Deep Gladness, Deep Need.

Last week I attended BEST NC’s Education Innovation Lab at SAS. It was refreshing to sit with those both inside and outside of education to try to solve the state’s overarching issue of recruitment & retainment of teachers. There were several keynotes followed by smaller breakouts, both of which had my wheels turning at an alarmingly rapid rate.

Andy Baxter of the Southern Regional Education Board spoke about the narrative around teacher turnover, and how ultimately, according to a NC DPI report on turnover from 2008-2014, only 1.5% of North Carolina educators leave the profession because they’re dissatisfied with teaching. Despite this small number (that has, to be fair, risen since 2008), we keep hearing about all the teachers leaving the state to teach elsewhere or exiting the profession because they’re burnt out or tired of dealing with the same problems that seemingly go unfixed every election cycle.

The point he made that resonated most with me was a quote from one of his campus pastors when he was in college.

Vocation is the place where our deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.

Deep gladness, deep need.

I sit and think about why I do what I do. This job is exhausting, and honestly, I have REALLY been feeling that this year. I’ve been frustrated with so many things, mostly outside of my control, and all my sprinting from these last five years teaching is finally catching up to me. I sometimes find myself unmotivated when I get home, and many nights I am just exhausted. But why do I do this? I do it because I get student feedback on projects that say “I learned that I can do more than I ever thought I could” and “I learned I can make friends.” I do it because it’s worth it when a kid comes back and thanks you for being a hard teacher because (s)he learned more from you than any of the other ‘easier’ teachers. I do it because watching students’ eyes glisten as they see their dreams 3D printed into reality is real, actual, unadulterated magic.

I do it because I find deep gladness in fulfilling a deep need: the need to invest in children and educate our society.

There is a very special happiness that washes over me when I am in my element with students, helping them learn to love stuffing their brains to the brim with knowledge. Moments where I can step back into my doorway with students not noticing I’m there, when they’re so engaged in their own learning process that my presence is irrelevant — those moments I savor. They’re moments when I remember my deep gladness meeting, maybe even exceeding, that deep need.

My focus for the upcoming quarter and remainder of the year is to make it a continued priority to stop and take pause to recall these small moments, to revel in gratitude for my passion to work in the lives of children, no matter what the circumstance. It is imperative for us all to remember why we carry on in this profession.

Deep gladness, deep need.

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Warm & Fuzzy.

There are a lot of things I really love about my job. I love creating and implementing engaging curriculum. I love using every day moments to teach kids about something greater than themselves. I love reading books out loud to kids and watching the way their eyes light up with every accent I utter. These are all wonderful things, but there are some moments, as stated in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, where “there are no words.” These moments are the warm and fuzzy moments.

Today I let my class listen to music through their headphones while working on their Chromebooks (it was a big step of trust for all parties), and they seemed pretty engaged in their work; everyone turned in their biography drafts on time at the end of class. When I told them it was time for them to pack up and go to recess, one of my kids came up to me and said this:

Miss Stewart, this is why I like your class so much — you let us do fun things like listen to music when we work. I listened to some music to calm me down a little bit and it helped me focus. That was really cool.

I felt a smile stretch across my mouth and a warmth deep in my chest.

I adore moments like this; these moments are the best part of this job.

Last week I was working with a student on her biography, and another student came up and pulled on my arm as though he needed something. I quickly turned around and said, “One second, baby,” giving the boy a smile that hinted that he needed to wait until I was finished helping his friend. Before that second could even go by, I felt these tiny arms wrap around my waist and a head pop up under my arm.

He just hugged me and walked away. That was it.

My heart nearly exploded.

Small moments of love and appreciation are so thoughtful and needed in the lives of teachers, and I think kids are the absolute best at bestowing these moments.

Warm and fuzzy, y’all.

On How We Should Close the Achievement Gap.

This is a tall order: closing the achievement gap.

You hear about it all the time, and it’s actually something I’m really interested in discussing with others. One of my education professors from UNC posted a Washington Post article about the topic (which I encourage you to read) and it got me thinking (and a little riled up).

Yes, it is vital to know how to read and do math to be successful in society, but what happens when there are other, more pertinent things, keeping a child from mastering content? Hunger? Exhaustion? Abusive family members? Students cannot be expected to learn and be deemed “proficient” on standardized assessments when we haven’t addressed these very serious, very real issues that students face every single day.

I teach eight-year-olds. Some of the eight-year-olds I’ve taught in the last two and a half years were homeless, came from single-parent homes (where that parent worked multiple jobs), took care of their younger siblings (yes, eight-year-olds caring for toddlers), watched their fathers get deported, lived in fear of immigration services taking them, lost parents to prison and death, and I even had a child this year get kidnapped by his own father and taken to Mexico.

That child didn’t even get to start the school year with us; his mom is still in court trying to find him and get him and his brother back to the States.

Do you think those kids have the capacity to learn how to multiply right now?

These kids don’t need more homework or another negative presence in their lives. These kids just need to be loved. We must meet students where they are and show compassion; teaching is a profession that must be rooted in love and trust. We must be champions for our students, advocating for them and showing them how to stand up for themselves. Their lives are important, and they’re the ones who will shape the future.

I promise that I understand the need to perform well on tests; I see that side of the argument. Students need to know how to decode words and add numbers, but don’t they need to know so much more?

To close the achievement gap, I think we need to take a step back and refocus our curriculum. Common Core has a lot of pros in my opinion, coming from an elementary perspective at least — the spiraling standards lend itself to strong vertical alignment, and I appreciate the depth of the standards. It’s a nice concept that there are College and Career Readiness standards, but I still think we need something more.

We need to teach kids how to be good, kind people, and there’s a lot of value in that! There needs to be a stronger character education piece in our curriculum, especially in elementary grades to lay a firm foundation of socialization and emotional understanding. We need to teach kids how to interact with others and how to be more than just book smart. I would much rather have a student be a caring member of our classroom community than be a master all of the Common Core reading standards by the end of third grade.

So I suppose the question remains: how do we close the achievement gap? Well, we should probably start focusing on the whole child and not just a smudged bubble sheet.

The Benefits of a Break.

Teacher friends, we’ve done it: we’ve made it to another winter break. The days were long and the kids were crazy, but we did it!

I enjoy winter break for many reasons. It’s nice staying up late at night watching movies or binge watching the TV you missed all semester because you were busy grading papers or attending student basketball games. I love not having to set my alarm for 5:45am (does anyone actually truly enjoy that?). Spending time with people I care about is probably at the top of my priority list of things to do when I’m not in school (sleep is a close second), and I really like having the time flexibility to do anything whenever I want.

There have been multiple people in my life who tell me I can’t turn off work. I admit that I have my workaholic tendencies (like that time I went to a Mipso show and brought letters to write to my kids), and I promise that I can engage in a conversation that is about something other than education and its current policies or “my kids.” The catch for me is this: why would I want to turn something off that I love so much?

I’m a firm believer that teaching is a calling and so much more than simply a career. A huge benefit of break for me is that I have the time to really process things. For me, break is a time of reflection and a time where I can finally develop myself professionally by reading books (my favorite books right now are about smart kids and teacher brains and young educator encouragement) and articles (hopefully those articles are still wildly innovative after being on my “Read Later” Google list for months) so I can harvest new ideas to test in my classroom; because of this, I’ve compiled a little list of things that we can look forward to in 2015 from Room 40:

  • Blended Learning: In one of my reading classes (I teach two sections), I am going to engage in a blended learning project. I’m collaborating with the literacy coach, media specialist, technology specialist, AIG teacher, and my ESL co-teacher on this one and I couldn’t be more thrilled to get the ball rolling with this at the end of January to kick off third quarter! We’re looking at thematic book clubs for every child, constant small group instruction, and lots of informational reading practice in both English and Spanish. We’re taking the traditional Reading Workshop and putting it on its head!
  • Genius Hour: This thrills me to no end. If you don’t know about Genius Hour, I encourage you to find some resources and be prepared to be blown away (why don’t you start here?)! I haven’t quite worked out all my logistics, but I’m trying it in my PBL blocks. We already have a social studies Wax Museum/Biography project set up for when we get back from break, but our Plants unit after that shows great Genius Hour potential!
  • Flipped Classroom Elements: I plan on flipping a bit in my aforementioned blended learning project. Since I’ll be pushing out a lot of assignments using Google Classroom and I’ll be 1:1 with ChromeBooks in my class, it makes sense to give this a shot. Ideally, I’d love to look at my literacy data from state-mandated benchmarks and do some videos on how to write about what we read. It’s small, but it’s a start!

What are your ideas and goals for your classroom in 2015?!

Politically Correct Teaching.

Today was a long day. Our staff meeting ran late, my stove and oven still are out of commission, and my to-do list seemed to continually grow like dark matter expanding in the universe.

On my way to find a productive working spot this evening, I caught part of the senate debate between Kay Hagan and Thom Tillis. In a word, it was disgusting and I am embarrassed.

I was so frustrated listening to this “debate” that I had to turn off NPR. After about 15-20 minutes, I was so tired of hearing the “he said/she said” slander that was bouncing back and forth between the candidates and I quickly became outraged that neither candidate was actually proposing solutions to any problems.

“Tillis says teachers don’t care about kids, they just care about their jobs and pensions…HIS WORDS, not mine!”

Oh, okay, you say those are his words, Ms. Hagan? How about you use YOUR OWN WORDS and tell me what you think teachers do care about. I can tell you that as a teacher, I care more about my kids than anything else (truly, more than anything else — I love them like my own the moment they cross the threshold of my classroom door on the first day of school and I will love them until they are grown up and have third graders of their own), but please, tell me, what do you think we care about? Have you talked to teachers in public schools who are investing their lives to educating the children of North Carolina? Let me tell you, this job is hard and not for the faint of heart, and I’m confident that there are many teachers out there teaching because they’re doing it to see kids have more opportunities to better their futures.

“Two numbers: 7 and 10. 7: 7% pay increase — that’s the highest in a generation! We’re nationally competitive in the teaching field now. 10: 10 years Hagan was in office and did nothing for teacher pay.”

We’re nationally competitive? We’re 48th in the nation when it comes to our per pupil spending. I don’t even have enough composition books to give all my kids, and those black and white marble notebooks are like 4 for $1.00 at Office Max. Since North Carolina is so nationally competitive, I’m guessing that’s why Houston Independent School District hosted job fairs in our state’s capital to try and snag some of NC’s finest? I read more articles in the last school year about teachers leaving the classroom either for new jobs or to move to new states than I’ve ever read before. The mass exodus is real (and cutting Teaching Fellows from the budget wasn’t the brightest idea in keeping the state’s best). Also, let me just say that your 7% pay increase statement is misleading. The average might be 7%, but that certainly isn’t what everyone received. I am fortunate enough to receive a decent pay increase, but I know for a fact that there are talented, wonderful, seasoned teachers I work with at my school who received little to NO pay raise. Yep, that’s right, I know people who got as much as a whopping $50 added to their paychecks.

$50.

Mr. Tillis, what is a seasoned teacher with a family and piled up bills supposed to do with a $50 pay increase? What message does that send to those veteran teachers?

My temper continued to rage as I listened to these two adults “debate” topics like immigration and women’s rights and minimum wage. The whole time I was listening to this throw-my-opponent-under-the-bus-fest, my heart broke a little.

I’m currently teaching my third graders about government. I’ve searched high and low for great articles and picture books and informational texts and graphic organizers to show my kids how our government works. The activity we used today to kick off our unit called for students to work in groups using chart paper to brainstorm ways that the government helps its citizens. Students can use pictures and/or words to answer why government is important to society, and all I could think of when I listened to that shameful exchange of words that NPR called a debate was how I felt like I was teaching my kids the wrong things regarding our government.

Kids are so innocent. They have such an unadulterated, fresh perspective on concepts and ideas that we adults constantly taint with corruption and injustice. While I circulated during the group brainstorm session, I heard beautiful things about government keeping its citizens safe, how government let them go to school and get an education, and even how important the different people who work for government can be to our communities (needless to say, I can’t wait for us to share tomorrow!). I want my kids to see that government is established to keep us safe and organized so that everyone can have a great quality of life, but I’m realizing that maybe that’s too naïve of me.

Maybe instead I should let my kids listen to that debate. Maybe I should teach my kids that politics and government aren’t really that beneficial to society, but rather it’s just a game people play to gain power and demean others. Maybe I should stop doing compliment circle and teaching kids how to be kind to each other and help each other and be problem-solvers independently and in a group. Maybe I shouldn’t teach tolerance and how to question everything and stand up for what’s right.

Well, this is me speaking out for what I think is right: to politicians everywhere, stop arguing. Stop with the he said/she said run-around. Stop interrupting (maybe y’all should read this book I do with my kids every year).

Stop interrupting and start listening to what your constituents have to say. Start listening to what teachers have to say in regards to educational policy and what women have to say about women’s rights and what immigrants have to say about immigration. When you listen, you can problem-solve, and we can eventually make our cities, states, and country better than before.

At least that’s what I’m teaching my eight-year-olds.

How We’re Killing Our Kids.

I’m sitting at my kitchen table listening to Miles Davis and eating Cheerios from a box like a child. Some of the Cheerios miss my mouth as I’m shoveling them in since I’m busy devouring articles about education and teaching. Between my munches, my eyes stick to the screen and I feel for my cup of tea nearby so I can wash down the “wholesome goodness” I’ve just consumed.

I stumbled upon this article, in which a woman from Maryland PREACHES the truth about teaching in today’s society. All of a sudden (or maybe not so suddenly), we have become obsessed with data points and graphs and making education more like a business, cranking out products of “well-performing” students and throwing the duds to the curb.

Since when is this education? Since when is discarding a struggling student acceptable? Since when is teaching to the test something so highly regarded?

I don’t know about you, but I’m in the business of teaching, and I mean really teaching. At my school, I teach reading in English; I also teach people skills, kindness, empathy, passion, excitement, writing, NFL Panthers football, how to use an iPad, videography, saying thank you, how to be a die-hard UNC fan in any and every circumstance, and being responsible for your actions, just to name a few.

Despite this, I can only give students a grade in reading, and whether or not they are reading at a certain level by a certain period of time.

This is not education. This is a disservice.

When we teach to tests, we are slowly killing our kids, the future leaders of our nation and the world. We essentially end up teaching them to be unoriginal, even when we tell them to “think outside the box” (why is there even a box? Just stop and think!). When we begin to drill rote memorization into the minds of our children at age eight, what can we expect from them by the time they graduate high school?

One of my favorite things about teaching third graders is that, for the most part, they still have their creativity (and they still like to give their teacher hugs). Their minds haven’t been clouded with eraser dust from correcting misaligned bubble sheets, and their eyes still light up when you read a book to them. Third graders, in my experience of one and a half years in two districts, are fairly eager to please, and if you do it right, you can get them excited about almost anything. This, for me, is where magic can happen.

If you can catch kids in this state of interest and intrigue before they’re jaded by incessant amounts of testing and sitting silently at a desk in a row for hours on end, then real teaching and learning is possible.

Why are we afraid of this blissful state of education? It’s like if we can’t quantify it or put it in a graph to compare data, then it isn’t useful. How does that benefit anybody?

Here’s what I envision happening: if every teacher in the country taught to the test, drilled students with practice tests and made sure that bubbles were filled in perfectly and answer sheets were pristine, then what? We would have thousands of test-taking robots instead of human beings. Then, society would fail because no one would learn important things like how to talk accountably with others or how to work through disagreements in an appropriate manner.

School is more than just standards. It’s more than just learning to read or making a connection between fractions and division. School is supposed to prepare students for life and the future, but how could we as teachers possibly be doing that when we’re under so much pressure and scrutiny from administrators and higher ups everywhere? There are so many moments I wish I could just shut my door and live in my own little Room 40 world, but those above me always ask about things that I see as unimportant. People rarely ask about how well students are working in groups or how innovative a child’s way to solve a problem is; it’s always about whether they’re reading at level or if their answer is correct.

It’s been years since arts programs and extracurriculars have started getting cut from schools across the nation, and I find that so unfortunate. I read an article a while back called “Is Music the Key to Success?” in which the author points out how various successful people have once studied music in-depth, and continues to justify the importance of music (and the arts in general) through numerous examples.

We’ve been cutting arts programs because they’re fluffy; because they aren’t science or math or reading.

Or are they?

There is most certainly a science to music — if my guitar strings didn’t vibrate, how would I hear what I’m playing? I have to keep time in a rhythm when I play music, which is heavily mathematical. Reading music is like reading a language of its own — half notes, whole notes, quarter notes, rests, codas dotting the staves of sheet music are a foreign language to many.

Policy makers and legislators don’t see the benefits to something like arts education because they aren’t IN education. Even if you were in education 20 years ago, can you imagine how different children are today than in the ’90s? I was in third grade in 1998, and I can say with confidence that I am teaching VERY differently than my third grade teacher did. Students are changing as the times change and as technology advances, and I can list a slew of students I have or had last year who I know would benefit from some kind of arts education or after school program.

It breaks my heart to know that we’re killing our kids and their ingenuity, their independence. We’re also killing teachers in these same ways, too.

How can you expect me to be creative with my lessons when you’re requiring me to teach certain things a certain way? Where is the independence in my lesson planning and my PLC time when you’re monopolizing it for “district-mandated trainings” that really aren’t always the most helpful to me and my practice? I understand that there are times when these things can mean well, but why can’t we just cool it? When I took this job at my current school, I found out that there would be plenty of planning time during my days, and even some extended planning time once a month. I was really excited about this, because in my mind it meant that I wouldn’t have to spend so much time planning at home and on the weekends. Some weeks my planning time is better used than others, but many of the days for planning are consumed with meetings, and our monthly extended curriculum planning time got difficult when I became the lonely reading teacher with no integrated units to work from like my peers.

It’s kind of hard to be an independent, creative teacher when I’m spending time out of the classroom, doing icebreakers like lining up in birthday order without talking (I’m sorry, I’m an adult — if you want to train me or present something to me, please do it in a way suitable for professional adults). It’s also hard when another large portion of my time is spent testing. When is the teaching supposed to happen!? What am I even really getting paid to do?

This, my friends, is why I’m in the business of real teaching. Nothing makes me happier than to see my kids get excited about learning, and trust me, I plan on cultivating that until they leave me in June. I will jump up and down, read in accents, and talk about things my kids are interested in because that’s how you teach; that’s how they learn. If I wasn’t excited about teaching them things, how can I really expect them to be excited to learn? As an adult, learning happens because you’re curious about something, am I right? I find myself constantly Googling things or driving to the library to check out books so that I can learn something. If this is how we learn as adults, why shouldn’t this be an approach to teaching children (even if you’re standards-driven, this approach can be taken, so there are no excuses)?

I could honestly care less if my kids really know the difference between a myth and a fairytale by the end of third grade — honestly, what benefit is that to them? I care more about how my kids work collaboratively and how they treat each other, because that’s more of a life skill than filling out a Venn diagram (does anyone even use these in the real world? Serious question). I will not regret spending the first ten minutes of each of my classes doing our compliment circle, in which each child has the opportunity to give or receive a compliment. It is because of this activity that I have kids speaking in complete sentences, making eye contact while talking, and being kind to one another. Yeah, I know that isn’t on the End of Grade test, but those skills are embedded in them for life, which, I’d say is pretty important.

I hate knowing that when I return to school on Monday, the countdown to testing begins. I’m fortunate enough to have a principal who doesn’t believe in the “drill and kill” method of test preparation, but the air will loom heavily with whispers of data and Read to Achieve and mCLASS and all things test-related.

Even so, there are so many things I love about going back to school after Christmas to start a new year with my class. The kids are more mature (for the most part — there are always lapses, but hey, they’re kids and it happens to all of us, even when we’re 24), they start to become more independent, and they really start taking ownership of their learning. It’s amazing how much a child can grow in just four short months, and I’m so blessed to get to watch them grow day by day in my classroom, not just as learners and students but as young people who are forming opinions and sharing their ideas with the world.

I’m in the business of real teaching — care to join me in the quest for educational creativity and saving our kids from becoming bubble-coloring machines?

The In-Between Time.

It’s that time of the year where Thanksgiving is over and you have three full weeks of school looming over you before you can cross the finish line that is Christmas Break. The kids are ready for a long break, you’re ready for a long break, and the workload doesn’t get lighter just because you’re feeling tired.

Truly no rest for the weary.

The last couple weeks have been incredibly difficult for me (hence part of the reason there hasn’t been a new post in ages!). I have felt pulled in multiple directions, each person saying their request is the most important. I need to plan guided reading for fifteen groups, I need to implement solid mini-lessons, I need to prepare interactive read alouds, I need to integrate technology, I need to benchmark 60 children, I need to progress monitor about 30 of those children every two weeks, and on top of that I need to put together Read to Achieve portfolios for about 20 of those children in which I test them three times a week for twelve weeks.

But hey, at least that doesn’t happen until AFTER Christmas.

Did I mention that I sketched out the rest of my year using resources shared with me from other teachers on my own? Hopefully I don’t bomb the spring semester with what I laid out week by week.

I’ve realized in the last few weeks how hard it is to grow — growing hurts and it isn’t fun. I questioned myself a few weeks ago as to whether or not I’m truly in the right profession, which I have never done before. I take work home every single night and have work to do constantly, and honestly that takes a toll on a person after a while.

What I would give to not take work home. Wow.

Thanksgiving Break came with great relief, and I think that helped my exhausted spirit. Tonight I was able to knock out pretty much the rest of my week’s SmartBoard lessons, which is helpful, especially with so many meetings this week, and next week I start after school tutoring until Christmas break.

It kind of feels like running on a treadmill, and you run super fast but you don’t get anywhere. Yep, that’s what it feels like right now — I’m running like crazy trying to meet all of these unrealistic expectations (because it’s funny when people say that you can just take your time and focus on “one thing at a time,” but then that person comes back a week later and expects that you have everything and more completed), but I just need to step back and realize what I need to do for my kids. Only I know what those kids need with reading, and I want to be the best teacher I can be and give that to them, regardless of all the pressures I’m experiencing.

Today a student dropped a note on my desk and told me not to open it until the end of class. I obliged, mostly because there was no way I had time to open it right then anyway, and I almost forgot about it until the bell was ringing and my kids were lining up to go to the kiss-and-go lane (this is the cutest name for a car rider circle EVER). I opened the letter and read and was moved to tears at one sentence:

I admire the way you think about things, the way you care about us.

I think I’ve read the note about twenty times since this afternoon, and every single time it makes me get a lump in my throat.

No matter how much pressure administration or central office gives me, no matter how many things people are looking for in my classroom, and no matter how many benchmarks I have to give — it’s all worth it. These kids are all worth it, every second. I teach because I want kids to know their ideas have value, and that their voices can be heard. I want them to be lifelong learners, and I know I can’t do any of that until they know that I love them to pieces.

Yes, I’ve been in a bit of a rut lately; tired, overworked, underpaid, the usual teacher problems. Being the only English reading teacher in the third grade of a bilingual elementary school is not a walk in the park (if you think it is, I DARE YOU to come observe my class for a whole day — like I’m seriously double dog daring you), but I know I’m learning and growing from it. I’m becoming a better educator from these hardships, and I know I’ll be able to use this experience to fine tune my practice in the future. Looking ahead I see nothing but motivation to care for these kids more and to let them know they’re loved.

Mission: In Progress.