Tag Archives: Students

Week 23: Bittersweet Hello

This afternoon, as I cleaned up the carnage of my back table, the office called my room through the intercom. Two boys were there to see me. My brain stalled for a minute. I asked for their names to be repeated through the crackly speaker. The second time I heard loud and clear. One of my students from last year was back to say hello.

My heart skipped a beat.

I keep my kids for two years and he disappeared over summer, rumored to have moved to the South, Alabama, or Georgia, or somewhere. In a room full of rowdy boys, he was a leader, calm, well-spoken, polite. Whenever he was in trouble, he would apologize kindly, usually ending his statement by calling me ma’am. His test scores were among the highest in the school.

Today he showed up in my room, a shy smile, a sideways hug. His eyes traced the walls of our classroom, the desks new, everything else so very much the same. I told him we missed him. I told him we would bring in a 31st desk just for him. And, I meant it. I don’t want 31 students, but I would if the 31st was this kid. His eyes filled up with tears as we talked. Not a single one spilled down his cheek, but they were there, ready to pour out.

When he left, I cried. Another teacher was in my room. She teared up with me. He never moved to Georgia, or Alabama, or the like. He still lives in Sacramento, just too far to make it to our school. A lot of students travel a distance to reach our doors. For some families, it ends up being too much. I understand, but my heart still breaks. His eyes told me his did too.

About twenty minutes after he left, I wandered back into the hallways to see if I could catch him again. With many brothers, I thought maybe they’d still be in someone else’s classroom. I found them in the hallway, his mom and siblings headed my direction. I asked him if he wanted us to write him. He smiled wide. I wrote down his address. His mom promised he’d write back.

I know I will say good-bye to every kid I teach, but some disappear without a word. I’ve had students return to Mexico overnight, or so the stories go. At the beginning of the school year, I was certain this student would be back. I told the other teachers not to worry, that I had talked to their mom, that she had said they’d be there. Eventually I gave up. Another student took his spot, the year went on.

His reappearance today was an unexpected gift, so bittersweet. It was nice to say good-bye this time. I wished I could pick up his house and put it across the street from our school. But then I let him go. I reminded myself that I love all my kids, that he opened up a space for someone new, someone that maybe needed it more than he did. That’s the good part. I know deep down that he’ll be fine, whether he misses us or not.

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Week 20: It’s All About Heart

When I started teaching on my own, a year and a half ago, I counted every week as a fraction of the school year. I was not sure I could make it, so I had to think in tenths, and fifths, and halves. For the first couple months, each week was a victory.

In my second year, I still count the weeks, but mainly for planning purposes. Only the big fractions stand out. Today is the end of week 20, the school year is half way done. My biggest obstacle is exhaustion. I like teaching but it makes me tired. This week I realized that’s the one thing left that makes me question how long I can last.

It’s not like sitting in a cube and writing economic analysis all day, (which I did for almost three years). It’s standing on my feet, raising my voice, putting on a show, quickly responding to a million little cues all day long. The first week of school my body ached, my throat hurt, I went home each day and took a nap. Even now, by Friday afternoon, I’m drained.

However, the difference between a year ago and today is my heart. A year ago was about survival. Today is about love. I love my kids. I know they’re not mine. But I still love them. A year ago I was just getting to know them. I am so grateful for two years together. Even the most irritating behaviors often end in smiles now. I know which buttons to push, which tricks to use to make their anger dissolve into laughter.

This morning I woke up and realized I am three fourths done being their teacher. Fifth grade teachers think in fractions. The separation is already beginning. Their fifth grade, hormonal selves are becoming more social, less attached to me. Today we all ate lunch in the classroom to celebrate our academic success and instead of huddling around me like they did a year ago, they sat in little groups and ate. Occasionally one would stop by and chat, then move on.

I didn’t mind, though. I’m excited for what comes next, for them and me. I’m excited to see whether the next batch feels the same or different. Today I wrote in their morning message that we are half way done with fifth grade. I told them I will cry when I have to say goodbye, because I care. I made a few cry prematurely with that statement. Teaching is definitely about heart. Now if only I could figure out how to keep it from making me so darn tired.

Only fitting that we're studying the heart this week.

Only fitting that we’re studying the heart this week.


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My Humble Thoughts on Education (Did I mention I’m a teacher?)

As I drove to work this morning, NPR played a piece about standardized testing in California. Try as I might, I can’t find the link to the story, so I’ll give you a similar link from the Mercury News. Basically, California plans to phase out standardized testing and use a computer-based test that attempts to measure critical thinking instead. This is all part of the adoption of the National Common Core Standards.

Students will enter their responses into the computer, typing in what they think instead of selecting from a list of choices. On the surface, this may sound better than multiple choice. However, low income kids often do not have access to computers at home, while their wealthier counterparts often have personal devices at their disposal. The same goes at school. Some schools in California have a laptop for every kid, then there are schools like mine, with one computer lab shared by grades K-12.

As an added layer, English learners (ELs) communicate differently than their English-only peers, making their responses hard to compare. Even if the tests adjust for ELs, many families of ELs are afraid to identify as non-English speaking at home, making it impossible for schools to legally designate countless students who would benefit from the modifications.

As much as standardized testing may get under my skin, it is a way to measure students in all socioeconomic groups with less favor given to more privileged populations. Sure, there are still disparities in accessing the content on the test, as an EL fifth grader reading at a first grade level may not be able to accurately demonstrate his ability to think through problems he cannot 100% read, but at least he does not also have to hunt and peck his way through the test on a keyboard. Instead, he can pick an option that verbalizes what he may not be able to write on his own.

My two cents. If we want to fix education, open-ended testing on computers is not the answer. I hope I am proven wrong, (especially if the state actually goes through with it and I have to give these tests to my students). However, my initial impression is that a shift of this nature gives unfair advantage to students with wealthier backgrounds. True assessment of understanding requires different modes of input/output for different students. Traditional standardized tests may not fit the bill, but the solution seems worse.

I worry that our desperation for education reform is creating outcomes that do not reflect the realities of teaching students with different learning needs. I’ll leave you with a link to a Huffington Post article that illustrates some of the other attempts at education reform underway. I’d comment but that would be a whole different 500+ word entry, (and this teacher is a little on the tired side already).

Instead, I’ll just say that my school is part of a huge trial evaluation program funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation through the next five years to increase teacher effectiveness. I was also trained through a residency program funded by these same grants. As weird as it is to think about, I am one of those data points that will shape the debate on reform. So far my little dot is more effective than expected, but also a little wary of the implications.

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The Huskies Want to Hear From You!

Fixing up my classroom today, I eventually got around to our Husky Fan Club, a little patch of wall next to our carpet easel, where postcards surround a map of the world, one of my little personalized attempts to share my passion for different cultures and travel with my students. Sure, last year left the postcards a little crooked, as students strained to reread the messages on the back, but this is still one of my favorite places in our room.

As new postcards trickled in throughout the year, we read aloud what different places around the globe were like– Ireland, New York City, Sweden.  The students were excited to listen and ask questions.  In fact, many of them wrote about the Husky Fan Club being one of the most exciting parts of fourth grade.

Help us bring this tradition back to life for the new school year!  Tell us what life is like somewhere else.  For kids that have only ever left Sacramento to go on our field trip to the Exploratorium in San Francisco, anywhere is new, different, and interesting.  Heck, even I get excited when I get a postcard in the mail!  And, finding your location on our map helps develop a personalized sense of geography, especially since the carpet the students sit on is also an oversized map of the world.

Let me know if you’re interested and I’ll send you info.  We’d love to hear from you!

Send us a postcard, the kids (and I) will be excited to receive it!

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Separation of School and Home

I know that I run a risk having a blog and being a teacher.

I try to use my maiden name for writing and my married name for teaching, but sometimes this is not enough.  Some students found the online me today.

Teaching can be all consuming.  Papers to grade at night, lessons to plan on the weekends, after school events to coordinate, parents texting and calling at all hours.  Don’t get me wrong, I love my job (most of the time), but I also need a separation of school and home.

So, tonight, when I discovered that I had been discovered, I was pretty disappointed.

Sometimes I need a little break to be me, even if it’s public, on the internet, in pursuit of my other passion, writing.

Hopefully, they found me so boring that they don’t come back…

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You’re as smart as you work to be!

I love this!

I’m telling my students over and over this month that you’re not born smart, you work hard to become smarter: “Your brain is like a muscle.  The harder you work it out, the smarter you get!”

This has fascinating implications for praise.  If we tell our kids that they’re smart, they’re less likely to take risks, because they’re afraid they’ll look dumb if they make mistakes.  On the other hand, if we praise their hard work, they’re more likely to take risks, grow, succeed.  For anyone interested in this concept, New York Magazine has a great article from a few years back:  “How Not to Talk to Your Kids.”

Makes total sense to me.  It took me 26 years to decide to try something that I might be bad at, (and, it’s still painful when I don’t immediately succeed).  Granted, my parents did not just praise intelligence, they also praised hard work, but I’d be curious to know how much praise I’ve received in life based on intelligence alone.

Maybe effort-based praise does not solve everything, but it’s still a very motivating concept for kids.  Anyone can be the “smart one” if he/she works at it!  I guess it’s a good reminder for us adults too…

Time to do some brain push-ups!

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"For those of you that have never seen the ocean…"

Today my students got their wish.

Nearly 120 fourth and fifth grade students, at least two dozen parents, and five teachers piled into three funky old buses that bounced happily down the road to San Francisco.

Before even exiting our bus, one student exclaimed, “This is the best field trip I have ever been on!”

The initial view of the city was just as exciting as I hoped.  The students were giddy as they spotted the skyline, the Golden Gate bridge, Alcatraz.  They anxiously held their breath through the tunnel on Treasure Island, carefully making their wishes at the other end.  However, to my surprise, it was not just the city that excited them– it was the cows on the hillside before that, the coastal mountain range itself, (“Are those as tall as the Himalayas?”), and the glee of waving to other school children on passing busses out the window.

Of course, the Exploratorium earned its own acclaim.  Beginning with lunch outside the Palace of Fine Arts, eager children fed the ducks, the swans, and the pigeons in the perfect San Francisco March sunshine.  The exhibits soon followed, sucking them in with the truly magical promise that they would not get in trouble for touching anything.  My personal favorite was the rather low-brow, toliet-shaped drinking fountain.  While I could not bring myself to drink from it, (despite the promises of drinkability), I delighted in watching the students psyche themselves into it.

Oddly, however, it was the bus ride home that left me the most satisfied.  Despite an earlier response that we would not cross the Golden Gate Bridge, the bus driver announced a change in plans upon our departure.  To the sheer delight of the students on my bus, we did cross the Golden Gate Bridge, and it was magical.

“For those of you that have never seen the ocean,” the bus driver called out proudly, “turn and look out on your left.”

Cameras held out excitedly in the air, many of my students took in the vastness of the Pacific Ocean for the first time.  I wanted to cry, but I smiled instead.  Floating across the bridge on a crazy, bouncy bus full of happy children, I remembered why I decided to become a teacher.

I love the lighting and the architecture of the Exploritorium.  I hope that its new home on the waterfront is just as cool!

Brought to you by popular demand, the teacher ninja photo.  Lisa was trying to view an optical illusion with one eye when I snuck in there for the pic… Clearly, teachers are always mature adults.

My infamous happy, sparkly shoes, (key ingredients for any good day!)

More of the cool lighting
Close-ups of plants because I can’t legally show you close-ups of the children…
“We really get to go over the Golden Gate Bridge?!”
Our own magic school bus!
Happy kids, (Note: This picture is not a close-up, so I think that I can get away with posting it!  Yippee!)

End Result: Two very happy teachers! (Really, five… But we were lame and didn’t get a group teacher photo…  Insert sad face… That last part is for you, Regina!)
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Advocacy, Humility & Gratitude

It is not in the still calm of life, or the repose of a pacific station, that great characters are formed. The habits of a vigorous mind are formed in contending with difficulties. Great necessities call out great virtues. When a mind is raised, and animated by scenes that engage the heart, then those qualities which would otherwise lay dormant, wake into life… 
– Abigail Adams

I read this quote on a friend’s Facebook page recently, and it touched me deeply.  It made me think about how greatness does not come out of avoiding difficulty, even though it can be very tempting to do so.  

When I first realized that I wanted to be a teacher, I found myself inventing reasons not to follow my heart.  Mostly, I was afraid of failure.  I was afraid that it would be too hard and that I would not live up to my own expectations.  It was far more comfortable to avoid failure altogether than to face it head on.  Then, somehow, I found myself doing it anyway, and I was right– it was really hard and there were many days that I failed. But, in allowing myself to fail, I also gave myself space to grow.

In becoming a teacher, I have also become an advocate for children. Some of these children come to school hungry, cold, and in need of a lot of love.  Many of these children lack the life experiences that I treasured growing up.  Accordingly, in a strange way, they have become my children, who I love, guide, and struggle with everyday.  In taking on this role, I have accepted the humility that comes with asking others to help them, and this in turn has opened my eyes to the great generosity of people all around me, creating a humbling gratitude inside of me.

A few months ago, I shared how painful it was to watch students come to school without jackets.  It made me remember the times as a child when I forgot my jacket and felt cold.  The idea that these kids weren’t forgetting jackets, but instead did not have them, broke my heart.  Nonetheless, I was amazed by how many people reached out to me after I shared this experience.  My dad even marched into my classroom the very next morning with a jacket for a student that I told him about!

A dear old friend from college, who has always had an amazingly full heart, also reached out to me.  Without being asked, she organized a fundraiser among the employees in her office, and raised enough money to buy nearly two dozen jackets for the students that were still coming to school cold.  These jackets were delivered to my house this weekend and I could not believe how beautiful they were.  The fact that strangers in another city were willing to reach into their own pockets to help the students at my school was deeply humbling.  My gratitude is immense.

The willingness of people to help without even being asked has inspired me.  It has shown me that when presented with a need, many people want to help.  This is turn has inspired me to begin asking people for help, an act that does not come easily for me.  Recently, another teacher and I set up an online fundraising site to ask friends and family to help us take our students to the Exploratorium in San Francisco.  To our amazement, we have already raised more than $600!   

Between the jackets and the field trip money, this week has inspired me to keep moving forward, even when things feel difficult.  I am deeply touched by all of the people that care enough about our students to keep them warm and give them new life experiences.  Thank you to everyone that is teaching me humility, giving me reasons for great gratitude, and helping to change the lives of students at my school!

Gigantic bags of beautiful jackets for students at my school!

Thank you, thank you, thank you Old Navy donators!

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We’re really going to San Francisco?!

Today one of my toughest students had a revelation during the middle of his parent teacher conference.  We have been planning a field trip to the Exploratorium in San Francisco for a few weeks, but the news finally hit him.  “We’re really going to San Francisco?” he asked me over and over.  He was incredulous.  It was as though I told him that we were going to get on a bus and go to Disneyland.  “Are we going to come back?” he asked, after a couple of minutes of contemplation, hoping perhaps that we were either going to stay there forever or more plausibly rent a hotel room.

Listening to this student reminded me of how fortunate I was growing up.  Even when times were tough for my family, we still went to San Francisco.  It’s actually one of my family’s favorite stories, how even during the hard years, we still made our annual Christmas pilgrimage to “shop” in the city.  Of course, there was not a lot of shopping those years.  My dad would take us every year at Christmas, while my mom would take us in the summer for the joys of tourist destinations like Angel Island, Alcatraz, and Golden Gate Park.  The idea that other children did not get to go to San Francisco was foreign to me– how could you not go somewhere so cool that was only a couple of hours away?

At another parent conference this afternoon, a mom that is struggling to make ends meet because of her severe illness shared how her son and daughter have been visiting homeless people along the American River as part of a project at their church.  It is also her son’s fifth grade service project.  The kids have been praying with the homeless and collecting useful items to give to them every Friday evening.  The mother shared with me how this experience has changed her family.  She said that no matter how tough things have been for them with her illness, they still cannot help but feel immense gratitude meeting the people that live on the river in Sacramento– at least she and her family do not live outside, she added with extreme sincerity.  I felt so humbled by how genuine she was with her words.

No matter how hard my job is, it never fails to humble me.  I feel so inspired by the people that I meet.  Many of them are full of so much hope and giving despite the extreme challenges that they face.  The family of the student that was in awe of getting to go to San Francisco offered to help pay for another student to get to go too.  They do not have a lot of money, but when they heard that we needed help finding $3,000 to get everyone there, they wanted to do what they could to give more students the experience that their child is so excited about.  This was especially touching after hearing the mom who is struggling financially and physically but so generous with her heart.  She has two students in fourth and fifth grade, which will likely mean $30 total, an amount that would create a financial burden for them.  I’m so touched that in this world that feels so cold and unfriendly at times, that people still care about each other.

I was talking to my husband about all of this tonight and he shared with me his first memory of San Francisco.  Like my students, he first visited San Francisco as a fifth grader taking a field trip to the Exploratorium.  He said that he never forgot what it was like looking at the city while crossing the Bay Bridge for the first time.

I’m excited that my students will soon have this moment too.

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Sometimes it’s best said by a ten-year-old…

Today I reluctantly taught my class of fourth graders about 9-11.  I was reluctant because I did not know if they would be mature enough to show respect for the content and I did not want to seem like I had an agenda.  I also worried that I would be repeating something that they had already heard over and over throughout their short lives.

To my relief, they were enthralled and respectful.  To my surprise, when I told them about how I watched the day unfold on September 11, 2001, I got some serious goosebumps.  It was so strange to stand in front of 29 people that knew so little about what happened.  Most of them were not even born yet.  Explaining what the day was like for me made me remember how much fear I felt that day.  I never realized how it affected me, even though I heard over and over on the news that it changed my generation.

I tried to keep the content pretty mild and absent of any political undertones one direction or the other.  We read what it was like for a student that went to school down the street from the WTC and watched a short kid-friendly video about the sequence of events that day.  After our discussion and free-write, the kids decorated a small quilt square in memory of what happened.

One student, a boy that speaks English as a second language and sometimes has trouble expressing himself, called me over as he was working.  He was so excited to tell me what September 11 had taught him.

He said that it taught him to enjoy life because you never know what will happen.

Apparently teaching these kids about September 11 was more worthwhile than I expected.

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Thank Goodness

I’m afraid to say it but I’m finally starting to feel back to normal again, like I can do this and I like children.  I’m afraid to say it because I do not want to jinx it!

Today I realized that I’m starting to fall in love with my students.  I fell in love with my students last year, which is an odd feeling.  You just suddenly find yourself really caring about them, even when they’re challenging, or maybe especially when they’re challenging.  I felt twinges of it this weekend when I missed them a little, but today I actually realized that I’m beginning to know them and like them.  That sounds odd because you expect people that work with children to like the kids automatically, and even though I do conceptually, it takes me a little time to truly care about them as individuals.  Today reminded me of the feeling that makes me like being a teacher.  Hopefully, the more that I get to know my students, the more I will go home with this feeling.

Yesterday, a student came out of nowhere and wrapped her arms around me and told me that I’m her favorite teacher.  Every teacher knows that you only get to be the favorite teacher while the student is in your class.  But that’s beside the point, if nothing else, at least the universe still finds a way to remind us that what we’re doing matters to someone.


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Day two was much better.  We started using consequences and I’ve decided that they’re a girl’s best friend! What a difference in behavior from day one.  I heard through the grapevine that one parent said, “I like my child’s teacher (me), she’s strict!”  This made me smile.  I think that maybe you have to be a teacher to understand why being called strict can feel good…

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