Thursday, February 13, 2020

My Social Media Use Continues to Evolve as I Ask Myself: Is it the Truth or Confirmation Bias?

One might think that by being a kindergarten teacher, I wouldn't have any concerns regarding content shared via social media aside from protecting students' and colleagues' identities and avoiding posting unprofessional photos or tweets of myself.  But as social media algorithms continue to promote what's shared the most, and lies (*actual* fake news) continue to go unchallenged and are shared ad nauseam, the truth, of which I am a fan, becomes harder and harder to find.  Authentic, transparent, and occasionally painful, the truth helps us to become better navigators of our lives. As a teacher, the truths about children and how they develop, rather than the selling points of edu-brands and promises of education reform initiatives have guided and helped me to grow my pedagogy.

I've taught for a quarter of a century, so I can find the humor in teacher memes.  I have snickered, giggled, and admittedly guffawed at some of them, and have even created one or two myself. When I began to encounter some rather tasteless memes regarding teachers and our jobs, where the humor was being pushed toward titillation rather than truth, I incorrectly assumed that the masses wouldn't care, and would certainly recognize the rhetoric as entertainment rather than fact.  My humor didn't have to be their humor, to each his or her own, after all.  But as I watched the outrage that began to attach itself to these memes, and even the embracement of the naughtiness of the not-quite-true content, the thought began to nag at me: rather than fading, these misrepresentations were spreading like cancer, superimposing themselves upon the architecture of public education just as they would the cells inside a healthy human body, damaging, then destroying it.  Upon deeper reflection, I realized that my career and students have had to endure No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and now "failing government schools," all big-business initiatives, labels, and election-year rhetoric primarily created to manipulate how the public views this profession, while creating the appearance that the government sincerely cares about quality education and how children are taught in schools.  Voters consumed headlines about NCLB, the Common Core, and Race to the Top initiatives like they were Skittles.  How many will now eagerly gobble up "failing government schools" simply because they don't realize they are trapped by their own confirmation biases (and blind trust) masquerading as truth?

Memes and other content don't magically appear out of thin air. When I created the one above several years ago, I had to log onto the eCard site, choose a suitable illustration, figure out how to make my text fit, and hit "publish." People apparently liked it a lot, recognizing and sharing the humor of my sigh-of-relief declaration that there are no photos of me holding the clammy hands of a boy during PE in the 1970's.  Fine... maybe MY hands were the ones that were clammy.  But more and more often, rather than illuminating the art and hilarity of teaching, or commiserating with other teachers about the ups, downs, laughter and tears of our profession, the memes I was encountering were becoming the newest weapon for those who would continue the attack on teachers for their own economic benefit. Other professions and groups of people are regularly targeted as well, which made for an onslaught (ugh!) in all of my feeds because of how diverse (yay!) my friends and those I follow are in reality as well as digital-land.  In trying to find a compromise so that I wouldn't end up tossing the baby out with the bathwater regarding social media (there's so much that I do want to see and share, despite the content I find misleading and unsavory), I first chose to unfollow a whole bunch of folks. On FB it was friends, colleagues, families of former students, strangers, and even family members, though they all remained contacts. On Instagram and Twitter, it was acquaintances and strangers alike. Unfollowing people on Instagram and Twitter yielded almost immediate relief, frankly because I wasn't closely connected to most of them, and because unfollowing removed them and their content entirely.

The hard work came a few months later when I had to challenge my ideas on how I wanted to use FB, rather than how FB wanted to use me (thank you grad school and Digital Minimalism). Was I okay with clothing and cute shoe businesses knowing what I like and don't?  Sure. Have I become a member of a kindergarten curriculum, baking, or crochet-related group on Facebook based on its suggestions?  Yep, and I love what I've encountered there. Did I like the content that was being suggested to me by what some of my friends appreciated? No, not all of the time. But even after fiddling with all of the account settings, I had to re-acknowledge a truth about myself that I've articulated in different ways over the years: I am triggered by very obvious bovine fecal matter. My jaw sets, my cheeks flush, my body tenses, and I feel anything but relaxed, pleasant, or safe.  Despite my own confirmation bias (who doesn't like to be right?), having to repeatedly acknowledge others' truths and mindsets by their continued and often excessive spreading of some of the most unsophisticated memes, pages/groups and clickbait left a bad taste in my mouth, making me feel more fight-or-flight than engaged or entertained.  That's right, unsophisticated. The clickbait posing as investigative journalism claiming to be able to prove that all immigrants are rapists and "articles" about how drinking seventeen cups of coffee per day is healthy are shams and should be easily recognized as such by most of us.  While photos of flowered headbands resting upon the heads of pit bulls are products of the same technique utilized by those who manipulate images for political gain, and though the dogs are certainly deserving to be seen in a more flattering light, shouldn't most people by now have caught on to the ploy? The tugging of the heartstrings?  The triggering of patriotic rage?

Call me a truth snob. Stereotypes, prejudices, misrepresentations, lies, and other marketing ploys really aren't hard to spot for adults.  "Girls aren't good at science." "Those Chinese kids always excel at math." "A woman can't be president because she'd be too emotional." Bovine. Fecal. Matter.  Consumers just want to feel something, and fear, anger, jealousy, and hate are easy sells.  Within our schools, students rely upon us to be good stewards of accurate information as we teach them to navigate all of the content that is available.  This makes it necessary in my opinion, to weed, guard, protect and continue to educate ourselves as teachers, even when we're outside of the classroom getting our social media groove on. Being vigilant about information and knowledge we impart is a significant part of our profession. has resources for challenging confirmation bias here

Eventually, I unfriended almost three-quarters of my contacts on Facebook and experienced the visceral gut-punch of having a much smaller audience.  I, the person who for years has sought out affirmation from others as a gauge to measure whether or not I'm actually deserving of anything, doing my job correctly, or creating content that helps others, did something that immediately shattered a significant conduit by which I had been feeding myself the idea that who I am and what I do matters. And I survived. Not unlike other addictions, there have certainly been some withdrawal symptoms to work through, but without the mob, there's much less BFM through which I have to sift, making it easier to ground myself and identify any new evolutionary change that might be occurring in my life and pedagogy. As it turns out, I'd like to move from the classroom into the library.  Until then, I'm still a kindergarten teacher, ranter, and sharer of good news. And the good news remains this: knowledge is power. Know how to find the truth, and be brave if and when it challenges your own confirmation biases. 

Though you may need to take some Dramamine (good grief, he never puts the camera down) this video from Veritasium, "Why Facts Don't Matter Anymore," is a great opener for those needing or wanting to learn more about confirmation bias, the tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation of one's existing beliefs or theories.  Initially interested because of the negative effect my own social media use was having on my mood and optimism, I quickly came to realize that other educators and our students would also benefit from the following point being made explicitly: our biases aren't the truth.

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Craft Freebie: Arrowhead

So many of my colleagues, students, and their families are sports fans, while I, frankly, am not. The upcoming Super Bowl, however, is providing me an opportunity to incorporate another fun fine-motor activity into the mix of my Kansas classroom this week: my version of an arrowhead Kansas City Chiefs logo!

Though we're also preparing for Kansas Day (January 29) by making Jayhawks and sunflowers, my Stars have been talking a lot about football, with many associating (understandably so) the Kansas City Chiefs with the state of Kansas simply because of their name, even though "they're really in Missouri, Mrs. Sommerville.  Isn't that weird?  How come they aren't the Missouri City Chiefs?"

Oh, sweet friend, I don't understand it either.

As kindergarteners are all about ~sharing~, they've laid claim to the Chiefs, and because this kindergarten teacher is all about sharing (instead of sports) too, I'll link you to the arrowhead freebie here.  It's a simple template of an arrowhead shape with instructions on how to have students tear paper in a contrasting color.  I used our school's die-cut machine to make the red Ks and Cs, but they're not necessary if you're using the craft for another activity.



Sunday, October 27, 2019

Teachers Have Hobbies Too: Crocheted Afghans

I've never quite seen the point of having idle hands, and have managed to be a crafty, crochet-ey person for even longer than I've been teaching.  In addition to reading books and articles about education, pursuing my master's degree, attending professional development and training, creating kindergarten materials from scratch and surfing web sites stuffed with ed-related content, I've managed to pick up and enjoy multiple hobbies during my weekends and evenings.  Being able to papercraft, solder, make ornaments and decorative bunting, and crochet cowls and afghans might suggest to some that I'm entirely too productive, but hey...

... if a person has to have a vice, loving to create all things handmade is a good one with which to be afflicted.

You can find my non-teacher products over at Etsy.  For this go 'round, my shop is featuring cozy and cuddly crocheted afghans, just in time for winter.  Take a peek:

Log cabin marbled afghan in pinks, teal, and beige:

Log cabin afghan in marbled reds and blues:

This southwestern colored waffle-stitch afghan was fun to make:

This big and bulky afghan could double as a decorative rug:

Knowing I have called my kindergarteners my "Super Stars" since my first year of teaching, it shouldn't be any surprise that I've even made star-shaped afghans.

Vibrant star:

Mint green and gray star:

... and even a denim-look star:

What are your hobbies?

Saturday, October 19, 2019

My Plain Jane Pumpkin Math Pack is Now Available on TPT

"Plain Jane" refers to the minimal use of overly busy clipart, fonts, and other graphics: sometimes ~simple~ really is best!

If you're looking for a NON-Halloween themed pumpkin math pack, go take a look at my TPT Store:

Monday, September 30, 2019

Another Day in the Life of a Kindergarten Teacher: Humorous Notes Home to Families

I've written and sent home some awesome I-need-your-help notes to my students' families over the past twenty-four-ish years.  Always a favorite is the "appropriate restroom behavior" message.  

Here's this year's draft:

Good morning, Super Star Families,

After some instances of silliness in the large group restrooms in the first and second grade "pit" hallway by our kindergarteners last week, we're going to spend some time this week practicing safe, kind, and helpful behavior in pairs so that we can better utilize restrooms located throughout the building when needed. 

Shared boys' and girls' bathrooms certainly have their appeal: friends, even siblings can appear in them, making for happy reunions and chatter.  And the acoustics!  Echoes are FUN!  With a seeming absence of adult supervision, pumping seventeen squirts of soap into one's hands (dropping much of it onto the tile floor, making it very slippery) and/or pulling wads and wads (and wads, and w-a-d-s) of paper towels out of the dispenser is awfully tempting, and dare I say it... exciting!

Girls are being loud and giggly, especially while sneaking peeks through stall doors, while several of our boys find it exceedingly funny to, *ahem*, wiggle-waggle certain parts of their anatomy at one another (and other students from other grades) while they use the urinals.  Yes, yes, I'll understand if you want to forward this message to grandparents, aunts and uncles: kindergarten teachers DO write some very funny notes! 

Shared restrooms are high-traffic areas, and are FULL of germs and toileting messes.  As such, they're not playgrounds, meeting areas, or party zones.  With one custodian available during school hours, purposely spilled soap and wasted paper towels make restrooms dangerous and even more unhygienic.  Many children appreciate privacy when using the toilets and have a difficult time "going" when they're distracted or apprehensive about someone else peeking, climbing under (ew, on the floor) or "pretending" to try to push open the stall door. As for the "wiggle-waggles," no first, second, older grade students needing to use the restroom, or building staff investigating unusual noise want to walk in on a different kind of "flash" mob from the boys.

Thank you for speaking with your Star today and reiterating our bathroom expectations with him or her several times this week. Your reinforcement will help make it possible for us to be allowed to use restrooms in locations other than our classrooms. Hopefully, I've not caused you to blow coffee out of your nose while reading this morning.

Have a great day,


Yes, I think "wiggle-waggle" is the real takeaway for my boys' families, while "ew, on the floor" will be the gem for the girls'. 

Saturday, September 07, 2019

Annual Self-Reflection: My Value

With my twenty-fourth year of teaching underway, it's time for my annual self-reflection, which has become something of a tradition for me out here in Blogland. With each successive year, I continue to find myself in the position of having a perspective gleaned from many years of experience, and appreciate that for the most part, I still love my job.  I consider myself lucky that my time as a teacher has been spent invested in diverse communities, successfully coexisting and/or collaborating with colleagues and administrators, and finding joy, humor, and humility within the kindergarten learning environment.  My advocacy for young children continues to be fueled by caring, my knowledge of and respect for their rights as developing, rather than "deficient" human beings, empathy, and enjoyment of my dual roles in the learning process: I'm a teacher and a lifelong student. Not to mention, kindergarteners are fun!

Mentored by advocates of young children and developmentally appropriate practice, challenged by colleagues who either want to maintain the status quo or throw the baby out with the bathwater, and appreciated by families who often find themselves surprised that they like me, they really, really like me, I've seen my fair share of education trends and reforms.  I've explored naturalistic settings, party-themed classroom decor, minimalist backgrounds, and multiple seating options.  I've been seizure-trained, MANDT trained (years ago), and invited to participate in live shooter drills. I've attended both assigned and self-selected professional development and obtained my master's degree after many, many years of searching for the right program, aided by friends and family who helped me envision my future.  I give back to my profession regularly, happy to share my knowledge and expertise, and I understand the responsibility I have to play devil's advocate when future or new teachers are discovering and developing their best practice.  Having the freedom to share an honest, earned and honed pedagogy with others, lighten their load when possible, or just support them with trays of cookies throughout the year has matched my spirit during much of my career.  Teaching has filled my heart, and for quite a long time, I haven't felt as if I would be more valued if I were anyone but myself.

I've seen the family dynamic change over time, as all things do.  There was never a "better time," in parenting during my career. Families have always been diverse, strong, needful, overinvolved, and absent. Some were abusive, most were supportive, and many tried to be nurturing. I have partnered with parents, administrators, colleagues and agencies. My students, teammates and I have benefitted from our relationships with local and national partners in education.  Community helpers have kept us safe and taught us ways to help ourselves and others.  I have also been threatened, stalked, had a mother show me her handgun during a parent-teacher conference, and have had to watch as a student's hand was taken from mine and placed into that of her abusive father the day before Christmas break, thankfully all years ago.  I have fed and clothed my students, and I have intentionally created a womb, not room, of trust and comfort within what used to be considered one of the safer community venues, the elementary school. 

Education has always been big business, which didn't use to bother me as a student nor as a young teacher just starting out.  Armed with math and language arts kits and teaching manuals, I knew that I could rely upon my colleagues to be additional resources, sounding boards, and my backup.  If I needed help with instruction, I could ask not only my kindergarten team but the reading and math specialists for insight and tips. Speech/language therapists, bi-lingual educators, cultural liaisons, and physical therapists freely shared their advice and the context behind it.  I made mistakes, corrected them, modified and grew my pedagogy, much like my students.  I figured out that the powers that be (administrators, parents, politicians, and even teachers) don't always make the best decisions when it comes to the actual learning that occurs in schools, especially if those decision-makers aren't comfortable with or aware of the organic nature of growth: human beings are muscular bags of developing/evolving emotions and skills, not machines. Though the articulation of standards has helped to identify just how much there is to put into place to help build a firm foundation for learning and support it for a lifetime, the subsequent desire to equally distribute, pace, and assess each slice of Learning Pie further continues to place students in a mechanized, assembly-line setting.  I've watched many teachers respond to this wash, rinse, repeat testing culture with attempts at balance: they've implemented project-based learning, differentiated their instruction, integrated digital tools, supported lots of collaboration and talk time for colleagues and students, and offered flexible seating. Despite constant changes in education, veteran educators continue to know that the end of second grade, all of third grade, and the beginning of fourth grade remains an almost magic span of time for children: it's when every previous life experience (not just the reading or math instruction or intense interventions) congeals and creates in students a big bang that heralds their next developmental step in learning.

Over my years of teaching, I've watched (and sounded an alarm, repeatedly) as big business in education has sold parents, teachers and districts the idea that not only will their products help that big bang occur earlier, but they may also someday solely facilitate that learning in the first place.  Districts invest in "research-based" products equating them with research-based best practice, often due to accreditation (and therefore funding) requirements, and these products tend to ride the wave of education trends during the height of their popularity.  Much of the "research" shared is originally commissioned and paid for by the publishers themselves, which for many consumers might suggest the possibility for bias.  I remember when "NCLB" stickers were stamped on curriculum materials and teacher publications, followed by "CC," and then "Research-Based" labels.  Now there's a brand and sticker for all things education, to include social/emotional/character-building "school culture" programs, which are also standardized with mandated vocabulary, products, and very public and documentable implementation.  While these guarantors of success have attempted to prove and improve their efficacy (and brand) through teacher training, focused professional development, and specific artifacts,  I've found that their rigid scripts illuminate a chasm that can exist between new and veteran teachers.  Just as I did over twenty-five years ago, today's newbies appreciate focused direction while immersing themselves in content as they develop their pedagogy and practice, while veterans like me are more likely to cherrypick through new innovations and materials to integrate them into our already well-stocked toolkits.  These differences can often result in educators being sorted into three groups: those invested in the infomercial (they're characterized as "enthusiastic team players" and try to follow scripts with fidelity), those indifferent to the infomercial (they do their job, and tend to jump through the necessary hoops merely out of obligation), and those who find no inherent value in the infomercial... these folks are often characterized as lazy, burnt out, oppositional, and make those around them wonder if they couldn't somehow be convinced to retire sooner rather than later.  After twenty-four years, I know this: teachers in any of these groups can be highly effective.

I repeat: teachers in ANY of these groups can be good teachers.  Teachers in any of these groups have value and bring much to the culture of a school.

With each successive year that I teach, I become more and more the veteran educator, and that means I recognize repackaged product when I see it. And speaking for myself, I find the repetition of it all redundant and inefficient, while others, exposed to it for the first time, find it essential.  It's increasingly difficult for me to feign enthusiasm for a product, program, or initiative when it doesn't feel authentic or valuable to me.  When colleagues who would usually say "thanks for your help," "oh, awesome," or "have an incredibly great day," (like spontaneously expressive and vocabulary-rich normal human beings do), instead replace their verbal communication with me and one another with the very scripted "Wow, way to be proactive!" or "So Michaele, it's awesome how you began with the end in mind," in the hopes that adult and student listeners will also adopt the script, I find myself fighting against both gag and cringe reflexes.  And those folks who insist on insisting (you know the type, they're the ones funded by the product's producers) that they're not "sight words," "popcorn words" or "star words" but MUST BE "______ words," appear increasingly confused as they face the fixed stare that I wear as I attempt to control an eye-roll.

At forty-nine years of age and after almost a quarter of a century teaching, I find myself feeling as if I'm trying to be polite rather than sincerely being polite during these encounters, which is uncomfortable.  I'm a firm believer that polite is professional and I highly value reciprocity, but, being human myself, I too have my limits... as evidenced by the two times I have blurted out in frustration recently.  I find it nearly impossible to respect or trust one-size-fits-all programs because I remain comfortable with and engaged by diversity and I respect individuality.  And I'm not a testimonial person who pitches a brand nor do I appreciate any kind of salesmanship trying to influence my teaching, despite being able to remember a time when I considered any offer of help or proposed solution worthy of thorough examination and acceptance.  As a veteran educator, being surrounded by consumerism posing as pedagogy now bugs me, deep down into the marrow.  When I'm faced with someone who might assume that my point of view suggests that I'm refusing to teach effectively or that I'm choosing to promote chaos, opposition and resistance, I'm left feeling that my experience, prior growth, and purpose aren't nearly as highly valued as my playing the role of a yes-man would be.  I'm somehow failing the "I'm-as-invested-to-do-right-by-our-students" measurement that has been tossed out there with the newly adopted "common" assessment.

And let me tell you, this feeling is less than pleasant.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Checking In

I'm still here, though it might be difficult to know it considering my lack of posting.  In addition to teaching another sweet, silly and smart class of kindergarteners, this is year TWO of my graduate program, which will wrap up at the end of this summer.  I've been on the mend since the health scare wake-up-call of last spring... we've added a sweet kitty to our family... and I've developed quite the addiction to crochet. While I haven't been blogging regularly, I assure you I've remained immersed in all things #kindergarten, such as continuing to grow my classroom library with new and new-to-me titles (this batch of books was selected for one of my grad classes, and I'm unsure if Coraline would be a good read-aloud for kindergarten: let me know if your class has enjoyed it):

... treating my Stars to fun and fresh holiday pencils each month (oh Target Spot, how I love you):

... and enjoying early childhood teacher fashion, like these glasses that show just how much I love teaching and learning:

When I get home, there's lots of snuggling and cuddling and taking pictures of Tish-Tish:

(Here she is with yet another book for grad school)

... and oodles and oodles of crochet going on, which *might* have something to do with my one and only new year's resolution: to crochet one afghan per month.

Though this year has flown by in many ways, there's still so much left to do.  I have a yearbook deadline around the corner, after reaching the one-hundredth day of school, my Stars are excited to be counting down to summer vacation, and graduate school assignments and professional development meetings are in multiplication mode. 

But I'll be back to blogging, I promise.  Kindergarten is too great an adventure to go it alone, you know?  Until then, remember that you can find me on Instagram @msommerville (seriously, go check out the latest portrait that a Star drew of me; I'm thinking I need to purchase some monster hair bows now) and occasionally on Twitter @msommerville where my absence from Twitter chats is also evident but I still find some great stuff to retweet and share. 

How is YOUR year going?  Have any book recommendations for me?  What's your non-school-related hobby?