Thursday, March 19, 2020

No Tears and No Fears: What I've Communicated to My Students and Families

As a Kansas teacher, I've been asking myself a LOT of questions since Tuesday afternoon when our state officially closed school buildings. After spending the rest of Tuesday trying with little success to pick my jaw up off of the floor, I awoke Wednesday determined to enter a more productive state of mind.  Having the luxury of a few more days on spring break, I began to wonder "What do I say?" and "How do I say it?" to my students and their families, because we are not done with this school year, no siree Bob. 

Surfing social media, there are a lot of other teachers in the same boat, acknowledging the need and their desire to reassure their students and families, but not knowing quite how. Those of us with our own children now at home have needed some reassurance too. When I stumbled across this gentle reminder, it helped to ground me, refocusing my attention to my purpose as both a parent and an educator:

Young children don't need any more scares, frights or worries, and it's not my place as my Super Stars' teacher to weigh them down with uncertainty.  Here's what I sent to them earlier today, no tears and no fears:

Hello again, Super Stars and Super Star Families!


Though we are all still technically on "spring break," I thought I'd quickly check in to touch base and let you know that I am looking forward to our return to learning and sharing in whatever forms they may take for the remainder of the school year. This week I have been collecting digital/online resources for you and our Stars, exploring digital platforms such as SeeSaw, Google Classroom, Padlet, and Zoom, and have also toyed with the idea of creating a closed Facebook Group for our class use. When district administrators share the Kansas State Department of Education's plan for continuous learning with teachers, staff, and families, I will implement their directives in order to facilitate the creation of our new learning environment using the tools and resources that they recommend.

Super Stars,

Hello! I hope you don't mind that I am interrupting your vacation, but I just wanted to let you know that I have been thinking about you a lot this week! I have been cleaning, working on the yearbook, cuddling with my cats Buck and Tish-Tish, crocheting (my Wildly Important Goal or "WIG"), and creating Symbaloo webmixes like the ones that we use on our SMART Board for you to use at home. I've included some of our dance songs, some Cosmic Kids Yoga videos, reading and math tiles, and even cool videos and directed drawing lessons about BUGS! I'll email those to your parents when they're ready.

I haven't been dressing like a teacher this week, in fact, I've been pretty slouchy. I wore jammies on Monday and Tuesday, and leggings and a t-shirt yesterday and today. I've even been wearing silly pink shoes that don't match anything that I wear:

Have you had pajama days this week? We'll have to think of some fun clothing days for when we begin learning online.

I'm also going to spend this weekend trying to decide where I am going to set up my teaching space at home. I don't think I'll use the kitchen, because we still have to cook, bake and clean in there. As much as I'd like to use my back porch, it can get really windy and wet out there, and my allergies wouldn't like it very much. Maybe I'll use my craft room, even though it's full of yarn and my silly collections. While I set up my teaching space, you can help your family set up your learning space! Think about what will make you comfortable and what will be fun to use:

A table or desk and chair
A cushion for the chair if the seat is hard
A cozy spot for looking at books
Room on the floor for yoga and dance
A drawer, cubby or shelves for paper
A cup, container or pencil box/pouch for crayons, pencils, and a mini-sharpener
A wall or door to hang up your artwork, schedule, charts and other papers
A container for glue, scissors, glue sticks and tape (this container should probably be kept out of reach of little brothers and sisters)
A bag of twenty small items to use as counters for math (20 medium-sized lego pieces, 20 plastic spoons, or anything that isn't a choking hazard)
A tray, binder or folder for unfinished work so you can find it quickly
A quiet stuffed animal who can rest on your desk while you work or sit with you while you look at books and listen to stories
A basket or drawer for recyclable items such as small cardboard boxes, tubes, newspaper (these are great for crafts and engineering)
A basket or tub for plastic lids (off of milk cartons, laundry detergent, or other non-toxic items: wash and dry them before adding them to the tub) that can be used for crafts, games, counting, and building

Just as we always put away our center materials and toys and clean our mess in our classroom at school each day, we'll be making sure our learning spaces at home are also clean and ready for the next day's learning. This will be my first WIG for teaching at home, and you are welcome to use it for your learning spaces at home too.

"I will clean my learning space at the end of school activities every day."

We will brainstorm strategies together for how we will accomplish this goal, okie dokie, artichoke-y?


Finally (for now), here's a sweet poem that I found earlier this morning about this new adventure we're sharing together:

Enjoy the rest of your spring break, and feel free to let your Star check back in with me as needed,

Mrs. Sommerville


Adopt and adapt my parent and student message if you'd like as you begin this transition. Like me, you won't have all the answers, and you certainly won't have thought of every single question to ask about how we'll navigate what will become the new normal of teaching and learning.  But...

Your students would love to hear from you...

...their parents will appreciate your positivity and suggestions, and...

... you'll feel better, too. 

Saturday, March 14, 2020

Extended Home Time: Digital Resources and Learning Tool Tips for Families

We received news today that our teenager has another week of Spring Break, while today is my first day off. How am I spending my Saturday? Collecting video content to share with my students' families just in case our vacation is extended, too.

Thanks to our efforts to reduce the effects of COVID-19, my students may have the opportunity to reconnect with family, enjoy more unstructured and imaginative playtime, and explore their interests more fully.  But being with children all day long is not an easy job. Our established schedules are essential for helping kids to self-regulate, anticipate and plan for activities, and feel safe as they adjust to unanticipated changes, so the sooner a dependable routine is put into place at home, the better.  And, admittedly, parents and caregivers are going to need some ten or fifteen-minute blocks of "free" time as they find ways to help their young learners fill their days away from the routine of school.  

I've used Symbaloo to collect and sort digital content for my students for several years now, and have appreciated all of the webmixes that have been shared by others that have made it possible for me to NOT have to recreate the wheel while discovering wonderful resources such as Art Hub for Kids, Cosmic Kids Yoga, and Sag-Aftra Foundation's Storyline Online (they have a free app!) at the same time.

If you're wanting to offer families and students some additional content to help them get through their days off from school, feel free to explore Symbaloo by signing up for a free basic account, and use the search function to find webmixes like mine:

Story Time webmix here.

... and How to Draw webmix found here.

What kinds of activities might families want to plan for as they work with their children at home? Creating a schedule, for one, assigning blocks of time for meal preparation, chores, playtime with siblings, storytime, exercise and/or fresh air opportunities, quiet time (away from siblings), writing and drawing, exploring math concepts (not everything has to be a math worksheet, by the way), creative expression/art, music and movement, and clean up. Plan it, schedule it, follow it every day. 

Families who have heavily relied upon schools to provide their children with opportunities to use markers, scissors, paint, and other tools, may now find themselves in need of quick tutorials on how to set up a writing or art station at home.  Before exploring inspiration boards on Pinterest, these parents should know that they will want to supervise their children when they allow them to use scissors and tools with ink at home: no leaving cutting tools, markers, pens or paint down and within easy reach until a routine regarding their use is well established. After each day's clean up, these tools should be collected and safely stored by the adult, unless they'd like to discover that their walls, furniture, clothes, and even pets have undergone a colorful and choppy transformation. 

What do children love to use? 

Colored pencils
Paint, paintbrushes (but Q-tips and other objects used for stamps are fun too!)
Paper: construction; writing; painting; old magazines and newspapers; even junk mail!
Play Doh (here's a link to a make-at-home version from This Tiny Blue House)
Rulers, yardsticks, tracing stencils
Cookie cutters (for dough and for tracing)

Parents can round these items up, sort them and store them in tubs, containers, or clear baggies and put them near the area where they will be used most often, making sure that their children sort them into their proper containers at the end of each day.  Then the adults can disinfect the items and let them sit overnight up and out of reach. Toys, books and puzzles can also benefit from a good sorting and cleaning after extended and repeated use, which children can easily do with guidance and supervision.  When these items are ready for some disinfectant, parents can utilize a digital resource such as yoga, a directed drawing activity, or storytime video in webmixes like those above to engage children, while they clean doorknob germs and wipe down surfaces to help maintain a healthy living space.

Or use the bathroom, you know, like teachers do. 


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'.