Sunday, August 6, 2017

Anyone else disturbed by Trump's speech to the Boy Scouts?

It's been over a week since the President of the United States made his grand speech to the Boy Scouts. How hard is it to go give a speech to a room full kids? Just cover the basics. Talk about perseverance and pride. Tell them you are proud of their commitment and their hard work. Give them a little pep talk about all of the amazing life skills they have learned. Tell them they rock at all the boy-scouty-things they do. It's not rocket science.

I know I am late with this post, but I took a break from blogging and reading to go watch my nephew play in the state finals for Little League. I'm really quite glad they didn't secure the president to throw out the opening pitch to the young men of Michigan that worked so hard to get to Charlevoix. I imagine it would have left them all stunned and confused. I imagine that's how some of the Boy Scouts felt after that speech.

The speech has been swirling around in my head for some time. How is this OK? How will it impact the kids in our classrooms? What are we going to say to the kids about sportsmanship and respect? I've taught a lot of social studies during my career. I have REALLY strong opinions about politics. You know who I never talk to about my political opinions??? MY STUDENTS.

It's my job to teach them about the world and let them figure out how to generate their own ideas. It's up to me to give them the freedom to think and analyze, and to decide for themselves what they think. I shouldn't have been shocked my Trump's speech to the Boy Scouts...but alas.

The President of the United States stood up in front of roughly 40,000 Boy Scouts and said some of the most asinine things I have ever heard. He started his speech with some craziness about how the press would say there aren't very many people at the Jamboree. I think someone neglected to tell 45 that the event was not in his honor. They ALWAYS have that many boys. It's a Jamboree. So when he asked the following question, I cringed...

"Who the hell wants to speak about politics when I'm in front of the Boy Scouts?"

Nobody, sir. But I have a feeling you will anyways. And he did. The vast majority of his speech was about his political issues and recounting his perceived successes. I have just one question. Who the hell starts a speech to the Boy Scouts with WHO THE HELL??? They're BOY SCOUTS!!! I did a little research on the Boy Scout Creed and I found this:

From what I can see...POTUS was unable to get through one speech with any of the Boy Scout values in tact. Instead of friendly and courteous, he was rude and obnoxious. Instead of cheerful and kind, he made backhanded comments and presented himself as a sore winner. And I am not sure what is brave about standing up in front of 40,000 adolescent boys and talking about winning the electoral college, particularly since they were unable to vote in the election. They are kids.

I'm pretty sure he wasn't being exactly "clean" either. He talked to them (again, 40,000 teenage boys) about a cocktail party in NYC that happened decades ago, before they were born. He felt the need to recount his glory days in NYC's high society. Sir...these are BOY SCOUTS.

And have no fear...POTUS proclaimed, in front of 40,000 boys aged 12-18, that they need not worry because EVERYONE would be saying Merry Christmas again. And says, "believe me." And when I heard this little gem I wondered about the Jewish Boy Scouts and the Muslim Boy Scouts, and the Atheist Boy Scouts and, well, you get the point.

The lack of respect 45 has for diverse people, cultures, religions and beliefs is not a shock. I shouldn't have been shocked that he gave a speech like this to a room full of kids. And I most certainly shouldn't have been shocked when he blatantly lied and said the Boy Scout leaders called him up and said it was the single greatest speech ever given at a Jamboree. Boy Scouts are supposed to be trustworthy, and it seems POTUS wouldn't make the cut. He wouldn't even come close.

What do we say to the kids? How do you explain to your Hindu students that the leader of our country believes that they, too, should be saying Merry Christmas? How can a teacher make sense of this to kids that are 11 years old? How can we be effective in teaching kids to be respectful when Donald Trump can stand in front of a Jamboree and put Barack Obama down and encourage them to do the same?

This Presidency is a game changer for teachers. I'm just not sure what the rules are yet.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

The Spirit of the Teacher

I am inspired all the time by the people I surround myself with. And they are all teachers. This week, one of my favorite people (Hi Julie!) posted an excerpt from a book I have not read. Yet. And I have been thinking about the words ever since.

I don't know where to start. 

The book is called "For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood...and the Rest of Y'all Too" by Christopher Emdin. I just bought it on Amazon and it is being delivered to my iPad as we speak. If the rest of the book is half as amazing as the one paragraph I have read, we should all read it. Every single one of us. 

I got lucky. Because even though I have been surrounded by my share of unhappy and disgruntled teachers, I have managed to immerse myself in greatness. The disgruntled and unhappy are no match for me. I have had no choice BUT to be surrounded with great teachers. My parents are all teachers. My siblings are almost all teachers. Teaching is what we do. Whether we do it in the classroom, as a principal, or as a immediate family teaches. 

My little sister said something last week that I loved. She was telling us about a colleague that she saw off campus that hadn't really had an opportunity to get to know her. (I hope I get this story right...Alicia you can fact check it and leave a comment if I mess it up) When he ran into her in a different setting than school, he had a chance to find out she's pretty awesome. She's funny and smart and kind. He told her that he thought maybe she was a little "stuck up" because he hadn't spoken to her much while at work. She explained...

She told him that she doesn't always have the time to "chat" while at school, and definitely not when she is with the kids. She said, "The kids are my business. When I am with my kids, I am taking care of my business!" Her words made me so proud. She is almost a decade younger than me. And she has every right to be disgruntled. She will never make the pay she was promised when she graduated from college and accepted her first job. But she maintains the one thing that is most important...the KIDS are her business. The rest of it is just background noise. 

I had no choice but to be the kind of teacher I am. I can't avoid great teachers, they are always right in front of me whether it is during Thanksgiving dinner or out at my nephew's baseball game. I can't escape them. And I don't even want to try. 

My older sister said something to me one year ago that has also stuck with me. She is a teacher and a psychologist, and she said, "We have ten years to transform education." And she meant it. I took her very seriously...and that is my plan. But there are so many obstacles in front of us every day. And one of the biggest ones is ourselves. 

When I read the passage from Emdin's book, so many different faces came to my mind. I remembered all of the unhappy and disgruntled teachers I have been faced with during my 20 years in education. It's easy to be miserable as a teacher in 2017. Every day brings new challenges and laws meant to make our lives harder and our futures more bleak. Just a few days ago in Michigan, our governor signed into law yet another bill that will further gut teacher's pensions and security. The legislation that changed our evaluation system did little more than create a competitive atmosphere and hinder collaboration. It has taken us AWAY from teaching our kids and has us focused on so many other things. 

Avoiding the unhappy and disgruntled is impossible. "Teaching is a profession where misery does more than just love company - it recruits, seduces and romances it." OMG It REALLY does. I am so happy that I cannot understand the resistance to transformation in education. The world is changing every single day. We aren't keeping up and we definitely are not teaching ALL of our students. I, for one, will NOT be recruited, seduced OR romanced in an effort to make me more miserable. I know what kind of teacher I will become, because I know what kind of teachers I surround myself with. Some of them are my sisters, and some are my friends. But they are ALL my people. The people I can count on to understand what I mean when I say, "Is that the best thing for the kids?" 

I have seen firsthand the dismantling of the spirit of the teacher. I have watched it unfold in front of me. I have combatted the attempt to destroy my spirit. I have watched our best and most amazing be silenced and become fearful.  I think the destructive political climate, along with the mean-spirited public sentiment that "teachers are the problem," has made it so easy for the unhappy and disgruntled to lead us. There really is so much to complain about....I couldn't even narrow it down to a top-ten list if I tried. 

The passage from Emdin's book is impactful. It reminded me that while we are managing legislation and anti-teacher politics, we are also battling each other...which makes it so much easier for our opposition to further the narrative about public education and makes it so much easier to make sense of the argument that we are the problem.   

Teachers WILL be the solution. But it is necessary for us to fight really hard so that the unhappy and disgruntled among us don't beat us down and break our spirit. Teaching is awesome. But it gets harder and harder every day. 

My spirit has been challenged time and time again. But it will not be broken. 

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Why I create stuff I can't use...

Recently I was asked about what "stuff" I have created for 7th grade social studies, which is the subject and grade level that I teach every day. I make no secret about my love of creating materials for teachers, and most people that know me are clear: If you are looking for me on my day'll find me at Starbucks. With my laptop. And my Common Core standards. School got out weeks ago and I have been working on creating a "Reader's Workshop" toolkit for upper elementary teachers. I can't really even count up the number of hours I have spent with the standards and looking for the best ideas to help teachers to help kids. 

What have I created for 7th grade social studies? Nada. Nothing. Zip. Zilch. 

I don't need to. I have time to plan my daily lesson. I teach the same lesson five times in a day. And I have an hour of planning time each day to make sure I am on the right page. I got it. 

I create ELA materials for upper elementary teachers because I WISH someone had done that for me. I recently wrote about becoming a 5th grade teacher against my will. It's so true.  I was ill-equipped and ill-prepared. While I create, I always think back to those days. I would have thought I had died and gone to heaven if someone had given me the toolkit that I am currently working on for teachers. Nobody gave me anything. Except for some Lucy Calkins books. And, well, you may know that I don't love Lucy. What I needed was guidance and materials that I could use right that second. I didn't need lots of theory thrown at me, or the big ideas from people that have never actually done the job I was being asked to do. If someone had shown me the toolkit I just finished for Narrative Reading and Reader's Workshop, I would have paid $10,000 for it. I'm not exaggerating. I would have welcomed the credit card debt that came with that purchase because I would have had exactly what I needed to teach my 10-year-olds to love reading, but also keep them focused on the really important analytical skills they need to grow as readers.  I needed some help when I was drowning. I create things I can never use because I hope drowning teachers will see it as a life vest. 

So I guess I DO create stuff for myself. But I am creating it for myself...circa 2010. And I think the Tera that was teaching 5th grade then would have really appreciated it. I didn't have the time then to create anything. I was drowning trying to figure out how to get from one day to the next. I was teaching reading, writing, math, and science. I learned so much that year. Like in order to take a day off...sub plans will take roughly four hours. And if that day off is because I was sick...make that six hours. Cause I'm sick. And can't focus. 

Why do I continue to create ELA materials for elementary teachers? Even though I don't teach ELA or elementary school anymore? Because I can. And because they need it. And because I want to be the kind of educator that provides real support...not the kind that creates new tasks and rules for elementary teachers to follow...and then calls it support. I think there is plenty of that kind of help already. 

I plan to keep creating. This is my way of paying homage to the hardest working (and often the most undervalued) people I know: Elementary teachers. 

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Everything we need to know...we can learn from elementary teachers.

During the spring of 2009, I became an elementary teacher...totally and completely against my will. I was just fine teaching 8th grade history when I found out my school was about to be transformed into an "upper elementary" and we would be welcoming only 5th and 6th graders the following fall. On paper...I WAS an elementary teacher. I am certified K-8, but never had ANY intention of teaching anything but middle school. But...I was given no just like that...I was about to be a 5th grade teacher.

I did NOT know what I did NOT know! I watched a lot of my MS colleagues resist the transition and attempt to hold onto the structure and organization of a middle school. I decided to do the opposite and go ALL IN. It wasn't going to change and I had a choice to either be sad and miserable or become an elementary teacher. I chose the latter. And it was the best thing that ever happened to me as an educator, and the reason I feel so strongly about teachers as leaders.

I have to break some news to my secondary teacher readers and friends...we don't do the same job that our K-5 counterparts do. There may be some people mad at me for saying this...but it is absolutely the truth. Elementary teachers do a job that the rest of us cannot understand. I doubt that I will ever have firsthand experience to back up my next statement...but I would contend that Kindergarten and 1st grade teachers work the hardest. I think they should get paid double. I really do. I am clear that they do a job I could never do. One of my favorite teachers always says that secondary teachers should spend a week with first graders for professional development. I completely agree.

Before we opened our doors as an upper elementary we hosted ice cream socials for our incoming 5th graders. I helped to organize the events and can remember standing outside while kids ate ice cream thinking..."Why did everyone bring their little brothers and sisters? We may run out of ice cream and there are little kids everywhere." And then I realized...those ARE the students. I trembled in fear. What in the world was I gonna do with a bunch of little kids?!? It took me months to come up with an answer to that question, but I finally did. What am I going to do with them? Teach them. I embraced my new life as an elementary teacher and never intended to look back.

Until I had to.

Just like that...after six years of teaching reading, writing, and social studies (I even taught science and math for a year or two) my school was about to be transformed again. And I returned to my life as a middle school teacher. I love middle school. I love middle school kids. But I can see now what I am missing and just what elementary teachers do.

Here is my top ten list of things every teacher can learn from elementary teachers:

1) We teach KIDS. Not curriculum.
2) When they don't get have to teach it again. And again. And again.
3) The kid that challenges you the most isn't leaving when the bell rings. There is no bell.
4) Going to the bathroom is a luxury that you can never take for granted.
5) Parents are a second full time job. And for good reason. We teach their babies.
6) Your planning time WILL get canceled.
7) It's OK to stop everything to sing and dance.
8) You teach everything: math, science, reading, tying shoes, sneezing etiquette, how to cut paper, how to make friends, how to write get the point.
9) It is entirely possible that the kid hanging off of his chair, upside down, is also fully engaged in your lesson.
10) It doesn't matter what assessments/interventions/paperwork get added to your plate. It WILL all get done. You can't let it take you away from the real work: the kids.

Becoming an elementary teacher against my will was the best thing that ever happened to me. I learned the most important things about teaching. My favorite people are all elementary teachers. if you are a high school or middle school teacher overwhelmed by teaching three different preps...well...what can I say? Elementary teachers just call that school.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Teachers WILL lead...they MUST

I saw an article this morning about our illustrious Secretary of Education, Betsy Devos. It will come as no surprise that I am not a fan of Betsy. My biggest complaint about her is not that she has destructive ideas about school choice, or that she wants to filter public money into private institutions, or that she has no interest in civil rights or equity. Although...those are pretty awesome arguments for why this woman has no business leading American education. My biggest argument about Betsy??? Her credentials. Or lack thereof.

Betsy, like so many other educational leaders and reformers, knows not of what she speaks. She has absolutely no idea how her ideas and decisions affect me and my kids. I'm clear that she doesn't care and is in this for the power and ability to make herself and her rich friends even richer. The job cost her well over 200 million dollars to secure. Her campaign donations to her party secured her spot as the Secretary of Education.

Some people might don't have to be a teacher to make decisions about education.

Yes...Yes you do. Because if you aren't a teacher, and you are making decisions about teaching, you know NOT of what you speak. And this phenomenon is happening at a state and local level as well. Day after day, year after year, decisions are made about what I will teach, how I will teach it, and what will happen to me if I screw it up.

I contend that if you have not been in a classroom at all during the past decade, you are NOT qualified to make decisions about mine.

I am not qualified to make decisions about engineering simply because I have been driving a car since I was 16 years old. And I can't apply for a job as a prosecutor because I never went to law school. And doesn't matter that I watch a lot of Law and Order. I still can't try a case. And I know this. I accept it. But this message and expectation has gotten lost in the field of education. Teachers have been put in their place on a daily basis for the past decade. Great educators have left the field and are still leaving in droves. And this is why. We are on the verge of bona fide teacher shortages across the country, and there is no end in sight to the reforms that are ruining the education of our children. 

I can't count the number of times I have been asked, "Why are you still in the classroom?" After all, I have a Master's in Educational Leadership and a Doctorate in K-12 Curriculum and Instruction. I could have begun my climb to the top a decade ago. But I chose not to. I chose to do the most important job. I chose to use my education to be the best teacher I could be. I use my curriculum and assessment skills to help kids and other teachers. I'm so glad that I made that decision. If I had left the classroom ten years ago, today I would no longer be qualified to discuss what teachers and kids need. I wouldn't know what it takes to teach the Common Core. I wouldn't know how to use assessment data to drive my instruction. And I would have no idea what it feels like to be required to do 150 things per minute, all while recording and reporting my student achievement data in hopes that I will be rated as effective. 

The world of education has got to change soon. The pendulum MUST swing back and the only people who can effectively lead us all through it??? You got it...TEACHERS. 

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Black Lives Matter

Yesterday I woke up and did my quick scroll through Facebook, just for some highlights. I haven't paid really close attention to what is happening in the world because, frankly, I just can't take it. I clicked on one of the links my friend and inspiration Julie Frame posted and ended up watching 10 minutes and 16 seconds of the most horrifying and tragic thing I have ever seen. I watched the video of Philandro Castile's murder. I have so much to say about this video, this world, this idea that it is ok to shoot Black people when they are driving a car with no brake lights. But I want to stay focused on the teaching aspects of all of this. After all...this is a teaching blog. And the implications for teachers are endless. Julie challenged her friends to say publicly that Black Lives Matter. Challenge ACCEPTED.

Here is the link to the NYTimes article on the shooting.

The video shows the entire thing as it happened. The police pull the car over and explain that the brake lights are out. The driver, Philandro Castile, was a black man from Minnesota. He told the officer that he had a firearm in the car. Within seconds, the police officer is unloading his gun into Mr. Castile's front of the passengers...including his girlfriend and her young daughter. She is the person I want to talk about today. The little 4-year-old girl taken out of the car by the other officer is the reason for this blog post.

If the video of the event is too difficult to watch, watch it anyways. And stop right at the 1:10 mark. The officer has just been informed that Mr. Castile has a firearm on him. A legal one. Within seconds seven shots are fired and you can hear the officer yelling "Get the baby girl out of here!"

That baby girl may be in Minnesota, but she is MY student. She is YOUR student. She is ALL OF OUR students. While I will likely never meet her, I MUST know that she exists, as do countless other children that have seen and experienced things that no baby ever should. She is going to need teachers that understand that she has experienced unthinkable trauma and that her life will never be the same. I stopped the video for a few minutes when she was pulled from the car and just sat in disbelief. I imagined her as a 7th grader, sitting in my classroom, with a chip on her shoulder. I thought about what teachers will likely say about her. I thought about all of the kids I have had throughout my 20 years as a teacher. I can't count the number of times I have been frustrated with a student and then had to remember what my job really teach them. And that doesn't just mean the curriculum. We get so caught up in teaching our curriculum that we forget to teach the kids. We forget that they may be acting out for a reason. We don't always think we have time to sit down and get to know them, or ask them how they are doing. But we must.

I've heard teachers complain about students more times than I can count. I've complained. We get sick of kids that talk back or refuse to do our work. We get exhausted by the kid that rolls their eyes at us, or questions our judgment when we make a decision. Why do some kids have a hard time conforming to some of our basic expectations? Because some of them are that baby girl.

What can we do when we know that a students is struggling in school? There is one simple need to know that you care about them. They need to know their experiences and feelings matter. They need to know that they matter. Kids will do ABSOLUTELY ANYTHING for a teacher when they know you love them and when their voices are heard. We are in a situation right now where Black children are navigating a world the rest of us cannot understand. This is not a world where they feel safe and it is playing out in our schools every single day. They have to hear the argument about ALL lives matter, knowing that if that police officer had pulled over a white man with a gun, this never would have happened. This has to change how we teach. Of course ALL lives matter. It's such an ignorant retort to the message of the Black Lives Matter movement. We aren't experiencing a dramatic increase in violence against white motorists. White motorists aren't getting pulled over only to lose their lives. Black parents have to teach their children things that the rest of us have never considered.

Not only are African-American children more likely to be victims of violent crimes (at alarming rates) but they are also far more likely to have witnessed a murder. One study of seven-year-olds living in an inner-city showed that 75% of them had heard gun shots. I am 45-years-old. I have never heard a gun shot. I have never actually seen a handgun, other than one carried by a police officer. But 75% of little kids in the inner-city have seen or heard gunshots. This changes their lives, and requires that we, as teachers, pay attention.

Kids experiencing trauma like this will lose their sense of safety and trust. Kids that have seen or experienced violence are also far more likely to experience withdrawal, school issues, engage in high-risk behaviors, and display aggression. Of course they are. But there are things we can do as educators to support them. Kids falling behind in reading may not benefit from yet another reading intervention, but they might benefit from an opportunity to connect with an adult, or build a relationship that provides a safe space for them in their school. We have to do this. Test scores are only one measure of a student's abilities.

Teachers: Talk to your kids. Get to know them. Make sure they know you care about them as people. You'll be surprised to see what they can accomplish and become with the right schooling experience.

The little girl taken out of that car, telling her mom not to argue so she doesn't get shot too, is going to be in your class one day. And she is going to need a whole lotta love and a whole lotta patience and understanding.

Next time one of my seventh graders rolls their eyes at me (which makes me crazy) I am first going to seek to understand. It's not acceptable to roll your eyes or argue with a teacher, and it certainly isn't acceptable to fight at school or break the rules that exist for our safety. But sometimes, we can change behaviors...and lives...just by asking a few questions and letting them know that you care about them and will give them what they need. All the reading and math interventions in the world aren't going to turn kids into readers and mathematicians. Loving them, and letting them know you do....will.

To be clear, lots of children experience trauma, black, white or otherwise. And we have to reach out to all kids to find out how they are or what experiences have made them who they are today. But a lot of our Black children are in crisis right now. And for good reason. We have to change it. And I double down on Julie's challenge to say it publicly. BLACK LIVES MATTER.

Saturday, June 17, 2017



We did it. We survived another year. I just finished my 19th year as a public school educator, and when I think about how much school has changed since the first time I walked into my very own classroom...I get whiplash. But one thing hasn't changed...the joy and necessity of SUMMER VACATION. Soon...I won't know what day of the week it is. That's how I know summer is really underway.

Yesterday I went down to the front office to sign my teacher evaluation paperwork. I got stuck on the date...I knew it was June, I knew it was Friday and I knew it was the 16th. For the life of me I couldn't remember what year it was! My principal laughed and said, "That's not usually the one people get stuck on." I laughed out loud and added the 2017 to my signature line. And today...I am sitting in Starbucks beginning the process of recovery from the best job on the planet.

People sometimes complain that teachers have the whole summer off. I get it. I love to rub it in the faces of my friends and family when I am not required to go anywhere or set an alarm. That is one of the benefits of teaching! But I know people that work out in the real world have no clue how absolutely necessary summer vacation is. It's OK. We know that you have no idea what it is like to wake up on the first day of summer and know you can go to the bathroom whenever you want to.

These are the simple pleasures of being a teacher. And the things I am celebrating today! I might just get up and go to the bathroom right now. Just because I can. I can sit down and eat lunch in a restaurant instead of running to the microwave during the 25 minutes the kids are not with me. I can slow my brain down. I can stay up late (although I probably won't), and sleep in every day (I definitely won't).

ATTENTION TEACHERS: It's time to be human again. It's time to slow down and stop stressing. You can read ANY book you want! You can even write your own! (That's what I plan to do...) I'm going to spend my summer making teacher stuff, blogging about teacher things, and hanging out with my teacher sisters. I never leave the world of teaching, but I will soak up the sunshine and fresh air and when September is upon us...I'll be ready once again.

HAVE A HAPPY AND PEACEFUL SUMMER, TEACHERS!!! And make a comment below and tell me what you plan to do this summer that you can't do during the school year!