Flying Without a Net

Teaching can be a pretty risky business. You open yourself up. You let the kids into your heart and you put your soul into everything you teach them. You make yourself vulnerable. Sometimes you are flying high. It feels amazing. And you know that it’s your purpose, it’s the reason you are here.

And sometimes you fall. And when you fall you need a net. You need to know that the chances you’ve taken aren’t fatal. You need to know that all that vulnerability isn’t going to kill you. Today I looked down and there was nothing.  No net.

I returned to our classroom after another meeting where I was told how to fix the kids, how to make them into what someone else needs them to be. My brow is furrowed and my voice is tense. The kids they don’t understand. I am still me and they are still them. The three ring circus that goes on behind the doors of meetings, isn’t part of their world, and yet it is. They want to know did I get the birdseed out of the trunk of my car, they need to fill up the bird feeder so the birds don’t go hungry. No, no birdseed. I had to go to a meeting. And I think, I just need five damn minutes of not trying so hard. And you know what they give it to me. These children know what it is like to be without a net.

So what do you do? Stay on the ground? I could have a different life. I don’t need all this confusion, frustration and pain. What is stopping me? I could quit, go join a different circus, one that appreciates high fliers and provides a net.

It’s those little hearts that are connected to my heart, that’s what keeps me here.

I can walk away. But what about these little minds tied to my trapeze, where can they go? I’ve asked them to fly high. I’ve asked them to take risks. Who will be their net when they fall?

So, for now, I have decided that what goes on behind meeting doors, those aren’t our monkeys, that isn’t our circus.

We will just keep holding tight and flying in our own way. The net, I don’t know, we may have to build our own.

Mindfulness and Learning Math

I have been studying mindfulness. It started as a way to get my kids to learn math. My school schedule was not working for me or the kids. We had math at the end of the school day and we all seemed too done to attend at all, let alone dive into difficult concepts and grapple with solving problems. We began having quiet time before we dove into math. I wanted the kids to just sit quietly for a few minutes to recharge and relax.

The kids whined and complained, which was unexpected. They asked if they could quietly draw or EVEN read. They just did not want to sit quietly. Nope, no reading, no drawing, I forced them to sit quietly with low light and soft music AND I could still feel the frenetic energy in the classroom. They could not keep their minds still. We had just had recess so it did not seem to be a need to move. They just simply could not quiet their minds and focus. They could not sit quietly for 5 minutes without some kind of stimulus.

I needed them to PAY ATTENTION and learn math. How was I going to do that?

Mindfulness has become a big buzz word lately and I started to see it pop up on my newsfeed. I read a few articles which led to a few more articles. I checked out some organizations that had developed mindfulness curriculums for kids. The articles claimed that teaching kids mindfulness would help them to pay attention and self regulate their behavior. This wasn’t just some new age, feel good method. There was science and brain research to explain how and why this worked. I found the neurological research on mindfulness fascinating. I decided to try one of these curriculums and teach my kids about mindfulness. Nothing else I had tried was working and I had to do something so they would learn math.

Since those first few readings about mindfulness I have begun to teach my kids from a mindfulness curriculum developed by The Hawn Foundation called MindUp. My students practice mindful breathing twice a day for 2-3 minutes. I have taken an on-line course through Mindfulschools.org to deepen my understanding of mindfulness and to begin my own personal practice of mindfulness.
Mindfulness is changing our lives.

When asked to share what they notice about mindfulness here are some of the things my kids had to say.

“When you are thinking a lot of things and you breathe in and out your thinking calms down.”

“If something is bothering you take deep breaths”

“When you think things and do mindfulness it goes from your prefrontal cortex to your hippocampus.” (This little one has only been in an American school since this school year.)

“I get more concentrated on my work.”

“When I do mindfulness I have a happy place.”

“Mindfulness helps you remember things and learn things. My mom told me that I was suppose to read my books. I got distracted by music and forgot. I turned off the lights and practiced mindfulness and remembered what I was suppose to do.”

I now know that mindfulness is many things but when I first started on this journey I simply wanted to find a way to teach my kids to quiet their mind, recharge and be ready to learn math!

What started as an attempt to get my class focused on learning math has changed my life and the lives of my students. Part of mindfulness is learning to be more gentle and patient with yourself, I am learning that. Which in turn has made me more gentle and patient with my kids. And the kids they seem happier, more able to self regulate and take responsibility for their way of being and learning. If I forget to write mindfulness on the schedule, not only do the kids remind me, but they remind me gently. We are all learning to be more gentle and patient with ourselves and each other. I am not sure who has changed more. Or perhaps we could not have done it without each other.

And the math?  Well this is a new year, a new group of kids and a new schedule.  And every minute we spend on mindfulness gets paid back ten times in focus during all our learning.

Want to learn about what mindfulness is? Check out this link.

http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/topic/mindfulness/definition

We Created A Safe Place

As a kid Mr. Rogers was my favorite. I loved the way he would come in and change his shoes and sweater and sing. He spoke in such a soothing voice. He made me feel safe. As a kid I knew what it was like to be afraid. He helped me create a safe space to think, to learn, to dream, to be myself.

Every day I try to create a safe space for my kids. They know what it means to be afraid. I turn on the lamps one by one, turn on the computers, flip over the day on the calendar, take off my coat and hang it in the closet, write the instructions for morning work, write the morning message and daily schedule. When the kids arrive all will be right. They will know what to expect and what is expected of them. Knowing these things it gives them the space to breathe, to think, to take risks, to create, to make choices, to make mistakes and then to try again. The preparing of the space for my kids, It is a ritual and a blessing.

Of course this safe place is far beyond the physical aspects, far beyond the routines. It is about us, the learning team. It is treating each other with kindness, listening to every voice, knowing that all thinking is good thinking, all brains are getting smarter, we talk to solve our problems and there is no yelling allowed. It takes some time to build this safe place. I create the framework but we all collaborate on the design. We build it as a team.

Yesterday I was keenly grateful that I have taken the time to perform this blessing every day, that I have prepared a safe place for my kids, that we have built a safe place together, because I needed a safe place yesterday. I needed a place to be less then perfect, a place to make mistakes and a place to know it is OK sometimes to be afraid, even if you are the teacher.

AND despite my personal feelings of fear, confusion and worry I looked up and the kids they were all doing beautifully. They were doing what they were meant to do, asking questions, being curious, thinking, creating and just being.

What an amazing safe place we created together.

 

Talking About the P Word

I was a free lunch kid. I carried that label with me for a long time. And even as a small child I knew there was a stigma attached to that label. I knew somehow that it made me less in the eyes of some.

This morning I was thinking about growing up as a free lunch kid and how it shaped my life. Last night my husband cooked a side dish that I didn’t care for and he was concerned about there being enough for me to eat. I looked at what was on my plate and thought, this is enough, this is just right for me. And in that moment I realized that I had arrived at a different place in my life.

I have never been starving AND there were many times that I had just enough to keep me from being hungry. For years when my husband and I would eat out I would always order more food then I could eat. He would get really frustrated. He hated to pay restaurant prices for more food than you can actually eat. Why did I do that? Now I realize that I was afraid, afraid there wouldn’t be enough, afraid that I wasn’t worthy of more than just enough. I had spent too many meals as a child getting just what I needed and being told not to expect more. I wasn’t worthy of more.

I have more choices now. And I can say that this amount, this is enough. And if later I want more I can ask for it. I can ask for what I need and what I want because I am enough. It took me a long time to get here.

Being a free lunch kid, it shaped my life.

I have a colleague who describes herself as having grown up poor. Her parents were migrant workers. She wore flour sack panties that her mother made after they had used all the flour to make tortillas. She started her education in a small school house with the children of the farm owners. She talks about the girls in their beautiful sashed dresses, who knew how to read and count. There she sat in her hand me down dress with one tie of her sash missing, her flour sack panties, knowing that she did not know what these children knew. She went home and told her parents that she had to learn to count. She was determined. You see that determination in her teaching now. She is fierce and passionate with her students. They will learn. Being poor, it is not an excuse.

Being a poor child in that school room, it shaped her life.

There are lots and lots of studies on how poverty affects the lives of children. There is research about the cycle of poverty and how families can become trapped in it. Why do some children who grow up in poverty succeed and others do not? There is a lot of research about all of that as well. The question of poverty and what do we do about it as educators is a difficult one.

These are some of the answers I have seen:

Find the right program, the right framework, the right approach for teaching poor children.

As if poor were a category that defines everything about that group of people. My story of growing up poor is different from my colleagues story as the child of migrant workers. Each child we teach who is “living in poverty” has their own experience of what that means and it shapes each child in it’s own way.

These children can only go so far, do so much and that’s not my fault. I do the best I can.

IS that really the BEST we can do? How far can a child go if we as educators have already limited them with low expectations? When you expect less you get less.

Ignore the poverty and just get on with teaching.

Ignoring the experience of poverty is living a lie, plain and simple. It turns that person, that child into a less person by denying their worth of having a story, of being acknowledged as a feeling, thinking human being. In this way children become just cogs in the educational machine.

I don’t have the answers but I think they are somewhere in the experience of each child, and each child’s story. We have to listen to every child’s story and then do what we think and believe is the next right thing to help that particular child learn and grow.

Does growing up as a free lunch kid define me? No. AND it has had profound effects on my life. With every experience of poverty there is a story and a truth that forms a life.

We have to listen.

Tiny People Need to Chase Snowflakes

It’s snowing right now and I am reminded of one morning last week.

We were sitting in our chairs quietly thinking over math story problems. I was working with a small group of kids who need some extra help while the others worked independently. Did I mention that it was REALLY quiet. It was lovely. And then I heard a chorus of small intakes of breath and whispered squeals of one word, snow.

In that moment my teacher brain shifted gears. I looked at those quiet moments of productive math learning slipping away from me. Get up, close the blinds? Put our heads down, solider on with the school day? I looked around the room and I could see them all waiting, trying hard to concentrate on their math, trying to please the teacher. And I thought, what am I doing? These tiny people need to go out in the snow. It will be gone in moments, gone before the school bell rings and they are free to chase snowflakes. There will always be enough time for math story problems. There’s never enough time to dance with snowflakes.

“If you are wearing stripes put on your coats!”

In that moment I remembered what it is like to be a tiny person in a big person world. I have to keep reminding myself of that.

These Kids Don’t Have Time for That Kumbaya Crap

I was sitting in a meeting a few weeks ago. Here was the agenda.

The kids at this school do not know how to read
These kids have failing test scores
We are here to fix your school
Do everything we say and you will be successful

There were a lot of things said in this meeting that made me furious. FURIOUS.

One of them referred to our approach to teaching kids social emotional skills (that is education speak for teaching kids to be caring, empathetic, positive members of humankind) as kumbaya.

The presenting expert stated:
You don’t have time for all this kumbaya crap. (She may have said something more benign like kumbaya stuff but crap was dripping from her tone.) These kids need to learn to read, not spend 20 minutes introducing themselves every morning.

This was her simplification of our morning ritual of coming together as a community and beginning our day. What she calls kumbaya is the time we spend acknowledging that we are all here, present, important and ready to work together. It builds a foundation for the hard work we will spend our day engaged in. It is a time to practice the skills of community, collaboration, kindness, gratitude and connection.

As the presenter continued to speak I wrote down one question.

How do we define success?

There is research that shows that if a child cannot read fluently by third grade they will most likely fail. They fall behind the curve and they never catch up academically. They drop out of school. Their options become limited. Every teacher is well aware of this research. That is not what any teacher wants.

Of course children need to learn how to read. They need to read and write and think. They need to solve problems and ponder geometry and explore history. They need to learn about far away places and people. They need to investigate the natural world and make sense of their experiences. These are things that as educators we need to strive to give kids every day.

But what kind of people will they become if we only teach them to read and pass tests? Do they reach their full potential? Is that what we want for our children, for our future? Is that how we define success?

We also need to teach them that they are part of something bigger than themselves, that they are important, and that the world can be an amazing place of joy. We need to teach them to be kind, and caring and empathetic. We need to teach them to be grateful and full of grace. We need to teach them how to work together, to resolve conflict peacefully, to set standards and hold each other accountable. We need to teach them to collaborate and acknowledge individual contributions … So many things we need to teach and learn.

In our classroom we WILL continue to spend much of our time learning what it means to be human, learning what it means to take care of each other and belong to each other. And we will learn to read, because we know we can, because we believe in ourselves and hard work, because we are not listening to those who are foretelling our failure.

We won’t be sitting around the campfire roasting marshmallows and singing songs but I will be spending every minute I need to teach these kids what it means to be part of a community. We will learn about each other’s favorite colors and animals. We will listen to who went to Chuck E, Cheese and who has a new baby sister. We will play games and dance and laugh. We will acknowledge that it is great to be who we are and it is a privilege to belong to each other. And we will be successful.

Stories Can Save Us

Stories can save us.

One of my favorite authors Tim O’Brien wrote this and I believe it is true. There are many ways that stories can save us. They save our personal histories, our family memories. A colleague of mine tells a story of how the smell of tomato plants brings back the memory of her father. When she tells that story I can feel her deep connection. I can visualize the sweat on his brow. I can see him working in the fields.

Stories save us by letting our voices be heard and helping us heal. I think of every story I have heard about September 11th and how in the telling of these personal stories by very average people, healing begins.

The ability to tell stories is part of our humanness. Stories help us understand ourselves. And most of all they help us understand others. Stories connect us.

For years as I have shared stories of my experiences in education people have told me to write a book. I don’t have time to sit and write about teaching I am too busy doing it!

I started to write down just snippets here and there of my kids stories and post them on my personal Facebook page. People began to comment to me personally about the stories, people close to me and people I had never connected with on any personal level. They started to ask questions about the children in the stories, to become interested in their lives, in knowing them, in helping them grow and learn, in cherishing them. These stories connected my kids and their lives to a larger world, a larger community. A community that cares about them. People outside of my classroom began to share in the lives of the amazing little humans I see every day.

Those connections led to other connections which became farther reaching connections. And now I wonder, how far can stories take us?

Can they help us write our future, the future of our children?

I was reading an article recently about education and a teachers role in changing education. It talked about how teachers can change the face of education despite all the obstacles. The author proposes that teachers begin to write a story of the future, a new story.

Check out this article about teacher’s stories. What will your story be?

http://blogs.kqed.org/mindshift/2015/02/redefining-teachers-with-a-21st-century-education-story/

My Kids are the Stupid Kids

My kids are the stupid kids

Yep the ones with the failing test scores at the failing school. Those are my kids. The same ones I write about who have dreams, work hard and inspire me with joy and brilliance. They are the failing kids. And I am the failing teacher working at a failing school.

But what are we failing at?

My kids are curious, critical thinkers who speak two languages. They read and write and figure out difficult math problems. They create things, solve real world problems, and are keen observers.

They belong to and create an amazing classroom community. I had a substitute teacher in my classroom and she asked if the kids had assigned jobs. No, no assigned jobs. Everyone knows what the expectation is and mostly someone does it and it gets done because this classroom is where we live and we know how we like it. When there is a problem we talk it out as a group without pointing fingers. We make a plan and if that plan doesn’t work we try something different.

So this gets me thinking about our wider community, our school system, our local governments, our state governments, our national government. Can they create what my second graders have created? Can they do this? Have they done this?

We aren’t good at filling in bubbles on tests created by people who haven’t lived in our world, who see the world from one perspective, who are trying to trick us into picking the wrong “answer.”  That means we are failing.

We could learn how to be successful on these tests. We could but why? So we can be like them?

We Can Do Hard Things

“We can do hard things.” Glennon Doyle Melton

I have a coffee mug with this statement on it. Some mornings I look at that mug and pass it right over. Nope not today. I am not in the mood to do hard things. Maybe I will drink from the mug of hard things tomorrow when I have had more sleep.

This seems like a simple thing to say, We can do hard things. We CAN and sometimes it is important to be reminded that we can. But what I seemed to forget on those mornings when I shoved the hard things mug back behind the wine glasses is that there is a WE in that statement.

This thought occurred to me one day as I was reading a post by the same writer. She was talking about her experiences as a blogger and the community that had been created, about the hard work THEY had done and I realized I had been seeing and thinking  “I can do hard things.” Each morning as I drove to school I worried. How was I going to do all the hard things I needed to do so my kids would learn? How was I going to get them to work hard and see their brilliance? It was just TOO hard.

But what if we did it together? What if they really believed it was possible? What if they understood the neuroplasticity of their brains, their brains ability to learn hard things?

We had already begun talking about the idea that learning can be hard. We had been exploring the idea of a growth mindset. We were discussing what it meant to think, to learn, to make our brains smarter. I explained the idea that we may not learn some things fast or easy but that does not mean that our brain can not and will not become smarter. ALL brains have the potential to become smarter. We could help each other think, learn and be smart. We would be a learning team.

It took some time. Kids in 2nd grade are already conditioned to believe and understand that the kids who come up with quick answers are smart and those who do not, are not smart. And really, if you are not smart why bother to do hard things?

When we were starting something new I would tell the kids, This may seem hard now and that is Ok because we are just starting. We will just start and we will work together. We will get smart at this together.

Now, I see kids who were completely checked out diving into “hard work” with purpose. I see kids who had always been seen as smart break down when they had to work at something. I remind them that learning is hard work for everyone and that I am part of their team. Let me help you, and they get back up and push themselves further.

When we come up against a challenge that most are struggling with we come together as a team and we discuss it. We think about it together.

 

We solved a difficult math story problem together recently. I wish I could capture here the beautiful work we did. It redeems every painful moment I spent feeling stupid in a math class.

Doing it as a team, it takes a burden from me. All the times I lay sleepless worrying, How will I get these kids to learn hard things? I worry less.

I am not doing it alone anymore. I have a team. I am drinking from the mug of hard things a little more every day. My team has my back.

Little Boys Who Write About Turtles Make Me Happy

I have a little guy that started the year unable to write one sentence about himself. He was paralyzed by self doubt, perfectionism and fear of being seen as stupid. It has taken months of telling him over and over again that his writing doesn’t have to be perfect.  It just has to be him.  I just want to see him on the page. I want to hear his voice and value it.

Today he wrote a two page story independently about a pet turtle, his brother and the interaction that occurred when the turtle pooped.

His face was beaming as he shared it with the class.

I have a BA in English literature with a minor in creative writing. I am a published poet and a past editor of a literary magazine. Who would have imagined? I adore a seven year old boy’s story about himself, his brother and a pooping turtle.