Thursday, July 21, 2016


“Equality is not a concept. It's not something we should be striving for. It's a necessity. Equality is like gravity. We need it to stand on this earth as men and women, and the misogyny that is in every culture is not a true part of the human condition. It is life out of balance, and that imbalance is sucking something out of the soul of every man and woman who's confronted with it. We need equality. Kinda now.” ~Joss Whedon

I tend to refrain from posting a lot of links or commentary about politics, or news, or what have you. Part of it is that I don't feel like I have anything eloquent or new to add to the conversation, and that I am not versed enough with all the details and politics to be fully confident in the complete accuracy of my assertions (though that doesn't stop most people.)

Instead of adding to the noise, I observe.

I read bits and pieces here and there, and don't unfriend "friends" who are mind-boggling set in their narrow-minded views that make me worry that there is an outside possibility that Trump could possibly eke by with a win. And while I could delete them and be constantly impressed and feel good about people in the world (despite the depressing articles posted), of friends who share my views, I think it's important to not just be aware of other perspectives, but see the face and name that goes with these views. It is too easy to dismiss others when they don't have names, and families, and post heartwarming puppy videos. When they are just this ambiguous "other", it's easy to ignore, dismiss, or treat disrespectfully. On a brighter note, the vast majority of my friends on social media have good heads on their shoulders and seem not only better at keeping up with news than I am, but also very eloquent in expressing thoughts and feelings about the goings-on in the world.

Today, I will add my voice. This blog is an outlet for my ideas on education, and I have for a while mused on how I could release my thoughts and feelings on what's been going on and have it tied directly into teaching. There are plenty of connections, but today I stumbled across an article that directly brought teachers into the conversation. After a teaching conference in Minneapolis, many teachers joined a Philando Castile protest march. To which I say, good for them! And then a police officer (and head of the police union in Minneapolis, along with his St. Paul counterpart), complained about it, saying they were appalled, and that it was a "one-sided message of blatant disrespect for law enforcement".

I'm sorry, but not only were these teachers exercising their right to free speech, but Philando Castile worked in a St. Paul school. From what I've read, Castile was a pretty solid dude who kids loved, and that is reason enough to honor his death. So when the statement from Bob Kroll calls what the teachers are doing is choosing "to protest against their union brothers and sisters," not only is that ignoring that Castile was also a union brother, but ignoring the fact that this time, this death (of unfortunately too many) was personal.
He goes on to say that this will negatively impact children of law enforcement, which, really? Okay, yes, there are plenty of problems in our schools, and plenty of teachers who let bias affect their teaching, and teachers who probably shouldn't be teachers. But I would say that any teacher, biases and all, at the bare minimum can at least separate a parent from a student.

I am a teacher, but I am still human. I am not above feeling judgmental of parent choices, but I don't take that out on a kid. If a parent is rude to me, it doesn't make me love my student any less, or treat them differently. And I am well aware of injustices in the school system, and how students of color, and students from poverty are consistently underserved. And I can't speak for all teachers, but I know most teachers, in choosing to be a teacher are not only empathetic, kind people, but are motivated to do what they can to counteract these hurdles.

Beyond the bare minimum, teacher training programs have classes about working with diverse populations, and are trained to be aware of biases they may have, and how to work to improve on providing equal service to all students. Again, teachers are also human, and have a lot of learning to do to address how their biases or privilege affects their teaching, but it's happening.

So Kroll and Dave Titus' statement goes on to defend their comrades by citing due process and how "in all those instances, [...] prosecutors, investigators and juries have found officers’ actions, however tragic, to be justified and within the scope of the law." What this fails to address is that, our justice system is not exactly the most reliable source to determine that these actions were, indeed, justified. It is a systematic issue that constantly favors those in power. For example, the first thing the media did when news of Castile's death came out was to look to his record (a bunch of minor traffic infractions), whereas during Brock Turner's trial (remember, the Stanford swimmer who raped a girl, and got off way too easy?), the media was quick to reference all of his swimming accomplishments. (Look, just because you're a good swimmer--and, might I add, white--doesn't make you a good person. And just because you can swim fast, doesn't mean you shouldn't be held accountable for your actions. but I digress. My point is that, at all levels of our society, it is stacked in favor of whites.)

Anyway, they finish their statement by starting to make sense: "teachers are in a better position than most to understand the critical importance of forging constructive and meaningful conversations that can provide positive pathways forward. The future stability of our communities will be secured by building relationships and increasing trust." Yes, and because "teachers are in a better position than most," maybe you should give them some credit that they did not "rush to judgment along with radical activists hell-bent on destabilizing our communities" (their words), and in fact weighed the pros and cons, thought long and hard about how to best make a difference, and decide that it is not radical activism to recognize that black lives matter too, and this protest was one way to help instigate conversation and awareness.

Furthermore, what is actually destabilizing our communities is the status quo-- the status quo that lets so many white people get away with murder, and so many black people dead for no good reason. Perhaps in some of those cases, the cop technically followed protocol (but then I see much more threatening white people get the utmost patience and not get shot, and it certainly makes you wonder...) But it's not that the police have a few bad apples. It's that these bad apples aren't held accountable, and I haven't seen many steps taken to address helping police officers recognize bias and act accordingly. It's not public perception that's the main problem, but a system that has let police brutality go unchecked, so that shooting first, instead of as a last, last, last resort becomes more commonplace. I believe that most people are doing their best to do the right thing, but that they grew up in an unbalanced system that gave them a skewed sense of what that is. And so you end up with the circus that is Trump et al. because the status quo, left to simmer, ended up boiling. Equality is hard work. You can't just pass a law, and boom, problem solved. It's like the white walkers in Game of Thrones: you may create some steady peace by keeping them at bay, but even if you cut off their heads, they're going to come back. It'll take constant effort to eradicate them--no thanks to the rest of Westeros and beyond who think their silly Game of Thrones is more important. (I just binge watched seasons 5 and 6, so that's the only analogy I can come up with right now, so I hope it made sense. That and it's almost midnight and I should be asleep.)

I also call bullshit on this statement: "As the union leaders of State’s largest police departments, we stand at the ready to begin just such a dialogue, particularly with our union brothers and sisters.” Here's why: at a recent Minnesota Lynx game, the players wore shirts in support of Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, Black Lives Matter-- and also referenced the fallen Dallas police officers on their warmups by the way. Kroll commended the officers who walked out on their contract and naturally took offense that the Lynx would support this radical notion that black people are also people, and deserve to be treated as such--and that people who die deserve to be mourned. If he is commending others for not even acknowledging that there is another side to the conversation that is very valid, then I can't imagine him being ready to have a fair dialogue. I'd like to believe he truly wants to have a conversations, but the old cliché is true: actions speak louder than words. (Though in this case, your other words speak louder than this sentence of words).

What was a good idea happened in Kansas: Instead of a protest, a police chief worked with Black Lives Matter to have a cook out. Which allows the situation to be less "us vs. them" and more "we're all in this together." The initial reports and pictures I saw just after Castile and Sterling's deaths were of police basically confirming all our fears about them, coming out in riot gear and treating protesters roughly. Because what helps, more than statistics and facts (it seems pretty clear that Americans aren't too big on those), is making it personal. When it is so "us vs. them" and this perceived BLM vs. the police, it makes it easy on each side of the issue to dismiss the other because they don't have to see the "other" as real people, with valid thoughts and feelings and lives, and we become much more divided.

That may be why many teachers joined this Black Lives Matter protest. Because not only was Castile a living, breathing, wonderful addition to their community, but because many of these teachers work directly with "the other," whether it be police officer's kids, or black students, or literally every other population, and care deeply about all their students. Granted, many teachers work in homogeneous areas, but I would wager that, in simply dealing with the drama of getting students who are all the same race/socio-economic status to simply get along and treat each other kindly, they are predisposed to translate this idea to a grander stage.

What I'm trying to say is, while I haven't really gotten involved in social media past a few shares of some related links and liking/retweeting others posts, I haven't said much in my own words, and now I have. A little rambling, and perhaps just adding to the noise, I suppose. But we are living in a country where far too many people in power lack empathy and retain racist, sexist, homophobic, and xenophobic views that make it unsafe for a large portion of Americans to live. So, kudos to those teachers in Minneapolis who went out and did something. I stand with those teachers, and I stand with Black Lives Matter. It's not radical, and it shouldn't be inflammatory. It's simply recognizing and admitting that America, while great in a lot of ways, still has some growing to do. We can't make America great again because we have yet to reach being completely great.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Love. Read. Repeat.

"Susan did an unusual thing and listened. That's not an easy task for a teacher."

"There was something pleasant about an empty classroom. Of course, as any teacher would point out, one nice thing was that there were no children in it, and particularly no Jason." 

"'Just a minute,' said Lobsang. 'Who are you? Time has stopped, the world is given over to...fairy tales and monsters, and there's a schoolteacher walking around?' 'Best kind of person to have,' said Susan. 'We don't like silliness." 

-Terry Pratchett, Thief of Time

I recently went back to Minnesota for a weekend, and finished an entire book between the two flights that brought me there and back. It was Terry Pratchett's Thief of Time. I found it at a used book store, and had been meaning to read something by Pratchett-and finally had time. (As a teacher, to find time to simply read for pleasure, is a rarity and a gift. Airports and planes allow for a lot of time to read.)

It got me to thinking about reading and teaching. One, because Susan, the granddaughter of Death, was one of the characters in the book, and is a school teacher. There were a lot of small teaching truths thrown in as side notes to develop Susan's character, and that resonated with me. But two, because it launched a lot of thinking on my part of the wonderful experience of reading a good book.

I love books. LoveLoveLOVE. One of my favorite places to go is used book stores. I am thankful that my parents also enjoy used bookstores--and books. My parents' home is full of books of all kinds, and as a kid, I visited plenty of bookstores. When I was little, my dad used to take my sister and I to the local library. We would pick out 6 books, but he set down ground rules so we wouldn't just leave with 3 Babysitter Club books and 3 Sweet Valley Twins books. We had to pick out at least one biography, and only two could be the kid-version of beach read/romance series whose individual books are churned out much quicker than I can manage blog posts. This pushed me to expand my horizons and discover my enjoyment of historical fiction, and also simply expand my cultural literacy. I am very thankful for those library rules my dad set.

I never considered not reading the books I checked out--once I start a book, I always feel like I needed to finish it, even if I am not particularly enjoying it. (Not that I've never not finished a book I've started, but it doesn't happen very often. As an amazon prime member I get "Kindle First" books--meaning one free book a month. Often they're the start of a series, or a trashy beach read. I still download them, though I haven't read many. Recently I read a pretty terrible romance novel, and though, as I read it, I noted it's forced tension and ridiculous plot (or lack thereof), I'll be damned if I didn't finish that thing.)

I continue to lament the loss of Borders Books--a place I'd just go hang out with friends in high school, and as a good meeting place as well, because whoever was early had something to look at while waiting. Now, it's a Whole Foods. Much less interesting to hang out in, though still a good place to find a public restroom when you don't want to buy anything. I still slip and call the parking lot there the "Border's parking lot" as opposed to the "Whole Foods' parking lot", as that name just reminds me of this gem, and not something that exists in my town. I feel very lucky that my boyfriend supports my children's book problem/passion. We've visited Placerville, Nevada City, Sacramento, and even simply downtown Davis for entirely unrelated reasons (often a brewery, winery, or delicious meal), and he still willingly veers off task into a used bookstore with me, so I can search for books to augment my classroom (and sometimes personal) library. Today we biked downtown for brunch, and then I dragged him to the thrift shop and I bought 10 more books for my classroom library (even though its just 3 weeks until the last day of school).

As a teacher, it was so fun to buy a bunch of picture books for my kindergarten class. It may have gotten me some strange glances, carrying around a book on counting to ten with penguins as an adult who I'd assume pretty clearly doesn't have her own children, but the draw of a good book trumped my concern with how odd I looked. Then, I moved to 4th grade, and suddenly had a new excuse to go out and buy more books! Chapter books this time! It has been so fun remembering books I read as a kid, and discovering new ones. I helped coach Novel Knowledge (a reading competition) this year (similar to the Battle of the Books, which I participated in in elementary school), and got to reread some classics (Half Magic, A Wrinkle in Time,) reread some more recent good ones (The One and Only Ivan), and read some new ones (A Long Way from Chicago).

So it breaks my heart when I have students who don't like to read, or won't read, or don't think they can, or like, to read. It breaks my heart that they don't have the motivation to allow themselves to lose themselves in another world. To let all their drama and troubles fade away and bury themselves in someone else's pain and triumph. So many students spend more time on tablet/phone/video games, and movies/TV/YouTube. Over spring break, I spent a day sitting outside and read an entire (kids) book (The Land of Stories: The Wishing Spell). And I LOVED it. And in the escape from reality, I could simply relax. But my teacher self broke my happy bubble of reading relaxation to realize that many of my students haven't acquired that treasure.

And I am still trying to figure out how to give them the gift that is a love of reading. I love read alouds, and sometimes, a rowdy class will sit quietly for a bit in my reading of a good book. But to transfer that to reading for pleasure independently...there's a missing link. We have about 10 minutes of silent reading after lunch. I take the time to read as well--and I take the opportunity to read a book from my classroom library that I either haven't ever read (I'm in the middle of Al Capone Does My Shirts), or want to revisit (The View from Saturday). But, I have so many students who sit and stare blankly at books during this time. Or who spend the whole time pretending to look for a new book to read at my bookshelf. Or spend the whole time staring at their desk, then when reminded to take out a book, "looking" for their book in their desk. Or simply acting dramatic and wasting time.  And many of my students don't have the drive to complete a book they've started. I get excited when I see a beloved book in their hands during silent reading, but too often it goes back to the bookshelf or into another student's hands way too fast for the original student to have possibly read it to the end.

One time, I was reading a book (I think it was Auggie and Me: Three Wonder Stories,) and I laughed out loud. A student looks up and goes "What's so funny?" and I respond "oh, this book". And I realize: many of my students, either due to gaps in their reading comprehension, or motivation to read, don't often get the experience to truly experience a good book. I have cried, laughed, gotten angry, felt satisfied, and so many more emotions while reading books. How do I inspire my students to read a book all the way through? How do I transfer their enjoyment of me reading read alouds to them reading their own books? Some of the books I have read out loud (Love that Dog, Wonder), have inspired my students to check out those same books from the library. So I am making some progress.

But not enough. Which is a constant refrain in teaching: it's never enough. Not enough time. Not enough money. Not enough....everything. It's never enough, but still, we teachers never stop trying.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

#TBT to #Dinovember

"And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don't believe in magic will never find it." -Roald Dahl

Abe and I were Claire and Owen from
Jurassic World for Halloween!
2015 marks my 3rd year of Dino-monthing in my classroom, but the first year of true Dinovember, and not Dinocember, or Dinouary. As I am teaching 4th grade this year, and we don't have a dinosaur unit, my dinosaurs just appeared the first Monday of November, and moved about my classroom at will every day, until the end of November. While unconnected to our academic topics, my students simply rolled with it, as they already know I love dinosaurs. I have dinosaur magnets, dinosaur borders on my bulletin boards, a couple dinosaurs on my bookshelf, and a giant dinosaur welcome sign. I also made a point to wear something with dinosaurs on it every day of the week. This year I debuted a dino skirt from my sister, and some sweet dino dresses from the internet, some earrings, necklaces, and a scarf. And if my friends didn't know of my dino obsession like my kids do, I started with some sweet Dinoctober pumpkins to get in the mood, and had a related costume for Halloween. 
My Dinoctober pumkin!

So, without further ado: Dinovember 2015!
Jurassic times call for Jurassic measures

Dinovember Day 1: It started on a rainy day, but my dinos were warm and dry inside, setting a bad example of playing with the rulers. As I often tell my kids, as they're drumming with pencils or sword fighting with markers: "Those are tools, not toys."
Whiteboards always make math problems more fun!

Dinovember Day 2: At any age, kindergarten to 4th grade and far beyond, writing on whiteboards will likely never cease to be fun!

Way more fun to build towers than count with these.

Dinovember Day 3: We got these giant tubs of math manipulatives with our new curriculum, and one is just full of base 10 blocks. These are kind of foamy and green, a departure from the classic plastic yellow, but still do the job!

I'm an adult with a children's book problem.

Dinovember Day 4: My favorite day, as I get to display my dinosaur book collection, which is ever growing. I got some new ones from the book fair, and others from the thrift shop. 

Dinosaurs everywhere-
note the cards I use to assign class jobs. 

Dinovember Day 5: At my school, they have weekly "awards". There's a spirit award for the most kids in a class to be wearing school colors the previous Friday. It's a stuffed falcon (which is our mascot). There's a golden jumprope, for the class who had the best PE day. There's a golden apple for....honestly, I'm not 100% sure. And, there's the golden shoes, for best behavior in the hallways. The 4th graders are a notoriously loud bunch, and not great at hallway walking, but we have our moments, and the previous week was noted. So the dinosaurs had to enjoy our hard earned week with the shoes...because since then, they have not been to our room.

Nothing like a brand new box of crayons, and some coloring pages.

Dinovember Day 6: Apparently coloring helps with mindfulness, and is all the craze for adults right now. I have never stopped enjoying coloring, and these dinosaurs are over 65 million years ahead of the trend.

At least they're having fun.

Dinovember Day 7: Unclear what game my dinos are trying to play here, what with two incomplete decks of cards, no semblance of organized piles, or turn taking. 52 card pick up, perhaps?

Headphones were obviously not designed for miniature dinosaurs.

Dinovember Day 8: My school's big thing is being the first school in our city to be one-to-one with devices. As a result, I have a class set of chromebooks! The kids love them, there's tons of cool sites that are educational, and I am definitely a Google Classroom convert. It saves paper, and is super easy to assign assignments. 

This game gives you good practice reading obscure dinosaur names.

Dinovember Day 9: I have gone to the thrift shop more times this year than any other. Mostly for kids books, but I created a classroom board game collection and ended up finding this gem: Dinosaur Bingo! Perfect for Dinovember!

Target's dollar store Jenga is called Jumbling Tower.

Dinovember Day 10:
Again, we see here that dinosaurs are not great at taking turns, but pretty graceful when it comes to not knocking over unstable towers.

Another thrift shop find!

Dinovember Day 11: There is no such thing as a water dinosaur. Or a flying dinosaur, for that matter. Mosasaurus, who got some fame as a larger-than-life attraction at Jurassic World, and beloved Pterodactyl are not, technically speaking, dinosaurs. That being said, my dinos, for not being water reptiles, were surprisingly adept at naval battle strategy. 

The theme for my parent teacher conferences this week
was to suggest practicing multiplication facts at home.

Dinovember Day 12: I didn't have enough dominos for my dinos to all use them...and the abacus is also not big enough for 6 to, random math items day!

This game was actually not from the thrift shop,
but donated to me from a neighbor.

Dinovember Day 13: The dinosaurs were totally on board for a game of sweet revenge, and actually seem to be following the rules, and taking turns for once!

It's hard to tell, but they are painting pictures of dinos!

Dinovember Day 14: Water coloring is tons of fun, and we've only managed to pull out the water colors twice this year. I have a couple other projects I want to do with my students, but it's so hard to find the time! The dinosaurs had all the time in the world though, because they don't have silly pacing guides, and a million other requirements to get through each day, with not enough time in the schedule for it all.

These blocks haven't gotten much playing time this year
sitting in my garage.

Dinovember Day 15: The final day of Dinovember! Broke out some kindergarten toys, because while my 4th graders don't play with alphabet blocks, my dinosaurs certainly will!

Yay dinosaurs!

By the end, it became clear that Dinocember, much less Dinouary, would not be a thing--I (ahem, my dinosaurs) were running out of things to do--there were way more toys back in kindergarten. While my dinos are secured back at home, waiting for next year, I continue to enjoy dinosaurs every month--not just with my classroom decorations. I got to see some sweet fossils and a special exhibit on sauropods over winter break in Cleveland. I feel so lucky to have grown up in a family that valued educational experiences, and fostered my love of learning so that now, as an adult, I still love visiting museums and learning new things about random topics. I wish my students--many of whom say they don't do anything, or just play video games, or watch TV over weekends and breaks--had the same opportunities to foster their curiosity and visit museums often. Unfortunately, it falls on schools to provide a lot of those experiences because they don't get them at home. And it's really a shame that schools make it so hard to go on field trips--busses are soooo expensive, as are entry fees sometimes, and its hard to get enough parent drivers. Many parents can't take off work, or perhaps don't have licenses, or any number of things. Plus, while field trips, hands on learning, and seeing things for real are some of the best, most engaging, most enriching educational (and life) experiences, if it's not directly related to reading/writing/math--things that are on those annoying standardized tests--it is very hard to provide experiences we know the kids need and deserve. I still do what I can--this year was a pretty decent year for field trips--Sutter's Fort, Yolo Basin Wildlife Area, and our local watersheds of Alamo Creek and Lagoon Valley. But, as a constant refrain in teaching, I wish I could do more.