Finding the Path for Each Learner

One October, some teachers and I took several classes on a field trip to a pumpkin patch. After my group and I went on a hayride, we followed one another into a corn maze. Somehow, we got lost and kept going in circles. Not willing to admit defeat; I eyed a line of trees that I knew were next to the route that the hay wagon had taken. Since I didn’t want to keep repeating the same mistakes, over and over, I shouted, “Come on kids! We’re going to make our own path!” One of the kids said, “We have to keep on the path and watch for signs.” However; life experiences had taught me that, if something isn’t working, you have to try to find what will. So … long story, short; we just tromped right through the corn stalks, jumped a small irrigation ditch and found our own way out!

Teaching in K-3 classrooms can be just as tricky as those mazes! To make things even more complicated; the path for one, might not be the right path for others. Before you start making lesson plans, think about how you’re going to lay the groundwork for meeting the needs of individual students. What kind of learning environment do you need to establish? What is the curriculum you must teach and how will you get and keep students engaged?

The Learning Environment

Build a sense of community that includes every single child. Even the most disengaged or misbehaving child cannot help but be pulled into an environment where they know that the group is committed to making the best place for learning to happen.

• Call it “our” classroom.
• Openly discuss how “we” can make a better place to learn.
• Take and honor suggestions from the students. (Reserve executive privilege for yourself.)
• Have a weekly classroom meeting to air grievances and express gratitude.
• Take suggestions on seating but when possible, allow movement around the room. A young child might find working on the floor, more comfortable than working at a table.
• Encourage self-control. Don’t let “I couldn’t help it,” or “I can’t” be a way to explain their way out of a confrontation.
• Give children options for finding a quiet place, if they feel they can’t concentrate.
• Don’t let children laugh at, or make fun of, anyone who makes a mistake.
• Encourage risk-taking.
• Vary groupings: throughout the day, mix it up. Work with students in small heterogeneous and homogeneous groups, as well as in whole group settings.
• Encourage kids to select the books that they might like to read. Introduce them to book series and authors that they might like.
• Give many opportunities to write about their personal experiences. Allow time to share.
• Build charts, with your students, instead of buying ready-made ones. (i.e. rules and informational)
• Decorate the room with their cooperative and individual art pieces.
• Be strict, when you must, but remember to have a sense of humor!

Curriculum and Engagement: Finding the Path for Each Child

The learning environment is the foundation that everything else is built on. When students know that you are all in this together and they see you engaged in the curriculum, they are more apt to buy into the learning process. Classroom environment, curriculum and engagement all go hand-in-hand. Even though I’m taking the process apart, picture all of these ideas layered, one on top of another.

  • Get familiar with your social studies and science standards.
  • Choose a topic that will incorporate one or more of the standards. (Read: Building an Ocean on a Classroom Wall.)
  • Meet with the whole group to invite them into the process of exploring and learning about the topic.
  • Use a guided drawing activity to help interest them in the topic. (Read: Drawing to Understand.)
  • Have all of the children draw with you, as you draw.
  • Build a process grid that will help organize information that you want them to learn, during the course of the study.
  • Have your students participate and write on their own grid, as you put the larger one together.
  • Whole group activities will help give the children common things to talk about, when they later work on individual and group projects.
  • Teach writing lessons which encompass some of the science or social studies you’re teaching.
  • When possible, teach grammar and sentence structure and math combined with the science or social studies topic.
  • Provide reading materials (different levels) so all of the kids can read about the topic.
  • Explore career possibilities, related to the topic.
  • Watch videos that take you to places that are not feasible to take a field trip to. (i.e. South Pole)
  • Research, with the children, when they ask questions that you don’t know the answers to.
  • Allow them time to explore the topics on computers. (i.e. National Geographic)
  • Tell them, and show your excitement, when you learn something new!
  • Get engaged in the topic and it can be contagious.
  • Paint pictures, create using natural objects and explore how things are related. (Read Science in the Elementary Classroom.)

When your classroom is full of children and adults who are exploring a social studies or science topic, it is easier to stretch the curriculum to meet the individual needs of students. When each child feels that they are a part of what’s going on; then is the time to meet the lowest reader’s interest with something he or she can read. Those who need more, can be set on a path of research that will challenge and stretch thinking.

At the end of the day . . . each and every child feels included and able to discuss (through speaking and in writing) aspects of the information that is being studied. Use the curriculum to work up engagement in an environment that is conducive to learning. There might be more than one path that leads to success. Within the larger setting, your job is to find the way for each child. They’re counting on you!






Learning During the Holidays

Teaching through the Holidays
Community Service
Community Service

It has been said, more than once, that the holidays can be a time when  teachers  throw up their hands, surrender and declare, “With special projects and programs . . . we can’t get anything accomplished!” I too have struggled with classroom time being eaten up by “extraneous events”. However, I’ve learned that the things,  thought of as classroom interruptions, can actually enhance learning.  Musical events, community service  and unexpected surprises (i.e. Santa or kindergartners parading through the school) energize and bring joy into the classroom.  During times like these, structure work-periods so ongoing projects can  be dropped and  resumed quickly. It will make your day seem less chopped up, happier and could even save your sanity!  


There was a moment; looking back on my career, that changed the way I looked at learning in the classroom. This “new understanding”  came, on just a regular day,  when I had to leave the classroom for a meeting. A roving substitute was stepping into each teacher’s room, as we attended a one-on-one meeting with our medical insurance representative. We didn’t know when the substitute would arrive, so we had to have something going on that could be easily managed by someone who didn’t know the children, or the classroom procedures. My students had been prepped to know  that they could read or write, if they had finished everything that had been assigned. They also knew that they could  turn to their own projects, which sometimes could be more complex than those that are given to them. I set the class on “auto-pilot” and left.

After my meeting; I returned to the classroom and stood in the doorway, observing. What I saw were children reading, writing and quizzing one another. One child, Theresa’s daughter Colleen,  even held a white board while she did a running record; ticking off words read by the other child. It was then that I realized; when those unpredictable times occur, you simply take a breath, release the brakes and trust in the learning process.

Watch Them Go!
Trust in the learning process.
Trust in the learning process that has already been put into motion.

Far from “anything goes” behavior, parameters are set but are just widened a bit.  If you are teaching children to think, on their own, along with acquiring the  academic skills of writing, reading and math, they will carry on. Give them open-ended, ongoing projects that require reading and writing. Allow them to work with their friends and watch them go!

It is not unusual to see epiphanies in student learning, during the holidays. This can be a  time when a child writes a letter to Santa or mom and dad and you notice new skills  that the child had yet to display.

An Unexpected Apple Peeling Party
An Unexpected Apple Peeling Party

This year; embrace the holiday chaos, along with the joy and  the unexpected. Let the momentum carry them on!


Fluency Practice for Beginners

 boys working

Fluency Practice for Beginners

Go shopping and you can’t miss the back-to-school aisles teeming with school supplies. Parents shop while their  little ones hold on to the last bits of summer. And, teachers? Those who teach in primary grades, gear up to get their new beginning readers off to a running start. Over the next few months, novice readers will be expected to learn how to decode words, increase vocabulary and develop comprehension strategies.  The lucky ones will become confident, fluent readers.

Some students will arrive at school with strong reading skills, while others  count on teachers to get them started. How reading is taught will affect the trajectory of student-learning in unexpected ways. Shaky starts will cause some kids to lose faith in themselves as learners. Teachers know that confidence building is an essential part of reading instruction!

So, what is a teacher to do for the children who see classmates, zooming through text, while they’re still trying to figure out the phonetic code? Clearly, these children can benefit from explicit phonics instruction. However; the actual practice of reading should not be put on hold until later. Students can begin to read while they’re learning sound/letter correspondence. They can and should have access to learning the other important elements of reading, with the other students in the class.

Equal Access to Learning Elements of Reading

Small group phonics  instruction (which many teachers tie  into spelling and word study)  must be differentiated to meet the individual needs of students. However; comprehension strategies and the acquisition of vocabulary can be opened up to every child in whole group settings.

Comprehension skills can be developed during read and think-alouds, oral discussion and thematic units of study. When you read and think aloud, with kids, you are creating opportunities for the non-readers to interject their thoughts and ideas, on level ground with those who can already decode. Those who decode learn that reading is more than just sounding out words. Reading is thinking. All children are exposed to new books, stories, authors, ideas, vocabulary and genres. Students are invited  into an expanded world of reading.

Fluency for One and All

Teaching fluency is tricky and requires a more individualized approach.   If text is too difficult, students can begin to look at reading as a tortuous endeavor.  Fluent reading is something that the beginning reader doesn’t always get to experience. While others fly, they plod and can become disengaged.  Levelled books that come with reading programs are, often, quick reads with very few words and pages. Once the book has been introduced,  a child can read through one in about 3 minutes. Any discussions of these books are fruitless because of they lack substance. Compared to whole group discussions centered around rich storylines or topics of interest, these books fall flat.

Obviously; the children in these reading groups are in desparate need of some additional options. If you can’t find what you need for these children; create it! Kids want to read and turn pages, so this is what you can do:

  • Pick a story or topic that has been discussed with the class.
  • 01d48e9ef0a81855487659df1829fe77f1f4fcc5c4Type simple sentences in large font.
  • Start each new sentence at the left margin.
  • Insert  vocabulary that has been implanted in their heads, during talks.
  • Use simple sight words.
  • Repeat ideas and sentences.
  • Add student names, if it works.
  • Type up several pages of text, varying sentence structure.
  • Staple it together; like a book.

Watch their faces light up when when they realize that they can read the material!

Simplify if Needed

Find the right level. Start with what a child knows. For example, if Andy knows the words, “boy”, “I”, “can”, “the”, “me” and “see”, then create sentences using his name and those words:

Can you see Andy?
Can Andy see me?
I see Andy.
Andy sees me.
The boy can see Andy.
I see the boy, Andy.

Remember to make the font large and don’t stop at just one page. Type out three or four pages, varying the order of the words so it is not just  one repeated sentence. Let him begin to feel what it’s like to read full pages of text. Prove to him  that it is possible to read. Then; make new books with more words, until he is reading about the same topics that you’re all discussing in class. 0147a01847d6e2023bd815eab12b0084e7436bed16


With all of your students firmly on the path to learning to read; perhaps they’ll be among the fortunate ones who learn to be confident, fluent readers!

Take a Leap: STEM/STEAM Activities in a Primary Classroom

If you want to try STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math)  or STEAM (STEM with Art)  activities in your classroom; you need to just jump in and test the waters. Teaching kids to analyze mistakes so ideas can be refined and improved, is integral to the process. So it should be  with teachers. You need to start somewhere! Take the leap, then go back and see what you want to change, keep or improve.  Included in this post is  one week of STEM/STEAM projects that kept first, second and third graders engaged and enthused during our last week of the school year. Photos are attached to show you what it looked like, when the children worked to follow out the tasks with specified limitations.013b10e90c239a9f1e615e12d53145f91aa4eefb12

To begin with; I (the non-expert in STEM/STEAM projects) armed myself with craft sticks, straws, small plastic cups, string,  newspaper, assorted scrap papers,  masking tape and my many years of experience in the classroom.

Their first job was to build the tallest standing tower; using newspaper and masking tape. They were allowed to pick partners (up to groups of 3) or work alone. The tower could be taped to a table or floor but had to be able to stand on its own (not attached to another standing structure or leaning against something). At the end; we discussed what worked, what didn’t and what might work better the next time. In particular; we focused on the bases of their structures. Most agreed that a base; wider than the actual tower was a necessity. We took note of the  many tripods holding up the more successful towers.

The next day, they were given a plastic cup,  a yard of string, masking tape and twenty straws. They were to suspend a cup from the highest tower they could make. It would be tested on how much weight it could hold without the whole structure collapsing. Once again; I gave them the chance to work alone or select partners (up to 3) to work with. After they were done, we saw how many pennies each cup could hold. They found that some of the highest ones collapsed far too soon. The lower, more sturdy structures held more pennies.

Taking the knowledge that we had gleaned from these “warm-up” projects, we launched into what we called: The Amusement Park Project! This work was to span over the last three days of school. A first, second and third grader was assigned to each group. 0139b55588278c91456f88f4438b9eff0f08faf0df_00001 We began by doing a guided drawing of a roller coaster and a ferris wheel. Each child drew their own. As we did the drawing; we discussed the trusses, angles, circles, gravity’s pull of the seats on the wheel and many other features. Then we watched Part One of The Discovery Channel-Engineering Thrills; which was about the physics behind amusement park rides. After these preliminary activities, the children were ready to go forward. Here’s how we organized the task:

  • Each team was given a 18″ x 18″ of cardboard. They were told to build a part of a larger amusement park. Include, rides, shops and anything you think you would see at an amusement park.
  • Bins of materials were set out on a table for easy access.
  • Bins contained craft sticks, straws, cups, string, scrap paper and masking tape
  • I demonstrated a couple of ideas; such as looping a strip of paper and reminded them to remember everything that they had learned about building stable structures.0178cc84faf9030d9550b5d91ab5bdacec8e8d4be0_00001

 The children were so invested in the outcome that occasionally tempers would boil over. When this happened, they were then instructed to leave the project, go to the floor, sit in a circle, and discuss the problem. Then, they could  return to the project when they were ready. That seemed to help defuse most problems. We saw these moments as chances to make the point that adults don’t always agree either but they have to learn to work together.01909f6639afee3926cdb075955429fac3bb02be8d_00001

At the end of each session, we put all of the squares together to create one huge park. We formed a circle around the park to compliment, critique and talk about what we learned. One boy worked on a Port-a-Potty for two days. He had a door that swiveled open and closed. The walls were too short, in the beginning, and he had to problem solve how to increase privacy. Two girls wanted to know where people would wash their hands. The next day, someone on the team pointed out the sink that they built to solve the hand-washing problem.014a66ab098da5961a7732f60960ffe1457af2a283

Throughout the three days; roller coasters, bumper cars, ferris wheels, food shops and  games popped up on the amusement park grounds. One team added a play area for babies because: “moms need breaks!”These were accompanied by lengthy explanations as to why they were necessary additions. Many features were built as a direct result of  a critique that came out during the previous debriefing.

While the amusement park continued to develop, I researched STEM/STEAM publications and observed the children in this highly engaging work. I f you are a teacher who is hesitating to bring these type of tasks into your classroom, I hope that this  might ease your mind.  These ideas may help you to focus your thoughts:

  • Make sure that tasks relate to problems that come up in real-world situations.
  • Insist that, given a limited amount of materials, children work to engineer or fabricate certain structures.
  • Have materials collected and ready to go before you begin.
  • Come up with ways to keep individuals accountable but leave tasks open ended enough to encourage creativity.
  • Require formal ways to record results.
  • Emphasize the cycle of using mistakes to learn from and refine projects.013918c6573ae10757302b0ba84bdb62075a35376e

Now…go ahead and jump in!




Science in the Elementary Classroom: Bugs and Nature Study

When you take a class or attend a training on new NGSS Science Standards, there is a tendency to leave wondering how to fit it all in.    It seems that something has to give. Or, rather0124e39e6b1f9a62791f0c8985b93fa68d1bb8a89b, we need to look at our classroom schedules and curriculum, in a different way. Instead of looking at reading and writing as separate subjects, in our classrooms, we need to look at them as the tools that children will use to investigate and record findings.

We began our Bugs and Nature Study, in my 1-2-3 multiage classroom,  with a guided drawing lesson. We drew and labeled the anatomies of an insect and  a spider. Taking my cue from Albert Einstein’s quote, “Look deep into nature and you will understand everything better,” I believe that once children learn to find different characteristics between species, they remember to notice, explore  and think more about  their natural surroundings. They start off in the world, with those skills; I just think they need to know that we honor that approach in our classrooms. It is kind of a rekindling of that spirit that they’re born with!


My 1-2-3 Multiage class meets with sixth grade buddies, every week. To better understand the different characteristics of arthropods, we had them build insects and spiders using natural materials found in the park, next to our school. As the sixth grade teacher and I circulated around to check on groups, it was plain to see that the discussions were an important part of the task.

To build interest, when we started the unit of study, I placed a imagepraying mantis egg sack into a glass terrarium. As we wait for the arrival of our babies, it is the first place that most of the children look when they enter the classroom each morning. In the meantime, we were able to watch meal worms morph into black beetles. It was a quick way for the kids to witness the process. Of course, the day the meal worm container was dropped on the floor; spilling out the contents on the classroom rug, it was an unexpected surprise. The ones who picked up the larvae to put them back into the container caused great concern for those who would not touch them!

Alongimage the way, we created a Dragonfly Report, together. They all made their own copy, with me modeling expectations from time to time. We included physical characteristics, diet, habitat and interesting facts. When they later chose their own insects to report on, they knew what to do.


Each child chose an insect to write a report on. When they got started the room looked like a busy beehive. They would work; some on the floor and some at tables, with papers strewn all around them. image


In addition to content, revising and editing was encouraged as the reports were finalized. During this whole time, we were adding information that did not pertain to their reports into a “Bugs and Nature Study” folder.

Finally, we brought our unit of study to a close with a trip to Oxbow Nature Study Area, which is run by the National Wildlife Federation. We walked on a trail, along the Truckee River, saw deer, malimageimagelard ducks and ducklings, a woodpecker and a water snake. The tour guide, talked to us about the interdependence between plants and animals.

Afterwards, tubs of life, pulled out of the river, were set up for our students to look for mayflies and other insects. Water droppers, plastic dishes and magnifying glasses served as their tools for exploration.

We’re still waiting for our praying mantis but our Bugs and Nature Study folders went home this week. Attached to the top was a list of contents and grades.

As we work our imageway through new science expectations, let’s remind ourselves  that it is not about; what to give up, as much as it is; how to combine and restructure our approach to teaching. It is about layering subject matter; one on top of the other instead of parceling out time to each subject, as if they are  not related in any way. One of the greatest benefits can be that it’s more fun for students and the teacher!


Oh! And as my friend, Theresa said, in the previous article, “Don’t forget the art! To do the pictures below; they drew bug jars and content with black Sharpie markers. Then they colored some of the bugs and plants inside the jars. Later they did a watercolor wash over them, using random colors. It was hard for me to send them home, so I took pictures!


Fumbling Through NGSS with the Best of Intentions

I’m working my way through the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), as I’ve been doing for the past two years, and man, it’s a tough trudge.  I read it, try to break it all down into smaller, more teachable bite-sized pieces, but it’s a tough slog through scientific edu-speak.

I take a breath, think positive thoughts, and dive in.

At this time of the year in first grade, we are all about plants and animals.  In abbreviated  NGSS-lingo, it’s:

1.Structure, Function, and Information Processing

1-LS1-2. Read texts and use media to determine patterns in behavior of parents and offspring that help offspring survive.

1-LS3-1. Make observations to construct an evidence-based account that young plants and animals are like, but not exactly like, their parents.

We have embarked on a variety of plant projects, kicked off by a viewing of a Youtube version of The Tiny Seed (By Eric Carle) and the directed drawing of a plant (flower).

We started with Sharpies to sketch a soil line, then seed, seedling, and flower. Labels and crayon shading came after. This is a student’s work.



  1. We are growing several plants from seeds.  We planted marigolds for Mother’s Day, just after spring break, then began our bi-weekly observations (sketching, measuring, describing) their growth.  IMG_4229 IMG_2969IMG_4230 IMG_4244IMG_2971 IMG_4264
  2. 2.  We used our previously sorted and counted math beans and planted them in baggies, threw in a wet paper towel, and taped them to the sunny windows.  For comparison purposes, we put similar “bean bags” in a dark place, and left one in the window and gave it no water.  IMG_4248 IMG_4273 IMG_2976







We read Tops and Bottoms by Janet Stephens), and then did a whole group stem study with ribs of celery in blue water.  We observed the changes in celery over several days.

IMG_2972 IMG_2973 IMG_2965 IMG_2959

We also incorporated our plant unit into our snack schedule:  apples, Cuties, celery, radishes, carrots.  Each snack day, we decided if we were eating fruits, stems, leaves, roots, or seeds!  The day we ate radishes, I decided to make a graph of the results, and continue our discussion through math time.










Don’t forget the art!

After a lesson on blending colors, we painted with watercolors.  The children chose their color scheme (yellows, greens, reds, purples, etc.) then painted an entire paper blending shades of colors.  The next day, we cut up and shared the pages to make our own flowers.

IMG_3120 IMG_3134 (Edited) IMG_3133 (Edited) IMG_3132 (Edited)

More to come…!

Dirt Soup, Fairy Bridges and Imaginative Play






Sometimes we forget that imaginative play can play an important role in helping children to construct meaning and understanding of the world they live in.

Recently, I was out on the playground, watching over the children at play. The rain had stopped and I noticed an upturned umbrella lying on the ground. It was protecting  an area for two kids to play. They were working at the base of a huge, old oak tree. I asked the girls what they were building. They explained that they were making a fairy bridge with the sticks. When I asked what the stuff in the rounded indentation in the ground011cf2738e03d62f783c0bddd1b85dedb2bd549f63 was, they said, “It’s soup for the fairies!”

They carefully added dirt and seasoned the soup with blades of grass. They put a little of this, a little of that and topped it off with crushed leaves.  I was reminded of how important this type of play can be. It is work (play) built on imagination; the same place that produces works of art, fiction, poetry and inventiveness.

When I think about our uncertain future and advancing technology; it seems more important, than ever, that children visit this place built on imagination. There, they can learn to create, problem solve and face the unknown; secure in the belief that they can figure it out!

Greetings from a Different Vantage Point



Well folks; I have compiled my 30 years of data and the results of my study are in (free of charge, I might add). My conclusion: Poverty has a negative impact on student learning (of course)! I can tell you that children who are well taken care of, well-fed, have a stable place to call “home”, such things as electricity during the winter and  are not grappling with learning a second language,  tend to score higher on academic tests, with less direct instruction from a teacher.


Theresa and I were masters of infusing joy into our multiage classroom, at the same time that we taught and engaged students in endless academic acquisition. We could turn any activity into an academic exercise. Even an argument between two students would morph into a writing exercise. Our one recess often gave us time to work one-on-one with students (at the same time we ate our lunches). Overcrowding in the school, meant that lunch times were staggered so that kids barely had time to get lunches, sit at the tables, and eat. It became all about hurrying and hammering the academics.

I’ve witnessed many changes in my 30 years in education.  I observed, over the years, the benefits of the ESEA (Elementary and Secondary Education Act) which recognized the need to bolster opportunities for disadvantaged students.  I also understood a real need to make schools more accountable when NCLB (No Child Left Behind), a new version of ESEA, was authorized. Then I saw NCLB mushroom into some kind of monster (in my opinion) that became a tool to justify measuring the adequacy or inadequacy of teachers and school performances based on children’s’ test  scores.


Before I came to my present job (working in a parochial school) I had been used to, what was referred to as “bell-to-bell teaching”. This is what we  called  using every available minute to teach. “Walk-throughs” could occur anytime during the school day. These were when principals or others who are in positions to help “improve” education made unexpected visits to classrooms. Checklists included such items as; standards posted on the board, students engaged, teacher instructing whole or small group, etc. When I started my job, this year, with 24 children and a full-time aide; I still had the “bell-to-bell” mentality. I’m sure my aide thought I was a bit excessive! But when I saw all of the music, PE, technology and art pullouts; along with 3 full recesses, I thought I would never have the time to teach. Apparently, I was wrong.

It’s true; I don’t have near the time to teach, now, that I had in the Title I schools where I taught for most of my 29 years in the public school system. The children I teach now get to have PE, Visual ARTs, Technology, MUSIC and recesses, regularly. Those things that are so necessary to round out schooling for kids (addressing the “whole  child”) have been squeezed out of the curriculums in the Title 1 schools. Many in at-risk schools  have been robbed of these activities in order to bring up their abilities to test better in math and reading. Sadly, kids who could most benefit from this “whole child” approach are the ones most deprived. This deprivation compounds the other disadvantages that they already have to deal with.

This year, I’ve learned that I need to relax a little. Recently; the children took a computer test that is given in the public school system I retired from. Even though Theresa and I taught rigorously, tirelessly, bell-to-bell and even participated in after school tutoring programs, our class test scores (on average), on this particular test, never looked as good as the average student scores in my present class. This is not to say that our previous students didn’t have fantastic potentials and our belief that they would get where they needed to be. It is just a reality check that many of them carried burdens that my present students (for the most part) don’t have to contend with.  I swear to God (not to be taken lightly, as an employee of a parochial school) that I did not have nearly the time to teach that I had last year, and the years before. It has occurred to me that maybe less exposure to my teaching benefits these kids! At any rate . . . (to the tune of Amazing Grace) I once was inadequate but now I’m not!

There are other factors at play here. The school is small; teachers and staff know children by names. It serves k-8, so often, out on the playground I see older kids kneeling to tie a young child’s shoe, give someone a piggy back ride or take a little one to the office to bandage a skinned knee. At recess, the kids are rambunctious and play hard.  There is a sense of community, which was the reason that Theresa and I continued to have our multiage class . . . well past the point of the school district being “done with it.” We wanted siblings, cousins and family friends in order to capitalize on those things that raise up circumstances for children who tend to have less of other things.

The newest  version of ESEA  has just been put into law and named the ESSA (Every Student Succeeds Act). Time will tell if, through the implementation of this re-write, schools will once again regain a sense of balance, sanity and dignity that will help our children (and teachers) to succeed. I hope so, because I love our public schools and want them to be the best at serving; not just the math and reading parts of children’s brains but the “whole child!”01343a0f5be8dd26f6c94b2dbff67c50c807a42eee

A couple of weeks ago, I was showing some second graders how to make a six pointed snowflake, using 60 degree angles. One of the little boys said, “When you opened that snowflake up, it took my breath away,”

On that note, I’d like to offer a toast  to my friends and colleagues in public schools (given from my new vantage point).  Here’s to public schools, with the  wish that our children, who are most in need, have more moments that will take their breath away  and less moments that are attached  test scores, climate surveys or grades!





The Single Teacher Life

I just survived my first nine weeks working without my team-teaching partner. It’s been just me, alone with 25 six-year-olds, for an entire quarter. I understand that most teachers do this stand-alone gig every day, and I am, after all,  in my 26th year of teaching, but I’ve been spoiled, you see.  During the past thirteen years, I’ve had my sidekick, Paula, co-teaching right beside me, and getting me through the crazy joyful roller coaster ride that is the teaching profession.

Even as a singleton, I haven’t lost my zany edge. After reading Stephanie’s Ponytail, by Robert Munsch, my student and I are rocking our sideways and front-facing ponytails!


This year, with a new school, new PLC, totally different classroom, it’s like being a first-year teacher all over again, kind of. Seemingly simple decisions, like how to set up my new classroom, were all the more difficult because I didn’t have someone to bounce my ideas off of.  When it came to setting up classrooms, Paula was the chief wizard.  We’d position our two teacher tables so that we could observe various parts of the classroom (especially that indoor playground known as the bathroom/water fountain area).  We’d negotiate the positions of the bookshelves, kid mail boxes, various charts, etc.  A few days would go by, and then I’d come in one morning, and Paula would have all the tables rearranged because, suddenly, the table configurations were not to her liking. (We eschewed kid desks for the more group-friendly tables).  I’d just laugh, because, really, table arrangements weren’t ever a deal-breaker.  I’ve rearranged my tables once, just once, in twelve weeks of intstruction, and I don’t anticipate moving them again this year.  Really!  (I can hear Paula screaming “Nooooo!”).

Here are my students during “Power Reading” time, enjoying the same arrangement of tables they’ve had nearly all year!

I’ve had to embrace my inner artist.  (Anyone who knows my skills is cackling hysterically right now).  I never knew how thankful I’d be for  Pinterest and Youtube when it comes to how-tos.  While in no way does it make up for having an in-house aritst-teaching partner, it surely helps. Truly, the biggest aid is the thirteen years we spent teaching in the same classroom, where I’d repeatedly participate with the kids in the art lessons incorporated across thematic units.  Paula would insist we were all artists and we could do it!  Now, when I do any directed drawings, I have invisible her perched, rather annoyingly, on my shoulder, telling me I can do it (and to use a Sharpie and just make a flower out of my mistakes!).  What I have embraced is the “just let go and do it” philosophy, and realize that if I just give kids the opportunity, and show that I am also risking with my crappy artistic sense, they produce some amazing things– which is pretty much the point when you’re a teacher, right?

I had to draw a quick key for a Five Keys to Good Health poster. Sadly, this one is not exactly key-like. Embarassing. No Paula to help me. Pinterest can’t save everything!
The kids’ pumpkins and healthy body artwork turned out much better.

I know Paula is secretly howling with glee at the fact that I now have to do all my own organizing and paperwork.  It’s a scary world out here in accountability land. It was much more comfortable to have a partner who obsessed over data and charts, and analyses; one who loved nothing better than to crunch numbers.  Now, don’t get me wrong, I like those little charts to show kids’ growth and all, but keeping track of all the fiddly paperwork that has to go in actual alphabetized folders or be turned in by a deadline?  Ohhh, that stuff just takes sooo much effort on my part:  it’s not part of my DNA!

Never fear, it’s all going pretty well.  I’ve figured out when I can actually use the bathroom (you are so spoiled when there are two of you!), and have modified my tea consumption accordingly.  Kids are kids no matter where they learn, and families just want their kids to succeed, just like the other schools where I’ve worked.  I am still motivated every day by my determination to understand students’ learning styles, scaffold their goals, and utilize their little idiosyncracies for my own devious academic purposes.  But I miss, oh I surely do miss, my teaching buddy, my devious partner in crime, my quiet tolerant partner (who embraces a lively inner demon that makes her so entertaining to be with). I laugh with co-workers and enjoy the foibles of everyday teaching life, but it’s different when no one gets what my raised eyebrow means, or what it means to make a “collection” (one first grade ELL student’s word for “connection” many years ago).  I miss us reaching the boiling point in our (sometimes too-) noisy classroom, and doing the exact same quiet signal at the exact same time without sharing even one exasperated glance.  I miss reading Junie B. Jones, with both of us trying to maintain our laughter at a joke that bypasses the kids.  I miss sending a child with a “serious” problem, especially designed to make Mrs. Carter laugh, but knowing she will have to keep a straight face in front of the kids.  (Like the time– without warning– she sent over a little stinker to me for a confessional because he had been calling his friends to the boys’ bathroom to look at racy pictures –which turned out to be a diagram of a how-to-do-a-breast-exam that he had stolen from his grandmother’s bedside table).

Our school district had a fall break this past week, but the Catholic school where my “retired” partner now teaches is still in session. Inevitably, I found myself in her classroom, doing a read-aloud.  I looked around as I read, and felt as if I were still in our shared classroom. Some things on the walls were different, but I was comfortable with the familiarly created nooks and crannies surrounding me, as well as the charts that looked like those we’ve always built together with our students.

I took a snap of this lovely sequencing chart in Paula’s classroom. Ordering words with a pumpkin life cycle: brilliant.

We’re still in denial, Paula and I.  It feels like we’re just on a temporary hiatus from teaming, and we’ll soon be able to squash ourselves back into one lively rigorous place of learning, after treading water in our single teaching lives for just a little while. Maybe we’ll be able to find a way back to working together someday.  Surely we haven’t reached the end or our Power Team era, when we have so much to offer children (and each other!).  In the meantime, one sure thing is that I gave up a precious afternoon off to go work in her classroom, so guess whose turn it is to come  do some fabulous lesson (accompanied by fabulous art)  in mine?

Ten Points Gleaned

Last week, Theresa and I took a much needed mini retreat in thetree trunk
Sierra Nevada Mountains. Sitting on a deck, taking in the beautiful scenery and fresh, pine-scented air, we talked about our long, 25+
years teaching careers. We had just wrapped up 18 of those years,
teaching together, in struggling Title I schools in the same neighborhood.

treesThis past spring; Theresa and I looked at the young, energetic teachers we worked with and decided that maybe  it was time to pass our torches. Our persistent belief in the kids we taught had never wavered.  We never lost our joy and interest in teaching. It was the reconciling of our work within the system, while, at the same time, doing what we thought was best for our students that was sapping our strength.

The work in Title I Schools is difficult and  many times undervalued. Teacher turn-over tends to be high.  However; we considered it to be important enough to stay on, for years,  because we believed we had a positive impact on many student’s lives. For those who take our spots and attack the job as wholeheartedly as we  did; our writing will always reflect our continued  respect and support for what you do,

For me; the decision to leave meant retiring from the school district and teaching in a private school. For Theresa; it will be teaching at a non-Title I school for the first time in her career. She and I both know that she’ll most likely return to the neighborhood, because that’s where her heart is.  It is just that we both know that experiencing other situations can help round out a teacher’s perspective of what educating children in public schools looks like.

As we get ready to move on to our new assignments we couldn’t help but  leave our friends and colleagues, ten points we’ve gleaned along the way:

  1. Schools are not the same or equal. Different variables; such as funding, school culture and climate, socioeconomic status, children learning English as a second language,  as well as other challenges unique to each school, make them different.shoe tie
  2. Feeling sorry for students doesn’t help them to overcome their obstacles. Building relationships; showing sincere interest and belief in their abilities and helping them access educational opportunities goes further.
  3. The same curriculum in one classroom can look very different in another classroom; depending on the level of the teacher’s responsiveness to individual needs.
  4. All children can learn but they learn at different rates, they possess different strengths and have different ways of learning. ‘One size fits all’ curriculum does not mean it will meet the individual needs of children.
  5. Sometimes help is not help. It depends on the individual who is coming into the classroom to help. If the assistance is at odds with an individualized approach; it can actually cause unnecessary interruptions and distractions.
  6. The Arts are not something to be tacked on to a school’s monet
    curriculum; rather they are an essential part of developing brains, imagination, creativity, problem-solving and possibilities.
  7. Poverty can and does often have a negative effect on a child’s education… and I am not making excuses! Poor prenatal care, lack of proper nutrition, depressed vocabularies, the absence of outside experiences and limited background knowledge create extra hurdles for children of poverty to jump over.
  8. Some children have a higher capacity to acquire new knowledge Readersthan others. Gifted programs are established for students at one end of the continuum. However, for the most part, educators don’t like to acknowledge the challenges of teaching those who fall on the other end of the continuum.
  9. Work ethic can trump a  higher
    intelligence quotient. Watching many of
    our former students grow up; we’ve noticed that the drive to accomplish goals is one of the most important indicators of future success.Irene
  10. Public schools grow citizens who will, one day, make positive contributions to our country.

Over time, we’ve seen the landscape of public school education change drastically. Some things for the better and some for the worse.  As our present school became seriously more overcrowded; we waited for the problem to be addressed but instead were met with more demands for uniformity in both curriculum selection and delivery. Testing became a sore spot, in that teaching was interrupted and instruction time was encroached upon. Test results then drove the decision making to decide where we had gone wrong in the school, as a whole, and what kind of extra assistance we might need to correct our course.  Assessing and extra help (which equated to more bodies in overcrowded classrooms) meant more fractured days of teaching and learning.

Years in this beloved community had taught us many things about our families and students. We had developed trusting relationships that came from working with siblings and cousins over time. We developed ways to help children seek their potentials, without dishonoring their present circumstances. Armed with our senses of humor, teaching expertise and knowledge of how children learn, we circumvented the interruptions as well as we could, even though we knew things could be so much better for kids.

What I like to call a ‘do what works’ program (humor, rigor, relentless pushing and individualizing) could be exhausting when we needed to show that we were using all the required curriculum, as well. The strain on the staff was evident. We had 4 different principals in 6 years’ time. Assistant deans came and went. Time after time, we saw promising young teachers begin their careers at our school; only to move on as quickly as they could. The work is challenging; as we try to help students fulfill basic needs (i.e. breakfast in the classroom, help with school uniforms, connecting families with community services, extra tutoring). The more we put in, the higher the ante became. It was camaraderie with colleagues and a sincere wish to help our students and families that kept us going. So; to the fine teachers who continue the work… we send our thanks for what you do, and will do. Know that we are, and will continue to be two of  your biggest cheerlleaders!


Two Primary Teachers, Writers & Life-long Learners; Sharing our Roller Coaster Ride Through Education

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