Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Brown Eggs

Coloring eggs is a favorite activity of kindergartners.

Have you ever dyed ~brown~ eggs?

The deep burgundy and forest green eggs below started as brown eggs.  They were dipped into regular red and green Easter egg dye.

While my Stars prefer the cotton candy colors, I love how the brown eggs turned out!

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Questions that Teachers as Parents Ask Ourselves

Six years ago, I was accused of being an "alarmist outsider" who wouldn't last (even though I had already taught for over a decade), a teacher who "over-communicated with parents," telling them "our secrets," letting them know things they "didn't need to know."  As the schools I'd worked at previously were all trying to increase parent involvement, communication was key, and was considered best practice.  My students benefitted from my partnership with their families.  With administrative approval, I decided to carry on being a bridge-builder.

Fast-forward to this evening: I'm finishing up my eighteenth year of teaching kindergarten.  I've taught in three states and four different school districts.  Having taught grades 1-6 in summer school, kindergarten August-May, and in both Title I and non-Title I schools, I consider myself "highly qualified."  I enjoy friendships with families of former students, and my students themselves.  Once you're Mrs. Sommerville's Super Star, you stay Mrs. Sommerville's Super Star.

Significant changes in education have happened over the course of my career.  In spite of big mandates, tons of press, and proponents and critics having their say, one thing remains true: diversity is the rule, not the exception.  An Alaskan student's educational needs don't match what a New York youngster likely needs to know.  Knowing this, shouldn't the multitude of ways that children across the nation learn about pulley systems be encouraged and allowed, with assessments addressing only the essential common knowledge that every child will likely apply about pulleys in their lives?  How many children from Alabama will ever help haul whales from the ocean onto the beach?  Because most, if not all of them won't, does that mean students in Barrow, Alaska shouldn't be taught how to use a block and tackle on the beach by their teacher, or have the system explained to them as part of their necessary, real life experience?  Should my Kansas students be denied the experience of planting flower bulbs at the beginning of the school year, observing a spring eruption of daffodils, because students in New Mexico don't or won't?  As more and more of our daily lessons become scripted by curricular requirements, less and less time is available for essential activities, activities that are now being labeled "fluff."

I've borne witness as several components of public education, curriculum, consumables and technology, have become hot commodities, and the producers, be they big name publishing houses or independent school teachers on TPT, sell, sell, sell.  Education is not only a profession now, it's a business.  Big business.  The government supports this, and makes sure that districts purchase from a controlled group of assessment and curriculum manufacturers in order to continue to receive funding for students.  Teacher-created materials initially supplemented or filled the holes that the Biggies didn't address or provide for, but if you've ever visited sites that sell items from teachers, you've likely had to sift through products that frankly, don't meet the standard that they should.

Not surprisingly, standardized assessments reflect not only the bias of the test creators themselves, but the performance of the test-takers that is likely affected by a myriad of factors outside of the evaluation environment.  No matter how many granola bars, water bottles, rolls of Smarties, and daily cheers that are given to each child, they all bear the weight of how they handle the pressure: either blow off the test, or develop an ulcer over it.  How the data obtained in this scenario could ever be considered valid is beyond me.

While parents are incessantly barraged with education reform rah-rahs, critics of the negative effects of NCLB, Race to the Top, and other elements of educational reform are evaluated out of the system (or chased out after having their spirits crushed), newbies are hired, and tenure is made near impossible for any teacher to achieve as states move to widen the chasm that now exists between not only administrators and teachers, but teachers and parents, those former partners in education.  This technique is referred to as "divide and conquer."

I'm not just a teacher.  I'm also a mother, and I'm allowed to have an opinion about public school, considering two of my children have moved up through its system and are now attending college, while my youngest is still in elementary school.  I want his teachers to be informed, educated, curious, articulate and impassioned.  I want them to inspire him, guide him, and encourage him to question, discover, create, imagine and share.  As many skills are built upon earlier foundation levels, I understand they must assess his progress, and I have no problem with them communicating how important it is that he do his best, think through his activities, and participate, accepting help from and offering it to teachers, support staff and classmates.  I'd like them to guide him with patience, not urgency.  

Will any teacher be able to do so, if they themselves are limited to parroting out a scripted set of daily lessons and are forced to use a limited set of intervention and enrichment resources?  If teachers know that one-size-doesn't-fit-all, and they differentiate instruction to meet each student's needs, why are so many districts adopting intervention strategies previously used for a handful of students who truly need it as instructional "best practices" for entire classes?  When two of my students can't hold a pencil correctly, I don't make every child use a modified gripper tool.

What can I as a parent do to help my son's teachers, when as an education professional myself, I know all too well what mandates they're bound and limited by, and the threats they face if they question or challenge them?  What can my students' families do to help advocate for their children as I continue to do everything in my power to strengthen the partnership between us?

Friday, April 04, 2014

Teachers: The Newbie/Oldie Generational Divide


I don't like snake oil salesmen, or baby/bath water tossers.


When you're a first year teacher, you listen, nod, and soak up as much as you can from your colleagues.  You wonder, you ask, you adopt, you go through the motions, you borrow, and you spend weekends in your classroom.  In many cases, you put on your interpretation of the costume and attempt to wear the bearing of a fellow teacher, master educator, or inspiring person from your past.  Carefully navigating the hallways, meetings, and conversations in which you find yourself, you act "as if:" as if you have some sort of experience, as if you have a clue, as if you know what you're doing, as if you're not afraid.  You act as if because you're a newbie and you likely don't have a clear cut plan about how to handle every component of the learning environment entrusted to you.  You haven't yet built professional relationships with those with whom you work most closely, and in fact, you are scared.

After four or five years of teaching, you're no longer the newbie, but you don't have a long history of educating others.  You remember that girl in your first class, that boy in your third year of teaching, or that family from last fall.  Your history of public education is still colored more by your memory of being a student than of being a teacher.  Perhaps you've served on a committee.  As a result, you still ask questions, and you listen intently to seasoned colleagues as they discuss, debate, and even argue the finer points of curriculum development, societal influences, administrative mandates, budget concerns and education reform.  You're learning to discriminate between the complaints from burnt out staff members who have passed their prime, the storytelling from older colleagues who "remember when," and the wisdom of those highly qualified teachers who can not only recount what happened the last time change was implemented, but share the merit of the evolution, or warn of the failures that inevitably happened when a grade level, school, district, state, or nation decided to throw the baby out with the bath water.

Stories from many of your colleagues will likely fascinate you, make you question what it is you really know, and from time to time, will have you looking at the clock, wondering if there's some way you can politely excuse yourself.  Recitations of history are tough when what you want or need is the quick-fix, the yes/no answer, the band-aid that you can peel and apply before the buzzer goes off, ending this round of How-Will-You-Handle-This-Successfully-Because-the-Principal-is-Probably-Watching-and-Yes-This-WILL-Be-Noted-on-Your-Teacher-Evaluation.  You like discovering the black and white, and you commit yourself to them, because gray zones are still tricky to navigate.  You're relieved to no longer be a first year teacher, and you can now share your opinions much more freely, though they reveal the experiential, even generational divide that still exists between you and your older colleagues.  Congratulations: you can now walk and chew bubble gum at the same time.

Year after year will pass, and not only will you recognize and respect those who have gone before you, you'll be more giving of yourself with both new-to-service teachers and those colleagues who truly embody what it is to be lifelong learners.  Those highly qualified folks still won't like snake oil salesmen, and it's likely they'll appear resistant to change, with higher ups accusing them of digging in their heels and labeling them "old school," or "out of touch with the times."  You might even be encouraged to maneuver around those "old fogies," and to ignore the fact that they've taught long enough, lived long enough, and learned enough to know some inherent truths about the profession and the children it's meant to support.  My advice?  Learn from your colleagues.  Respect your elders.  Stay in the profession, and grow to be one of us.  Now, more than ever, our students and schools need highly qualified child advocates and "leaders in education" who have actually taught.

After eighteen years of teaching, here's some of what I know:

Differentiation used to reference the practice of teachers addressing differences in age and the development and learning styles of their students.  Today, differentiation must include factors such as home life, medical issues, socio-economic status, personality, special needs, developmental delays, dietary restrictions and cultural practices.

While the tools we use in the classroom are largely mechanical, our students and the learning they do are living, organic beings and processes.  The developmental stages that most children work through and build upon can be tracked and identified, yet the pacing of each child's trek through them cannot be plotted out on a predictable timetable: some children walk at nine months of age, others twelve.  Some children don't take their first steps until they're fifteen or seventeen months old.  Some children read at age four, while others are bitten by the book bug at age six or later.  Some children require new shoes and pants in the fall, while others sprout when spring arrives.  As a teacher, you must deliver the curriculum between August and May, despite the fact that children don't work through the introduction and exploration of new concepts, nor do they make connections between or demonstrate mastery of skills at a pace of five per day, precisely between eight a.m. and four p.m.  This discrepancy will not prevent the powers that be, parents, or much of society as a whole from blaming you for a child's earned grades: they want mastery, and they want it now.  It will also not prevent snake oil salesmen and women from trying to convince adults that if we want little Jamie or little Johnny to grow up to be a surgeon, we should put scalpels into their hands at age five.  No, four.  Next year, they'll insist that scalpel introduction should happen at age three.  Don't you know, earlier is better?

Education reformers who prefer measured, methodical, and rhythmic "growth" need to be honest with the public: they don't respect or even like children.  They view childhood as an affliction, something to be cured, and the faster the cure arrives, the better.  Machines are programmed to perform or produce one task or product, while human beings have the capacity to imagine, create, grow into and inspire almost anything.  Advocates of industry don't often make the best advocates for children.

Every child is different, yet somehow, the expectation of parents, newer teachers, some administrators and many politicians is that students can be the same, and by a certain date, should be.  Ignoring, or pretending that dynamic nature/nurture variables don't really exist won't change the fact that for best results, we should be teaching the way children learn best, instead of following some scripted drivel that lacks in spontaneity and joy while squashing inquiry and creativity.  By the way: every teacher is different too.

Revisit how you felt the first time you were observed and evaluated by your administrator.  Now remember the second time.  Perhaps you're going to be evaluated this week.  Maybe you've been placed on an improvement plan, requiring many more visits, both surprise and scheduled.  What level of stress do you feel in these situations?  Slight? Fair to middling, or pass-the-Xanax-please?  If you experienced toxic stress in the workplace, how would you perform?  Now, imagine you're a child experiencing multiple years' worth of performance and test anxiety, and you're not yet old enough to have an arsenal of stress relieving strategies at your disposal.  How would you function?  Would you act out?  Be fidgety?  Emotional?  Reluctant?  No wonder many parents, teachers, and child advocates liken the annual barrage of standardized testing (and the days, weeks, and months of "test prep" that usually accompanies it) to child abuse.

It's not weak or wrong to care about children, the environment in which they learn, and the people with whom they interact.  It's responsible and appropriate to place highly qualified educators in mentorship roles, and give them ample opportunities to work and grow with their grade level and team members.  It is also essential that veteran teachers be asked for their input, opinion, suggestions and leadership when "education reform" comes knocking on the door.  They've got the history because they've lived it, they're truly invested in their profession, and they know not to throw the baby out with the bath water when someone strongly resembling a con artist offers their staff "professional development and support products" while waving a bedazzled poster board proclaiming "There's something terribly wrong with children- they're stuck in childhood!  Buy my product, and your problem will be gone by May 31!"

Fear mongering is a tactic of the greedy.  Thoughtful consideration and calm, thorough evaluation are behaviors of the educated.


Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Why I Love Teaching Kindergarten: Reason # 8723

Yesterday one of my Stars bounded into the classroom with a personal observation:  Mrs. Sommerville!  Mrs. Sommerville!  I'm really good at readin', runnin', and ridin' (the bus)!  You know, all those R things!"   

He followed his exclamation with a happy dance.


These folks know what he was feeling:


Monday, February 17, 2014

The Upshot to NOT Being Told "Yes"

Earlier this month I was working online from home (snow day) and decided to take a break and scroll through Facebook.  As I follow several illustrators, I enjoy seeing their updates appear in my newsfeed from time to time.  Sure enough, a beautiful illustration of lions caught my eye as I was skimming through statuses.  Pamela Zagarenski had updated her cover photo, and it immediately inspired me to ask her for permission to use it in my classroom.  Our next letter-of-the-week was going to be Ll, and I thought her wonderful lions would be the perfect focal image to be used as wallpaper on my SMART Board.

Being respectful of her rights as an artist/illustrator, and aware of copyright infringement, I messaged her to ask if I might be allowed to copy the photo and use it in my classroom.  I explained that I wouldn't photograph the image or distribute it; I simply wanted to discuss lines, lions, lionesses, like and love with my Super Stars over the week.

Ms. Zagarenski replied, and it wasn't with a resounding "yes."

I was disappointed, but understood.  As we so often tell our students, we can ask, but it doesn't mean we'll receive the answer we're hoping for or want.

Then Ms. Zagarenski asked if wanted a lion print for my classroom and asked me for my address.  Pleasantly surprised, I gave it to her.  Thanks to additional snow days and the inevitable delayed lesson plans and let's-get-back-into-the-school-groove routine once we returned, my interaction with the wonderful artist  slipped my mind.

Until last Friday, when this arrived:

Excited to show my kindergartners Ms. Zagarenski's lions, I opened the tube to find that a narwhal and a tiger had also been sent to us:

There were audible gasps from my Super Stars as I unrolled each print, and then oohs, whispers, giggles, exclamations, and discussions about animals, artwork, colors, letters, books, painting, and letter sounds continued on throughout the day.  "So that's what a painting looks like when it's not in a book" and "I like how she puts crowns on people and animals 'cause I like crowns too" were some of the comments the Stars shared.  Then, another lightbulb moment:  "Mrs. Sommerville!  Mrs. Sommerville!  That's the same picture from our book!"  And so it is:

Later in the day, I shared the story of how I had asked Ms. Zagarenski if I could use a picture of her lions on my SMART Board, and how she hadn't really said "yes."  Asking my Stars if I should have thrown a tantrum, or used the picture anyway, they replied "no" and reminded me that we "don't take things without permission."  Two students also reminded me that we should say ~thank you~ to Ms. Zagarenski, for sending us her wonderful illustrations.  The Stars decided that we'll write her a note and make a gift of gratitude this week for her.

As art brings color to our lives in our homes, galleries, museums and outdoor displays, so too does it enrich our classroom and school environment.  Ms. Zagarenski, thank you for sharing your art and gifts with us.


You can purchase archival prints and cards by Ms. Zagarenski at her ETSY shop, Sacred Bee.

Sunday, February 09, 2014

Kindergarten Teachers: Do You Need to Switch Grades?

I believe in self-reflection and self-evaluation.  Eighteen years of teaching kindergarten for me marks eighteen years of learning, practicing, making mistakes, tweaking, revamping, sharing, guiding, and learning some more.  Shifts and changes have been thrown into the mix as I've worked in different states and as I've fought for balance when what is mandated isn't complimentary to what is developmentally appropriate for my students.  I've blogged for over seven years, followed other edu-bloggers, and reaped the benefits from having a perspective that stretches far past the walls of the building in which I teach.  There are a lot of teacher bloggers out there who discuss education policy, politics, classroom humor and inspiration, lesson plans, ideas, and many who hawk their teacher-created materials.  My favorite Sunday-reads are more obscure teacher bloggers, the ones who post questions, ideas, strategies, woes, and successes.  The ones who share their personal opinions about their jobs.  The ones who are blunt and occasionally raw, the ones who keep the fluff and cute fonts off of the monitor, the slam poets of our profession.

As for my students, many in my first group of Super Stars have married, started families, and have been gainfully employed for years now (I took two years off from teaching, so don't worry about them being too young).  Several of them have become friends with their former kindergarten teacher.  Two have asked me kindergarten-specific questions as they anticipate the start of their childrens public school adventure.  One shared a story of how she recently overheard teachers talking at a restaurant, venting their frustrations about their students.

Both friends were discussing progress monitoring assessments that their kindergartners recently completed, and both were stressed because a fantastical jump in measurable growth hadn't been recorded in the scores.  Both teachers appeared new to service, and as my former student continued to eavesdrop, she noted that neither of the teachers ever once cited test bias, lack of technology tool use schema, student indifference, an uncomfortable and/or confusing testing environment, or the inappropriateness of the activity itself as reasons for why the scores and subsequent proposed "instructional tips"  might be inaccurate, skewed, or frankly irrelevant when it came to reflecting upon their responsibility as teachers: providing a safe, student-paced, age-and-skill appropriate, and highly experiential learning environment for a very diverse group of young children.

Instead, the teachers put all of the blame on their students, and I cringed as I listened to the examples:

___________ drives me nuts!  Every time we test, he acts like he doesn't care.

I haven't been able to start our first grade sight word list!  We're halfway through the year and my kids STILL haven't mastered the pre-primer list!

The crazy weather doesn't help, all my students want to do is play! I can't keep them on track.  

My kids need to ace these assessments by the end of the year.  I don't need to be screwed over on my teacher evaluation because of them.


One might think that eighteen years of actual in-classroom teaching experience and the temperament that comes from being a forty-four year old mother of three would guarantee a calm response from me.

But no.

My Star asked me what I thought.  Possibly using a raised voice, I told her I thought the two teachers she overheard needed to 1) take classes on early childhood development, 2) study the standards/Common Core/curricular requirements, 3) find an experienced mentor who will play devil's advocate, 4) develop a keen eye, observing and reflecting upon how their students behave in the learning environment provided to them, 5) learn about poverty, cultural and social issues, 6) turn a critical eye inward, 7) evaluate what they think their own responsibilities should truly be, and 8) if necessary, switch grades.

Admission:  I definitely used a raised voice, and I had to pause at the end to catch my breath.

In my opinion:

Kindergarten teachers who can't stand the fact that their students aren't completing first grade work... need to switch grades.

Kindergarten teachers who find themselves greatly annoyed by immature behavior, need to switch grades.

Kindergarten teachers who don't understand that play IS how young children best learn and develop necessary skills, need to switch grades. 

Kindergarten teachers who believe their students are out to "screw" their teacher's evaluation, need to switch grades.

Kindergarten teachers who believe today's hype that says in order to help Little Janie or Jeffery become a neurosurgeon after college, we must put scalpels in their tiny fists prior to age four, need... to... switch... grades.  

That's right, I went all Jeff Foxworthy over those two kindergarten teachers and the others that I know concur with them.  But I get it.  I was once a first-year teacher, a third-year teacher, a fifth-year teacher, a seventh-year teacher.  I remember listening politely during staff meetings as more experienced colleagues talked circles around me and over my head.  I too, remember when teaching kindergartners became so natural for me that the inevitable continuation of the rinse/repeat cycle of education-related acronyms and fads became more entertaining (some frightening) than inspiring.  I can recall the exact moment during a job interview when I knew that it was important for me to tell my potential employers that they did not want me in a sixth grade classroom, a fourth grade classroom, or a second grade classroom.  I was advocating for not only kindergarten students, but the children I would not have been a good match for, even though my honesty was not a surefire way to guarantee me a paycheck.

With experience and commitment, teachers often find their niche, be it a subject, grade level, or community.  For those newbie and not-so-newbie kindergarten teachers who find yourselves frustrated and angry, let me lay this nugget of truth on you:

It's not the four, five, or six year olds' fault. 

Let that sink in for a moment.

It's not the four, five, or six year olds' fault.

Your lack of experience (or overstayed welcome in the wrong grade) isn't at fault either.  But I caution you to guard against allowing your frustrations to inspire you to think up consequences that you might purposely or inadvertently inflict upon young children.  They are not mutineers, and if you choose to not make your own professional plan for self-improvement, then it behooves you to step aside, find another grade (or profession), and let those of us who know, respect, understand, and work best with young children share our energy and skill with those who deserve it most.

Take a deep breath. Be honest.  Are you constantly angry at your students?  Do you truly believe that the group of people with the least amount of control and say inside a school system are the ones responsible for how you feel?  If so, this is your wake-up call.  Step back, reflect objectively, learn, and, if necessary, acknowledge that kindergarten might not be the place for you.  As long as it's developmentally appropriate and respectful of its youngest learners first, it's a wonderful place for children and the teachers who care for them to continue to learn and grow as they experience and share collaborative learning environments.


You can read more about the debate regarding testing kindergartners here: "Is Kindergarten Too Young to Test?" by Holly Korbey