Saturday, May 29, 2010

The Power we Have

It's a busy and energized time in kindergarten. We are busily writing the last pages for our memory books/student portfolios and trying to keep routines consistent to reduce anxiety about the end of the school year.  I've been caught a bit by surprise at the honesty and articulate comments from my students about the leap to first grade.  While completing a page: "First grade will be"... one of my sweet little girls, I'll call "Sophie" wrote: boring and sad. It will be unhappy and bad. Not only did her words reflect her fear and anxiety about the transition to a new class, her picture disturbed me even more as sad faced students hid under desks. Not sure whether I should get into a discussion about this, my intern's presence somehow encouraged me.  Sometimes just having a back-up adult gives you confidence to approach tricky topics! We asked Sophie about her picture and writing. After validating her fear, we asked if maybe she could imagine first grade a little differently. Sophie is known for simultaneously getting fixated on ideas but also having a wonderful imagination so this was a serendipitous moment for us. I told her I would write down her reply as she sometimes feels overwhelmed by remembering and writing her big thoughts: "First grade will be happy, first grade will be nice, first grade will be delightful, sugar and spice." I smiled through my misty eyes and she beamed. I asked if she would read her poem to a neighboring teacher across the hall, anxious for her to repeat her words and hopefully begin to believe them. My colleague asked Sophie to write and illustrate her "new version" and asked if she could use it as a sample for her class. Thrilled, Sophie returned to class and wrote about her new vision of first grade. As she drew her new picture, she spoke to herself quietly, "I think first grade will be a lot like kindergarten."
Mission accomplished!

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Proud Moments

I looked up from my small group of students transitioning to the next literacy center.  Walking toward me was one of my adorable, often "serious about his work" boys, beaming with pride as he came to show me his paper. My intern, Miss H. provided the context, " **** wanted to show you how he spelled "exciting" all by himself!" His paper was about first grade and he bravely attempted the word, "exsiding". For those not familiar with kindergarten writing, his spelling: perfect!!  I smiled, told him to "wait just a moment" while I ran to grab my camera and capture his pride.  I'm not sure whose smile was actually bigger, his or mine!  I will miss kindergarten.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Give Them Some Space to Create

It was a pretty typical day in my classroom, except for the recent rise in tattling, mood swings and rollercoaster rides of emotion as my sweet little 5 and 6 year olds reluctantly approach the end of their first school year. We had just returned from lunch, and as is the usual practice, the kids had 30 minutes to complete work from the week, draw a picture, read a book or write a sticker story. In previous years we had "rest time" but in these days of educational accountability the words "rest" or "nap" are banned from our classrooms. We also used to have "playhouse", but fun and play seem to also fall into the disallowed camp of classroom vocabulary words. Of course I quietly rebel and integrate play and fun into our day disguised in lesson plans with playful language, silly music and dancing puppets.
Anyway, most kids understand the routine and were checking their desks for random papers and cleaning it out so that all of their work would be ready to go home in the weekly "Thursday envelopes." I looked over at 2 girls who were not checking their desks. Although my initial impulse was to motion to them to go back to their own desks, I decided to watch for a moment. I am so glad I did. One student B. was measuring around the waist of another student. She was carefully estimating how long she would need to cut her paper strip to fit around the girl. As she measured, her partner in crime gesticulated wildly, giving her advice on how she would use glue to make sure it stayed together.  Another student, often ignored by others, hesitantly approached and asked the "designer" if she could be next in line for a belt.  Her smile revealed her acceptance.  Now often these creative episodes of "making things" result in messes that don't get cleaned up, glue sticks that don't work any more and other "work" not getting completed. Something wise inside of me decided to focus on the benefits:

Teamwork: 3 girls were working together using math skills,  such as measurement and estimation, and life skills like perserverance, particulary when the "belt" came apart twice before staying put.
Innovation: How many adults could make a "cool belt" out of recycled paper?
Cooperation and Inclusion: While many times kids exclude a certain little girl who is less mature, often talks in a "whiny" voice and sticks her tongue out at them frequently, they decided to include her in the "design process." She was delighted!

So how do you balance or integrate the required curriculum with opportunities for student-directed learning? Please share so we can learn from each other!

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Just Enough Information

I had been waiting for the right moment, simultaneously knowing that there really wouldn't be a "right moment."  Yesterday, I told my students that I would not be teaching at our school next year. Looking out at the group who previously chatted incessantly, suddenly I could hear the sound of my own breathing. Confused little faces looked up at me and silence was broken by questions blurted at me like rapid-fire. "Will we see you again?" "Can you come visit us?" "How will we know where to find you?" I did my best to reassure the bewildered little ones that I would make an effort to come back and visit and would definitely stay in touch by email. One of my students who has a well-earned reputation for speaking his mind, raised his hand. "I am just gonna miss you," he squeaked out before his voice cracked and his eyes began to well up. "Can we just talk about something else now? 'cause C. and I are gonna start cryin'"  I agreed and we moved on to another topic. The atmosphere returned to its almost normal lively noise as kids picked a book to take home and packed up for the day. Their big question: "Who is going to take Mr. Monkey?" Our monkey puppet who has graced us by greeting each student during our good morning song, would, of course, need a new home.  We decided that our "other teacher", my intern, Miss H. would take him, since she will likely be teaching young kids when she gets a job. I am moving to a new grade, 4th grade in a new school, so my kids somehow did not think Mr. Monkey would be needed there.
I know more questions will come, tears may flow, and I will give my kids the answers they want and support they need when they need it. In times of change, we just need to listen and honor where they are, giving just the right amount of information to instill safety and security and not too much to overwhelm them.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Proud of Your Kids? Let Them Know!

Saturday, May 15, 2010 was a wonderful day. Stefanie, my youngest child and only daughter, graduated with honors from CSU Humboldt with a Bachelors of Arts in Psychology.  Pictured above with me ( proud mom!) my dad and his wife Lucille, it is evident that Stef is proud. She should be as she worked very hard to accomplish her goal. The fact that my 78 year old dad traveled over 700 miles to let her know that he is also proud made my day. My dad was always there at our milestone events such as graduation, but as we grew up, he didn't necessarily know how to express his joy and pride. My point isn't to criticize, but to remind myself and all of us to stop, savor and let our children know how very proud we are of them. I grew up thinking that we should not share our accomplishments, remain silent, humble and show others through our actions that we are a success. In a way, my parents had it right. Humility is very important. More importantly, though, is to celebrate our children's hard work by highlighting those times that they push themselves and "go for it!" As my kids grew up I wanted them to know that above anything else, if they gave their all to an endeavor, they could hold their heads high with pride.  Sounds simple, maybe, but priceless to me. 
How do you let your children know you are proud? Please share your stories in the comments section.

Thursday, May 13, 2010


It's already beginning. This morning, while practicing our songs for the end of the year celebration performance, I looked out at my kids and felt my eyes well up with tears. I looked at them through different eyes today, realizing how little time we have left together. With only 19 school days left, and with me about to embark on a new journey at a different school, I suddenly felt overwhelmed. I realized that while normally I have the wonderful privilege of getting hugs and visits from former students, I won't have that with these adorable little guys.  They keep saying how they just want to stay in kindergarten with me, "I don't want to gwaduate, I just want to stay with you," and when I tell them how they will love first grade they then leap to, "Well, we can visit you right?"  I somehow nod and realize that I need to tell them soon, but when? and how? Then today, M. randomly asks me, "Mrs. Young, my brother will be in your class when he's in kindergarten, right?" Somehow I mutter a soft "I don't know" and luckily she leaves the topic alone.  (Her mother, by the way, already knows the news;the day I told her she told me she would go home and cry for her son.)
So, how do I tell them that I won't be here next year for a high five or a hug on the playground? Surely I can't be that important anyway, right? I know it may seem strange, but in Kindergarten we grow strong attachments as we make our way through milestones like turning 5, losing our first teeth and learning to read!
Today I told their parents about my plans in our weekly newsletter. I mentioned that I would be telling the kids after our assessments are over. I suppose I will need to tell them sooner. I had planned on waiting until there were about 2 weeks of school left, but I don't want to lie about next year. I didn't realize how much they would be planning ahead, thinking of how they will stop by and "surprise me."
I am trying to savor these last moments with them; doing assessments each day and watching their beaming faces as they proudly pass reading levels. I am staying in the moment, recording the funny things they say and celebrating the amazing discoveries they make.
Teaching kindergarten is certainly not for the faint-hearted, and I am surely going to miss it.  If you have any thoughts on the best way to share my news with my kids, please leave a comment.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Positive Psychology Meets Education: Who I'd Like to Meet

I have always been interested in the intersection of psychology and teaching. In fact, I think that our tendency to separate the two into distinct domains lends itself to missing out on insights that could help us empower and motivate our learners.
The names above are all individuals who have made significant contributions to the growing field of positive psychology. What I love about all of them is that the focus of their work is on helping individuals use their strengths to thrive and live more fulfilling lives. The focus of psychology in the education system is still generally stuck in the "medical model" mode of finding out what is "wrong" with kids. I would love to interview each of these wonderful scholars about how to integrate more positive, strengths based psychology into schools!
For more about each one's work and contributions, click on the names below:
Lopez and Snyder
Carol Dweck
Karen Reivich
Tal-Ben Shahar
Jonathan Haidt
Todd Kashdan
Ellen Langer
Barb Fredrickson
 Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Dacher Keltner
Chris Peterson
Alex Linley
Martin Seligman
Albert Bandura
Robert Emmons

Who would you like to help solve the issues we have in education? Why? Please comment and join the conversation!


Friday, May 7, 2010

Got Kids? Help Them Learn to Self-Regulate!

I feel like an old lady about to go on a rant about the way it used to be. You know the tone of that voice that screeches, " When I was a used to fall down and pick themselves up." "When I was a kid, you ate what you didn't like, and you pretended you liked it!" "When I was a kid..." Ok, ok, I will stop now since I am sure you get the point. So, what is my point exactly? I've been thinking a lot lately about some essential skills kids need to survive, and, more importantly, thrive in kindergarten. No, I don't mean those academic ones, like writing your name, or knowing your letters or even counting to 10. I am thinking more of the ability to get through the day with a smile on your face, not all the time, but at least most of the time.
You see, many kids cannot seem to flow smoothly through the day, handling the moments when life doesn't serve them up their dreams on a silver platter. When asked to do something that is a bit challenging, or something they don't instantaneously love,  they simply don't "want to" and feel free to shout it from the rooftops. What is happening to us, adults? Have we lost our way? We have indulged, cajoled, entertained and pleaded with kids to get them to do what we want them to do. We have read books about how to turn their little worlds into places where they don't suffer any disappointment, pain or self-doubt. All this, perhaps, in an effort to protect their self-esteem, which might have been eroded for us in our own childhoods. Did our parents shelter us from the pain of disappointment? Mine surely didn't! And trust me, I have my own childhood skeletons so I am not claiming to be the world's foremost parenting expert. I definitely worked very hard with my own kids to "do  parenting" much different than my parents did. I listened to my kids, but I didn't rescue them. ( or at least I tried not to rescue) I empathized when they cried because they didn't get their way, but did I back down and change my mind, no! At least most of the time I tried to be consistent. Was it easy? No!
Here's what happens when kids come to kindergarten, and  you can see why they need the skills to manage their moods and attention.
It's 8:00 a.m. and the students in Room 11 have been busy greeting each other and putting their belongings away. In the next five minutes a couple of  kids will stroll in late, one of them I will call B.( not his real initial) B is late 9 times out of 10, often because he has delayed the day at home by refusing to eat his breakfast, get dressed or be ready on time.  He tries nearly every day to stash toys in his pockets which often become larger than life distractions for him. His parents are wonderful, loving parents who both work full-time. ( I have no bias here, trust me, I worked when my kids were little.. I have always worked!) Usually he walks in fresh with a smile on his face, which remains there until the first encounter when I have to redirect this highly energetic little guy to stay on task. His dad helps him get started on his work, and within 3 minutes,  B. is up and around the classroom, socializing and doing, well, frankly whatever he wants to do. He is over at another table group visiting with another boy who would rather suck on his water bottle, shirt sleeve, or anything else he can find rather than get started working. There is a reason that these 2 boys are across the classroom from each other, yet at any opportunity they are like magnets, stuck to each other engaged in a love-hate relationship where at least once a day one of them is in tears or in a huff about something the other one said.   With a quick glance over as I take roll, I request for B. to go back to his desk and complete his work, a math page that is usually a fun review with a dot to dot or simple graph of a concept we have been learning.  Do the kids think it's fun? Well, most of them somehow do, but B? Not so much. He doesn't really like many tasks that involve a pencil and an attention span of longer than a couple minutes. I get that! Truly I do, but we have many other moments during the day when kids get to learn without pencils.
Fast forward to 8:10 ( wait, that's only 7 minutes later and already there's an issue?) It's time to line up for morning songs and exercises and B. is goofing around in line, clowning and trying to get his pals to respond to his antics. Ok, yes, having fun is allowed at school. I encourage a good sense of humor and give kids many opportunities to shine through their delight in telling stories, jokes, etc.  On the other hand, when you have a kid who derives most of his satisfaction from taking others on a wild joy ride of shared diversion when the majority of the kids are engaged in learning, it can be quite frustrating. I gently place my hand on B's shoulder requesting that he turn around, stop talking and sing with the teacher leading the songs. He glares at me as if I am the enemy, folds his arms and decides to sit down on the floor, in the midst of 99 other students who seem to be quite perplexed by B's display.
As all of the kids begin to sing, B. stands up, arms still folded, eyes burning a hole in me as he glares across the room. I smile at him and encourage him to sing along. His friends around him try to cajole him into smiling but he is one stuck little cookie. He does not want to move on, or he is simply not able. For whatever reason, it's wearing on my heart as I truly do not like when a child is unhappy or glaring at me for 20 minutes for that matter.
As we return to the classroom, B. decides to throw his arms around me and melt into a hug. Clearly he is having a difficult time regulating his emotions this morning and my heart goes out to him. I smile and encourage him to focus on a happy thought of something he will do today that he loves. He smiles back and I hope that our day will be on the right track now.
Fast forward 30 minutes to literacy center time. I am in the middle of teaching a reading group and most of the kids know that this is one of our most sacred learning times. Of course, as in any classroom, there are the frequent flyers who take any opportunity to need intervention, usually to stay safe or not cause a major commotion.  As B. comes hurtling across the room with a story to tell, I gently hold up my hand in a "wait" and tell him that he can ask a friend for help before coming to me. B. tries to talk to me and I redirect him back to his desk. He blurts out that the girl next to him has stuck her tongue out at him. I ask him to please tell her to stop and direct them both back to work. Precious minutes have disappeared from my instructional reading group time and I feel myself annoyed again though I try so hard to be patient.
B. returns to his table and instead of sitting in his chair, climbs under the table and looks out, as if he is an animal in the cage. Again he burns a hole in me with his stare; I motion for him to get out and return to my teaching. I have learned to ignore the annoying but not dangerous attention seeking behavior. B cannot get past his feeling upset that this girl has stuck her tongue out. Mind you, she does this to almost every student in class, almost every day, so most of the kids just ignore her.
It's time for a center change and B. has come out of his hiding space. He hasn't done any work yet today, but at least he is not bothering anyone else. I announce his name as one of the students coming to my reading table. He smiles and races over, and I sigh in relief. Ok, things are going to get better now, I hope.
B. struggles along with a group about the same level as he is. He loves stories but mostly listening to them and he gets very excited as he gets to predict during the picture walk. As we begin to read and I listen and help each child B. gets frustrated when he can't read a word. I tell him to try once more and I will help him in 20 seconds after I finish with another student. That's not fast enough for him, so he puts his head down on the table and sulks.
Perhaps you are thinking of a million strategies and interventions I can do with B. Trust me, I have tried many and I talk with his parents often who also worry about his resilience and sensitivity. We are working on helping him to develop strategies to deal with moments when things don't go quite the way he wants them to. After he blurted out at home that he "just wants to die", his mom requests to meet with me and talk about how we can help him. Although she is open to counseling, her husband does not want the stigma of admitting his child is struggling.They have had some parental health issues since B. was born, so it's no surprise that he is having a little trouble coping during his first year of school!
Perhaps you are wondering about the rest of the class as I spend all of this time helping B. Although I used B. as an example, he is definitely not the only child in my class requiring a great deal of energy. I have at least 3 other boys who have a great deal of difficulty managing attention and impulses. One, in particular is the oldest of the lot, having turned 6 in early December, but, as his mom puts it, "He has no filter. He just says whatever he is thinking." Just the other day this boy told me, "Hey, Mrs. Young, do you think you can hurry up teaching us? I'm getting tired."  ( This comment, mind you, happens because as we go through a discussion the impulsive kids interrupt several times, making the explanation of the activity take longer. Still though they have been sitting not even 5 minutes!) Another boy, whose desk most always looks like a tornado has struck, is a virtual tornado himself, often seen spinning himself across the classroom while the rest of the students try to ignore him and do their tasks. This child has great difficulty managing attention for more than about 3 minutes and does anything he can to avoid tasks involving a pencil.  The other boy I mentioned turned 5 just at the cut-off point late November/early December and has no interest in being at school. He comes to the rainbow rug each day with something stashed that he can throw at a peer. He rolls around on the floor or worse, stimulates himself by rubbing on his desk or the floor. He seeks out peer attention and uses his body to communicate instead of his words! Can you say, exhausting?
  I also have an adorable little girl on the Autistic spectrum (referred to as having an Asperger's diagnosis) who has a tendency to do off the wall things for attention. Like what? Like taking the fish tank and trying to carry it across the room, or shouting," Mrs. Young, you are a crazy old fool!" as I try to teach a lesson. These behaviors are nothing compared to the beginning of the year scenarios where she lunged across the room announcing her intent to poke her peers or me in the eye with a pencil. We have worked very diligently to keep her and the others safe this year and she never ceases to amaze me with her lively imagination and creative abilities.
This post only describes the first 2 hours of a day in Kindergarten. After recess we ( my student teacher/intern and I)   help kids calm down and regulate if they have had peer issues on the playground. We try to provide a positive, consistent routine to keep their spirits upbeat and the learning playful.  The kids who benefit most are those who can handle their emotions, get enough rest, and have been taught that life sometimes doesn't serve up exactly what you want, when you want it!
If you have a child about to begin school, think about his/her resilience. A wonderful website with resources for building self-regulation and resilience is Fishfulthinking. If you have other resources to share, please comment below! If any of this sounds familiar to you, please comment as well. All of us together can help kids when we share strategies that work!

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

What a Test Score Won't Reveal.. the Story of a Learner

I've been thinking a lot lately (oh no! run, she's been thinking again, and that usually leads to a long while you still can! ) about how much of learning is about student/teacher relationships and other factors that do not get revealed with a #2 pencil on a multiple choice test.  Yes, pedagogy and teaching strategies are critical when kids are regularly attending school and participating; they allow us to push students to higher levels of thinking and creating. Without positive student-teacher relationships, however, kids may not even be physically and mentally present enough to  learn. As kids get older, do they show up to class or even school if they feel like their teachers don't care or  have respect for them? Maybe, but I doubt that they learn much in class.  Even younger students "check out" and even "act sick" to avoid school when they feel marginalized or misunderstood.
Ok, so all of this is a no-brainer to those of us committed to empowering and inspiring learners each day. What's my point? The point is that we are being held accountable for a complicated and often messy learning journey where we give our blood sweat and tears to help our students, by a number on a test; a test that takes a snapshot of a blurred brief moment will determine whether we are good teachers. And with tales of impending merit pay schemes, I am worried that basing pay on test scores will be yet another impetus for good teachers to flee education. It will also be another reason for cheating and all kinds of issues that take the focus away from what we want: students who are competent to meet the challenges of a complex world.   Although I agree that we can use some help in improving teacher training, both preservice and continued professional development, basing our pay on test scores misses a key point: the impact we make and the learning that takes place in a school year may not make its debut appearance during a stressful session of bubbling in dots on an answer sheet. 

Does a single set of standardized test scores truly tell the story of any kid? Does it tell anything meaningful and productive about the current teacher or even those in the grades prior where testing did not occur?  Does the score reflect the value of what we have done all year?
Does it reveal:
  • that Johnny has been homeless and for the first time this year he feels safe only during the day because he trusts his teacher at school?
  • that for all of kindergarten and 1st grade, the teachers who had that special needs child who didn't "qualify for any help" spent countless hours on their own researching and learning about how to help her, and even more hours keeping her and the class safe and engaged in learning?
  • that Sean's teacher spent hours each day trying to help him focus as his mom was getting chemo all during his days in kindergarten?
  • that parents and teachers often come together as partners in kids' education only to be blocked by school policies that necessitate years of failure before kids are deemed "in need" of extra help?
  • that in one school year a student made more than two years of growth, even though the test shows that he is still below grade level because he was not feeling well that week?
I could go on and on, but that's where I ask you to chime in share your stories. What does a test score leave out of the story?  How can we raise our united voices as teachers and stop this nonsensical belief that test scores tell the entire story?