Why this blog?

"... Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves ... Do not search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. The point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer." - Letters to a Young Artist, R. M. Rilke

Rooted in the promise and challenge of growth ...

these are letters from a young teacher.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Oliver's vegetables: a taste test!

This is a little lesson I absolutely wanted to document. It took me, admittedly, a bit by surprise, but I think the most memorable learning experiences do...

In this short story by Vivian French, Oliver is a little boy who only likes French fries. On a visit to his grandparents' home, Oliver's grandfather invites him to find the potatoes in his vast vegetable garden so that they can make French fries together. Because he has no idea what potatoes look like in a garden, Oliver proceeds to dig up everything but the potatoes, and actually learns to like eating spinach, cabbage, carrots, beets, peas, and rhubarb as well.

Living with the lovely folks I do, who just happen to have a modest garden of their own, I couldn't resist returning to the story to connect the illustrations and content to real examples of vegetables commonly grown here in Vermont. So I made up some placards with photos of the vegetables in the ground, brought in what I could find out back, and recalled with my students all of the vegetables Oliver found, giving ample time to observe and comment on "the real stuff".

I was impressed how much my kids knew about root vegetables, such as carrots and beets, and the enthusiasm with which they declared one or the other vegetable at hand as "My favorite!". I was particularly curious what would result from a small-group taste test during that afternoon's rotation stations.


I liked it! ___
No, thank you. ___

We tested four vegetables: beets (seen above), carrots, spinach, and cabbage. I had a cutting board with me at the table, where I cut bite-size pieces of each vegetables in front of the students after recalling some of the familiar characteristics of each. I also tried to add a little tid-bit about each they might find interesting, like the fact that if you eat too many carrots, the excess beta karotene in your body will turn your skin orange!

If the students liked what they tasted, they put a check mark next to the smiley face and comment "I liked it!". If they did not care for a vegetable, they put a check mark next to the frowny face and practiced saying "No, thank you." We talked informally about which was their favorite, the different ways we might prepare them, etc.

To my pleasant surprise, I had both extremes and everything in between. One student wanted me to write down all the vegetables we tried for his mother, so he could ask her to make them at home. Another very dutifully touched each vegetable to his tongue and put it right back on the table with a simple "No, thank you." Some experienced some pleasant surprises themselves, especially with the sweetness of the beets. Others were fairly confident in their knowledge of vegetables, including which ones they liked and disliked.

The following day, I returned once again to the topic of vegetables, and laid out a large plastic mat with a grid on it (a math material my cooperating teacher had purchased for the classroom). I laid out the four placards for the four vegetables we tasted at the top of each row and handed out our class name cards to the students. One by one, I invited them up to place their name card in the column beneath their favorite vegetable. There was great anticipation for the final results:

Spinach started out strong until ...

the beets caught up to it ...

... but both were finally trumped by ...


I was not necessarily surprised at the outcome, but was delighted by the students' excitement over the whole thing.

Chart-making is actually an extremely valuable activity in Kindergarten, because it aids their comprehension of several different concepts. When we had finished I started with a standard question that I have learned from many teaching mentors and role models:

What do you notice?

If there was only one question teachers were allowed to ask, this one would get my vote! Children are full of observations and are even more full of the desire to share them. What emerge from their observations are comments that relate to the following:

"Seven kids liked carrots. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7."
"Four kids liked beets. I can tell: two on the top, two on the bottom."

Spatial awareness:
"There are more kids that liked carrots than kids that liked any other vegetables."
"The same number of kids liked beets and spinach."

Reasoning with counting and spatial awareness:
"If we took three away from the carrots column, then it would have the same as the spinach and the beets."

My cooperating teacher chimed in with the concluding question to wrap it all up: "Why do you think we make charts like this? If I were to buy vegetables for the class, how would this chart help me?" ... thus driving home the relevance of such activities.

There is so much to do with a book like this, content matter like this, and supplemental activities such as the favorite vegetable chart. I think my favorite part of the whole sequence was that it all started with a story. Previously, I had explored storytelling as pedagogy in my graduate studies. I found strong parallels as I thought about story-based curriculum, such as this little sequence based on Oliver's Vegetables. It appears to appeal and work well at the Kindergarten level, but I don't know anyone who doesn't learn something from a story. The original purpose of telling stories was to pass on the knowledge required to survive as a human species and culture; today, they provide equally meaningful learning opportunities with extensions that only teachers may lay out for their particular students to explore.

P.S. Of course, at the end of the week, we celebrated at afternoon snack time with ... what else? ... home-sliced and classroom-sauteed:

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

True confessions ... (Dora, part 3)

I realize I haven't returned to the subject of my struggles with Dora in quite a while, and I think it is time. A lot has developed, as you might imagine.

First, thanks to those who commented. As was intuited, the information I've gathered from others who know her family has indicated that positive social behavior is not exactly modeled for her at home. I'll leave it at that. There was another comment about engaging in play with Dora as a means to foster a positive relationship with her, which rings true with a sentiment I have shared with my cooperating teacher and paraprofessional assistant: despite - or perhaps, because - of her misbehavior, it's as if we need to go overboard on praising the things she does well.

This is hard for me, because I don't like to praise so much as share my students' excitement, but my cooperating teacher pointed out that we're essentially making up for five years of not having much positive feedback or pride taken in what she does. Regardless of how you feel about the ethics of praise, children look to the adults around them to validate what they are doing and what they accomplish. It is part of their development as autonomous individuals - the consistent parameters for behavior that we set externally become the parameters they later internalize as their conscience. We have all noticed Dora look right at us before she is about to do something she knows she shouldn't, as if to ask for the "No" that she is not yet able to say to herself.

Likewise, she will, supposedly, learn positive behaviors based on our over-approval of her basic accomplishments, e.g. the letters she knows, laying still at Quiet Time, or playing with her friends nicely. What results is a lot of externalized thinking - that is, thinking out loud (my forte, if I must say so myself) - with her together: "Pretty soon, we're going to sit down together at the rug to learn together as a whole class. Let's see, what should we do to make sure we are good learners at the rug?" OR "If kids say or do mean things to their friends at recess, they don't get to have recess with their friends. They'll have to play by themselves, and that's pretty boring. If we want to be able to play with our friends, what are some ways we could play with them?"

What I have come to focus on the most, though, as far as my relationship with Dora goes, is the establishment of a few daily routines that serve the purpose of giving her the chance to succeed, therefore giving me the chance to reinforce with a positive response, but also of reminding us both that "we come to school to learn and play with our friends" and that are things we can do to show that we are "good learners" and "good friends". We've "practiced" good learning a number of times, usually at recess, which is my cooperating teacher's standard punishment, because it usually nips the problem right in the bud, understandably. Dora is another case, though, and I think it's important to set a positive tone: "Ok, Dora, we're at school now, let's practice being a good learner so we remember what to do later..."

For example, today we practiced sitting at the rug and going to a chair at the table if it looked like "you weren't ready to learn". Another day, I might just take the suggestion of a comment made on my last entry about Dora and color with her, reminding her by thinking out loud how great it is to color next to a friend, but still feel like my picture is mine because she's not drawing on it or drawing on me or saying anything mean about my picture.

The only hesitation I have with practicing being a good friend with her (as opposed to being a good learner), is that I am not her friend, I am her teacher. Even if she were my daughter, I would not treat her like a friend, because the nature of the relationship between someone her age and someone my age is not going to entail at all the characteristics of a healthy friendship. So I have to be careful: I have to show, as my cooperating teacher says, that "I am in charge"; at the same time, I will not be "in charge" until she actually respects what I say, which is a result of building a good rapport with her. Still working on that one.

I greatly appreciate the support of my cooperating teacher, the paraprofessional assistant, and the other Kindergarten teachers as I prepare for my "max time" starting in November. When I am leading whole group instruction, the paraprofessional will be assisting as usual and will know exactly what needs to happen if Dora "is not ready to learn" or even "is not going to be able to learn with the rest of the class". When I am by myself, such as Storytime, I will have a red ticket that another student will take to the neighboring classroom to give to the teacher, who will come right in and take Dora to their class to sit by herself.

This is the plan thus far, and I have one more week to make sure I'm comfortable using it. I'm not there yet, but I'm learning more and more to trust the jist of it: negative punishment, not negative attention, as in "It is not fun if I don't get to learn and be with my friends. I want to be able to do both, so I know I have to [fill in the blank] in order to do so."

I hope to be able to go back - in my mind, and in discussion with professors - to the theory more, just to reexamine for myself that the jist of what I am doing is the jist I am striving for above. Any comments along the way are greatly appreciated, and feel free to respond to each other! Social curriculum may first become curriculum in Kindergarten, but its lessons follow us well into adulthood ...

Monday, October 20, 2008

Osgood-Slaughter of the mind: Attaining the fluency of teaching

Oh, dear.

I am, of late, reminded of the phase of language-learning, in which you understand everything that is going on around you and everything that other people are talking about, but cannot for the life of you express what you want to say about it all. You have the knowledge you need, but it remains passive for the time being.

Slowly - and yes, painfully - that knowledge activates itself as you gain confidence and and your ability to automate gains momentum. Then, it is just a matter of time and exponentials until you find, magically, you are fluent. You really do know what you knew you knew all along. Your brain needed time in its expansion to catch up to the input it was receiving, as if Osgood-Slaughter disease had taken over your mind.

And so, I continue to strive toward this ideal as my responsibilities in the classroom increase. I am well over the half-way hump, which means that what I am doing well is not as noticeable and crucial, perhaps, as what I'm not doing well. In other words, once the glass is more than half full, it's simply not full. What is lacking is supposed to be there.

Case in point, brutally put: I bombed the preparation of math stations last week. If I was getting grades for what I do in the classroom everyday, I would have given myself a big fat F for the fact that I had not thought ahead and prepped ahead to send my students to the math stations they love to rotate through on their own on Friday afternoons. I didn't even need to hear what my cooperating teacher had to say about it, the consequences were as obvious as whiplash.

More than anything, learning time was lost. Students waited for me to flounder finding the cards that would tell them what stations they would be visiting, as well as the materials they would need at several of the stations. The students put their name cards in the slots next to the station they wanted to begin at. There are only 4 slots so that each station does not get too crowded; students are expected to rotate through all the stations at their own pace by continually returning to the cards and putting their name cards in the different corresponding slots. In addition - and almost more regretful - in my hurry to find the cards, I put up an incorrect card that confused and upset the students because the choice they had made for themselves and were excited about was now denied. This has particularly dangerous potential for five-year-olds, because their very development relies on the practice of making choices, being accountable for those choices, and growing in their autonomy as decision-makers.

Did they really notice? Probably not. I dashed around to make amends in appropriate corners, and the students had a great time - they always do. But I noticed. I noticed not the cause, but the effect, and believe me, that was all I needed. Thinking through it in hindsight, I can't really explain the cause, which baffles me, but bothers me more than anything. It reminded me of a common adult refrain I heard throughout my high school years: "There's no excuse for not getting an A. You do the work, and you do it well."

I know what good teaching is. I see it and hear it and recognize it all around me in the amazing colleagues I'm working with. But, it seems, as I've tried to activate into practice what I know and observe, it becomes painfully clear that I have yet to achieve the fluency of teaching.

I know I am capable of that fluency. I did not take from this episode the feeling that I can't do what is expected and necessary of a classroom teacher. But it was what I'll call a healthy blow to the ego - the blow that puts you in your place, because you put yourself there. Learning by doing, folks: step right up.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Nonviolent Crisis Intervention: Human Interaction 101

Lingering in my mind since the beginning of the month has been a two-part training I attended with my cooperating teacher offered by the Crisis Prevention Institute (CPI). It was a training in nonviolent crisis intervention, directed at teachers and paraprofessionals who have behaviorally challenging students, as in students with a history of verbally or physically violent outbursts. I believe we were semi-required to do the training because of our student on a behavioral IEP - who, by the way, is doing extremely well and showing less anxiety and tendency toward previous behavior. However, I am glad I took the course for a variety of reasons.

I'll continue with thoughts of my own after taking the course. While they were inspired by the course content, I do not wish or seek to quote CPI philosophy verbatim, nor should my comments be considered valid citations of CPI instruction. I highly recommend the training; don't let this be all you hear of it!

On the most basic level, it reinforced for me what I had learned in the past about dealing with conflicts that might arise with a student, or with any individual, for that matter. Conflicts happen as a natural part of human interaction; they escalate when the individuals involved engage themselves in a power struggle. Perspective is lost and the conflict becomes more about the conflict than about the interaction at hand, and only escalates further. (...Hmmm... Sound familiar when considered in the context of present-day politics?)

Ultimately, the best you can do to defuse an interpersonal conflict is to deescalate the situation, whatever it is. A powerful tool for this, I'm learning, is removing oneself from the conflict at hand by making clear you are not looking for conflict. Because, after all, you're not, even when challenged by another.

I'm being very vague. Let's take the example of Dora, who I've written about in previous posts (and believe me, there are more to come). As I became more intolerant of her social behavior, the mentality that "I don't like her" solidified itself so strongly in my mind, it wasn't about her behavior anymore, but about the personal offense I took by it. Where did that get me in my interactions with her? Right in the middle of a constant power struggle. She wasn't doing what I wanted her to do and that got me riled up in negativity.

Great, Avery, way to set a student up for failure.

As I guide all of my students through the social curriculum within our classroom community, I am the mirror they look into, the model they will seek to emulate once I have earned their respect. However, I do not want them to behave in a particular way simply because I want them to do so. Teaching behavior at any age is about the longevity of what is learned, the development of life-long social skills that long outlive the teachers who first modeled them.

Selfishly, of course I want them to do what I want, because then my life is a lot easier in the classroom. But ultimately - selflessly - I want more that they want to do what I want them to do: to respect each other, to care for each other, and to communicate with each other well. To make that possible, they must first grasp the extremes of good and bad behavior and the results of both. Then I can communicate the need strive for the good extreme not in order to please anyone in particular, but to be able to engage in meaningful relationships.

And so, "Because I said so" becomes "Because that's what good friends do."

End of power struggle, removal of authority figure from conflict. The only conflict that remains is the choice: the choice of an individual and, simultaneously, the act of choice that will continue to develop an individual's sense of self.

May we strive to be mirrors that are honest, respectful and caring to those who look to us. May we remember that they will not remember us, only the image we reflected. And may we - despite it all - remain honest, respectful and caring, anyway. Because that's what good mirrors do.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

P.S. Where did the Counting Jar come from?

It was brought to my attention - ahem! - that I did not give full credit where credit is due when recalling my Counting Jar introductory lesson. It was developed as part of a K-5 Math curriculum called Investigations at TERC, an education research and development organization in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Check it out at: http://investigations.terc.edu/index.cfm

Sunday, October 5, 2008

The Counting Jar (et al.)

What a great week! This is the first week I have noticed real progress in some of my students, be it the ability to discern a square from a rectangle, or simply using kind language with friends on one's own initiative (i.e. without teacher example). What cause for celebration! What growth! What joy there is in exploring and making sense of the world around us!

(I think this is why I could never be a high school teacher.)

I am now leading the majority of the day's events in our Kindergarten classroom, having taken on whole-group literacy instruction new this week. I taught the letters /c/ and /a/, which are not easy letters, you know. /c/ is what we call a stealer, because it doesn't have its own sound - it must take from /k/ and /s/. And when you write the letter, you "fly backwards with your pencil, realize "Oh no, I'm going the wrong way!", so you turn down and around and land back down on the ground going the right way." (That is, literally, how I explained it.)

Don't get me started on /a/. First of all, it's a vowel. It's not one of our tip-tapper or lip-cooler consonants that start with our lips or teeth. This letter starts with a smile - about the smile you'd have on your face as you bite into an /a/pple! Second, don't forget that sometimes it can say its own name and sometimes it's a word all on its own. Finally, it's a real trickster, because it looks a lot different in the books we read than the way we write it, so watch out!

Ah yes, good times learning letters in Kindergarten. Don't get me started on the tubs and pictures of objects that start with /c/ and /a/ that I pulled out for practice! ... c- c- camera! ... a- a- alligator! ...

On the front of Mathematics, I introduced a new weekly routine from the math curriculum my school uses called a Counting Jar. I began with a cute little book called Mouse Count, about a snake that collects 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10 mice in a jar for dinner. Just as he's going to eat them, one of the mice tells him he forgot the biggest mouse of them all over yonder. As the greedy snake is off looking for the mouse (that's just a big rock!), the mice "uncount" themselves 10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1 out of the jar.

We broke for recess and lunch, then returned to the story and retold it with a real jar and 10 little origami mice (unfortunately no snake). I then introduced the jar as "Our Counting Jar": What do you think we're going to use this jar for? For counting, of course - we'll count whatever is in it! Let's practice. I'm going to put a new number of mice inside and you can look at it and guess how many mice are there. What do you think? Four? Five? Six? What's one way we could count them? Take them out one by one and count along: 1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5! What's another way? Dump them out and count them with your finger: Dump! 1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5! Same number, even though we counted a different way that time. Interesting. Now that we have counted and we know how many mice we have - 5 - our next job is to show our number on paper. What's one way you could show the number 5? You could write the number 5. You could draw 5 dots. Like on dice. You could draw 5 lines. You could draw 5 mice. Look at all the ways we can show the number 5! Let's each take an index card and pick one way to show the number 5. Then we'll put them together up on the board to share. Look at what everybody picked! Some number 5's ... some mice ... some dots ... I wonder if we could find 5 of something else in the classroom? I have these paper bowls here that just happen to have your name on them. I'm going to take mine and look around for 5 things that are the same and all fit in the paper bowl. Let's see ... Look what I found! Five legos! Wait. Do I have five? How can I tell? 1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5! But wait. This pile of legos is different than my pile of mice. How can they be the same number if one pile is bigger than the other? Oh, I see! The size of objects doesn't matter when you count, just the number! I bet you'll remember that when you go to find your own collection of five things. ... Let's share with our neighbors at the circle what we found. So many different ideas! I notice Susie over here organized her five things just like the dots on a die. That's an interesting pattern. Can you all put your five things in the same pattern? Look at that! From now on, when you come in Thursday morning, the Counting Jar will be out and we will be able to practice different ways of counting and showing our numbers, as well as to collect some things from the room to share at Morning Meeting.

Oh, it was so well-received, I was so happy! It's odd sometimes, what we all take joy in - children and adults - but I think it reminds us that we fundamentally can't help sometimes but wonder at the world around us and celebrate the ways in which we may participate in it.

What's in your Counting Jar today?

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

True confessions allow for true growth (part two)

So, back to Dora: it all began in the bathroom.

We take four scheduled bathroom breaks during the day, in which we walk together to the big bathrooms (with multiple stalls) to get our business done all at once. It was one of the first pieces of the routine I took over, and one of the first one-on-one encounters I had with Dora on a number of occasions. She was consistently the last one finished, the slowest to wash her hands, and just kind of in her own world the whole time, not even acknowledging our reminders that bathroom breaks are when "we do our business, we wash our hands, and come right out, ready to go back for more fun in the classroom." When I went in to watch the whole scene play out from the beginning, I realized that she was spending a lot of time initiating games with the other girls, flashing the lights, locking herself in the stall and crawling underneath to the next one, and flicking water from the sink.

In retrospect, I did not acknowledge her curiosity and creativity, or take any joy in her sense of play; I suspect my own intentions for that time plus my customary knowledge that bathrooms aren't a place to play for reasons more hygienic than social. As a result, I was pretty firm in my dislike of her behavior, mostly because it kept everyone else out in the hall, getting noisier as they waited. But there was something more, something beyond her sheer play that rubbed me the wrong way: she seemed to pay no mind to my authority whatsoever. As I realized this, I began noticing a variety of situations in which she completely dismissed or ignored what the adults in the room said to her or asked of her. What other students could read in our voices and body language as a redirection or suggestion for behavior did not seem to register at all in her mind.

My cooperating teacher and the paraprofessional assistant both consider her to be "simply very young", pointing out that she sucks her thumb at Quiet Time (when students lay down with a pillow for 15 minutes) and that she uses much more primitive language and grammar in her speech than the other students. Did her parents lie when they filled out her birth date at registration?, we asked ourselves jokingly. In my own mind, further questions emerged: Is this really a developmental issue? If so, what are some other ways to observe possible stages of development? Would they reveal consistency, or a "delay" in particular elements of her development? I began making a point of watching her a bit more intently to begin putting some pieces together ...

As I observe Dora with her peers, a certain mean streak has surfaced in her social interactions. I watched her initiate conflict with other students both outside at recess and inside at free play time or standing in line, especially. During such unstructured time, she often begins playing on her own, and especially loves dressing up to the point of excessiveness (memories of the three purses I used to carry in Kindergarten come to mind...). When she does attempt to play with the others, who are also engaged in imaginary play, she can't quite seem to find her way into the group, and so lashes out instead to get attention. I'm beginning to wonder if the others are turned off by her apparent inability to engage cooperatively in imaginary play, where several children share one fantasy and interact with each other within it. She obviously feels ostracized, but I don't think she realizes what she's doing that elicits such a negative response from her peers. For example, she'll stick her tongue out at someone, who will then run away not wanting to play, at which she begins to cry that no one wants to play with her.

The pictures that Dora draws of herself in her journal were overly ornamental, with an onslaught of color on top of color that she could never consider complete, no matter how long she had to finish. In addition, she consistently portrays herself with feminine attributes and accessories, such as high heels and fancy belts, as well as long hair and pierced ears, which she knows she does not have.

Finally, Dora's immediate reaction to any conversation perceived as an accusation or conflict that she does not wish to admit to, is to cover her ears or eyes, as if to deny what is happening. When I would ask her to come out of the big bathroom stall (she is now only allowed to use the classroom bathroom), she would often say, "Dora isn't here." or "I'm not Dora, I'm Brittany." The stories she tells about anything differ from one telling to the next: "I got a splinter" can turn to "I cut myself with a knife" within seconds. There appears to be an impulsiveness that inhabits her entire way of being, so that I really can't tell if she's thinking about what she's saying or doing at all.

There is more of the story to tell, for sure, but I'm curious what others think at this point. I know my observations do not provide a full and valid picture, but I would still be awfully interested in what other perspectives offer. Post a comment or send me an email with your own thoughts! The saga will continue shortly ...