Monday, August 31, 2015

I Wish Us More #SOL15

Last year, many of us chose I Wish You More, by Amy Krouse Rosenthal and Tom Lichtenheld as a final read aloud, sending our students off with beautiful wishes for their lives. This summer, I was a participant in the Summer Literacy Institute in Merrick, NY. On our last day, the teachers in the group all composed wishes for our students and we created a poem for our hopes for the new year.

Tomorrow is my first day of school and the students start on Wednesday. As I think about the year ahead and the challenges we teachers will face, I thought it would be nice to start the year with my own adapted version of I Wish You More. This one is for the teachers....

I Wish Us More

I wish us more "get up and go" than can't get out of bed.

I wish us more high fives than hurdles.

I wish us more empowerment than compliance.

I wish us more line-free times at the copy machine than long waits.

I wish us more balance than burnout.

I wish us more taking risks than playing it safe.

I wish us more hope than heartache.

I wish us more celebrations than consequences.

I wish us more lifting each other up than cutting each other down.

I wish us more open doors than brick walls.

I wish us more gratitude than gripes.

Thinking of one of my favorite movies, The Wizard of Oz, I wish us more...

Smarts to know what is best for our students,
Heart to put people and relationships first,
Courage to try new things and speak bravely for what is right
A professional home to make us feel welcomed and accepted.

This year, I wish all of us more. Cheers to the clean slate and the possibilities of a new year!

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Dear First Year Teacher

Thanks to Michelle Haseltine for the inspiration to write this letter!

Dear First Year Teacher,

When I walk into Superintendent's Conference Day this September, it will be my 14th year of teaching.  I was in your shoes in September 2001, just a few days before the world changed forever on September 11th.  I remember my first sixth grader waiting for me outside the door. I said, "Hello, I'm Kathleen" and saw her face fall with confusion before I realized my mistake and said, "Oh, I mean Miss Neagle (my maiden name)." The other students hadn't even gotten to the door and I made my first mistake. It was the first of many.  

When you are a new teacher, you are struggling mightily to stay afloat in the rough, stormy seas of education.  My friends, it was not smooth sailing for me at all, but I felt like I had to pretend it was.  I believed I needed to wear the mask of the seasoned captain in clear control, utterly calm and sure of each adjustment of the wheel.  The truth was, I was drowning.  

I was one of the first people in the building each day, a good hour and a half before students came. I stayed several hours after students left and would do more work at home.  I worked all weekend long. The more I worked, the more behind I felt.  I could never catch up.  I had no balance.  After a lifetime of wanting to be a teacher, volunteering to teach religious education, working as a teacher's aide, student teaching, and my education degree, I was still unprepared for what I experienced.  All I had ever wanted to be was a teacher and after the first year of teaching, I thought I must have gotten it all wrong.  I didn't know if I could continue on.

I'm sorry to paint a bleak picture.  I hope this will not be your experience.  But, if you have those days where you are starting to feel like the water is rising and you can't keep your head above it, know that you are not alone.  Know that beginnings are always hard and there is just so much to learn.  Be patient and understanding with yourself.  We have all been there, even if some of us forget it or pretend we were always master teachers.  I'm telling you I certainly wasn't.

Here is my best advice:

1-Find other teachers who are passionate and excited about teaching and want to keep learning.  When I was a new teacher in 2001, Twitter certainly wasn't an option so I found like-minded friends at the Long Island Writing Project, to which I still belong and find inspiration. Nowadays, Twitter is a great place to go to find teachers who love teaching and sharing ideas.  The friends I made through Twitter are now my Voxer buddies too and we are constantly asking each other questions, talking through ideas, and sharing best practices.  This has totally re-energized my teaching life and I highly recommend you find a professional learning network (PLN) of your own.

2-Keep relationships at the core of all you do.  Maya Angelou said, "People will forget what you say, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel." Be friendly to everyone. Smile.  Get to know the people in your building- administrators, secretaries, nurses, custodians, security guard, other teachers.  Reach out to parents and give them the benefit of the doubt.  Make an effort to talk to each student each day and let them know you care about them.  This is what will make an impact, more than any brilliant lesson or perfectly designed classroom.

3-Be kind to yourself.  Hydrate. Breathe.  Find balance.  Realize it will never all be done, ever, so prioritize. Work hard but know when to call it a day. The work will truly always be there. 

4-Laugh with your students.  Let them see you are a real person who makes mistakes and has struggles.  Be kind always and walk the walk of what you are expecting them to do.  Let them see you be moved by literature and words.  Be genuinely enthusiastic about what you are teaching. 

5- Don't doubt your instincts.  You will be handed things to teach and given programs and you'll be trained in one thing, only to have it replaced the next year with a different system.  Know what you believe about learning and keep reading and growing in your professional knowledge.  Believe that you know your students and have faith in your ability to know what will work for them and what won't. 

One of my favorite books was Educating Esme: Diary of a Teacher's First Year by Esme Raji Codell.  I highly recommend it! I also recommend The World According to Mister Rogers- Important Things to Remember from the unforgettable Fred Rogers.  You really can't go wrong if you stay true to what Mister Rogers teaches and Esme will make you laugh as you face your own joys and challenges in this year, which you will never, ever forget. 

Welcome to the club! Like Kid President says, "Be awesome!"

What I Did on My Summer Vacation: Inspiration from #cyberPD

Monday, August 24, 2015

A Lesson From Laundry #SOL15

Saturday morning: The laundry baskets of clean laundry have piled up and so no more excuses- time to put the laundry away.  My almost 5 year old son Alex and my 2 year old Megan are playing Hide and Go Seek as I start putting away Alex's clothes.  Until he stops me and asks if HE can put away the laundry.

"Mommy really wants to just get it done," I say as he grabs the neatly folded shirts, immediately unfolding them and making my blood pressure rise a notch or two.

"I want to help.  Where does this one go?" he asks. 

I sigh.  There are so many tasks I need to get done and it would be nice to just complete this one so I could tackle the next thing on the list.  I take a deep breath and tell him shirts go in the second drawer. He opens up the drawer and stuffs it in, not very neatly but with a lot of pride.  

"What's next?" he asks and I show him where the shorts go.  We continue like this, putting away underwear, bathing suits, pajamas.  I could have been done much faster and the drawers would have been much neater, but Alex is taking ownership of his clothes and knowing where things go.  I have a revelation.

This is like me in the classroom.  I do everything. It is easier and faster to do many jobs myself, or so I think. But the one who does the work does the learning and I think I've been doing too much.  I get the tissues from the locker when we run out. I choose the quote of the day and write it down. I put up the calendar date. I remind them of all the things they need to take home. I am exhausted, remembering all that I do for my third graders and I've decided to release control back to them.  It won't be as neat or precise as when I do it myself, but it will give the students more ownership of the classroom and the community.  

Here is a link to the class jobs I created, with a QR code underneath that has my voice explaining what each job will entail. I was inspired by Learn Like a Pirate, by Paul Solarz, and his vision and description of the students taking ownership of many classroom jobs. I can't wait until the Secretary of Supplies takes over sharpening the pencils and restocking the tissues! How nice when the Class Tweeter composes a tweet of what we learned that day (although I will still officially tweet it out.)  How much more meaningful will it be for the Chief Inspiration Officer to have the chance to select the quote we read each day? 

As a mom and as a teacher, I can do most tasks quicker and better than my kids and my students.  But the thing is, I'm not the one who needs to learn how to do these jobs- they are.  I can coach, facilitate, model, but then I need to get out of the way and let them have a go. Here's to empowering my children and my students to take on challenges instead of doing it all for them. Here's to embracing the mess and understanding that learning is often beautifully, deliciously, utterly untidy. 

Monday, August 17, 2015

Back to School Anxiety Dreams Gone Missing! #SOL15

Missing: Back to School Anxiety Dreams

Appearance: These dreams, really nightmares, usually look like boxes all over the place while students wander into the classroom, ignoring everything I say.  I am unprepared and unable to manage the class.  

Frequency: Every year, since I started teaching in 2001.  Normally they appear in August but they have been known to also come in July.  

If found: Feel free to send them away! They are not really missed at all. 

It dawned on me the other day that I haven't had any back to school anxiety dreams yet.  This is WAY late in the season for them to have not made their ugly arrival.  Most of the time, the dreams center around the classroom being a mess and then the students coming while I am not ready.  I can never find the papers I need and I search through boxes while they run around the room.  The only good thing about waking up from these dreams is realizing that didn't really happen and I can still get it right for the first day of school.

I'm not sure why I haven't had these dreams this year, when I've had them every single year of my teaching career.  One theory is I'm not sleeping all that great, as witnessed by this post being drafted at 3am.  Another theory is I've been so immersed in professional learning this summer that maybe my sleep is dream-free since I've been doing so much thinking about teaching during my waking hours.  Who can say? 

As the first day of school draws closer (kids arrive September 2nd), these dreams still might show, but I find it interesting that they haven't yet.  This past year has been a year of a lot of professional growth for me, a year of taking some risks, engaging in conversations, trying new strategies, building a new mindset.  A lot of my joy, passion, and convictions have returned after a temporary lapse into anger, frustration, and hopelessness at what teaching, testing, and unfair laws have done to the profession.  

Billy Joel sings about the "Angry Young Man" who has "never been able to learn from mistakes, so he can't understand why his heart always breaks." I'm giving up being the Angry Not That Youngish Lady. Being angry is exhausting and takes energy away from the good that you can do. I've decided to stop focusing on the unfairness of the teacher evaluation system and concentrate on the good I can do in the classroom and the reason I became a teacher in the first place.  In the end, you have to rest your head on the pillow at night, content in your heart that you have done what you believe is right, come what may.  

Anxiety dreams or not, my head and heart are in a much better place.  The new school year is awaiting and I am excited for all the possibilities. 

Monday, August 10, 2015

OLW for 2015-2016 #SOL15

One of my favorite things about being a teacher is the chance you get each year to start again.  We are blessed with two New Years celebrations! With school starting in a few weeks, this fresh start brings all the hopes and resolutions we usually reserve for January when we usher in a new calendar year. 

 I loved reading about other teachers' One Little Words (OLW) that would help them focus on their priorities and dreams for themselves and their students. I decided to make a OLW for the new school year and it was a hard decision because there were so many words that were important.  Some words I considered were Connections, Believe, Bridges, Community, and Expectations. All important, excellent words.  But in the end, I chose Relationships as my OLW for 2015-2016.

Last year was a year of many changes for me.  After 10 years of being a kindergarten teacher, I switched to third grade.  There was so much to learn and I think at times, I let the curriculum drive me instead of the students.  I pushed on when I knew they were confused because the calendar said I needed to go to the next lesson. I got wrapped up in what I was teaching but forgot, at times, about who I was teaching.  No more.  The theme for the Summer Literacy Institute in Merrick, NY this July was "A curriculum of children" and the facilitators reminded us that it's the children that we need to always keep at the heart of what we are doing and why we are doing it.

For me, "Relationships" is a word that will remind me that it is the interactions I have each day that matter.  Maya Angelou was one of the kindest, wisest people to walk this earth, in my opinion.  I love her quote above and it rings true in every memory I have.  I don't remember specifics about what teachers taught me through the years, but I can tell you the ones who made me feel safe, valued, and believed in me, pushed me to be better while nurturing my soul.  

Relationships also relates to my colleagues, my administrators, the parents, and the communities I take part in as a teacher, both face to face and online.  It means seeing the best in people instead of seeing the flaws.  It means giving someone the benefit of the doubt.  It means bringing positive energy.  It means choosing kindness and respect. It means remembering each and every child in my classroom is another person's whole world and needs to be treated with tender care.  It means going the extra mile and not expecting favors to be returned.  It means speaking up sometimes and being quiet at other moments. It means caring, truly caring, about everyone I encounter and taking the time to ask how things are going, to offer a smile. 

As a parent myself, what I want most from my children's teachers is first that they like them.  That they see they are precious, curious, beautiful children. They are my world.  I know I will be so much more receptive to hearing anything my kids need to work on if I first know that the teacher really likes them and sees their worth.  As a teacher, I need to make sure the students know I like them and see their worth. I also need to communicate that to the parents.  Relationships matter. 

Where would I be without the positive relationships in my life, without the people who loved me all along the way and encouraged me? I've been blessed with family and friends who have been very good to me my whole life and many teachers and mentors who helped me along the way.  What about the students in my class who might not have that support at home, for whatever the reason? I could be the only adult in that child's life who is able to communicate to the child how important and special he/she is.  What a responsibility and what a gift to be able to do that for a child.

I hope to share some ideas this year about ways I am nurturing relationships and putting the students first, a curriculum of children.  What is the OLW you are thinking of for the 2015-2016 school year?

Monday, August 3, 2015

The Beach #SOL15

"It's been so long since I've seen the ocean....guess I should."
-"A Long December" (The Counting Crows)

Last week, feeling a little tired from my self-selected professional development activities, I dreamed of the beach.  The lyrics from "A Long December" by the Counting Crows kept playing in my mind: "It's been so long since I've seen the ocean...guess I should."  It's truly a sin that I haven't seen the ocean since last August. Until today.  I live on LONG ISLAND. In the same town as Jones Beach. The ocean is a 10 minute drive from my house.  And I haven't been there.  

Today, as I carried two heavy bags full of back-up bathing suits, suntan lotion, change of clothes, Goldfish, juice boxes, towels, pails and shovels, and my tantruming two year old, for a minute I dreamed of sitting in my professional development workshop, in the cool air conditioning, pen in hand, taking notes in my lovely notebook. I probably need a refresher on "the grass is always greener."

The beach as a mom is different from the beach in my imagination, where I can stare longingly at the rolling waves, clearing my mind, thinking profound thoughts, being one with the sea.  The beach as a mom means constant vigilance about where Alex and Megan are, if they are too far in the waves, who is running in the other direction, are they okay? It's cleaning sandy hands and digging out juice boxes from my cluttered beach bag.  It's making sure their experience is happy and safe and my own enjoyment of the beach takes a way back seat.  

Still, there was joy.  Alex's expression of pure delight as he leapt into the waves he used to fear, showing me how time is changing him.  Megan's baby-like hands digging deep in the wet sand and then flinging it as she experimented and explored.  They loved every second of the sand and sea with their cousins and aunts.  Memories were made.

The picture above is Alex and Megan with their cousins, then made into a watercolor painting through Waterlogue. I try to take pictures whenever I can, to remember these moments.  Even though some of the moments involved scorching hot sand under my feet, tears and tantrums when it was time to leave, and exhaustion at all the packing, unpacking and packing up again, even though it's not all perfect, I want to hold onto these moments. Another lyric in "A Long December" says, "I can't remember all the times I tried to tell myself to hold onto these moments as they pass." Time is passing by, as it does, but today we saw the ocean and I'll hold onto that.