Friday, September 11, 2015

Let's Go!

I love teaching fourth graders.  There’s something about turning ten that opens a child’s eyes to new ways of thinking.  Sometimes that means testing the limits and trying the nerves of their parents and teachers.  But more significantly, it means these kids are developing their own opinions and crafting their own personal view of the world.  I try not to overlook the huge responsibility that puts on me as the voice that they listen to for hours each day.

For the past ten years, every September 11th I’ve faced my students and tried to explain why we have a moment of silence at 8:46 am.  It never gets easier, and in some ways it gets harder because these children are so far removed from 2001 that sometimes this is the first they’ve heard of (or at least processed) that horrific day.  We talk about the facts, the feelings, and the fears and I try hard to formulate answers for questions that truly don’t have answers.    

Almost without fail, the conversation eventually turns in one particular direction, and it did so again today as a boy in the back raised his hand.  I could have predicted what would come next just with one glance at his wide eyes, so his question was no surprise when he said, “So the people who planned the attacks died on the planes too?” My heart jumped a little in my chest as it does each year as the questions get deeper.

I felt the pressure of the rest of their wide eyes as they looked first at the boy who asked the question, then at me.  I swallowed and said, “Yes, they died too.  They knew they were going to die, but in their sick minds, it was worth it.”  Even though I’d already used the words radical and evil multiple times in our discussion, I began floundering over them again as I tried to explain something I’ll never even fully understand myself. 

Next came the only question harder to answer than that one: “Were there kids on the planes?” That’s another thing about fourth graders: they ask the hard questions and they know if you’re lying so you have to tell the truth.  So I did.  And then I explained to them that all kinds of people lost their lives that day: old people, young people, moms, dads, kids, firemen, policemen, and everyone in between.  Which brought the conversation full circle and I think they finally understood why we’d had that moment of silence an hour before.

I hate that we live in a world where we must have these conversations with our children.  But more than that, I’d hate to live in a world where we’re afraid to have these conversations with our children.  I don’t like my students feeling afraid or sad, but I do believe they need to feel shocked and angry, NOW, while they’re forming their view of the world.

Today while I was having this talk with my students, I couldn’t help but see the faces of those three college students who ambushed the terrorist on that train in Paris last month.   Just last week, I read in People magazine that as soon as they heard the first gunshot, one said to another, “Dude! Let’s go!” 

On September 11, 2001, those three young men were about nine years old.  I wonder if being at that impressionable age when our country experienced such a tragedy had an impact on the men they are today.  I’d dare to say it did, and I’d like to think they learned lessons from their parents and in classrooms in the days following 9/11 that shaped them into the kind of guys who were faced with a terrorist and took him on without hesitation. 

That’s why we have a moment of silence.  That’s why we look our children in the eye and say, “Yes, kids died too,” even when it’s hard.  That’s why we tell them, every single year, yes, those men were willing to die for their evil cause but that’s why we as Americans have to be just as willing to die to stand up for what’s good: freedom, faith, our families and our friends.  

I pray that none of those little boys in my classroom will ever be faced with a situation like those three young men were faced with in Paris last month. But if God forbid they are, I hope their eyes widen just like they did today and without hesitation, they say, “Let’s go!”


The only way to defeat evil is with good.  And the battle starts a lot sooner than we’d like to think.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Don't Ask

By nature, I’m a private person.  By that, I don’t mean quiet or reserved, but I have always been guarded about revealing my true self.  As many women do, I want people to think I have it all together when they look at me, thought that’s rarely the case.  In many ways, this blog has been counterintuitive to the way I carry myself in my daily life.

Nevertheless, here we are and one reason for that is that I needed people to know and understand why my life looks the way it does.  It seems the purpose has been served because I got through Open House and the first week of school without being asked one time whether or not I have children.  Either the word is out about me or I’m getting so old that no one cares anymore. 

It was different during our first few years of trying unsuccessfully to conceive.  I began to dread meeting new people and seeing old friends, both in my personal and professional life, for the chitchat that was bound to ensue. 

Do you have children?” No. (At some point, I stopped saying, “Not yet.”)
How long have you been married?” Long enough.
What are you waiting for?” Awkward pause.

I never figured out how to deal with the questions without lying, forcing discomfort on the other person, and/or feeling my own blood pressure rise.  All I knew for sure was that I hated the expectation and ultimately the judgment.  Over the past several years with the explosion of social media, our already unnatural curiosity about private matters has been magnified.   I’m not sure I would be any better if I hadn’t been dealt my particular life experiences, but my best advice to my former self and for anyone else is simple: just don’t ask.

The intrusion isn’t limited to us childless folks.  It stretches to those who choose to (or don’t choose but still do) have just one child and to those who are waiting to become grandparents.   I’m sure similar questions are frequent for those who are blessed with more than the average 2.5 children per American household or had their children close together in age, and the same type of unwarranted questioning affects single and/or divorced adults.  The questions seem innocent enough on the surface, but to the person being asked, it hurts, sometimes in a more lasting way than you’d imagine. 

There is a difference between being friendly and being nosy.  If you aren’t sure which you are, scale back.  In most cases, the asking is completely innocent and simply seen as the easiest way to start a conversation.  Perhaps it is easy, if the answers are what you expect.  But for those of us who defy expectations, it’s anything but easy.  Find another topic for mindless chatter- the weather is always safe.  In some cases, there is genuine care, interest, and concern behind the questions.  But those of us answering can feel the difference.  We all should examine our hearts before we speak to such matters. 

I think I can speak for everyone whose life doesn’t fit into a perfect little box when I say this: please don’t evaluate my sanity or worth based on what my life looks like on the outside.  Perhaps that’s not the intent in asking such questions, but sometimes that’s what it feels like to those of us who spend every day intentionally making our own way and learning to love each day based on the path God has laid out for us.


I’ll even suggest a compromise.  If you want to ask, that’s fine, but please get to know me first.   There are certain questions that simply can’t be given justice on a first meeting or during a quick encounter in public.  So in short, don’t ask.  When the time is right, I’ll tell you and you won’t even have to ask.  Until then…nice weather we’ve been having…

Sunday, August 23, 2015

The Truth About the First Day

School starts tomorrow, and I went to the lake with my family this weekend.  My mom kept asking if I was sure I could pull that off and I kept telling her it would be fine.  Truth is I can understand her concern considering the way I’ve traditionally behaved on the weekend before school starts.  Truthfully, I’m not as far removed from those late nights, frantic lesson plans, and last-minute classroom décor projects as I’d prefer to let on as an “experienced” teacher. 

Tomorrow will be my tenth first day of school in the front of the classroom.  The changes in my preparation, expectations, and feelings toward the first day over the past ten years have been countless.  Don’t get me wrong- I still get an adrenaline rush when that calendar flips to August, and I’ve put in plenty of time and effort already this month.  However, my attitude toward the first day has evolved to put it mildly. 

As a first year teacher, I was terrified of how the children would behave in a classroom with just me all day.  Would they smell my fear and take over?  Would they throw spit-wads when I turned my back or mock me as I looked away?  How would I keep them quiet and on task, and would they take me seriously?  Please.  The truth is, on the first day, you’re lucky if they’ll answer your questions with more than one word.  It’s pin-drop quiet until you crack the first joke and even after that it’s like pulling teeth to get them to converse comfortably with you or with each other.  Nowadays, I long for mid-September when they’ll finally relax and be themselves with me.  No need to worry about anarchy on the first day.

A few minutes ago I remembered I never wrote my students’ names on the cute polka-dotted nametags I bought to match their desk tags last week.  Several years ago, this realization would have thrown me into an all-out panic attack.  I would have cursed my own lack of preparation and fussed to Brent about how I’d have to set the alarm clock fifteen minutes earlier to make up for my blunder.  Tonight I just sighed and thought, “Do they really even need nametags?”  Believe it or not, the first day of school will go on, with or without color-coordinated nametags that will be wadded up in the trash by lunchtime anyway.

In my early years teaching, I always worried I wouldn’t have enough planned for these first few days.  I made copies, stockpiled activities, and kept a couple of short videos and read-alouds in my back pocket just in case things went more quickly than anticipated.  What a joke!  Nowadays I know I’ll be lucky if we’ve made proper introductions, labeled supplies, and gone over rules by lunch.  Even the couple of days’ worth of activities I have planned could easily last through the week if I needed them to.  Time flies on those first few days!

If you know someone who is a beginning teacher, be kind to them this week.  When that bell rings and those new students head their way in the morning, they’ll feel apprehensive, unprepared and overwhelmed no matter how much preparation they’ve put in.  It’s unavoidable but the good news is, it’s curable… It just takes about half a dozen first days to run its course.  We’ve all been there, but tonight I’m feeling thankful that the tenth first day feels nothing like the first.  Bring it on, even without the name tags!

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Crazy About Chromebooks

So much has changed since I began teaching ten years ago. I can’t imagine how I ever taught without my Promethean board and document camera.  I saw an overhead projector the other day and actually chuckled to myself.  It was so much easier to identify other teachers out in public back when we all had permanent Vis-à-vis smudge on our thumb and index finger.


I also can’t imagine how I prepared for each day without wireless Internet for my personal laptop that I lug to school each day to peruse the endless resources available online.  Even the infamous Common Core curriculum has been a positive change for me as it’s so much easier to find resources that I know will match what I’m teaching that day. 

Unfortunately, one of the things that hasn’t changed in the past ten years is the computers available for student in my classroom.  I know it’s on the priority list for our district and our school has done a phenomenal job over the last several years raising money to get interactive white boards installed in all of our classrooms, so I’m not complaining.  What I am saying is that it’s difficult to use desktop computers that take ten minutes to boot up and may or may not work consistently once they’re booted up, especially with ten-year-olds who aren’t used to waiting around on technology these days. 


Every minute wasted in a classroom is a precious minute wasted.  Having reliable technology in my classroom would be the best way to improve efficiency and productivity for my students, as well as communication with my parents.  I took a workshop at the end of last school year on Google Classroom and the possibilities that Google offers for free for a technology-driven classroom are amazing.  (Check it out if you haven’t: http://classroom.google.com)  Google also features many free apps that will do just about anything.  My students and I used Powtoon at the end of the school year to create this animation of a book we had just read called My Life as a Book by Janet Tashjian that features animation.  We had a blast!

Throughout the workshop I just kept thinking of all I could do IF I had the hardware available to support it in my classroom so this summer I wrote a proposal on Donors Choose for eight Chromebook laptops.  Chromebooks are great for classroom use because they’re lightweight and have long battery life and fast Internet speed.  The only thing they lack is storage space, which isn’t needed for shared classroom computers anyway; we’ll use memory sticks or Internet-based storage.  I chose to try for eight laptops because in an ideal year, that’s about one-third of my class and the number works well for centers and taking turns.  These laptops would change the way my classroom runs in amazing ways!

When my project went live yesterday, I found out anyone who donates in the first 7 days (by August 12th) will have their donation matched (dollar for dollar- up to $100) if they use the promo code SPARK.  Teacher friends: this code is available to anyone for up to two projects per school year.  This is a change I didn’t know about since the last time I’d used Donors Choose, and I thought the same might be true for some of you.  What a great incentive to write proposals and to donate!

If you haven’t heard about Donors Choose, you should check it out whether you’re a teacher or not.  Their story is amazing and they’re doing incredible things for public schools throughout the country every single day.  It's free for teachers to use, and donations are tax-deductible and every dollar truly does count.  This will be my third Donors Choose project since 2012 and it’s been a smooth and enjoyable experience every time.  When the project is funded and the materials are in use in the classroom, the teacher takes photographs and both she and the students write thank-you notes to the donors.  It’s a win-win; everyone ends up happy!







Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Show, Don't Tell


I spent much of last week hooked up to a microphone on a stage at church telling 50 kids about God’s love nightly.  I recited Bible verses, acted out skits, told stories, reiterated Bible points, and literally shouted about the power of God’s love for five nights in a row.  In my role, I may not have gotten as much one-on-one time with the kids as I prefer, but no one can deny that I told them about God’s love, over and over.

My time in the spotlight is short-lived each summer at Vacation Bible School.  In a few weeks, I’ll be back to my day job: classroom teacher.  There’ll be no microphone or stage, there’ll be about half as many kids in the “audience,” and nobody is going to write the script for me.  Perhaps the most obvious difference will be in the content.  I’ll be trading my Bible for a math textbook and a pile of novels.

In elementary school writing class, there’s a technique we teach called, “Show, Don’t Tell.”  The strategy lies in word choice when students are revising their papers.  For example, instead of writing, “He was mad,” we encourage students to write, “His face was red and his arms were crossed.” Rather than saying, “I was excited,” we might suggest, “My heart was about to burst out of my chest as I jumped up and down.”  As the old saying goes, actions speak louder than words.

As a teacher in a public school, I won’t be outright telling my students about the power of God’s love in a few weeks the way I did on that stage at church.  I won’t be as much as whispering those Bible points that I belted out over and over last week until I heard them in my sleep.  But you better bet they’re engrained in me, and my prayer is that they’ll shine through as I show God’s love to my students this year.

Last week, I shouted, “God has the power to provide!” By the end of the month, I’ll be digging through Staples bags, closets and file cabinets to make sure every student has the supplies they need.  In a couple of months, I’ll be asking the cafeteria lady to subtract that kid’s lunch from my account because I can’t stand to watch him eat another voucher meal until his parents pay his tab.  And pretty soon I’ll be saying, “Of course you can still go on the field trip whether your mom can send the money or not.  We’ll work it out.”    

Last week, I repeated over and over, “God has the power to comfort!”  This school year, I’ll hand out more hugs, tissues, Band-aids and pieces of advice than anyone could count.  Ten-year-olds have grown-up problems these days and while I should be used to the tears and the stories from home by now, I’m not.  They still break my heart every time.  But that little corner by my desk will always be a safe place where they can tell me. 

Last week, I convinced those kids, “God has the power to heal!” I believe that He does but I also believe He calls us to help.  I’ll teach those kids what it means to offer a kind word, a pat on the back, or a helping hand.  That’s how the healing begins. 

Last week, I told those kids with certainty, “God has the power to forgive!” My students will have that same certainty that I’ll forgive them, over and over when necessary…because it’s “when,” not “if.”  It doesn’t matter what kind of day you had yesterday when you walk through the door to my classroom.  Today is a new day and I’ll greet them with a smile that proves it, the same way my God does for me each morning.  

Last week, I closed with, "God has the power to love us forever!"  While I may not know my students personally forever, I pray that they’ll forever remember what their time in my classroom felt like.  I hope they remember the math and the reading, but so much more, I hope they remember what it felt like to be loved.  I may not be able to tell them where that love comes from, but I’ll surely try to show them. 

Actions speak louder than words.  I’m counting on it.