Saturday, July 19, 2014

Kindergarten Teacher Truth: The First Month of School

My first grade teaching colleagues usually wear a slightly exasperated look after the first week of school, but thankfully, they've all taught long enough (and in the same hallway as our kindergarten classes) that they know better than to cast aspersions.

After all, a kindergarten teacher's first week month (quarter?) of school is full of how-to's, modeling, practicing, reminding, and reteaching when it comes to routines and rules.

Rinse, wash, repeat.

Rinse, wash, repeat.

Rinse, wash, repeat.

For.  A.  Month.  (Or longer.  Oh yes, we've all had those years.)

Don't forget: curricular goals need to be included amongst all of this introductory stuff too!

I drink a LOT of coffee during the first month of school.

I sleep the sleep of the dead every single night.

I barely speak to my children or husband over the first two weeks of school because my voice is hoarse, my throat is sore, and my cheeks are in pain from constantly smiling at the end of each school day.

I am ~on~ constantly for students and their families, which means the first month of school is not the best time to make plans with friends or family.  Yes, I become anti-social.  It's nothing personal, truly.  I love you all.  Wait... I need to plan on signing "I love you."

That's more like it.  Save.  The.  Voice.

It takes first grade teachers a week or two to get almost everyone settled.  Sure, there's that one student (or three) that don't tow the line, march straight, or remember when it's time to listen instead of time to speak, but compared to the kindergarten teachers who herd cats/chickens every single day for the first month of school and continue to coax sharing, negotiating, bravery, and safety behaviors out of students for the remainder of the year, I think they've got it easy.

Or... easier.

Which is why, every August, when encountering the exasperated expressions on first grade teachers' faces that hint at the question, "Didn't you teach them *anything*?"  I simply tell them, "you're welcome."

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Back to School Bulletin Board: Silhouettes

This year, I've decided to add some silhouettes of children to my welcome-to-kindergarten bulletin boards in the hallway.  I'm not talking about this kind of silhouette (though Santa is more than welcome to tuck one under my Christmas tree this December, hint-y hint hint), but rather, this one:

Finding some clip art of children's shadows, I enlarged and locked them into position on my SMART Board.  Using black butcher paper, tape, clips and a white pencil, I traced several samples that I thought would work well for the size of boards that I have:

I used the clips to hold the roll of paper in place and keep it wrinkle free, but if you pull several pieces of paper that are the same size of your interactive whiteboard, you won't need them.

Isn't this one cute?

Once all of the silhouettes were traced, it was time to cut them out v-e-r-y carefully:

I like to keep my first boards of the year fairly simple and easy for my Super Star kindergartners to identify as they become used to navigating the hallways of our school.  They shouldn't have any problem remembering to look for the stars and kids:

 My students often have younger siblings who come and visit Big Brother or Big Sister at school, so I thought I'd include a little one for them:

The Stars read "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Stars, I Wished for You and Here You Are!"

I'm considering adding colored bow ties, shoe laces, and hair bows to the shadows, and of course my students' names will be added to the board once I have my class list.


I'm back to work August 1.  When will you return to the classroom?  We'd love to see photos that you post of your bulletin boards!  Link up below:

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Teacher Tip: Media Cart Modification

Occasionally, teachers no longer want or need a particular piece of furniture or equipment.  I inherited a gray metal book cart in May, first-come-first-serve style.

That's right, I jogged walked safely (yet quickly) up the hallway to retrieve it when the teacher sent out the come-and-get-it email.

Mobile vertical storage comes in handy for kindergarten students.  Materials can be rolled to different parts of the classroom or hallway, and the backside of the cart, with a teeny tiny modification, can become an additional display surface.

This year, I want to hang chart/writing paper tablets on the back of the cart.  Heavy duty magnet clips worked for one chart, but they weren't strong enough to hold two.  Hello Command Hooks!  I chose the style with the metal hook and bead since I figured they'd fit through the holes that are punched through every page of the tablets.

I positioned the chart tablet where I wanted it to hang, and slid a hook into the backside (without removing the clear strip from the adhesive) so I could determine where to anchor the hook.  Once I knew where it needed to be, I marked the bottom of the white plastic against the metal with a pencil, and then removed the clear strip.  Carefully positioning the hook, I pressed it firmly against the cart.

With the first hook attached, it was time to determine where the second would need to be placed so that the chart hung evenly.  I put one side of the tablet onto the already mounted hook, and then the other on to the second, with the clear strip still in place.  The adhesive on Command Hooks is STRONG, so you're not able to reposition them easily once they make contact.  Sure, you can pull the release tab and try again, but then you've wasted an extra adhesive strip when it wasn't necessary.

(The cart still needs some spray paint to cover up the scribbles that someone else added in order to label the cart.  Sigh.)


Now the cart is perfect for mobile display and storage, and can also be an activity divider between learning centers.

~Spray paint, spray paint, spray paint.~


What kinds of modifications do you make to equipment in order to make it more functional for your classroom?  What items have you repurposed to create learning materials for your students?

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Teacher's Kid

I'm one.

I knew how to put up bulletin boards by the time I was in middle school.

My eldest children, The College Graduate and The Wildcat Rower, have the same bordette/trimmer skill set.  Remember The College Graduate's boards from this post?

Now, for the next generation.  The (almost) Third Grader has taken on some of my classroom prep duties.  Not yet wanting to deal with displays, he's happy to show off his sticker-peeling skills every time I make a new purchase for the classroom:

Black storage tubs...

... and white pencil/crayon baskets.

Yep.  He's a teacher's kid.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Re-Post: Popsicle Sticks, Colored Cards and Clothespins Aren't Classroom Management Tools

This post was originally published by me several years ago, but has been updated to include reference to today's ever popular "clip up" behavior management charts.

Don't get me wrong, I'm a complete popsicle stick, card and clothespin advocate when it comes to classroom and home crafts, or, go figure, for making popsicles, playing games and hanging up laundry.  It's when these creativity-inspiring, cool-snack-enabling pieces of paper, wood and plastic are used for discipline (oops, I mean "classroom management tools") that I find myself biting my tongue and checking my facial expression and body position (don't want to be accused of negativity or not being a team player, now do I?) as I mentally maneuver my way through possible suggestions or responses to colleagues who are asking for my input on how best to get their students "to behave."

Discipline: training that corrects, molds, or perfects the mental faculties or moral character; control gained by enforcing obedience or order; orderly or prescribed conduct or pattern of behavior; a rule or system of rules governing conduct or activity; a form of punishment.

Have you witnessed a student being told to go "pull a stick" in a classroom after demonstrating behavior that a teacher doesn't like?  How about overhearing a student being told by classmates "Oooh, you're gonna have to flip a card?"  Perhaps several students have whispered "Uh oh, if you clip down you won't get to go outside for recess!" Are you a teacher who routinely warns students about their "stick status?" Substitute the words "card," "face card" or "move your clip" for "stick" in any of the above examples- it's the same concept: using public humiliation as a form of behavioral control. Sadly, popsicle stick pocket displays and clothespin clipper charts are popular classroom management tools.

Excerpts from "Public Humiliation" at Wikipedia: "Just like painful forms of corporal punishment, it (public humiliation) has parallels in educational and other rather private punishments (but with some audience), in school or domestic disciplinary contexts, and as a rite of passage. Physical forms include being forced to wear some sign such as... a "Dunce Cap", having to stand, kneel or bend over in a corner, or repeatedly write something on a blackboard ("I will not spread rumors" for example)." "In some cases, pain or at least discomfort is insignificant or rather secondary to the humiliation..." "Even when not strictly public, humiliation can still be a psychologically "painful" aspect of punishment because of the presence of witnessing peers, relatives, staff or other onlookers, or simply because the tormentor witnesses how self-control is broken down. This is also true for punishments in class."

Classrooms are not supposed to be prisons. I am no warden. As a teacher, I am employed to educate, guide, and serve the academic, physical, social and emotional needs of my students. To fulfill my job requirements successfully, I take the time at the beginning of each year to build a positive rapport with my students and work with them to establish a safe environment in our classroom. This means I observe my students at length, I interview their parents (personally and in surveys that are sent home), open lines of communication between school and home, and I constantly model appropriate behaviors and reactions to most, if not all, of our classroom experiences.  No yelling or threats, just explanations, questions, and role playing appropriate reactions for "next time."  Praise, explanation, appreciation, modeling, practicing, and more praise.

"You must feel so good inside. You accidentally spilled the glue, but you told me and helped me clean it up. That's terrific!"

"Thank you for showing J. what a good friend you can be. You hurt his feelings, but then you apologized. I think he feels better now, I hope you do too."

" I'm so glad you remembered how to move safely during free center time! You didn't run, so you didn't get hurt/hurt others today! Good job!"

"Thank you for letting B. have a turn to talk with me. When I'm done talking with her, your turn will be next. Thank you for waiting nicely, you're being very polite."

I'm certain I sound Pollyanna-ish, and admittedly, I go home with a sore throat and sore face every day for the first month of school because of how much I verbally communicate and smile with each of my students. In my classroom you'll find popsicle sticks in our Creative Construction Zone and counting chart and centers.  Clothespins clip to our lunch chart and help us display our artwork and posters.  Cards are used for games and our word wall.  You won't find any of these tools used to crush a child's spirit into compliance.


~ Just-turned-five-year-olds are not experts of self-control.  Neither are many adults.  Have you ever seen an adult burst into tears, "vent" in a less-than-appropriate venue, or behave in publicly embarrassing ways?  Of course you have.  No one is perfect, though adults have years and years of experience built from successes, mistakes, and regrets that young children can't and won't possess after a month's worth of classroom time, no matter how many time outs, cards pulled, clips moved, or whistles blown that you inflict upon them.

~ First graders tend to be a little more acclimatized to school than kindergarten students are, while second graders demonstrate a bit more familiarity with the choreography of the classroom environment than they did the previous year.  Fifth graders don't have automaton groupthink mastered, just as tenth graders don't march lockstep between classes because they're in high school.  Students are children, organic and dynamic individuals who are in school to experience and explore concepts and materials introduced to or suggested by them.  They are not dull, programmable mimics.

~The need to guide and respond in meaningful ways to our students is great, but it's a practice that many teachers and schools ignore because they believe "there isn't time." Popsicle sticks are faster.  Clothespins are faster.  Embarrassing a student is faster.  Encouraging silent and not-so-silent peer pressure via public humiliation is faster.  But it's not better, and if you really think about it, it's bullying.  I don't care what polka-dotted or chevron patterned decor you use on your behavior charts, bullying isn't cute, appropriate, or necessary if you build authentic relationships with your students.

~ Too often teachers forget that their students are children, no matter what they wear, how they behave, or what they say. While children aren't social savants, they are certainly masters of observation, and they have emotional reactions to and an elephant's memory for interactions, good and bad, with the adults in their lives. You are making an impression on your students, and your treatment of them will determine their reaction and responses to you.

~ Students are not sent to school in order to make a teacher's day brighter, comfortable, or to feed a professional's ego, so it's amazing to me that a classroom full of children "complying" by sitting in their chairs, completely silent, demonstrating no interactive or inquiry-based behaviors, is considered not only a successful model of classroom management, but is also a preferred outcome for many a teacher.  No questions are being asked, no ideas are being explored, no communication is occurring, but teachers continue to receive praise for the silence their administrators and colleagues witness.  Knowledge should be exchanged with students, shared and explored amongst peers and guides, not just dumped into their open skull caps, lips zipped.

For my initial month's worth of teaching, guidance, and constant communication, my students work in an atmosphere that frankly, throws people for a loop for the remainder of the year.   Month after month, observers, parents and colleagues come in and sit at my reading table, just to watch and listen, and take it all in. They hear children, those "uncontrollable and impulsive" kindergartners talking, apologizing, encouraging, laughing, singing, and debating.  They witness students approach me with questions, not interrupting, waiting until I'm done speaking to someone else.  They hear explanations of feelings, expectations of how someone can help, negotiations between peers, instead of tattles and screams and cries.  They hear productive noise, which many had previously felt indicated mayhem, a "lack of control," a "zoo," or proof that I'm lacking classroom management skills.  Funny the things visitors hear when they stop to truly listen, and what they see when they truly observe.

Because I've listened respectfully to my Super Stars, and because I've shared and explained without threat by modeling expectations and appropriate responses, I've demonstrated kindness instead of humiliation. I've appreciated my students for who they are and what they do, and in turn they reciprocate when I indicate it's time to transition from one activity to another. They respond appropriately, they enable each other, they cooperate.  When difficulties arise, we work through the problem together, and recover quickly.  There are no reminders of failures or mistakes lit up with neon and glitter on our bulletin boards.  My students help me create and maintain a positive learning environment, their ownership and sense of belonging being the essential foundation upon which the rest of our learning is built.  They apologize, forgive, negotiate, compromise, and contribute.  So do I.  I invest in my students, their feelings, and their potential to learn.  I do not believe their first and foremost responsibility is to learn how to comply, Pavlovian in nature.

If you can only control/direct your students through threats and public humiliation, it's time to rethink your purpose, pedagogy and moral compass.  How would you feel if your principal, administrator, or spouse put you on a popsicle stick chart or added a clip chart to the front of your refrigerator?  Go ahead, imagine it: You speak out of turn to your grade level partner during inservice, and your administrator stops the meeting (or uses a hand signal recognized by all) to tell you to pull a stick.  You arrive late to a staff meeting because your potty break could only happen as soon as the bell rang and you had bus duty, and the speaker stops mid-sentence and tells you to flip a card.  You accidentally forget to stop at the store and pick up milk, so your spouse reminds you that you'll have to move your clip down on the behavior chart before you fix dinner (no worries: your spouse used a cute zebra stripe and clip art pattern on the chart!).  I'm betting it wouldn't take long before you'd categorize such public tracking/shaming as emotionally abusive.  How long would you tolerate it?  How willing would you be to perform your best?  How long could you perform your best while suffering from repeated overdoses of humiliation inducing fight-or-flight adrenalin?  How about the stress and performance anxiety experienced by those who are always "on green" or at the top of the chart?  That's right: those "good kids" often remain on top out of fear of you and the threat of public embarrassment for daring to be human.  Worse still, they come to believe in their own superiority, trickling out on the playground, over the lunch table, and on the bus ride home, thrown into the faces of classmates who didn't clip up.  What happens in the classroom doesn't stay in the classroom.

Many teachers never question why their mentors and role models do everything possible to ensure that public humiliation goes hand in hand with public education, and many new teachers are distracted by the glittery and gimmick-y products fellow educators sell or share online.  Working with a staff made up of mostly popsicle-stickers and clothespin clippers can be excruciating. You see your former students shamed into compliance, their new teachers finding fault in their questions, their exuberance, their anxiety, their need to adapt, and their need to move, express and explore... every behavior that demonstrates how students are children who require guidance, instruction, experience, and time to reflect on situations that occur both within and alongside the math or reading curriculum, children who are expressing their excitement for learning.  When I've suggested relationship-building to colleagues who ask how to get their students to behave like mine, they groan and roll their eyes, obviously disappointed that I didn't offer them a quick fix.  My advice is perceived as a chore or imposition, an invalid "touchy-feel-y" approach, instead of as my professional practice that supports the building of the foundation to which I referred earlier, an essential "safe" zone where students can re-evaluate, recover and learn from natural mistakes.  Apparently many teachers don't or won't invest in effective content-rich communication with their students because its results aren't immediate, and its skills aren't mastered by a particular grading period.

Are you a teacher who prefers efficient embarrassment?  How often do you put yourself in your students' shoes?  Do you appreciate reasoning, valuing, fairness, and communication?   What, other than the time involved, prevents you from investing in an attainable and appropriate ideal that enables the best kind of learning to take place?

Stop investing in popsicle sticks, colored cards and clothespins as "classroom management tools."  Look past the chevron, glitter, and fancy fonts.  Stop thinking "faster is better."

Invest in your students.


Imagine my relief in finding that I'm not the only one:

Pernille Ripp's So What's My Problem With Public Behavior Charts?

Alfie Kohn's Why Punishment Doesn't Work


Yes, I feel the same way about public data walls.


I know... I referred to it as a "potty break."  I'm a kindergarten teacher, remember?

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

It's the First Day of Summer Vacation

... and I'm unwrapping used crayons to dice up and melt so that August's Super Stars will have recycled star-shaped crayons to enjoy their first week of kindergarten.

This is part of what it means when teachers have their "summers off."


Fellow teachers, we've finished up another year.  As you pack your classroom away, what ideas are floating around in the back of your head for next fall?  Curriculum mapping?  Organizing materials? Creating new centers?  Or are you simply taking summer one day at a time, with the goal of sleeping in every day possible?

No matter how I try to leave all things kindergarten in the classroom over the summer, I inevitably find myself pinning new ideas and inspiration to my Pinterest boards, buying additions to or replacements for my class library and manipulatives, and dreaming up new ways to use familiar spaces that will engage my students as they explore their world and curricular concepts.  Thankfully, I have The Nine Year Old to spend summer with, and our plans for the next eight weeks include tending our garden.

We're already enjoying strawberries:


What do you have planned for the summer?


Monday, May 19, 2014

A Call for Context

Today I had to take off my teacher hat and put on my mom crown.

Having taught for eighteen years with three children of my own, this isn't the first time the chapeau-switcharoo has had to occur.  Conferences, social issues, injuries and illness... I've heard it and dealt with it all.  My eldest's seemingly never-ending fascination with all things Titanic... that time when my daughter punched and bloodied a kid twice her size because he tried to prevent her from coming to tell me that he was harassing her... and the ever popular "s/he isn't turning in his/her homework" conversations.

Oh yes.  I've been there.

Today was different however, and I've decided to share the story of it with you partly out of professional courtesy, partly out of professional frustration, and partly because I believe education professionals need to be reminded of a parent's perspective regarding the sharing of disciplinary actions in the public school system.

My youngest is a second grader, and has attended the school where I teach since preschool.  He was diagnosed early on with developmental and communicative delays, likely caused by contracting pneumonia at two weeks of age followed by surgery while still an infant.  He continues to receive speech/language services as well as modeling and practice time with a social skills group.  Learning how to express himself clearly and appropriately has been a long term goal for him, set by my husband, myself, and our stellar school team.  Now, at age eight, he loves dinosaurs, planets, the mysteries of Egypt, and all things Minecraft.  Thanks to the anything-but-petite builds of both me and my husband, The Second Grader is very tall and stocky for his age.  It won't be much longer now before football scouts start knocking at our door, if you know what I mean.  His size makes his outbursts, exuberance, and silliness seem larger than life compared to many of his classmates.

You.  Can't.  Miss.  Him.

This morning, my instructional time was interrupted when I was asked if I could help handle a situation that arose with The Second Grader not fifteen minutes earlier.  Apparently, while lined up outside of his classroom, he was speaking with a classmate, venting his frustration that yet again, his birthday fell during the last week of school, preventing him from being able to enjoy a birthday party during the week.  Despite the fact that he's 1) eight years old, 2) into all things Minecraft, and 3) developmentally delayed (most notably in the areas of communication and social skills, with an IEP in place), an adult became greatly concerned after overhearing The Second Grader speaking to his classmate in the hallway, saying something along the lines of how he wished he could "blow up the school so nobody would have to come to school the last week," and then "blow up all of the schools in the country" so no one would have to spend their "birthday week at school doing work."

I know.  Deep, slow breath in.  Now... exhale.

"Blowing up the school" out of context IS very alarming sounding.  I've been a teacher during the time of  9-11, Columbine, Sandy Hook, and other school-related horrors and tragedies. I've been trained in school safety, and performed fire, tornado, and intruder drills with my students.  I have been fortunate enough to have been partnered with parents and families who have protected their kindergartners from the terrifying images, sounds, and reports of terrorist attacks and unexplainable massacres in real time and when rebroadcast year after year.  I too, have protected not only my students, but my own children from details of the atrocities that humanity can wreck upon itself.

I know.

Though ~not~ a "credible threat," The Second Grader's comments initiated a DEFCON threat level response from the adults around him.  Not quite DEFCON 1, but certainly not DEFCON 4.  His comments weren't questioned, nor was the context determined by the adult who overheard them.  His comments without context were reported to his teacher.  His teacher, concerned that the comments would be shared elsewhere before she could address them had to make sure that higher ups were aware that the comments had been made and that she would be getting more information about what had transpired in the hallway between the Minecraft-savvy students.  Adults other than myself were notified and asked to intervene, despite the fact that I am only four doors away.

Thank goodness for professional courtesy. One adult came straight to me to ask how to proceed.  You can imagine my confusion and my concern as I had to rapidly downshift from teacher to parent unexpectedly.  Appreciative that my aide could take over calendar and story time, I was able to leave the room to question two of the folks involved, though not the adult whose concern initiated the scene.  The Second Grader admitted saying he wanted to "blow up the school."  When I asked him why, he replied "because it's my birthday this week and A-G-A-I-N, I don't get a party until it's the weekend.  I don't like having my birthday during school."  When I asked if he wanted to blow up our school, or our school that he would build in Minecraft, he replied "The school in Minecraft.  I can build it exactly like this one, and have lava explode from a volcano, or have it flood, or make it explode from bombs.  I don't know how to make real bombs, but you can get bombs in Minecraft to get rid of stuff so you can build again."


(photo here)

What eight year old would express him or herself with "Oh, I strongly dislike having my birthday during the school week.  Do you think we could ask the principal if all of the students could just take the week off so that we could celebrate our birthdays and have parties like we want to? Perhaps we can open up this topic for debate and a vote utilizing Robert's Rules of Order?"

You've likely heard something similar to what The Second Grader is purported to have said.  Your children have said things like it to their friends.  Perhaps in your youth YOU even muttered something along the lines of "Oooooh, I can't stand my mom.  She won't let me go to the mall today.  I wish she'd just die" or "I could just KILL my dad, he's driving me crazy over prom!"  Children reference what they know as they learn how to navigate not only their feelings but how to express them.  My son knows Minecraft.  I knew Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street movies (and so did many of you).   You didn't really drive a bowie knife through your father's chest because he was stressing out over a formal dance, and I didn't invite Freddy Krueger over for tea and crumpets with my mother because she didn't like a boy I thought was cute.  Similarly, The Second Grader isn't going to track down ordnance in order to blow up a building so he and every other child can stay home and enjoy birthday cake, presents and a party on their weekday birthdate.

Unfortunately, thanks to events such as Columbine and Sandy Hook, adults now believe they must respond immediately and severely for the good of the many, often at the expense of the individual.  Parents are forced to expose our children to details of adult fear and horror so that they won't unknowingly risk accidentally crossing a line in places like school, day care centers, or play dates.  Educated professionals, who are supposed to be schooled in child development and psychology are trained to react first, and ask questions for clarity, understanding, and context for appropriate interpretation later.  What a relief it is, knowing that my son's innocence, lack of experience, and peace of mind were sacrificed for the good of his classmates and teachers, those folks who were never truly in danger anyway.  Common sense has given way to hysteria, and the professional trait of knowing when to immediately react and when to calmly respond is nowhere to be found.

Too bad for the child who ate around the edges of his Pop Tart, identifying what was left over as a gun shape.  If only he had shared that it also resembled the letter "L," or the states of Idaho or Florida.  If only the adults responsible for the guidance of his lifelong learning experiences had taken a breath, controlled their internal fears and biases, and taught him how to recognize alternate possibilities and forms for his creation, utilizing acknowledgement, redirection, and encouragement to explore other possibilities.

You know, those things that we as educators are supposed to do.