Once Upon a Twice

Once upon a twice, in the middle of the nice, in a middle school classroom, the students had fun during the week of the PSSAs.This is not a fairy tale.

But, it does involve a picture book.

It was a book I had forgotten about until retreated by to my familiar and well loved Columbia University Teacher’s College notebooks— it’s where I go when teaching gets hard, because I know if I have the motivation and the joy, my kids will too.

I saw the title, Once Upon a Twice, scribbled across the top of the page, with the words BUY THIS BOOK written in bold and underlined near it. I hadn’t bought the book, but I did remember this youtube video of a five year old reading it.

I also remembered my frustration the first time I had heard this story read to me, the rhythm and rhyme were beautiful, but hard for me to follow and my comprehension was hindered by made up words and out of context places for words with which I was familiar.

And then I remembered the third read of the book at Columbia, when I sorta’ fell in love with this book and it’s whimsy, “a riskarascal in repose, a mouse who stopped—to smell a rose.” I resolved right then that I would read the book to talk to my kids about a time when I, as an adult, struggled with a children’s book.

There is no better time to admit to your kids that reading is sometimes hard for you than during the PSSA. So I ordered the book from Amazon, and we set off to discover a book that at first had stumped me and then had me under its spell. There were giggles, laughs, gasps, and . . . I have to admit it learning—even during the week of the PSSA.

If you’re looking for a book to read to your kids of any age I’m totally recommending Once Upon a Twice by Denise Doyen.

Here are the strategies things I would teach with it . . .

  1. Vocab in Context
  2. Root words, Prefix, Suffix work
  3. Really anything you can think of vocabulary
  4. Foreshadowing
  5. Theme
  6. What to do when reading doesn’t make sense
  7. And for the little guys, using pictures to help with comprehension

On Testing and Reconciliation

I’m not against standardized testing.

Standardized testing makes me want to curse.

I can’t reconcile these things in my brain.

 

Starting this week, my amazingly talented 8th graders will be tested. They’ll answer multiple choice questions; they’ll construct responses to short stories and maybe even a recipe or two (that’s right there were recipes on the last two PSSAs). The information that the tests give me will sort of help their teachers next year to know what they know, and it will sort of help teachers in the state of Pennsylvania to see where our kids strengths and weaknesses lay, and that’s not a bad thing.

But, if you only look at what the tests say about you . . . you being: teachers, public, parents, and most importantly my students—If you only look at whatever that test says about you, you miss it the point.

My kids read. Probably more than you do. I’m just saying . . . they have favorite authors. Some of them have read their favorite 300 page novel upwards of four times, and they’re fourteen people. When they hear a line they love in their book, it’s not uncommon for them to write it on a post-it, whisper is to a friend, or write it on a facebook wall.

Sometimes my kids don’t read a book that is “just right” for them. Sometimes they read a really easy book, because they love the familiar call of friendship in Charlotte’s Web when they read,

“Why did you do all this for me?” he asked. “I don’t deserve it. I’ve never done anything for you.”

“You have been my friend,” replied Charlotte. “That in itself is a tremendous thing.”

And sometimes they reach up to read Pride and Prejudice and they misinterpret and get confused, but somehow they fall for the language and the grown up love story they’re dying to call their own.

And yet, these same kids might mess up the PSSA this year; they might take the PSSA the same week they have to put that Charlotte’s Web quote to work and be a friend in a crazy tough situation. Or better yet, their first love story could end minutes before they take the reading part of this test. My kids . . . aren’t test scores . . . they’re my kids . . . and I’ll fight you for them.

I’ll fight you for every ounce of their self-worth that you steal from them when you send them a result that says “Basic”, because not one student in my room is “Basic”; it’s not possible.

At the end of the day, statistically, I think I usually have about ten kids that will end up basic and the rest will pass with proficient or advanced. I don’t care. I want them to be good test takers; I want them to know all the skills; I want them to kick butt on this test. But if they don’t (and even if they do), I want them to know multiple choice and constructed response questions are a lame way to talk about literature (if you can call a prompt literature), a lame way to talk about life. What really matters to me is that they’re reading and living and taking from these books things that will work for their life, their dreams, their heart.

Dear students,
I like using these tests to learn about you.
I know you better than these tests.
I don’t care or need to reconcile this in my heart.

One Less Thing

I came home more than a few days this week and said to my best friend, “They never stopped asking me questions!” It’s true, they didn’t. I thought I was going to go crazy.

Like most teachers I can handle about three questions in any given moment. The make them stop factor only happens when this number reaches six questions in any given moment and two of the six have to do with the bathroom or why I chose to wear this sweater today over their favorite one (seriously why do the kids have a favorite of my sweaters?).

At some point on Friday one of my guys offers this up, “Last week was easy, we needed you to do your watch thing and make sure we got it; I guess we did cause you really bumped it up. Don’t worry; we’ll get it soon, and by the way we do know it’s called a semicolon, but winky face is way more fun to say.”

Maybe he’s right? Maybe they’ll be normal again on Tuesday– regardless as long as they’re using the winky face correctly, that’s one less thing I’ll be correcting.

Maybe?

When you’re a good teacher, sometimes you have to do nothing. I mean it probably looks like nothing, but sometimes when you’ve given them the tools, you’ve got to let them use them. Alone. No hand holding. No answering questions. And I’m so pretending not to see that one kid that’s struggling right now, cause it’s his fight and the best way for me to help him is to give him space.

It’s a fickle chemistry this knowing when to step in and knowing when to let them struggle. My first instinct is to always have a conference going on, always be moving around the room, but there are times when you just shouldn’t, when you should let them be with their book or their journal and let them journey the way you do.

The best part of my job is showing kids the journey, not the one that happens sitting in a school desk, the one that happens on the floor with your journal, when you shut out the world and figure out that who you are exactly isn’t who you thought you were. Cause I’ve been lost in a journal or a book and somehow in all that lostness, I’ve found myself, and maybe my job is more about helping these kids find themselves than anything else?

ahappyneighbor—Part I

And because I’m always trying to make everything a little more fantastic in my classroom, and since I never make too much of anything easy on myself…this year I decided that ALL of my students would learn about Detroit. That’s right, leveled texts and tons of them, hours upon hours of Internet research so every group could access the information, tons of Goggle searches and Youtube videos. I even went to the library, and you know how much that pains me.

This year instead of having Evan work with small groups of ten students in each class, he would work with everyone, right from the start. If Detroit and Evan had so greatly impacted 30 kids last year, why not go for 90? (because it’s crazy, that’s why?!)

Who in their right mind would try to write a new curriculum on a place they’ve never been, using the common core for the first time and incorporating both reading and writing standards for levels three through High School? acrazyteacher ahappyteacher

So we jumped in Mid-October. A history of Michigan with focus on Detroit, oh and sing-a-longs for fluency (thank you Bog Segar and The White Stripes). When I tell you I ran groups and made copies, I want you to understand the massive undertaking this was. I think I stayed for over an hour after school on Friday just to do one weeks worth of copying and this unit lasted until the last week in December!


As we studied, the kids shared their information with eachother via skits, power points, photos, drawings, essays, and graphic organizers. Each group had to learn from the other because honestly I couldn’t find the same information at all the different levels. Here’s the catch, each group listened to the other, because each group had the common experience of what we’re calling, “Evan videos”.

Again, Evan filled in gaps I just couldn’t find in texts. He made Detroit real and cool and funny (very funny, if you ever need to make a fourteen-year-old laugh; email me for Evan’s contact info). Like last year, Evan brought learning to life with relationship; work was completed not so much because I was asking them to do it, but more because Evan had suggested it was cool or because Evan had been there before. The power of cool in the life of an 8th grader is unreal.

 

What am I trying to say here? Why am I doing all this extra work?

Well, part of it is that you’ve got to enter into relationship with kids to make anything work. By letting the kids meet my best friend and interact with him, I make myself more real and they see the authentic nature by which my whole life is run. They know that I write inside and outside of school, because I tell them I do, because Evan tells them I do, and because I suspect some of them stalk me here.

The extra work, the copies, the hours sorting through information? I like learning; Detroit is a cool city, with a rich history. At the end of the day, the more excited I can be about a topic, the more excited the kids will be; my energy, my enthusiasm, my classroom—it’s contagious.

Guest Blogger—Lynn Balmer: The Power of Words

When my coworker, Lynn, sent me this piece of writing, I knew I had to share it with you. She is truly ahappyteacher, but this morning she was also ahappywriter.  Nothing makes me happier than passionate people, passionate people writing—they’re my BFFs.

Anyway, she wrote this as a model for her students, to show effective organization. I’m pretty sure it also shows effective voice, style, and everything good writing should be. I love Lynn for sharing like this with her kids; I love Lynn for sharing this with me; I’m sure you’ll love her too. . . .

“The Power of Words”

            I wasn’t the prettiest, smartest, or most popular person in my class.  But like any normal kid, I wanted to get attention from my peers and teachers.  Fortunately, I found a way that was positive: humor.  And no where did that humor come out more than through my writing.  I evolved as a writer from the kindergartner who gripped a pencil tightly with her tongue sticking out as she carefully formed each letter to the  teacher who still hunts and pecks as she types a mentor text for her eighth grade students.

Picture this:  a five year old with a bad hair cut from her grandfather (it was a way for a single income family to save a few bucks) and pink cat eye classes (hey, it was 1963; I was stylin’).  Eager to start school and impress the teacher, I proudly printed my first name at the top of my paper.  L  nn.  Miss McGregor walked by, glancing at my paper as I smiled up at her, despite the stern look she gave me (as the year progressed, those stern looks turned into vicious slaps meant to stifle my chattiness and humorous remarks which I never raised my hand for).   She made no comment, but later that day I got to take a note home to my mom.  My school career had just started; what did I know about notes home from the teacher.  Later that night, my mom informed me that she couldn’t practice my letters and name with me anymore.  The teacher said I wasn’t making my letters correctly, specifically the “y”, and the school had a particular way that they wanted to teach students how to write.  These were different times from today, a time when both students and parents deferred to teachers’ wisdom (and discipline), so my mom dutifully allowed the school to teach me how to write letters properly.  And while writing is much more than knowing how to write your name, my earliest memories of writing are about writing my name, my identity, backwards “Y” and all.  Fortunately, Mrs. McGregor did not smack the joy of learning out of me, nor did she quell my witty remarks, which amused the class.  I loved elementary school, especially reading and writing which came quite easily to me, and I readily accepted the role as class clown.

My writing flourished, however, when I hit middle and high school.  By now I was experimenting with the actual spelling of my name, ranging from the typical “Lyn” or “Lynne” to the more unique “Lyne” which was short-lived because people began calling me “Line”.  But the real power of writing for me came with the status it gave me as a funny person, a natural born storyteller.  Quite a few teaches allowed us to perform skits to show our knowledge, whether it was reenacting Columbus’s discovery of America in social studies or creating a different ending to a novel we’d read in English class.  And here is where I finally got to shine.  I was the writer of the script.  Naturally, I had a star role in the production too, and no matter how serious the topic, I always managed to work some humor into it.  At that time I didn’t own a type writer, but I didn’t mind filling sheet after sheet with blue ball point pen, crossing out a word here to put in a more precise one, inserting a comma there, and sometimes even ripping up the whole paper to start over.  Like most adolescents, I was painfully aware of my appearance (my stylin’ pink eye glasses now replaced by the much more hip octagon wire frames of the 70’s) and while I was limited in my ability to perfect my appearance, I was empowered with the written word, which I used to express myself and to entertain others.

By now I realized that my status in school was someone who was smart, but not too smart, and funny.  While I never ran with the most popular people, I was accepted by them because I could make them laugh.  In 11th and 12th grades I had the same English teacher, Mrs. Watkins, and under her tutelage I created literary analyses, research papers, and my personal favorite: narratives.  Stories about me and my life experiences which I could embellish and make funny.  What’s more, she let me read them aloud to the class (I always volunteered), and I can still picture it:  me at a desk with the chair attached which was in the very front of the room, the blackboard behind me with Mrs. Watkin’s perfect handwriting conveying profound words of wisdom, and the whole classes’ eyes on me as I read my story.  Not that I wanted anyone looking at me too closely back then (I never felt like I had quite the right look or clothes or hair and by now my eyes were so bad that no matter what kind of cool glasses I tried on, by the time my prescription was put into them, I looked like I was wearing the classic geek Coke bottles, definitely not a way to get a boyfriend). However, the real draw of the classes’ focus on me was the power of my written words on an audience.  Maybe Richard wasn’t going to go to the Homecoming dance with me (my fantasy), but I could make him laugh, and that kind of attention drove me to write more and more.  Poetry (most of it really bad) and letters to friends when I went off to college (long before email and texting), and eventually lesson plans as a student teacher for 7th grade English.

Because now writing was not just a way for me to be the center of attention as I made people laugh.  It was something I was good at, whether I wrote to entertain, inform, or persuade.  I chose a career to teach others how to read and write because I loved doing both these things so much, that I wanted to inspire others to love them too (or at least appreciate what the written word has to offer).  And so here I sit, hunting and pecking on my keyboard, writing a mentor text for my 8th grade students, feeling the power of the written words as they seem to almost magically appear on the page (wearing both contacts and funky reading glasses now that my myopic eyes are middle aged).   When I share this written piece with them, in hopes of inspiring them to think about how they have progressed, evolved, and grown in their own lives, I also hope that they appreciate the power of the written word.  And maybe even laugh a few times.

Rigor, Detroit, & Evan

This story was written last year, and never posted. It’s strange how things get away from me sometimes. I can’t believe I’ve never shared this story on ahappyteacher; it’s one of my favorite teacher things I’ve done yet. So before I begin to try and tell you about this year’s project, I’m taking you back to last year and letting you read about . . .

Evan. It’s hard to even begin to describe this Detroit native, or why I think it’s so vitally important that you know him. But, it is.

This fall my students fell in love with Evan and Detroit. The whole thing felt sort of magical. I was running around in my backyard with sparklers on the 4th of July when I discovered my greatest lesson plan yet. I am an eighth grade language arts teacher in Pennsylvania, and when you meet your new neighbor, who bears a striking resemblance to Robert Paterson (Edward, from Twilight), you instantly start dreaming up ways to keep this kid in your life and use him to inspire the young, vampire obsessed teens in your classroom. What I did not know that night was just how much Evan, the young Cullen look-a-like, would change my teaching practice and my classroom.

After one look at his new house, it was apparent that Evan was not from around here. His house is one of the coolest I have seen in West Chester, with little pieces of Detroit hidden throughout it. A picture of Michigan Central Station resides on his kitchen wall next to a framed picture with the word Detroit artfully scribed upon it. On his end table sits a copy of Detroit Home. Ask Evan about Detroit, and you are sure to hear about it for quite some time. If ever a boy loved his hometown, I have certainly found him.

Remembering a Time magazine article about Detroit I had read the previous fall, I asked Evan if he would help my students to connect with the text by providing short video segments about his life and Detroit. This fall a section of my students were dubbed “Detroit” and our lessons began.

At first, the kids found the article, which was above their reading level, difficult to read and the history confusing. They didn’t understand why Detroit mattered. Enter Evan and his first video entitled, “Why I Love Detroit.” My students giggled as he referred to Coney dogs and the ability to get a Greek salad with little olives at the local gas station. They connected with him as he told them of how neither of our football teams, Philly nor Detroit, have ever won a Super bowl. They listened, surprised, as Evan told them of the musical greats that have come from his city.

Now understanding that Detroit mattered to Evan, my students began the research process. Together we learned about the history of Detroit and in turn the history of our nation. My students grew to love and even defend Detroit. They searched for more information online, and when we were stuck, we turned to Evan. We once spent an entire class looking at pictures of the Heidelberg Project. We watched YouTube videos about the city and read online articles and blogs written by true Detroiters. There were timelines charted, concept maps constructed, and comparisons drawn. We listened to their music, took in their art, and salivated over their local cuisine. Our little class had fallen for a city much bigger than ourselves.

As our project drew to a close, so a chapter was perhaps (okay so we made this up, but they’ll never know) closing for Evan too. The students were informed that Evan was faced with the decision of whether to move back to Detroit or to stay here in West Chester, PA. Each student was asked to write a persuasive letter; it became so much more. I realized how much my fourteen-year-olds loved Evan and Detroit. They wanted Evan to stay, because he is part of their lives and has had such success here. They also wanted Evan to return to Detroit– the city he so loved– because they recognized the heart of a true Detroiter: passionate, creative, and motivated. Though they loved Evan dearly, some did choose to send him home to be a part of a city that is “redefining cool.”

When I assign a writing project to eighth graders the first question out of their mouths is, “How long does it have to be?” This time it was, “I can’t pick,” and “Can he do both?” It mattered. They discussed; they read more; they even made movies of questions for Evan to watch. At the end of the week, I collected the best work I have ever seen eighth graders write, some topping four pages in length, and all supported with facts from a variety of sources. The passion with which these students were invested blew me away and brought tears to my eyes.

It was at this point that I truly began to reflect on the process. My kids gained more knowledge than I ever dreamed they would have of Detroit. We had not merely skimmed the surface instructionally; we had gone into the deep waters of comprehension. I had given the students the gift of Evan, someone who would love and celebrate them. Someone who would never dream of grading them or telling them they could or couldn’t go to the bathroom. Evan who would read their papers and write a response to them as though they were long lost friends, not a teacher checking for proper grammar or focus in writing. By letting go a little bit, I had given my students the three R’s I hear so much in the teaching field: Relationship, Relevance, and Rigor. It made all the difference.

In the end, Evan is not moving back to Detroit, but certainly a small part of Detroit has moved into Room 302, and we couldn’t be happier.

Evan teaches the boys how to add voice in their writing.

Dear Ella,

Lessons in teaching.

When your brother’s wife is having a baby and you’re in a room full of fourteen-year-olds, it’s totally okay to lose your teacher cool and feel kinda’ weepy. They love the drama anyway.

Ella Mae Smith was born on December 19, 2011 while I was teaching block three. This happyteacher is now ahappyaunt; want to see perfection? Snuggle up to Ella Mae while she takes a nap. Her little baby sounds and cutie little eyebrow arches will melt your heart before you know what hit you.

And then maybe because I’m a teacher, no probably because I’m a writer I decided that in these early days of her life, the best gift I could give to Miss Ella is a letter— writing, words that she can savor when she’s older and not sleeping so much. And so . . .

Dear Ella,

I love everything about you. I expected that, but I didn’t expect that you would take my breath away. I didn’t expect that with every coo and sigh you make, my heart would flutter. But, it does.

I didn’t expect that your Dad would turn into mush every time he sees you. I mean I expected it sometimes, but I’m telling you he’s pretty much always mush these days. I get a text message picture of you almost every day from him; proud doesn’t even begin to explain how he feels about you.

And your Mom, I didn’t expect to catch her staring at you in the middle of conversations. But it’s hard to focus on anything when you’re around.

Sometimes things happen the opposite of what you expect, but that’s okay. With you, it’s been more than okay, and that’s how the best stories are written—with unexpected feelings and jumps and slows in the road. And already you’re there, right at the very beginning of your life, already I know your story is gonna be good.

So Ella, I hope you pause when life doesn’t meet your expectations. I hope that little things take your breath away and make your heart flutter. I can’t wait to hear your stories and walk with you through life like only an Aunt can.

One thing I can promise you, you’ll never have to do anything more to have my love or your parents love— you’re loved because you’re you; you’re ours.

I love you Ella!— Aunt Rachel

in the right place

I was sitting talking with a trusted friend over break, when she asked me, “Could you write a blog about that?”

I looked back in horror, “On happy teacher?”

We were complaining, well maybe we were just dreaming of things being better. We were talking of teacher burnout at seven years into our profession. No teacher should be burned out at seven years in, especially not the best (and believe me this friend of mine is the best). Yet, somehow we were both tired. Tired of small classrooms and crazy climate swings within them. Tired of pouring our salary directly back into our classroom. Tired of . . . well we went on.

But, then the conversation shifted. Is it worth it? No, it’s not. Are we crazy? Yes, we are.

Yet for both of us, somehow we recalled small, gentle, yet boldly visible moments that push us out of the burnout and into the fire that we’ve had since before we went to college.

A girl writes about her identity, who she is and what she needs to change to be who she wants to be.

A mother communicates with her son for the first time on a level that crushes the past and opens doors to the future.

A child reads their first book cover to cover and begs for more.

Or even, the moment in the middle of a lesson when you look like a complete fool and you’re sweating and singing and cheering on the kids— and you look around and realize the whole room is captivated, the whole room is learning, every kid is exactly where they are supposed to be and so are you.

Sure as teachers we need to be careful of burnout and burnout conversations that lead to nowhere. Mostly though, we need to be careful to seek out the fire and fight to live there, because if your day/week/month contains even one of those fire moments, you’re in the right place and you know it.

 

an apology long overdue

I’m not a huge fan of the library. Is that a crazy thing for a language arts teacher to say? It probably is. So I take it back, sorta.

When I was in school, every time a teacher took us to the library for some lame research project, I would goof off. Crazy, right? Me, ahappyteacher, wasting class time? Truth was I hated the books, I hated the card catalog, and searching a page for information was just painful. I come from a Googlemethis generation, and to be honest, I’m proud of it. We get it on our kindle, we take notes on our iPad, the bibliography is formatted for me on www.easybib.com .

So maybe I’ve been a little lax these past few years in taking my kids down there. Just because I didn’t see a use as a kid, or a college kid, or a grad student, doesn’t make the library old school? Or does it?

Regardless, we headed down there for a cross-curricular project with social studies this week. The kids used books and google, in harmony, and I have to say I’m pretty proud of them. They worked harder than I did as a student and really I feel like their understanding is deeper than any I would have had at their age. Who would have thought, a simple trip to the good ol’ library?

There was this really cool atmosphere of research going on down there, I kept finding myself thinking, “Awwww look at my little learners!”

Dear Library,

I’m sorry; you’ve done good for my kids and I this week. I plan to take them down to visit you a little more this year; I don’t mind that you’re not all digital, and I love your nerdy atmosphere. So for all the years neglected you, I hope we’ve no hard feelings.

Sincerely,

ahappyteacher