Friday, September 30, 2011

Acknowledging Greatness

I've always thought that Greatness was a bit of an oxymoron. Great would suggest largeness, would it not? Vastness, largeness, grand. But some of the greatest greatness I have seen comes pint sized and in nibble-sized droplets. And when you notice greatness, you need to acknowledge it.

A month ago I watched a Ted Talk by a woman named Angela Maiers, entitled You Matter. Ted Talks almost always inspire me, but You Matter really hit home. I've always felt that building relationships is a critical part of education, but I could never really pin down why it mattered that my students mattered. I was just going by gut that this was the right thing to do.

My heart nearly burst after listening to Angela. Acknowledging is the most important truth of what we do as educators, because it is the key to unlocking our students and getting them to stay along for the ride. There is value in recognition, but the gift is truly in noticing and then having the sense to say so.

Have you ever noticed that the most well-loved Principals are the ones who stand at the entryway and greet each student by name? There is a magic in names; there is nothing quite so powerful or simple at the same time. To say a name is to acknowledge - to let someone know you see them. Angela speaks beautifully about this; to let someone know they matter is to hear them, see them, notice them.

I've been trying to let my students know that I notice them, as many times a day as possible. This class of beautiful and challenging children needs to hear, as individuals, that I hear them. That I see them. It has been the winning stroke as they transform into learners.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Push

This year has been one big learning experience for me. Always one to focus on intrinsically motivating my students, especially for behaviors, it's been tough to run a heavy reward program. I honestly tried every tactic I could before realizing that if I didn't change something fast then I wouldn't be able to teach these children anything.

My team members have long used a reward system in their classrooms, and there's always been an undercurrent of tension when it comes to our philosophies about behaviors. I love and respect my teammates, but this is one area where we diverge into two completely different styles.

Since I'm so against using a reward system, I've had a hard time committing to one thing for more than two weeks. Not only can I feel myself pushing back against this becoming a standard part of our classroom life, I have noticed that any one thing only lasts a maximum of two weeks before the interest fades for my kiddos. I was explaining this to my team member and friend, and suddenly I found myself standing on ground that made me uneasy. As resistant as I am to giving out rewards, I found myself at the end of a sales pitch for using a specific system. The more she tried to convince me, the more I felt my heart pushing back against this idea.

Why do we feel so compelled to sell our believes and practices to other educators? We perceive the hard-sell warily, like we might listen to a salesman or political pitch. There is always a tipping moment where the seller crosses some line, maybe because they become a little too earnest, or they step across the threshold of our personal space. But it's almost a perceivable shift in the air. That's the moment we become suddenly protective of our philosophies and practices, and the seller feels the lack of validation for their own.

Why do we take such fierce ownership over our teaching practice, to the extent that it sometimes feels like "my way or the highway"?

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Sparking the Fire

Today is one of my all-time favorite days of teaching. I've been keeping the library off-limits while we catch on to routines and practice being learners. It's not been ignored, though. I dangle it like a golden ticket, promising adventures that will ensue promptly when we can handle the excitement and responsibility of reading.

We begin this day sharing what good readers do. I can tell that these kids are already readers; they know so much about what we do when we read. What they don't know yet is that reading can fill you so completely that you lose yourself to the world within the ink. It's like telling your children all about Disney World, knowing that someday soon you will take them there to experience it themselves.

20 pairs of eyes were shining back at me, and hands were waving around as the question blurted out "Can we read now, Mrs. M? Can we read our books now?"

And so the first spark caught fire, just like that.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Pop Tabs

I've hit on the goldmine of extrinsic motivation. Simple, cheap, and ridiculously ordinary.

Pop tabs.

Let me first post this disclaimer that I am a hardcore Kohn has only been through an extremely challenging class that I have decided to take the path of least resistance. It's not an option to not teach my students anything this year, so dangle the carrot I must.

Here's the spiel: whatever result I am looking for can earn a kid a pop tab. There are plain silver ones, and there are extra special colored ones.I can up the ante whenever I need to.

When the kids earn 25 tabs, I bring them (the pop tabs, not the kids) home and make them a bracelet that looks something like this:

Ask me how great of an idea I think it is when I'm making 22 bracelets.

I always say, if you're going to do something, you might as well do it big.

Monday, September 26, 2011

No, it's just bad hair

Quote of the day:

From the mouths of babes and former first grade students, "Mrs. Mathews, is it Crazy Hair Day today?"

Sunday, September 25, 2011

airing dirty laundry

I was out three days this week with an awful sore throat and fever. I am so thankful for the sub I had, because she is incredibly reliable and trustworthy. The problem is that no matter how good your sub, you always walk into a tangle of work when you come back.

I literally dragged myself in this morning to untangle that tangle I knew waited for me. It didn't help that my room was close to disaster when I left before getting sick, so it didn't have far to go to get to the status of catastrophe.

No one likes to air their own dirty laundry, but I'm going to admit something to you. Keeping tidy is really not a strength of mine. I'm hanging my grundies out the window, I know, but I figure something good has to come from confession. Here is the mess my room had become over the first three challenging weeks.

You can see that I'm obviously no Beth Newingham or Jessica Meacham.

My friend and team-teacher Kim was also in her room today, which really does look like a photo-ready classroom. I was picking her brain about
how she kept her desk clear of papers and what she did with all her, well, "stuff". She started to
show me, and then stopped. Kim looked at me and said "You know, you may not always be organized and neat, but you do have other strengths."

Thanks, Kim. I needed that reminder.

I then spent 6 perfect hours on this lovely autumn Sunday cleaning my room.

Saturday, September 24, 2011


I was reading through Facebook this morning. There were lots of grumbling posts about the changes FB made. I admit that I felt a few disgruntled and frustrated moments when they changed it again, but once I had a chance to look through the differences I realized they were fairly harmless changes. Maybe improvements, even.

That got me thinking about how shook up we can get when something we rely on changes. We all use FB everyday, and have gotten so used to the look and way it moves that even small changes ripple out across the FB-sphere. It's a lot like introducing technology into teaching practice. One day we're standing above an overhead and the next we're trying to figure out which button on the new remote switches the Smartboard from video to computer.

There is a definite fear and loathing to changes that involve technology in our practice. Not everyone, of course. There are fearless souls who embrace wikis, blogs, and Wordle like they are new babies to the family. But others have a much, much tougher time with adding technology to their teaching.

This diagram shows the cycle we experience when change happens. We move through the steps at different rates; our learning styles apply to change as easily as academics. Where are you on the cycle? When someone walks into your classroom at 6:45 in the morning and starts to chatter with enthusiasm about how Twitter can be used to learn about the Civil War, where do you find yourself?

Change is ok. It's scary, but it's ok.

Friday, September 23, 2011


I've been out sick for three days. I've had three days to rest. Three days that, as miserable that I felt, I took advantage of. Time away from our classrooms in the first month of school are rare.

I read an article this morning that made me start to reflect on why I went into teaching. The link is here: . When people ask me why I do what I do, I always answer that it's highly rewarding and I love sharing information. The article I read this morning added another factor I had been overlooking - making connections.

I make connections every day I go into work. With my co-workers, with parents, and most importantly with my kiddos. I have no way of knowing if they go home and talk about something significant that passed between us, but I know that I do. Our dinner table is filled with talk about middle school, fourth grade, railroad engineering, and teaching; the talk is dominated about the connections I made during they day. These connections impact me enough that I can't not share them when I get home.

Making a connection with another person is one of the most significant experiences we can have. For that single moment another person makes a difference to you; and you get to make a difference to them.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

on death and dying

This isn’t about the death of the body. I would never presume to know enough about grieving to write about it. That conversation is saved for those who have had grief touch them so fundamentally that is has changed their lives forever. My grief is more selfish than that.
I’m writing about the death and dying of a belief.

There are some things you learn that resonate so strongly within you that they become a fundamental part of you. You take it into yourself and it changes how you teach. You build a framework of learning around this belief and it supports your words and actions.

It seems that there inevitably comes a time, though, where you must turn away from this belief and question it. You doubt it. You discover an ugliness in this belief, because you see it contrasted it against its negative.

Your whole system of values and reason tip over, and you feel something die in your heart. It is the death of a conviction, the ending of an era. You turn to a viewpoint that you never thought you would, and it saves you as the other part, which was so righteous and unreasonable, crumbles and loses its strength.

And then you understand that there are no absolutes, no guarantees, and no one can really save you if you aren’t willing to save yourself.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Selling out instead of settling in

I'm not a very experienced teacher, but I've spent a fair amount of time in classrooms. I am the first to admit that every group of kids that walks across the threshold to your room has some challenge. It usually comes in the flavor of "needing". Needing love, needing acceptance, needing care, needing learning. And it's all yours to give. What a priceless mission we have been given, that we can be so much to so many.
It's been a rough year. 12 days in, and I can't even see a mile up the road. I've sweetened, cajoled, promised, yelled, slammed doors, scowled, and then cried. I've been sleepless, upset and pushed into a place I never thought I'd see - to leave the career that holds my heart.
What do you do when you have a class that is nothing but needs? Is it possible for one person to be so much to so many all at once? These children, who I have promised to lead for an entire year of their lives, can't come together but instead fall apart at every seam. I am catching marbles that crash and scatter, only to be put into a bag with a hole in the bottom.
What do you do?
You look beyond what you think you know. You swallow your pride and ask for help. You look at ideas you would never have considered, because desperation gives everything a new taste. You might even sell out to the most fundamental of your beliefs.
I made a promise to these 22 children, that I would shepard them for a year and teach them. They have become more important than my most precious beliefs in teaching.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Singing the Blues

A few minutes ago, I was lying as still as a log on the sofa. It was where I crashed after coming home from school, too tired and too weary to do anything else. I was chased out by my daughters fighting, which roused me from my coma on the couch and turned me into a dragon. Now my daughters are sobbing upstairs in their rooms, (one of the periodically wails - please, if you think that is going to work, you don't know the kind of day I've had.)
I have a secret weapon that I keep for the most dire of circumstances. Like all good strategies and tricks,I know that it has a shelf life of only a week or two, and I am loath to use it up; it works that well. When my firsties are at their worst, I slide my secret weapon out of it's holster; I sing.
I sing directions, I sing their names, I sing praise of their actions.
Today I sang all day long.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Of Peacocks and Penguins

When I was beginning my second year of teaching, our principal showed us a video that (as silly as it sounds) changed my teaching. It was during a staff meeting, a few days into professional development, tucked in right before the first day of school. The video was Perry the Peacock.

Perry gets it; he feels the dilemma all peacocks face at one point or another. The truth is that most educators are Penguins. They may like your work, but your style makes them uncomfortable.

This blog is dedicated to any teacher who shrugs off the penguin suit so that they can teach to the best of their abilities. It is not always easy, and at times your footprints may be the only ones you can see on your path. But if you stop and listen, you can hear feather rustling. If you look closely, you can find bright feathers sprinkled along the way.

~ Heather