take her money and get the boy shorts. I don’t know if I would hand someone (even if they were wearing a school id badge) ten dollars to get my son shorts, or not. Once the boy got out of the car, I thought, “I’m adding this to my parent pick-up experiences.” I took the money and gave it to a patrol to take the young man to the office and get him some shorts that fit.

Here’s what I have noticed, people who are living in poverty, have to access resources differently than people who are not. They are, however, rather resourceful when they need to be. When you can’t get a car part fixed, you can usually fix it with a little visqueen or hold it together with a little duct tape. This includes when your brake light covers get broken—you use red duct tape for that.

And when you are late for work, and know that it could mean that you won’t be able to buy groceries this week if you lose money, you just might hand anyone a $10 bill to take care of your son’s clothing needs.

It gives a whole new meaning to the words “Whatever it takes…” Doesn’t it?

Monday, August 07, 2006

School's Open!

The students returned today. It's always so fun to see them arrive with their new pencils, backpacks, and uniforms. They are eager and wide-eyed. This is the beauty of elementary age kids. They are literally vessels awaiting a refilling of sorts. They are ready to be filled with new books, thoughts, ideas, and problems to solve. It's up to us to be keenly aware of what each vessel needs.

It's a big task. And it's not easy. Staying aware of what kids need means being a "kid watcher". We have to know what they CAN do and where their deficiencies are. Then, we have to teach somewhere on the edge of that information. It has to be enough to stretch them while also affirming who they are and what they know. In my opinion, it's like a great balancing act. And to do it with 20+ kids at once is quite a feat.

Yet, it happens everyday in schools all around the world. I want to celebrate that. I know that each teacher who believes in the kids he or she teaches IS making a difference. And for that, I am grateful!!

Here's to a great school year!!

Sunday, July 30, 2006


I am totally invigorated! I spent the past four days doing three different trainings for teachers! All three trainings focused on getting the Differentiated Instruction block organized around Literacy Centers.

Wednesday was spent with new teachers in our district. Some are brand new and others are simply moving from another district. It didn't matter which category they were from, their eyes reflected the excitement and tension of beginning a new school year in a new place. They are refreshing. They come with so many ideas and are ready and willing to try them out in their new surroundings.

Thursday, I spent with an entire staff. It is also fun to talk to teachers who have been in the field for quite some time. One teacher came up to me and told me that she was in her 36th year! And she said, "I'm learning things today." That is exciting!

I really view myself as a life-long learner. I am constantly willing to view new things and review my practice. Admittedly, though, there are times when I don't WANT to let go of my past and do something new. I only hope that when I have been in the field for 36 years, I am STILL able to say with a smile, "I learned something today!"

The third training was done in a neighboring county. It included 80 K-5 teachers and administrators. Their zeal and enthusiasm was also refreshing. Many told me they had spent many days already in training this summer. Yet, they got up early on a Saturday to come talk about teaching and learning in the elementary classroom! Amazing!

I love this profession! I have such a great opportunity to talk to teachers from all around our state and country. This allows me to see the greatness that really CAN be found in public education!

I hope that no matter where you are on the continuum of teaching, whether a beginner or standing at the door of retirement, that you find yourself a learner this year! As Marcel Proust says:
The voyage of discovery is not in seeking new landscapes
but in having new eyes.

May we all find new eyes with which to view the coming school year!!

Friday, July 14, 2006

I LOVE this time of year!!

It is July. I can almost "smell" the start of school in a few weeks. I have been to several workshops and am once again re-charged for a new year.

Florida celebrated with a Literacy Coaches conference this week that was outstanding. They sponsored 3600 Literacy Coaches and Principals from throughout the state for this three day event. I expect them to post handouts and presentation notes any day here.

As I watched all the Coaches and their Principals this week, I realized a couple of things:

First, this relationship differs from school to school. For some, the conversations are limited and relatively non-existant. For others, the relationship is an integral part of the culture and climate of the school.

Second, many of the coaches are at differing levels of expertise. Some, truly are literacy experts. They know current reading research and best-practice. Others, though, seem mis-placed. Almost like fish out of water. They have that glazed look that says, "I don't know what I'm doing, how to do it, or why I should."

Events like the Just Read Florida conference can help close the gaps that DO exist from person to person and school to school. It helps to give a shared experience and then highlight the potential of the Literacy Coaching position at a school site.

Florida is doing something else that I believe will help close the gap that exists. They have created the Florida Literacy Coaches Association.

This is an organization that supports coaches and anyone else who wants to support coaches and their role in helping increase student literacy skills.

I love this time of year! I am re-generated, rejuvinated and ready to go. Happy July!!

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Literacy Coaching Thoughts

It's hard being a Literacy Coach. It means that you need to be "up on" all the latest research and trends in the reading arena. It means that when you are modeling or having collegial conversations, you need to be the best you can be. My favorite time of the year is when I get to go get my "literacy vaccination" at the annual International Reading Association Convention.

Last week, I did just that.

There were MANY highlights. I will try to share some things in the coming weeks. I want to share this quote, though, that my friend Suzi shared with me:

"If you're not drawing any critical fire, you're probably not making a difference at all."

I LOVE this thought. It's hard being a Literacy Coach. Sometimes it does mean that you are in the line of fire. Yet, when we analyze the "fire" it is usually from people who are outside of their comfort zone.

I'm going to hang on to this thought this week.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Monday, February 13, 2006

Testing Blues

I received a frantic email from a teacher over the weekend. She is doing her very best to have kids prepared for our state exam. She has taught them well....and last week, she gave them a practice test. They blew the practice test. Now, she's in a frenzy. I think she is questioning if what she has done was OK...and/or "enough".

We work with some very low readers. They struggle. They lack background knowledge to help them understand what they read. It's not easy for them. These are not excuses...but they are conditions that exist with this population.

She is an EXCELLENT teacher. She works very hard. She is compassionate and passionate. She cares deeply for her kids. She teaches well.

I don't think questioning your practice is a bad thing...but I think she is actually doubting her ability to teach. This is wrong.

So, how do I help her to trust herself AND do the healthy type of questioning? I don't want her to be so uptight about this test. I want her to know that in the end she did the best that she knew how (and then some)...at some point, the student has to take over. I want her to know that she is an excellent teacher and that our profession (and our school) is better for her being here. I want her to know that this one test is not the be all and end all of proficiency measurement.

Most of all...I want her to trust herself and her ability to work with kids in powerful ways.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

A Great Day...

I love the old bumper sticker that says: "Won't it be a great day when schools have all the money they need and the military has to hold a bake sale to buy a bomber?"

Our county is in the middle of a campaign for a new tax referendum. This tax basically would ask home owners to give about $1.00/day (on average) to the school system. The school system in turn plans to use the funds to maintain teacher salaries, continue special programs, and generally "beef up" the school system a bit more in the areas of technology and educational opportunities.

Some teachers are upset about it. You see, also tied to this tax is the requirement that teachers (especially secondary teachers) will make some shifts in their instructional delivery. It means that teachers are going to be held accountable for teaching students using best practices.

Is that a bad thing?

One of the things that has bugged me since the day I became a certified teacher is that there are pockets of mediocrity out there. And worse, there are some people who simply should NOT be in a classroom. And we protect them. These are people who have no passion...they are simply marking time waiting to retire. Working under the radar. We allow it to happen and we allow them to be influences on new children year after year.

I wish there were also a bumper sticker that said: "Won't it be a GREAT day when every child is taught by a passionate teacher who believes his or her students have the potential to make a difference in our world?"

I hope the tax passes. But more than that, I hope that I see the day when passion and excitement for teaching and learning is alive and well in EVERY classroom everywhere. Kids are worth it!!

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Whose Key Are You?

Last night, I started watching "Country Boys" a documentary on PBS. It is a three part series that documents the lives of two teens from Rural Kentucky for three years. The film shows clearly the effects of poverty on children and their families. It also makes it very clear that you can have some monitary resources, but be missing other resources (i.e., family) and have trouble. The boys attend an alternative high school.

The thing that struck me the most was the importance of that significant adult in your life. It is that mentoring-believing-in-you relationship that is the key to moving kids from a place of no hope to hope. It was the theme in "A Framework for Understanding Poverty" by Ruby Payne.

In the movie, Chris is heard saying, " I am the lock and my mother is the key. If she wanted me to finish my work, I would do it." This is how it is...there is someone out there who is the key for each child. The hard part is recognizing it. It's hard to know when you are the key for someone.

I often wonder what it is that kids might remember about our school. Will they remember that there were adults that cared about them? I hope so. Will they see us as keys to helping them get "unlocked"? I hope so.

I think the question that I will post near my desk somewhere is: "Whose key are you today?"

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Word Walls

Word walls are an important way to build the prior knowledge of young students. Here is a fairy tale word wall that I created when I was doing a fairy tale unit with my second graders. All of the images were downloaded from Google image search. This is an extremely valuable resource when it comes to finding pictures of many different things.

These pictures could also be copied smaller to make mini-dictionaries.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Deep Thought for a Friday

Here is a great quote that is worth reflection:

Sir William Haley says:

Education would be much more effective if its purpose was to ensure that by the time they leave school every boy and girl should know how much they do not know, and be imbued with a lifelong desire to know it.

Interesting, isn't it?

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

To Move or Not To Move

Today I handled an interesting situation. A teacher emailed me to discuss a first grader (we'll call "H") who is going to be nine-years-old in a few weeks. Nine years old in the FIRST grade! He is doing pretty well and is not a behavior problem. She is concerned about his placement---you think???

As we checked his history we found:
1. He has been bounced between three schools over the past four years. In fact, I think I counted about 7 registration slips for when he would start a new school.

2. He has also been bounced around between households. He has been in custody of three different family members.

3. He missed 46 days of school last year---that's a whole quarter!

And we wonder why children get "left behind"? He literally is going to fall through the educational system's cracks if someone doesn't intervene. Thank God for the first grade teacher who is SO kid-oriented that she caught this one.

Once again, I find myself in the position to "play God" with a child's future. At my school I end up in the midst of these conversations and meetings that determine a child's placement. I don't like it. It is such a rock and a hard place. If we promote him now to 2nd grade...he'd be more appropriately placed age-wise, yet he would be missing some of the skills and strategies readers get in first grade. If we don't promote him now, it's almost a sure thing that he will drop out of school before he graduates and become another educational system casualty.

We decided to take a middle ground with this one. We will keep him in first grade on paper, but send him to a second grade classroom to give him the opportunity to make up for lost ground. At the end of the year, we will use the data, his performance and current information to determine whether he will go straight to third grade.

It's his best chance at this point...otherwise, he will turn 13 in the fifth grade.

I am hoping that this time, the decision was a good one and that we have paved the way for a child to have a chance when he thought things were hopeless.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

A New Year...but the Same Old

It's the first day back for students after Winter Break at my school. It's sad because for many of them breaks are not happy times. They mean more time in homes that aren't always happy positive places. They mean that they experience more dysfunction than normal. So transitioning back to school is difficult. It takes time and patience to help them get back in the swing of things.

It's hard sometimes to not want to "save the world". I want to help them see that things could be different. I don't necessarily think they need to live in my world...I just want them to break the cycle that grips so many of them. I want them to know that I believe in them and the people they can become. A hard message to deliver.

Today in many school where poverty abounds, we go on delivering the messages that are part of classrooms everywhere: I believe in YOU, I think you CAN, You ARE a learner, You can do GREAT things. It's a new year. I hope that I can deliver these messages in new ways. I hope that at least some of the children whose lives I touch believe them.