Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Reflection on "A Pupil Points a Finger"

This is a Tuesday "Slice of Life" for Two Writing Teachers. Check out their website for lots more reflections on teaching.

I hope this isn't too "heavy" a slice. I read this article several weeks ago in my Sunday Washington Post Magazine and I can't seem to get it out of my head:  "A pupil points a finger. The teacher gets fired, his life re-routed. Now can they be buddies?" by Marc Fisher.

This article makes visible the complexities of teaching young children. When you teach, you are working with the child, the family, and the administration of your school. There are so many different demands, needs, perspectives. Does anyone really understand all that is happening in a single classroom? Everything that a teacher must consider?

Here is a very personal story about a student and his teacher and a whole lot of hurts.

I keep thinking about this. So - let's write!

Let me begin with a summation of the story:

September 2001,
at a public school in Washington, D.C.,
a 7 year old second grader accuses a teacher of pushing him to the floor.
The teacher is 22 years old, in his second year of teaching.
The teacher is arrested, there is a trial, he is acquitted;
though a civil lawsuit follows, which the city settles with the family.
In 2012, the then 18 year old student reconnects with the former teacher (now a lawyer) via Facebook: "I just want to say I apologize for everything that happened. I would really appreciate it if I could hear back from you." 
Now, 2015, these two adults - the once 7 year old second grader and his former teacher - are now friends.
Thus the subtitle, "The unlikely friendship."

I keep thinking about this.

How are they able to be friends?
How is a friendship possible?


Marc Fisher did a beautiful job with his writing, telling the story's facts and letting the reader decide his/her truth from the details. He is objective (as we expect from our journalists, right?) - detailing the story, providing insight, but not placing any blame. I felt empathy for the child, his family, his teacher.

Yes, it is a very personal story about a student and his teacher and a whole lot of hurts.

We learn about the seven year old student,
"His father, Joseph Ware, died when Raynard was 6, choked to death on pepper spray that police deployed against him in a robbery gone bad. The father - a drug user and seller who spent years in prison."

"His mother had three children by three men; Ware is determined not to have any children until he is married, and to marry once and forever. His father wasn't there 'to teach me to be a man.' "

"tagged as a troublemaker in need of special education, he as assigned to classes full of kids who had been labeled slow, disruptive, deficient."

" 'I used to have to punch him in his chest when he was little because he was off the chain,' [Raynard's Mom] says."

Imagine, only seven years old and already so challenged by life itself.

I keep thinking about this.

How is this little guy supposed to concentrate on math and literacy?
Are we teaching the whole child? 
How well do our classrooms support children with fragile emotional health?
Is he the only child in the class from such challenging circumstances?
Where are the school psychologists? The counselors? 
Are we equipping teachers with tools, techniques, and support for the social-emotional struggles of children? 
Does the whole staff work together to support these students?
How do we make the classroom a place that the child wants to be?

I keep thinking about this.

Are we building relationships with the family? 
Do we treat them as partners in education?
How strong is our school community?
How do we build healthy communities?
How do we, as teachers, interact with families that are so challenged?
Do we treat them with equal respect, afford them equal dignity?
Do we help the child and family to feel loved, to trust? 
Where is the family support? The parent education?
How do schools help families with discipline?

We learn about the former teacher,

"an idealist fresh out of Yale who thought he was going to help transform the lives of poor, inner-city children"

"Mr. Kaplowitz's room was, by all accounts, a zoo. Even in a school where nearly every male teacher was accused of grabbing, pushing or hitting a child, Kaplowitz stood out: Six of his 18 students had emotional or learning problems, and teachers, administrators, parents and students knew he was unable to keep order."

"This was the fifth allegation that he had touched a student."

"Raynard asked his teacher for permission to go to the bathroom to get some water, a ploy he had used before to get out of class. He asked and he asked - at least 30 times."

"'I never hurt a kid," Kaplowitz says. 'But I was not a good teacher, and I yelled a lot. I was in the survival mind-set of getting through the day. If there's one thing I try to block out, it's what a lousy teacher I was most of the time.'"

Imagine this teacher, so young and inexperienced, leading this classroom.

I keep thinking about this.

Why wasn't the administration more present?
Who should the teacher have turned to, when things started to spiral in his classroom?
How alone and abandoned did this new teacher feel?
How many teachers feel this way?
Where is the teacher training?How do we prepare teachers for teaching?
Where is the mentoring? 
Does the teacher understand children's developmental needs?
What are signs of traumatic stress in children?
Where is professional development about how to discipline and child development? 
Where is support from colleagues? 
How do teachers learn from one another? 
What opportunities are there to share information and ideas, especially about challenging children?

I keep thinking about this.

Why aren't these students with a more experienced teacher? 
Where are the more experienced teachers? 

We hear a lot about teaching the "whole child" but I can't imagine this ever working unless it involves the "whole school" - everyone investing in children. No teacher should feel isolated and helpless with a classroom of challenging children. No children deserve to be isolated with a inexperienced teacher.

I keep thinking about this,
thinking about the challenges of teaching.
How hard it is to be in community together - teachers, students, families.
So many different life stories,
so many different perspectives,
so many different needs.

This article brought to mind one of my favorite quotes:
"To reconcile conflicting parties, we must understand the suffering of both sides. If we take sides, reconciliation is impossible. And humans want to take sides. That is why the situation gets worse and worse. People who are still available to both sides need only do one thing: go to one side and tell all about the suffering endured by the other side, and then go to the other side and tell all about the suffering endured by this side. That is our chance for peace." [Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hahn]

For me, the extraordinary thing about this story was
the two reconciling parties themselves -
the student, Raynard Ware, and
the former teacher, Josh Kaplowitz.
They seem to be able to suspend their biases, their preconceived notions, their insistence on their own personal truth, and reach out towards one another in peace.
It is an extraordinary thing.

Marc Fisher, through his writing, and
Raynard Ware and Josh Kaplowitz, through their friendship,
show how difficult and beautiful this listening to one another can be.

If we really want to improve education,
all of us,
no matter our role -
student and family, teacher, administrator, or policy maker,
all of us
needs to be available to all sides...to listen and hear one another.
To be in community together.
It is essential.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Tuesday SOL Snowbound and having fun

This is a Tuesday "Slice of Life" for Two Writing Teachers. Check out their website for lots more reflections on teaching.


I have a snow day! My first snow day this year! I just got in from shoveling snow; the snow was light and dry, maybe 5 inches total. The sun is shining, the snow is no longer falling, and the shoveling was so easy. It is a beautiful day. 

My husband and I just returned from Saco, Maine, visiting my parents (who are in a retirement home there), and my older brother and his family over the long weekend. There was a blizzard over the weekend…a storm that dropped some 12-15 inches of snow on top of an incredible amount that was already on the ground. Let me share a picture from my brother's dining room window - they have had several storms in succession, with unrelenting cold temperatures. Snow just keeps piling up!

(Window accents by a kindergartner party planner!)

All that snow meant for lots of family togetherness. Not only did I spend time with my elderly parents but I played lots with three grand-nieces, girls who straddle the ages of my classroom of preschoolers - Emma, age 6 (in kindergarten), Olivia, age 18 months, and Everly, age 2 (in a couple of weeks). We had fun! Emma 'hired' me to help her make Valentine's Day party invites for a party she dreamed up on the spot…she worked hard on these, creating one for each adult, all with the same identical design - my only task was to color around the heart she drew on the front of the invite. (She was very particular about my work - inspecting each to be assured of its good quality.) She asked each of us to sign our invite, if we were planning to attend the party. (There was a blizzard outside - so, of course, this captive audience was 'going' to Emma's party!) When each invite was signed, Emma created a master list of all the attendees. Do you see the strong academic skills demonstrated in her play? 

Emma took a short break from this project to read to me from a Frozen coloring book. For me, a teacher of preschoolers, fresh out of last week's pre-literacy conference, it was so so so awesome to listen to her read…to see how she recognized certain words, knew all of the letter sounds, and made reasonable guesses about unknown words using clues such as word length, starting letter, position in the sentence, and the pictures on the page of the book. What fun it must be to be a kindergarten teacher, seeing reading happen right before your eyes on a regular basis!  

Olivia's main desire was to fill containers and dump them out. She worked alongside her big sister Emma, as Emma drew with markers, putting the markers into a bag and then - once all markers were inside - dumping them out and starting over. Full. Empty. Full. Empty. Full. Empty. Over and over. Everly had discovered the thrill of hiding things up her shirt, but could not figure out why they only stayed up momentarily and then fell out. She would quietly appear near to Olivia and Emma, her cousins, and slip a marker or two up her shirt, only to be caught red-handed when the markers fell to the floor. Then, there were many voices at once - Emma's clear "Hey! I'm using that!" and squawks from both Olivia and Everly, some approximating the word "Mine!" All three girls were very easy-going and any sharing issues were brief and momentary. They loved being together.

It was extra special to see my parents with these little ones - their great grandchildren. They gave kisses freely and brought various toys and books to their laps. My Mom, who has dementia, could not take her eyes off of the youngest two. Olivia and Everly seemed to bring an alertness to my mother - she asked their names over and over, and followed their movements with her eyes, frequently cautioning, "Oh, look, she's over there! Should she be there?," perhaps remembering the responsibility of little ones. Mom squealed with delight when the girls laughed - and they laughed lots! 

How wonderful it would be if seniors had young children near them regularly!

We may have been snowbound, but we sure had a great time together.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Tuesday SOL Why not write a book?

This is a Tuesday "Slice of Life" for Two Writing Teachers. Check out their website for lots more reflections on teaching.


This past Friday, our early childhood team attended a fabulous conference presented by the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, entitled "Seize the Moment: Rise to the Challenge of Pre-K." I heard and learned so many great things. I was particularly impressed with a presentation by Matt Glover, a literacy consultant, entitled "Give Kids the Richest Possible Immersion in Read Aloud, Shared Reading, and Talk About Books." 

Isn't funny how you can't judge a workshop by its cover title?
I read the workshop title and I thought for sure I would learn some neat tricks for my own read-alouds on how to engage the children. 

Matt Glover began the session with a brief film clip of his then 2 1/2 year old daughter reading aloud Mo Willems' Knuffle Bunny. This was adorable! You could see that she was very familiar with the book, seeming to imitate mannerisms and expressions, reading with a rhythm, laughing at known jokes. Truly precious!

He asked, Was she a reader?

Yes! I think so! Sure, she's only 2 1/2, and I suppose most of what I heard was a little girl reciting words from her memory, but, wow, she was projecting her voice, even changing her intonation, turning those pages with authority - yes, she was a reader!

Did you hear the sound of my hand hitting my forehead last Friday morning? 
This workshop wasn't about adults performing read-alouds for children, but instead it focused on the simple and awesome idea of encouraging preschoolers to see themselves as readers and writers.

This is how you help preschoolers see themselves as readers and writers, 
through simple, daily opportunities just as Matt Glover shared with us in the film clip,
asking children, regularly:
"Would you read this book to me?" 
"Would you like to write a book?"  

You are setting the expectation that preschoolers are readers and writers,

He spoke beautifully of 'nurturing development and honoring approximations' - in other words, with these very young children, notice and encourage the very small behaviors, such as

turning pages of a book,
making up dialogue for characters,
noticing different characters,
reading to oneself,
imagining a story,
remembering a story,
recalling special words in a familiar text,
connecting pictures to words,
looking at a page and making up meaning,
thinking up a plot,
and so much more.

I loved that he wasn't talking about giving directions such as,
"This is how we read a book, see we turn it page by page…" but, instead,
nudging children along,
"Tell me, what do you see? - Oh, yes! You are reading!"
Matt Glover suggested that we not get too hung up on accuracy or on writing down the specific words they say as they read…but, simply, to foster the child's ability to read and write -- making reading and writing 'the norm' for every child. Give children the time and the space to be readers and writers!

This is how we help preschoolers think like readers and writers.

So, what was the first thing I did on Monday morning? What was my immediate take-away from the conference? (Don't we always take away at least one thing?)

Monday morning, I placed many, many blank books (nothing special - several pages of paper stapled together) in the writing center and invited children to write a book. What a hoot! This table was filled all morning along (see photo above). The preschoolers soaked up this opportunity.

The table was filled with writers. 

They were sure of their artistry, sure of their writing. At the end of centers, I invited them to read their books aloud. They were sure of their words!  [And, amusingly - as Matt Glover had forewarned - the story changed, each time they re-read their book!]

It's okay!

They are preschoolers.
They are preschoolers who see themselves as readers and writers.

Let me share one…here is Naima's first book… it has four pages ...

Naima told me it was "a little bit scary book, about loud noises," and that is all she wanted to share.
Again, it's okay!

She sees herself as a reader and writer.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Tuesday SOL Why are they always in the block corner?

This is a Tuesday "Slice of Life" for Two Writing Teachers. Check out their website for lots more reflections on teaching.


After winter break, I added ramps (and balls, cars, tunnels) to the block corner. This area has become a favorite activity for the children. We take over the large blue carpet - creating roads, race tracks, jumps, and more. It is a very busy area, with children doing lots of different things, all at once, all together, excitedly adding, changing, and eliminating features with abandon. 

At our January family conferences, several families noted that they didn't have to read my daily note to find out what their child was doing...they KNEW their child was ALWAYS in the block corner. 

Blocks and ramps are such a learning-rich area of my classroom this year. I am amazed by the work being done here.

How to make the learning obvious to families?
How to respect the play? 
How to help families see the beauty in this daily focus? 
What is the learning? 

Let's look at some photos and consider.

Somehow, everybody fits in the block corner. The children work together, always making room for one another.  There are many hands at work, many bodies moving closely side by side, and, somehow, staying aware of one another in the midst of all the motion. 

The children have both space and time to explore cause and effect, what works, what needs to change, what can be fixed, what will happen. 

I see children developing the greatest attitudes for learning - daring to try new approaches, to consider new ideas, to take a risk on a new path. 

They work so closely with classmates, listening and considering others' ideas and opinions.

They laugh at mistakes, screech with joy at surprise endings, and repeat, repeat, repeat their work until they get it right. Yes, this is persistence!

Working with balls and ramps, children become so engrossed and focused that they often continue working entirely by themselves…just to see if it will work this one time!

We have so many sizes of blocks and a variety of pieces to be used as ramps. I am continually surprised and delighted by the novel designs the children create.

I love how the children work together - calling out to one another, supporting, and assisting. 

I am so appreciative of how much time we are able to devote to centers, allowing the children to "go deep" in their building, creating complex designs. Centers are at least one hour each day and several days a week they last ninety minutes or more.

The design of ramps is moving, fluid, active work - ideal work for preschoolers. How does Bev Bos put it? - "If it is in their hearts and hands, it is in their heads." This is work that children are curious about, craving to know more about…this is where real learning happens.

The children show tremendous focus, another excellent academic disposition.

When I work alongside the children, I am gleaning so much extraordinary data: mathematical skills of spatial awareness, measurement, and some numeracy; cognitive skills of attention span, using materials in new ways, and recall/memory of earlier designs; literacy and language skills of dialogue and storytelling; social emotional skills of taking turns, working with others, and sharing materials.

Many friendships have grown through this play; I see children seek each other out, to repeat something they have done before, or to invite another to try something new. We have very few discipline issues in the block corner. I think that one of the reasons why is that there are ample materials, able to be used in so many different ways.

The conversations - the back and forth - are fast-paced and constant. With teachers as "guides on the side," listening and taking notes, sometimes instigating and provoking language, I know their vocabulary and fluency is growing through this play.

Look at the inexpensive materials we are using! Leftover trim moulding from household construction, strong cardboard packaging pieces, plastic bed supports…all these add to our ramps play! I love that children are learning to look at things in all new ways…to create something out of nothing.

The work is both temporary and long-term…there are so many different ramps every day, nothing lasts very long, and, yet, over and over and over again, we practice and build.

The children are filled with questions - how fast will it go? will it make it in the container? what happens if I move this? how do I get over this bump? did you see that?!!

Yes, I am amazed by their work in the block corner.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Let's write a baby book

Our beloved principal is expecting twins. At our staff meeting last week, we threw her a baby shower and presented her with special books created by every class. Each of these books was so sweet!

For our book, the Big Cats created watercolor paintings with black ink drawings. I asked each preschooler the simple question,
Why do you love babies?

Since this book was a gift, I wasn't able to send the children's artwork home…so, I made sure to take photos of each page. Here's what our book looked like:

Why We Love Babies
by the 
Preschool Big Cats
January 2015

"I love playing with babies." (Ellis)

"I know they are in the tummy." (Evan)

"Babies make me very, very happy. And I love how babies cry." (Naima)

"Mommy holds the baby when it goes 'WAAH!' " (Jackson)

"Sometimes they'll be happy, sometimes they'll be sad." (Ella)

"Babies, Mommy." (Rowan)

"I don't love babies. I love superheroes." (Nicky)

"Babies cry." (Wesley)

"I love that Moms hold them. I love baby dolls." (Paxton)

"I don't love babies. I love boats and crabs and big spider crabs." (Julian)

"I love babies 'cause they are cute and I love to hold them." (Luke)

"I love princess babies." (Kaelyn)

"I can hug them." (Jinyu)

"I love babies' shoes." (James)

"I love to feed her." (Simona)

"I love babies crawling." (Dmitry)

"I want to see them try to walk." (Malcolm)

"I love babies walking." (Micah)

"Babies like to play with big children all the time." (Avery)

"I like to hug them." (Katherine)

"I love babies." (Henry)

The End