So is THIS what my teachers feel like when they see me now?

I started my adventures into the world of education during undergrad at UNC Chapel Hill. My fulltime student teaching placement was in a 4th grade math and science class and a 5th grade reading class at Carrboro Elementary. I learned a lot from my cooperating teacher about SIOP strategies, inquiry-based learning, and teaching with standards at the heart of my lessons. I also learned a lot from my kids, like what it actually means to see a lightbulb go off for a kid during a science experiment and how exactly I should go about solving upper-elementary drama when three girls can’t be best friends because only two people can be best friends. At the end of my year, my best friend and my TA put together a little book of letters for me from my classes. I still have the class photo from that year, and I am pretty sure I can still name all those kids when I look at that picture.

I know these names and faces because I’m in the business of building relationships with kids.

Today I went to the Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center with my parents on our last day of vacation here in Topsail Island. We’ve been coming to this beach and to the center for the last 20 years, and it’s been amazing to watch the program grow. As we were touring the new facility, we came to our last stop in sea turtle bay where they house the rehabilitating turtles.

Looking up, I see a familiar face asking me if I used to teach at Carrboro Elementary. She’s a little taller than me and clad in rainbow rubberbanded braces and a lime green Topsail Turtle Project shirt. My eyes widened as my memory catalog flashed through all of the school pictures I’ve watched my kids take the last four years.

Cue my teacher tears of pride and joy.

Cue my teacher tears of pride and joy.

“Bess!”

We simultaneously say her name and she says to me, “I was in your class!”

Naturally, I’m freaking out at this point and beckon her with arms wide open for a hug (it’s cool to hug your old teachers, especially when you’re on vacation). She asks what I’m up to and where I’m teaching, and when I tell her that I’m moving to middle school her eyes get big and she makes a silly face. She continues to tell me that she’s a junior intern (how are students I taught old enough to be “junior interns” anywhere? Is this what it’s like getting old?) at the center for two weeks and that she’s really enjoying it. We part ways after she tells the group about the sea turtles flanking her, and as soon as I walked through the exit doors I started having all the feels.

I was proud and happy and excited — I suppose I should note that I was having all the positive feels. It was so awesome and unexpected to see her there, and I was thrilled to see her in an element where she found passion. I was so proud of her initiative in being a junior intern; I was proud to see her engage in a community supported science initiative; I was proud of the young woman she’s becoming.

Driving back to the house, I stopped myself and thought,

Is this what my previous teachers feel like now whenever they see me?!

If these feelings are the same as what my past teachers feel when they check in with me, I get it. I understand it now. The investment you place in a child leads to a reward that is indescribable in its preciousness to you.

That’s why I choose to be in the business of building relationships — lasting relationships — because that is what kids remember over math lessons and reading homework.

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.

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.

i love my job.

but really, i do.

today was such a fulfilling day — not only has a lot of planning gotten done (we’re ahead and it’s amazing), but i can really feel my relationships with the kids getting stronger everyday (yeah i don’t even care if that sounds lame). i truly feel as though just being there everyday has brought me closer to each kid in my classes.

these developing relationships present both pros and cons: for example, it’s awesome seeing the progress of some of these kids. i don’t know one person who would tell me that jumping six reading levels in a SEMESTER isn’t fantastic progress. i mean seriously, that absolutely blows my mind and i love seeing my kids succeed! on the other hand, you really start getting a better look into the lives of some of these kids, and it can be heartbreaking to watch. i wish so badly that i could take one of my kids home because i know he just needs some love. y’all, divorce seriously hurts kids. i’m fortunate enough to have parents who are together so i’ve never been very familiar with single parent households or broken families in that regard, and watching how some of my kids are affected is just so sad.

these kids (well, all kids, really) need hugs. and snacks. and consistency.

today we actually had a new girl join our class! no one knew she was coming, so both students and teachers had a bit of a shock this morning. this little girl (and my goodness is she little!) came straight from ecuador and speaks NO english. none. literally, none. so what does my teacher do? she has me translate some stuff from spanish to english for her and act as a mini-translator for a bit today.

at first i thought there was no way i could do any of that — i’m not fluent! despite this, i somehow was able to manage to assign her homework, explain her homework, and chat with her a bit about school.

if you can’t tell, i already am crazy about this child.

we’re basically teaching her english from square one — hello, goodbye, can i go to the bathroom, stuff like that (you know, the important stuff). i’m really excited to watch a student go from knowing no english to (hopefully!) knowing enough to have a conversation at the end of may. she seems pretty sharp, so i can’t wait to see how she does with the rest of the kids. i actually think i am going to track her progress throughout the semester for one of my education assignments (we have to track a student or two and see if our teaching has a positive effect on their learning — should be pretty cool so long as my teaching does have that positive effect!) and see how she does these next few months. so pumped to be getting a taste of esl teaching right now!

basically what i’m trying to say through all of this is that i love my kids. yes, they are mine. no, i will not share. yes, i will show them off. no, they are not perfect.

but oh, they are so incredibly wonderful.

thoughts & opinions on today’s education system.

so i’ve been on this education kick lately.

i mean i guess it really isn’t something that’s all that new since i’m always thinking about education and writing down ideas in my lesson plan journal whenever i can and constantly wanting to talk about education every free moment i have in conversation, but i’ve been on this kick lately where i’m really thinking about how the united states does education and why we do it the way we do.

in another ted talk with ken robinson he talks about how the same academic values are held high in every country — math and languages are seen as most important, followed by other humanities, and the arts are always last.

why are the arts always last?

when i started my degree as an elementary education major, my specified focus was the arts. i was really excited about this because i was going to be able to do education and also still take classes where my passion lies. after a couple meetings with my academic advisor, she talked me into switching my focus from the arts to spanish language since i was working toward a minor in hispanic studies (courses overlapped from the minor to the spanish language focus). i ended up making the big switch at the end of my sophomore year since arts programs are always the first to get cut from schools and i certainly wouldn’t want to be cut from a school — besides, spanish will make me look pretty darn good and i’ll be more marketable that way.

yes, i will probably be more marketable, but i still secretly wish i would have stuck with my arts focus.

i like spanish and i definitely have a heart for hispanic kids and english language learners in general, but i miss my drama classes that i got to take before all i could take was spanish.

don’t get me wrong, there will be arts integration strongly present in my classroom. there’s no doubt about that, friends. i guess i just can’t help but wonder why no one cares about the arts in schools.

here in north carolina we have this thing called governor’s school — i’m pretty sure there are other states that have similar programs. anyway, north carolina governor’s school has run out of its funding for the next year due to the immense budget cuts the state has faced in the department of education. i did not go to governor’s school when i was in high school, but i have friends who did and they only have the greatest things to say about it. governor’s school (from what i know about it) was a place where students could follow their passions and take classes to strengthen their knowledge of subjects that interest them. shouldn’t our education system be like that all the time?

i am a firm believer that integrating arts and keeping it in schools makes learning more fun. how much easier is it to remember historical facts through song? exhibit a:

we watched that video in my ap us history class when i was a senior in high school and let me tell you something, i can still name all the presidents in order because of those rhymes.

exhibit b:

how awesome are these fourth graders?! this past spring semester i did my practicum at frank porter graham elementary school in chapel hill, north carolina. every year the fourth graders participate in a program called “arts in action” — a coreographer comes in and teaches the kids dances that fall in line with their grade level curriculum (the video posted is about science, but the kids this past semester did their dances to north carolina history — it was SO cool!). not only are these kids learning information, but they’re also getting up and moving.

creativity is so crucial when it comes to learning, as well as teaching. as a teacher, i know i’m going to have to adapt my teaching style to each child in my classroom so that i can reach every individual student in the most effective way possible. not all kids can just sit there and read a textbook and get information from that — sometimes you have to get those kids up acting out what they’ve read. not all kids are going to understand fractions the first time we go over them, but maybe working with music can help them figure out their fractions. there are so many ways teachers can reach their students — they just have to put forth a little extra creative effort sometimes.

also along the lines of creativity, i don’t think we should hinder children from their creative natures. i think that mistakes are necessary to the learning process, but how can we say we’re okay with making mistakes when we penalize students for making them? education should be about learning, not about getting kids ready for college or to become professionals (because let’s be honest, college isn’t for every single student out there, and that’s okay). letting kids figure things out for themselves through exploration is such a beautiful thing that i truly hope will be encouraged as time goes on.

honestly, part of the reason i want to be a teacher is so that i can promote creativity within my students. i want them to enjoy their classroom setting and feel comfortable enough to be as creative as possible when there. i don’t want my kids to get tired of learning — learning shouldn’t be a creativity-sucker. as long as i’m in a classroom (carrboro elementary had better watch out this year!), learning will be a creativity-enhancer.