Monday, June 29, 2015

Hellos and Goodbyes #SOL

"So many faces in and out of my life,
Some will last, some will just be now and then.
Life is a series of hellos and goodbyes,
I'm afraid it's time for goodbye again."
-Billy Joel, "Say Goodbye to Hollywood"

Teachers are lucky enough to get two New Years' celebrations.  Like the rest of the world, we have January 1st as our calendar new year, but we also end the school year and then get a fresh start a couple of months later.  Here on Long Island, school ended on June 25th and my birthday is June 29th, which makes June a time of endings and beginnings for me.  As I turn a year older, my school year comes to a close, leading to reflection and goal-setting for the year ahead.

It's been a time of goodbyes and hellos in our family too.  We said goodbye to our red Acadia, the car we bought when we knew our family was expanding, when my son Alex was not yet two years old.  Alex picked out our new silver car (still an Acadia- we are loyal to the brand!) but didn't realize that meant we were giving back the red car.  On the night when the exchange was to take place, Alex wept with utter sadness about how he would miss the red car and how he felt sorry for it.  I tried to tell him the red car was happy to be meeting a new family and having new adventures, but he did not want to hear about it.  He has since come around to enjoying the silver car, which has a built-in DVD player near his seat, which has eased the pain of losing the red car.
(Here Alex is enjoying the movie in our new car)

In addition to a new car, Alex is starting a new group at his preschool for camp.  He's been a Papaya since last summer and all school year, but he is moving up to the Pineapples. (His school names each class after fruits.  He's been a Grape, an Orange, a Cherry twice, a Papaya and now, in his last year, a Pineapple).  It's been hard for him to accept that he is leaving the Papayas.  I tried to remind him that each year, he's felt a little sad leaving his class but always has so much fun in his new class.  Goodbyes aren't easy for little people, or big people either.

Doors close sometimes when we least expect it, which was something that happened for a good friend of mine at the end of the year.  While it is not my story to tell, this closing door was painful, confusing, and sad for not only my friend, but our entire team.  It cast a long, dark shadow on what was, for us, a brilliantly bright year of energized learning and growth. I recently saw a meme on Facebook that said: "If life closes a door, open it again.  That is how doors work." For my friend, I am wishing a door to open to better opportunities where her gifts are fully appreciated, yet I am still sad to know that our day to day collaboration has ended.  

Doors closing, doors opening.  Goodbyes and hellos.  Elizabeth Bishop writes about this in her poem, "One Art", where she says, "The art of losing isn't hard to master; so many things seem filled with the intent to be lost that their loss is no disaster." ( My Grandy always told us, "Don't look back" which was his way of reminding us not to get lost in what was and to keep on keeping on, even when you feel tugged backwards to what was, to what was lost.  And so as chapters close, new ones begin.

I am filled with joy and excitement about a new chapter in my life- joining the team at Two Writing Teachers as a co-author, along with Deb Frazier.  The Two Writing Teachers community has quickly become my go-to place each day for pearls of wisdom, inspiration, ideas, and support.  Stacey's vision and the expertise of the whole team- Stacey, Anna, Beth, Dana, Tara, and Betsy- make this site so rich and valuable for all teachers.  The community of teachers who participate in the Slice of Life and post comments each day are equally as amazing and insightful and I learn so much from reading the comments and Slices weekly.  To have the opportunity to share my classroom learnings and insights on this blog is really a dream come true.  I've had to pinch myself a lot lately.  I am very grateful for this opportunity and look forward to writing, sharing, learning and growing with the entire Two Writing Teachers community.  

The Beatles sang, "You say goodbye and I say hello."  As June ends, some goodbyes are harder than others but I am reminded to look forward, to have faith that some doors closing lead to better doors opening. And so I say an enthusiastic "Hello" to the new opportunities that have arrived and for the ones waiting just around the corner.  

Monday, June 22, 2015

Let It Go: Teaching Considerations from "Frozen" #sol

As the summer officially begins, hot, hazy, and humid, I have been reliving the eternal winter of Arendale as my daughter Megan has rediscovered the movie "Frozen."  I know everyone is over it already, but Megan has decided we need to watch "Frozen" several times a day, sometimes beginning it again just as it ends.  She needs her Big Elsa doll and her Little Elsa doll to sit with her while she watches it, and scattered on the living room rug are little statues of that knave Hans, Olaf, Anna, Kristoff, and Sven.  I can't tell you the utter angst Megan experienced when Little Elsa went missing and several trips upstairs and downstairs did not yield her return (At the time of publication, Little Elsa has yet to be found).  

This might be a little bit of a stretch, but as I have been watching "Frozen" on repeat, I hope you will go along for the ride with me.  I am going to name something that happened in "Frozen" and the possible teaching implications. Without further ado...

From "Frozen": Grandpa Troll tells Elsa and her parents that her gift is dangerous and her fear will get the better of her, causing major problems.

Teaching Consideration: Kids live up to what we expect of them, so giving them a positive reputation to live up to rather than a negative one is important for their self-concept.  Way to give Elsa a complex about her talent, Grandpa Troll. 

From "Frozen": In the classic sequence, "Do You Want to Build a Snowman?", Anna keeps trying to get Elsa to open the door and engage with her.  Elsa thinks she is protecting Anna by staying away, isolated. They love each other but there is a doorway blocking them from really knowing what the other is experiencing.

Teaching Consideration: We never really know what is going on in another person's life.  As teachers, we have many interactions each day with students, colleagues, administrators, and parents.  Not all of these interactions go smoothly which can leave us feeling deflated.  Imagining that each person you meet has good intentions, perhaps not visible to us, could help us stay open to forging a deeper connection.  

From "Frozen": Elsa spends the bulk of her life ashamed of her gift of magic, trying to conceal it and not feel her emotions.  This is a total disaster and leads to her bitter isolation and then setting off an eternal winter, as well as injuring her beloved sister. It is only when she escapes that she feels free to "let it go" and be who she truly is. 

Teaching Consideration: Our students should never feel ashamed to be who they are.  Hiding yourself and your true self is a fruitless endeavor that will leave you and hurt and isolated and can't last anyway.  We need to make our classrooms safe and welcoming spaces for all of our students- from all cultures, from all types of families, religions, and with all their unique differences.  Allowing students to fully embrace who they are will lead them to self-actualization. Our students should feel at home and free to show their talents and abilities in our classrooms and should never feel they have to hide part of their identity.   

From "Frozen": "Love is an open door!"

Teaching Consideration: By opening up the doors to our classroom, literally and metaphorically by becoming a connected educator, we allow ourselves and our students to experience so much more than they could have within our 4 walls.  Blogging, skyping or doing a Google hangout, and tweeting class happenings are just some ways that we can open up our classrooms to more connections and possibilities for our students.  

From "Frozen":  After Anna saves Elsa and then Elsa saves Anna by kissing her, Elsa realizes that she has the power to stop the winter the whole time.  By focusing on love and not fear, Elsa was able to bring back summer and joy to Arendale.

Teaching Consideration: Nothing good ever comes from fear.  In the powerful Foreword to Colleen Cruz's Unstoppable Writing Teacher, Lucy Calkins writes, "As a profession, we are gripped by fear...Do you feel what fear does to you? It is a cage that traps us, alone, into our worst selves.  Into a space with demons that only we can see."  For a while, I focused on fear.  The fear of getting a negative evaluation and losing my job.  The fear of my students test scores not being high enough.  The fear that no matter what I did, I still would face being rated "developing" or worse.  That mindset, that fear that the APPR Monster would gobble me and my dreams of being a teacher (and making my mortgage payment) squeezed out all the joy I had for teaching.  It took away the love- the love for my students, the love of my subject matter, and the hopes of making a difference.  When I pushed aside the fear and focused again on the love- the love for my students, the love for literacy, the hope that I can have a positive impact that isn't measurable in test scores...well, as Robert Frost once said, "That has made all the difference." 

Watching "Frozen" hundreds of times has led me to these insights and to the constant refrain of "Let it Go" running through my head as I search the house for the elusive Little Elsa.  As summer vacation starts for me this Friday, I'm ready to celebrate the end of a joyful year and "let it go", knowing a new year with a fresh start is just around the bend.   

If you have any other teaching connections from "Frozen", I would love it if you wrote it in the comments!

Monday, June 15, 2015

Farewell Letter to Students #sol

June 25th is the last day of school. Final grades, report cards, literacy profiles, organizing, and packing up the room are some of the essential "to-do's." As I embark on starting and completing these tasks, I don't want to lose sight of bringing a sense of joyful closure to my community of third graders. I want them to feel good about our year and our work together and I want to leave them with the lasting idea that they are all important and special.

I have gifts for them. I asked each student to come up with a positive word or trait to describe each classmate. Then, I compiled the words to make a special word cloud for each student, using Tagxedo to create different shapes. I bought frames to finish the project. (Thanks to Pinterest for the inspiration)

I also purchased a book for each student as a gift. Deb Pilutti, author of Ten Rules of Being a Superhero, was kind enough to donate awesome Superhero bookmarks, which I will wrap with each book. 

So all that is left farewell letter:

Dear Third Graders in Room 215,

Thank you for an unforgettable year of learning together.  You have helped me make the transition from being a kindergarten teacher to a third grade teacher, showing me how kids your age think, question, read, write, and problem solve. You are a very special group of students and I will always remember you and our time together. 

There have been so many things to celebrate this year- Skyping with our friends in California, tweeting our class events, turkey diaries, Mangoes field trip, Mexico stations project, research projects and Google slides, writing our persuasive speeches, our field trip to the Bronx Zoo, racing around the track at Field Day, and getting our DOJO paychecks. All special moments.  But the times I will treasure the most are the ones where we sat together on the green carpet and shared stories.  

Thinking about some of the memorable stories we shared, I have some hopes for you as you leave third grade and continue your journey in school and life!

 From The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane:  I hope you deeply love all the special people and places in your life and remember that loving and being loved is always the point of the journey.  I hope you are willing to help a friend, like when Bryce  gave up the chance to keep Edward so he could be restored by the doll mender.  I hope you have exciting adventures but always come back home to the ones who love you most.  I hope you realize it is okay to cry when a book touches your soul. 

 From The One and Only Ivan: I hope you realize that no matter what your circumstances, it is never too late to try to change things that leave you feeling trapped.  I hope you can be courageous when it comes to helping someone who needs you.  Ivan's gift was his art, but we all have gifts.  I hope you discover yours and use it to make the world better. 

From James and the Giant Peach: I hope you look for the magic in life! Being kind, even to people who are terrible to you, will leave you stronger and better.  Friends come in all different shapes and sizes, so don't overlook someone just because they might not appear to be the friend you expected.  Keep dreaming! 

From The Hundred Dresses: I hope you understand that everything you do and say, or not say, matters.  In life, there will be moments when people are mean to you and moments when people are mean to others.  I truly hope that there will NOT be moments where you are mean to someone.  This book reminds us of the power of our words and actions.  When we see someone being mistreated, it is important to take action to make that stop.  Every person matters and every person deserves respect. 

From The Terrible Two: Cows are unique animals (haha!).  I hope this book reminds you that great stories can make you smile and laugh and how fun it is to share that with friends.  I hope that someday, you too might get invited to Cody Burr-Tyler's birthday party. If you one day become a principal, I hope you remember Principal Barkin's inspiration and write your own "Principal Power Speech" from the custodian's closet. (Somewhere in the distance, a cow mooed.)

 From Love That Dog: Everyone can write poetry and poems are found in the everyday moments and stuff of our lives.  Let what you read inspire you to write, like Jack was inspired by Mr. Walter Dean Myers. Take chances with your writing.  Sign your name to your writing and be proud of your work! Notice the amazing things around you and the small details and write about them so you'll always remember. 

As you leave third grade, I hope you will carry Edward and Ivan in your heart,   remember Wanda Petronski and her hidden talents, don't forget James and his magic or Miles and Niles and their pranks, or Jack and his courage to write about Sky.  And I hope that you know how much YOU matter and how smart, capable, kind, and important you are.  

"If this world makes you crazy and you've taken all you can bear, 
Just call me up- cause you know I'll be there!
And I see you true colors shining through.
I see your true colors and that's why I love you.
So don't be afraid to let them show-
Your true colors, true colors
Are beautiful like a rainbow."

Always here for you, always proud of you! 
Now go on with your amazing selves and enjoy the summer!

Mrs. Sokolowski

Monday, June 8, 2015

Homework on Trial #sol

Homework, Oh Homework..

The Case Against Homework 

Will anyone rise to the defense of Homework, 
on trial for killing the joy of learning?

Certainly not the students 
who groan as they copy down their assignments,
rush through their worksheets without care,
or conveniently "forget" their books in school. 

Surely not the parents who,
between cooking dinner
and driving to basketball practice 
and religion class 
and gymnastics,
have the unpleasant task 
of making sure
Homework gets done. 
They feel just a twinge of guilt 
signing the reading log,
not at all certain if their child read
but desperate to get Homework 
and one more thing
checked off their list. 

The teachers, you say, 
The teachers must be willing 
to speak on Homework's behalf?
The teachers hesitate, 
thinking of their many wasted hours
 standing in front of the copy machine
cranking out endless worksheets of misery. 
The teachers are buried under paper, 
Workhorses with rolling carts,
 transporting stacks of paper
which sit in haughty piles
silently chastising.
Defend homework?
The teachers plead the Fifth. 

Homework asks to speak in her defense.
She says she has a long legacy 
of teaching responsibility, 
time management, organization.
Reviewing what was learned in class.
Reinforcing lessons by practicing. 
Homework claims she was widely accepted 
and universally loved.
She cannot, under oath,
recall when the tide 
turned against her.

In his closing remarks, 
the Prosecutor states that Homework
conjures up images of drudgery
 and compliance.
Further, he states, 
Homework causes familial unrest,
Makes teacher and student enemies,
Creates friction between teacher and parent. 
He concludes that no study 
Ever proved 
has helped anyone. 

The time has come for Homework's fate to be decided.
Will students be sentenced to writing spelling sentences
and completing reading logs
and filling out worksheets?
Will we teachers sentence ourselves to stacks of paper to check, 
when those very stacks of paper 
are not making anyone 
at anything?

At the time of publication,
The jury was still out 
on Homework. 

This poem was inspired by a conversation with my Twitter (and Voxer) teacher pal, Kristen, who is so purposeful and passionate about teaching kids. She has been helping me think through the role of homework, its purpose, and place in the classroom.  The jury is really still out for me regarding assigning homework.  Here are some of my questions:

  • If I cannot control what student do at home and who is helping them or not helping them, how accurate is the information that I am getting from their homework assignments? 
  • If students do not have support at home and their assignments are incomplete or wrong, is giving them a consequence appropriate? 
  • When so much of the day involves sitting and tasks focused on reading and math, should students have opportunities after school to explore other passions, like sports, dance, drama, art, and gaming? 
  • Does homework set up a negative dynamic where the teacher needs to give a consequence for homework not being completed? 
  • If a consequence is not given for homework being incomplete, what message does that send to students and parents?
  • If a teacher does not have time to check the homework, should it still be completed?
  • If we don't assign work, how do we get the students to read, write, and think when they are not at school?
  • Does assigning homework help students to become lifelong readers, writers, and thinkers?
  • Will parents understand if we do not send home written homework or will they think we are lazy or slacking? 
  • Is anything that is "assigned" automatically a chore to the student instead of a pleasurable activity that would naturally be sought out?
  • Do we need to hold students accountable for independent home reading? If so, how can we do that without killing their love of reading?
  • Likewise, if we want students to write more or blog, do we assign that? Does assigning writing for homework lead to pieces written just to get it done, without meaning or heart?
I welcome any thoughts and ideas you've come to realize about homework and your homework policies as I debate Homework's place in my classroom. 

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Always On My Mind #sol

My mother texted me last week after spending an evening at my Grandma's house. She wrote: "G found a small manila envelope Grandy saved in a drawer. In it are all the write ups about you! She wants you to have it so I will give it to you to keep. He loved and was so proud of you. Even after all this time he is giving to us."

It was the kind of text that takes your breath away, while your eyes fill with tears.
This was the envelope my grandfather, Grandy, saved in his drawer. The articles are neatly clipped and focus on a service recognition I received my senior year of high school. I didn't know Grandy had saved these clippings, but it shouldn't surprise me.

He was there for everything, the first 20 years of my life. He was a postal inspector who was able to retire at 55 years of age, so he was around whenever we needed him. Pediatrician appointments, early school dismissals, dance recitals, concerts, awards nights. Sunday night dinners and nights on the porch overlooking the garden he lovingly tended. A patriot, a family man, a friend, my Grandy was someone who radiated goodness from every cell in his being. I loved to listen to the stories he told about his family, growing up in Brooklyn, and dating my Grandma. 

It's been over 15 years since Grandy has passed away. He never knew about 9/11, didn't see me graduate college or my sister graduate law school. He didn't see us get married or get to meet his great grandchildren. I was a college student when he died, still a kid in so many ways. At almost 36, there is no denying I am fully a grown up now: an experienced teacher, a wife, a mother. I wish so much he could have been there to see this transition, but the person I am now was shaped by Grandy and his unconditional love and pride.

A few days before my mother sent that text, I was driving to work, radio on, thinking about nothing more than the day ahead. The first few notes of Willie Nelson's "Always on my Mind" started playing and I felt like someone was squeezing my heart. I was back in my grandparent's backyard in the summer, and I could see my Grandy with his black cassette player, sitting in his lawn chair and hear that very song playing. It was one of his favorites, part of the soundtrack of my childhood. My reaction was so visceral, it surprised me but filled my heart with memories of Grandy. Days later, my mother told me about the envelope Grandy saved and I couldn't help but think perhaps he was sending me one of his trademark hugs the only way he could. It was like sunshine to my soul.

It is a priceless gift to have someone so deeply in your corner, someone rooting for you no matter what. Grandy is still giving me that gift, 15 years after leaving this earth. And though he is gone from sight, he has not left my heart for one second....he is always on my mind, always on my mind.