Accidental Scientist

I was never suppose to be a scientist, a writer, a poet, a journalist, maybe even a teacher but never a scientist. And yet I find myself in a new position professionally. I am a Science Resource teacher at an Elementary School. I am exclusively teaching children science and supporting classroom teachers in their science teaching.

How did this happen?

A friend and colleague pointed out a necklace she was wearing. It was a gift from her husband. She seemed surprised that me of all people had not noticed it and commented. She explains that it is a model of the solar system created through photos taken by astronauts of the planets from space. Very cool, I agree. And then I ponder all that I don’t know about our world and that people are expecting me to know things, scientific things.

I have been thinking about this a lot lately. What does it mean to be a scientist? What does it mean to teach science to young children?

Children are born scientists. They come into this world observing, investigating and experimenting as they try to make meaning of their world. And then they go to school. We start teaching them. We tell them to sit and listen while we explain things. And then we tell them to remember what we just told them and what we just explained. Later we ask them to show us what they learned. Where does the meaning making happen? Is the child making meaning? Is simply remembering learning?

In my new role I am a child again. I am trying to figure out the world and as I make meaning I add the layer of “teacher of science.” How do I facilitate meaning making in the classroom? How do I give kids the experiences and opportunities to make their own meaning? I am muddling through.

I am returning to my roots as a writer. Everything I write is my attempt to make some meaning of this world. Exploring my role as teacher of science I am looking at that meaning making through another lens.

So I am giving myself permission to make this blog a bit messy. Because I think I need some messy writing to help me make sense of my new world.

I can say that so far I have discovered that children are the best teachers. I am trying to pay close attention to what they say, what they do and what they are thinking. I am trying to do less explaining. It can be an uncertain place to be as an adult and a teacher. But in the past when I have held my breath and pushed past that discomfort the children have never let me down.

Belief, Compassion and AND

There are a lot of stories that I haven’t been able to write this year. Some of the stories are not mine to tell. Some of them are not ready to be told.  I have felt these stories inside of me and I have struggled with them.

I have struggled and I have learned. I cannot tell you so many of the stories that have been weighing on my heart but I can tell you that the struggle has been worth it.  Because with the pain and the struggle has come love.  I look at these children who have brought me so much struggle and know that I love them.  We have grown and struggled together.

This school year there have been moments when I have not been the person I aspire to.  I have lost my temper, been unkind, been angry. And each time I have tried to put my ego aside and to hold myself accountable. Every day I have had to believe in what I am and in what I can be. I have had to find compassion for myself.  I had to believe in me because believing in me means believing in them. Having compassion for me meant having compassion for kids, for families, for colleagues. We are all struggling together.

Today our struggles rewarded us with a gift.  Today we were talking about how mathematicians use different strategies for solving problems and that mathematicians learn from each other and one of my students called out

We are mathematicians!

and then another called out AND writers,

And their beautiful voices trailed one after another

And thinkers, and scientists, and learners, and publishers, and authors, and illustrators, and artists and…

AND …

That AND comes from reflecting every afternoon on the struggles of the day and reminding myself every morning to believe in myself and in these kids. Every day we start with a message full of who we are and can be, Dear Thinkers, Dear Mathematicians, Dear Writers, Dear Scientists, Dear Learning Team …

I will never know what path most of these children take but I will know that for one year we worked and struggled to know what we can be and what we are. And it was a struggle full of belief, compassion and AND …

Learning from Young Writers

When I started writing this blog I thought it was about the voices of children being heard. And it is. But it is also about my voice being heard and sometimes it is hard for me to draw lines about where my writing is just my voice. I worry . Am I telling the stories the way they are meant to be told? It is a challenge telling someone else’s story and in some ways it seems like stealing, stealing the voices of someone else. All these worries have kept me from writing lately because I am always questioning why am I doing this? Is it the right thing to do? Am I telling the story correctly? Because my voice as a teacher, a writer, a human being it is intertwined with the voices of all those children, teachers and families that I work with each day. Am I telling the true stories? Watching my classroom of writer’s finding their voice I listen and learn.  Lately they have had a lot to teach me about writing.

Many of my second graders struggle with spelling and they let that struggle get in the way of writing their story. So from the beginning of the year I teach them to use what we call -ish spelling. This comes from the Peter Reynolds book Ish. The main character in the book is a boy who gets frustrated with his drawings because they aren’t good enough and so he stops drawing. As his story unfolds he discovers that it isn’t the perfection of his drawings that is important it is the creation of his drawings and the process that is important. And so he does drawings which are -ish representations of the world. His drawings are flower -ish, vase -ish. etc. So as writers I tell my students that perfect spelling is not the most important part of their writing, getting down their ideas and their thinking is the most important part. I encourage them to use -ish spelling. Recently one of my kids was talking to me about a piece he was writing. This little guy was writing a thank you note to a visitor that came to read to our classroom. He asked me how to spell something and I encouraged him to write the sounds that he heard. He asked “What if he can’t read -ish spelling?” In that moment I knew something profound had happened for me. This little writer truly understood and believed that his words had power. He was trying to communicate something important with his writing and what if it couldn’t be read?

This little guy is having the same writer’s crisis that I have been having. I am going around and around in my head. I am working so hard to tell the perfect stories of myself and my kids that I just quit writing them. I was just too afraid that my attempts at -ish writing would be wrong, would be misunderstood, would be misread. It is a sacred responsibility to tell someone else’s story.

But really and truly I can’t tell anyone’s story but my own. So I am giving myself permission to just write my story. And to let it not be perfect. Because my story is far from perfect. I have a lot of questions, struggles, doubts and fears. That has to fit somewhere in this blog.

So let me start by saying that this has been a year filled with difficulties in our classroom. And there are many times that I have felt defeated. I don’t like feeling defeated in the faces of these little people. I am the adult and I need to have my act together. And I am human. I feel things and sometimes the things I feel are difficult to look at, difficult to think about, difficult to write.

I tell my kids that what they have to say is important and true and real. Just before spring break I had the kids write letters to me , the teacher, to tell me anything important to them about our class and/or anything they would change. As I read these letters over break I could hear each voice. And sometimes those voices were saying things that made my heart soar and some of the things they had to say reaffirmed the struggles and difficulties we have had and continue to have as a learning team. I didn’t like hearing about our difficulties from those little writers. And those are the words I need to listen to the hardest. These writers were brave with their words, brave with their voices. They deserve to be heard.

I need to be brave with my voice, with my words. I have some difficult things I need to say, some things I need to write. Where to begin?

I have a big jumble in my head and I am going to leave it there for now. I am going to let this piece of -ish writing stand as it is, because the alternative is silence.

Thank you to my community of little writers.  You remind me every day to be brave, that it is more important to be heard then be perfect and to keep writing.

The Writer’s Voice

I have been thinking more and more lately about giving my second graders an authentic audience for their writing. I try to schedule writing celebrations at the end of each writing unit and we invite families, teachers and administrators, and sometimes a classroom of peers to visit our classroom and celebrate the writing we have accomplished. Students read their writing to guests and to each other.

When we ended our fiction unit this fall one of the pieces we worked on was a scary story. This set of lessons is part of a new writing curriculum we are trying as a school. The lessons start with a few mentor texts which are appropriately scary for 2nd graders. The lessons then moved into some modeling by the teacher of writing a scary story using descriptive language and then move into a guided practice of children writing their own scary stories. The kids were excited to write their own scary stories. During writing time for the next few days it was silent. I sat back and just let the writing happen. This was the first time this year I didn’t have several students appealing to me for help before they even put a pencil to the paper. It was magical.

After a few days I starting conferencing with students who felt like they were ready. And what I discovered was that some of the stories were a little TOO scary. There were things in those stories that were not in my mind appropriate for 2nd graders. But is the writing about my voice or the writer’s voice? A writer writes for an audience and with the writers voice. And I heard voices in those scary stories that I had not heard, voices from some of my most reluctant writers.

As the writer’s celebration approached many of those TOO scary stories were selected by the author’s as the piece they wanted to publish and share. My dilemma, Do I nix the sharing of scary stories at the celebration? Do I limit the audience/invited guests? What message am I sending my young writers who are just beginning to hear their own writing voice?

These kids they have voices that deserve to be heard and I want them to learn that now so that as they move on in their lives they continue to grow strong in that voice and they continue to learn how to make it heard. So though I guided and prompted and modeled a 2nd grade “appropriate” scary story in the end there were writers whose voices were a little scarier then I may have liked. And as a writer and a teacher of writing I chose to let those stories stand on the shoulders of their authors. Authors who were proud of what they had written and wanted to share it with an audience.

And you know what? It was awesome. Because I could hear the voice of those writers, writers whose voices had only been a whisper before. And those writer’s had an audience. It was a delight to see several little boys gathered around as one of our writer’s read his scary story. They were enthralled by a tale of blood and gore, good and evil. The writer was doing exactly what we had been learning to do. He was using his written words to create a picture in the mind of the reader. And most importantly he was experiencing the power of his own words.

Hope

A teacher/writer friend of mine stopped me in the hallway.

“You haven’t been writing she said. Is it because you don’t have time or you don’t know how to say what you want to say?”

“Both.” I replied

She looked at me knowingly.

So I haven’t been writing because I haven’t known how to say what I need to say.

I have some hard kids this year, some kids who don’t seem to care.

It hurts my heart to write that down.

I sit at home and I think about what I can do to get these kids to care. Some nights I resolve to love those hard kids even harder.

Some nights I go home and think that I never want to go back to that classroom again.

I am frustrated, I am impatient and I am tired.

I started today feeling less then 100% and resolved to just baby step it through the day. If I could just stay calm, be present and keep moving forward it would be Ok. About midway through the day I hit a serious slump. As I walked around during writing time I noticed that many of my kids were completely unengaged. I sat down at my work table and tried to regroup. What next? I looked at the kids who were sitting at my work table and noticed almost blank pages. What now?

And one of my little guys asked “Are you sad?” And before I could put on my teacher face I replied “Yes, I am sad.” And then another little guy said “Are you disappointed?” And I replied “Yes, I am disappointed.”

And in that low moment I realized that I was reaching them. They had seen me. They were empathizing. They were connecting. They were seeing value in our work.

So I am holding on to that low moment. Because in that low moment those kids who I thought did not care, they cared. They cared enough to see what I was feeling, to recognize it and to ask. We connected, not in a moment of joy or pride or accomplishment but in a moment of sadness and disappointment. That gives me hope.

The Bad Kid and the Broken Teacher

This afternoon after all the kids had gone I sat in the classroom and I felt broken. Not just tired or overwhelmed by my work load. I felt that something was broken inside of me. And I thought back to a blog post I read recently titled Broken Things. It depicts a mother and son working through a moment of anger together. It reflects on how children can be taken over by their anger and how they need adults to be the calm that leads them out of the emotional storms that can consume them http://www.majesticunicorn.biz/blog/2015/10/20/broken-things.

I see that almost every day and it is a hard thing to be the calm in the midst of a child’s emotional storm. It is hard to be patient when a child lashes out at you again and again. It is hard to keep reaching out to a child who brings out your own frustration and anger. So I try to think what it would be like to be that child.

Imagine that grownups are asking you to do hard things and you just keep doing them wrong. You don’t understand and they keep demanding that you do hard things all day every day and you get fed up. What can you do? You get frustrated and scared and feel bad about yourself. And because you feel bad about yourself you start doing bad things. You let them see how you are feeling. Then they start to notice. They start to call your name. They start to see you. You are not invisible any more. It feels good to be seen, to be heard. So you do more bad things. And the grownups they get angry, really, really angry. You get scared. You want to be invisible again. Then the kids and grownups around you start treating you like the bad kid. And now you know that all those bad feelings you had about yourself are true. You are a bad kid.

I feel broken for every bad kid I have known. I feel defeated because I want to take that little person and show them all the goodness they have inside them. And I fail. Over and over again I fail. I get frustrated. I get angry. I don’t know what to do. And that child leaves me feeling bad.

So this afternoon when the anger and the frustration had left me I sat in the quiet and I punished myself. I felt bad about myself for not always being the calm in the storm. But I have to stop doing that. I have to forgive myself for not always knowing what to do. Forgive myself for my anger and frustration. I have to find a way to offer myself grace because in that grace I embrace my own goodness. The goodness in me that recognizes the goodness in that kid. The goodness that keeps me reaching out. I have to forgive myself for feeling broken. It’s a first step towards fixing us both, the bad kid and the broken teacher. Because if I give up on me, on my own goodness, I give up on them, the bad kids. And those kids they have to know that someone sees their goodness.

So when I am human, when I am feeling broken I have to make this my mantra. The light in me recognizes the light in you. I see your true self. And I have to say it until we both believe in our goodness.

Sitting with Suffering

I thought I would do a lot of writing this summer. I was looking forward to long days of exploring my own thoughts and putting them down on paper. I did not do that. I was doing a lot of reading and thinking. I was challenging myself to go places I had been avoiding. I was reading a lot about people struggling with inequity. I was thinking about myself, my place, my part in inequity. I was examining my bias. I was going to some hard places and I was refusing to throw up my hands and say “What am I suppose to do about these big problems?”

We have big problems in our world. And if we aren’t responsible for those big problems who is? I have the privilege of walking away from so many of these big problems. I am white, I am middle class, I am a citizen of the United States. I can walk away from big problems. But I can’t.

I was listening to Brene Brown recently and she was saying that as human beings we are all connected. I believe that is true. She went on to say that as long as any one of us is suffering we will all suffer. I believe that is also true.

So I have been taking myself to some really hard places. I have been looking at suffering. I have been trying to sit with the suffering and acknowledge it’s presence. And I have been wondering. Where do I go from here? Writing this is my next step.

The Keeper of Small Thngs

One of my little guys from last school year inspired me to write this. So though this is inspired by my experiences, it is a fictional piece. I am not sure where it is going. I wanted to explore what I am seeing and experiencing through the amazing little beings in my life from another perspective. I am hoping that putting this out into the light helps me move forward and continue the story.

Hurt no living thing:
Ladybird, nor butterfly
Nor moth with dusty wing,
Nor cricket chirping cheerily,
Nor grasshopper so light of leap,
Nor dancing gnat, nor beetle flat,
Nor harmless worms that creep.
Christina Rossetti

 
The Keeper of Small Things

My teacher tells me to pay attention but I am always paying attention. I am paying attention to all those small things that need to be protected. All those small things that need to find their ways back to their homes. My teacher tells me not to worry but she doesn’t know that I have to be watching and ready to do my job. Small things have to always be watching and thinking about what to do next. It is the only way to stay safe. I am small but there are things smaller than me. I know what my job is.

Keeping small things safe is important, taking care of small things that’s my job. Dying flies need a resting place under the old yarn spool, crayons need to find their homes, crickets need to be saved from the bathroom sink, and my little brother, he is the biggest job for such a small thing, I have to teach him to be invisible. I have to help him learn about how to stay safe. My hands are small but they can do big things. They can take care of things. I watch carefully.

One day my teacher saved a spider from our classroom. Maybe she does understand what it means to take care of small things. I don’t know maybe, maybe not. She is also the one who told me to stop worrying about the flies. And then they died. I hid them under the old yarn spool. I couldn’t look at them. The next day I went back to find them and they were gone. Did the teacher find them? Did she find them a new home? She did put the spider outside safe from the stomping of all our feet. She let me help her save the spider. She caught him with a cup and put her hand over the top. There was still space for the spider to get out so I put my hand over the space and then we carried the cup to the window. The teacher opened the window and let the spider outside.

Maybe she does know about taking care of small things. I’m not sure yet. I think I have to keep watching and paying attention. I have to keep doing my job, taking care of small things.

We Have to Tell Them Again and Again

“I thought you knew
you were beautiful and fair
your bright eyes and hair
but now I see that no one knows that
about himself but must be told
and retold until it takes hold
because I think anything can be killed
after a while, especially beauty”
Peter Meinke

At the end of week three of school and this is where I am, anxious and exhausted. Not knowing if I can do it. Not knowing if I am going to reach some of my toughest kids. I always forget what it is like. I forget how hard it is, how emotionally and mentally taxing it is to reach out to the kids who aggressively push you away. I take it personally. It hurts when they mock me, ignore me, interrupt me constantly and groan when I am speaking.

I have a handful of those kids this year.

I see these kids in the hallway from previous years, the ones who seemed defiant and angry, and they go out of their way to smile and wave. Sometimes they even go in for the hug. I remind myself how hard it was to get to that place. How hard we had to work to know and trust each other. But we did get there.

I expect ALL my kids to do hard things. I know what I am asking them to do is hard and it is harder for some then others. I expect them to take risks. I expect them to think. I push them to give their best. Doing hard things can be scary and they don’t know yet that they can trust me. So they push me away.

These new kids they don’t believe me when I tell them they are smart and kind. They don’t know that they can do hard things. So I have to tell them and tell them again. I have to show them and show them again. They deserve to know that they can do hard things. They need to know that now so they can carry it with them for the rest of their lives.

And when they push me away I can’t take it personally. I have to let them know that no matter how hard they push I will not give up on them. I have to remind myself that it will take time. I have to do the hard work of being patient and kind in the face of a child who does not yet know the beauty they have inside of them.

What is School About?

I am always so anxious about the first day of school. I feel like I am going on a first date with each of my new students all at the same time. What if they don’t like me? What if they don’t listen to my stories? What if they ignore me? But it’s even more then that because they are depending on me. It is my job to take care of not only their little bodies but their hearts and their minds.

And then a friend asked me to imagine how the kids feel. And so I tried to remember being a small and confused 2nd grader. I remembered wondering when lunch would ever come and really having to go to the bathroom but being afraid to ask. I remembered not knowing how to tell time and not knowing if I would ever get to go home. I remembered that there were so many things I was not suppose to do. I remembered a feeling of helplessness and fear.

This week I thought of my 2nd grade self and with each choice and each decision I made on those first days I imagined how the kids were feeling and realized that so much of the way we do school never takes into account how the kids feel. We, the adults, have an agenda. We need to establish our structures, our routines, our schedules. We need to get these students from point A to point B in an orderly way. We need to make sure we are on time so we don’t muck up the workings of the system. We need to cover the curriculum. They need to read for X number of minutes and write for X number of minutes. Math is from 11:05-12:05 and lunch isn’t until 12:55 despite their rumbling tummies.

I looked at my schedule and I looked at those little beings and thought about how they were feeling. I decided to make school about them. I listened to their voices and watched their faces. When they were hungry I pulled out a box of cereal. We traipsed to the bathroom so many times. I acknowledged every boo boo and wiggly tooth. I honored restless bodies. I said yes as often as I could. I empathized when they just wanted to go home.

Everything seemed to take twice as long as it needed to. I watched minute after minute of instructional time slip away. A small nagging voice in the back of my head kept saying “You aren’t getting anything done!”

And then each night I went home and thought about the day. Thought about the kids. Thought about the connections we had made through smiles, hugs, tears and squabbles. I thought about morning smiles and end of day tired faces. And I realized that we were accomplishing everything. We were learning to take care of each other. We were learning to belong to each other.

All that other stuff, it’s time will come. And we will be ready.