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Somedays I’m good, others, not so much

29 Sep

Good teachers plan ahead. So, like a good teacher, I previewed the slide deck we’d been sent for our daily 20 minute Advisory class. Wednesday’s lesson included two short videos about mindfulness. I looked at the clock and thought It’s close, but I have time to preview bits of each before class begins.

And thank goodness I did. In the second video, a cartoon character says “I’m pissed”. Now, many people might not be troubled by that phrase. I admit, I have used naughtier language than that. But there was no way in heck, I was showing that video to my sixth graders. I didn’t want the parent fallout. A quick search – following a “heads up” email to my 6th grade colleagues – found an equally effective video without questionable language.

Good teachers pivot. Quite frankly, I am tired of hearing that despite the truth of it. In the olden days we said “monitor and adjust”. So, like a good teacher, as I was presenting my lesson on Friday, I made a quick decision to model using the iPad I had not yet set up. I was feeling really good about online teacher after a successful first week and wanted to stretch myself.

In no time, I was good to go. Except that may writing was backwards. Kids offered suggestions. I went back to my chart paper. I pivoted a lot. It wasn’t comfortable. I chart papered my way through the next two classes, all the while wondering what I had done wrong. As kids worked, I sneakily Googled a solution to my problem. None was to be found.

After my last class, I realized my error, and, simply turned the iPad over. Voilà! My iPad now functioned as a document camera. Today, I will use it, but I will be sure to have a test run before my first class begins.

What should not be forgotten

4 Aug

download-1

The sticky handrail
touched by the hands of
1500 middle schoolers

The rhythmic chime
of keys on a lanyard
as a colleague approaches

Second breakfast
with its mug of tea, a banana,
and a colleague with
her bowl of fruit and yogurt

The musty smell
of the locker room
as 120 sixth graders
leave for the day

The flow of students
up and down the staircase
at the beginning and end
of the day

The beep and buzz
of the lock
as you swipe your ID card
before the sun comes up

They joy in your heart
as you stand, before school,
in front of the building,
greeting families,
and one of your current,
or former students,
arrives

 

Faith

28 Jul

Lucas Cuartas was in one of my fourth grade classes in Medellín, Colombia. I think it was in 1992-93 school year, because Pablo Escobar was still on the run and times were crazy.  There were police searches, car bombs and assassinations by vigilantes, and paramilitaries on all sides.

Lucas Cuartas was absent one day. The Columbus School was a private school for wealthy families, and kids were rarely absent, so Lucas’ absence was notable. It wasn’t until someone official arrived – the counselor, our principal, I don’t remember who – arrived at our door that I knew his absence was extraordinary. Miss Vicky, the religion teacher, might have been there too.

My small class of 20ish students sat silently as they were told that Lucas and his family had gone out for pizza the night before. As they drove past a police roundabout, a bomb went off, blowing the roundabout to bits. The car was sent rolling. Lucas had a broken arm, but his mom was in very serious condition.

When I was in teacher’s college, no one prepared us to share this sort of tragic news with our class. Maybe they do now, but in Medellín, Colombia, though it was not an everyday experience, few families or classes had been untouched by the violence of that city and country in that particular period. In the class next door, a girl disappeared from one day to the next after her father had been found, assassinated and dumped in a hole by right wing vigilantes who felt they had proof that he worked for Pablo Escobar. Rumor had it that the girl’s mother had taken the remainder of her family and fled to Argentina.

But there were my fourth graders, facing their own tragedy that touched on our classroom family. I think there was a call for questions, I don’t really remember. I do remember, though that a sweet girl named veronica raised her hand.

“Can we pray for Lucas and his family?” was her simple question.

Chairs scraped on linoleum as every kid in my class, including the one Jewish student we had in a room full of Catholics, knelt on the floor to pray.

A few days later, I went with my principal to a mass for Lucas’ mom, who wasn’t doing well. She recovered some weeks later. Lucas returned to school in a cast, but my class felt so much closer than we had before.

I think often about the contrast between the formality of the mass and the simplicity of the prayers of my class. I don’t know if one had more impact on the outcome of the Cuartas family’s tragedy than the other. But I am still awed by the power I felt in that classroom as my students prayed. There is a verse from Hebrew that says that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” That classroom was filled with faith, hope and love for others. If we all had the conviction of those fourth graders and followed the guidelines and safety protocols public health officials keep repeating to keep ourselves and others safe, we will be able to go back to normal, sooner, rather than later. I have faith in that.

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The weird way I am dealing with my back- to-school anxiety

11 Jul

I am not an anxious person, but as the details of my school district’s opening plan evolves, I have an unfamiliar feeling in my chest that I can only call anxiety. I am trying to deal with it by thinking back to times when I have felt this anxious and, despite living in Medellín Colombia from 1991-1994, I have nothing that compares.

What has been helpful, though has been thinking about my years in Colombia. It was the height of the drug war. Pablo Escobar had escaped from prison and there was a nationwide manhunt. FARC rebels were attacking police. Vigilantes were attacking narcotraficantes.  And yet, I only have two recollections of times I felt anxious there.

The first is at the end of my second year, when I had to change houses. I was struggling to find a house in Envigado where I could still employ my maid, Teresita, and have my dog. It ended well and I loved the traditional house that I found. It had thick white stucco walls and a floor with alternating yellow and green tile. The two barred windows at the front had wooden shutters that opened from the inside. There were two interior patios that had openings in the roof. In winter, when it rained, I loved the sound of the rain falling into the patio. My anxiety of looking for this house has been almost erased by my joy at finding it.

The second time I felt anxious, was in my second year. It was a particularly trying time in Colombia. In a country with the highest rate of murders and kidnappings in the world, it was hard to believe things could escalate, but they did, and it impacted us at school. The murder by vigilantes of the father of a girl in the class next to mine was bad enough. But then, on a family evening out for pizza, a boy in my class was affected. As the family car drove past a police roundabout, rebels detonated a bomb in the police station. The family’s car flipped. Lucas, my student, suffered a broken arm. His mother was taken to hospital and was in serious condition. When the principal and counselor came to talk to my class, I got tears in my eyes when a sweet girl named Veronica asked if we could pray. I had to wipe the tears away as each and every student got out of their chair and knelt in prayer for Lucas, his mother, and their family. We all felt like we were part of their family. A few days, when things took a turn for the worse,  we all attended a mass to pray for his mother’s recovery. Fortunately, she recovered and this horrible tragedy helped bring this class together in a deeper way.

So, all of this has me thinking about finding joy. Every day in isolation, I make myself do four things: exercise, read, write, knit. I think I am going to start writing the joyful stories I have from my years in Medellín. I might even post some of them here.

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Packing up the room

19 May

Two years ago, I was told on the last day of school that I would be moved to a different grade and team. I had anticipated this news and had started packing up weeks ahead.

Last year, on the last day of school, my entire hall was told we would be moving to a different hall. I packed my room in one day, fueled by frustration and anger.

This year. Oh, this year!

This year, we are being given three days to pack up. Only one teacher per team can be there on any given day. A spreadsheet sign-up has been sent out. The school will provide boxes and gloves. It will be a bring your own mask party.

I hope pack up 2021 is less eventful.

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Questions and answers

21 Apr

Officially, I have office hours. All the teachers in my district do. And yet, I get interesting questions by email at all times of the day (and night). I thought I’d share a few of these with you today, with my answers.

Q1:Screen Shot 2020-04-21 at 6.07.28 AM

A1:
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Q2:
Screen Shot 2020-04-21 at 6.10.05 AM

A2:
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Parents are in the mix, too. Especially since we started getting in touch about students who have not turned n work or participated in online activities. And then, there are the random ones, like this, from the parent of a former student whose son is in a friends class:

Screen Shot 2020-04-21 at 6.21.36 AM

I haven’t replied yet, but at 55, I felt like she was making me a job offer.

Learning to navigate

14 Apr

Just before we knew we had to begin online teaching, I saw this tweet from Pernille Ripp:

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I took it to heart.

I mentioned it to my principal the day I went in to school to collect the materials I’d need for online teaching.

I mentioned it to my teaching partner and any other teacher I’ve spoken with.

I did two Webinars last week to learn more about online teaching and the presenter said the same thing.

As the expectations for teachers have shifted from two ungraded lessons a week to four lessons a week and 5 hours of “office time” with grading still TBD, I have held this idea in my heart and mind.

We have kids who have to share devices with siblings – maybe even parents.

We have kids with little quiet space in which to work.

We have to shift our perspective of what and how we teach.

So, thank you Pernille Ripp, for writing that Tweet. It has been my compass as we navigate these uncharted waters.

 

Hammer time

24 Sep

Week four and the hammer falls.

We have spent the last three weeks in training – learning when and when not to go to their lockers, what to bring to each class, when to go to the bathroom. The first two weeks were friendly reminders. Last week’s reminders were a little more serious.

“If you do that next week, you’ll have lunch detention.”

Lunch detention is hardly a hardship. Students sit in silence, eating their lunch and reading a book. In a school of 1600, where over 500 6th graders eat at the same time, lunch detention can seem like a respite, but at this point in the year, the 6th graders don’t know that yet.

I had an idea of who my first detainees might be. So, imagine my surprise when one of the sweetest, most responsible boys in class confessed he had left his writer’s notebook in his locker. They students had just taken their seats to begin generating ideas for personal narratives around first times, last times, and times they learned something. This young man, because he was sweet and honest, didn’t just get some notebook paper, he confessed.

I don’t make a big deal out of lunch detention when it happens. Most kids are worried the first time, and ask funny questions like “Are you going to tell my mom?” or “Will this go on my permanent record?”.

The student came back to class with a worried look on his face, so I tried to alleviate his worry with some humor.

“Maybe you could write about “The first time I got lunch detention,” I suggested, grinning.

He smiled back at me, opened his notebook, and got to work.

screen-shot-2017-12-02-at-6-09-23-am

 

 

Waiting

25 Jun

I have officially been on vacation for a week, but the big end of the year drama happens today.

Sunday afternoon,  staff got a text telling us to check our email. I did and the message was short and sweet: Tuesday the administrators will call all staff to tell them what their job will be next year.

It’s been a long wait. The discovery of budgeting irregularities meant that our district had a severe shortfall and the projected cutbacks for the 2019-20 year meant jobs would be eliminated. At first it seemed like the RIF might be as bad as the bad year, after the financial crisis. But with retirements and consolidation, it was projected to be not as bad. But still bad enough that we left school last week not knowing for sure what we’d be teaching.

But today is the day.

The staff are buzzing, trying to predict how the calls will happen. By grade level? Alphabetically? Bad news first? Moving first, staying second? It’s a way to try to make sense out of this crazy process.

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I don’t normally bring the phone with me when I walk Lucy, but today I will. Lucy will be there to support me if it is bad news and celebrate if it is good. Wish us luck.

Late Tuesday Update: Good news: My team gets to stay intact!

How we roll

30 Apr

Once a month, my teaching partner and I sit down and formally plan out the upcoming month. We sit down together every day to talk over the day and eat second breakfast but this is our most formal of meetings.

As we sat to plan May, we realized how close the end of the year really is, so we decided to plan June as well, since it had only two weeks of school.  There was so much we still wanted to do – and we couldn’t make it fit. Outdoor School (ODS) had been moved  to June 4-7, taking out almost a week. We’d scheduled speeches for the week before ODS. We could wedge things in, but they’d start before and end, rather awkwardly, after ODS. we felt frustrated.

“What if we scrap it all?” I asked. “We could move the speeches to the last week of school and then plan backwards.” This was a radical concept for us. We always started on the first of a month and planned forward, knowing what we didn’t accomplish could spill into the next month. But there were no next months for us this time around. And so we boldly took the plunge.

And it worked. We are planned through June.

We always know our monthly plans are subject to change, but we have a roadmap in place and can face any detours because that’s how we roll.

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Randy Ribay

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