Friday, August 21, 2015

Take a deep, brave breath

Welcome back!

First of all, I mean it's been two years since I last blogged. I've never considered myself a writer, but I do consider myself an advocate and hence I blog as a way to help others see the world of teaching from my personal, unique teacher perspective. And when I do write, it's always sparked from within my heart, and translates to the world the deep emotion I feel connected with my teaching. Teaching is above all else for me a work of heart, my life, and my contribution to the world.

Welcome, back! This time I mean school, of course! In this part of the country school doesn't officially  begin until after Labor Day (or around Labor Day) but most teachers start having those Back to School dreams right about now. I started having mine back in May because I'm changing grade levels. Four grade levels. As a friend pointed out to me just yesterday, I've taught primary for almost twenty years but now I'm totally skipping intermediate and going straight to middle school. That's right! I'm headed from second to sixth. I don't want anyone to take this the wrong way, but I'm completely terrified.

Okay, don't worry! I'm incredibly excited, too. Since May I have experienced a plethora of mixed emotions about the upcoming school year. About eight years ago I took a deep, brave breath and transferred schools and moved up one grade level. I knew at the time that I was ready for a change, ready to be bold, and needed to find a place where I could learn and improve my pedagogy. Lucky for me, Zoller school was just that place since it was involved with a grant to improve literacy. What luck!, I thought. I can change grade levels and learn more about how to teach reading. The excitement I felt for learning the new curriculum and teaching methods was thrilling! I feel that same way now for sixth grade. (Except I'm not yet officially receiving any training, but hopefully something will come my way soon...uh hmmm, hopefully math training will come my way, soon!)

But here's the hitch: this year is a HUUUUGGGEEE change (insert Billy Fucillo's voice here; NY folks, you know what I mean!). One grade up- bah! That's nothing. Primary curriculum-hah! Don't we all know our major U.S. Holidays? Can't everyone spell "what"? (No.) (p.s. Teaching reading to little ones is hard!) I'm not saying that teaching primary is easy. What I am saying is that it WAS brave to make a change and I recommend everyone should do it occasionally to sharpen their skills, but this change is exponentially different from my usual. I am about to venture way outside my comfort zone. And that is what terrifies me.

It's terrifying to look at ratios and rates compared to greater than/less than. It's terrifying to read The House on Mango Street versus An Extraordinary Egg. It's terrifying to think about teaching writing reading responses to prepare for a test ALL YEAR instead of teaching alliteration in poetry. It's terrifying to consider teaching Earth Materials and Processes instead of the Life Cycle of a Butterfly. It's terrifying because as I write these words I know how much I don't know! And's also exhilarating.

Let's go back to terrifying once more. Hormones. Enough said.

So as I drink my coffee, watch the news, and get ready to go work in my classroom and by the way also meet one of my students, the flood of emotions is ever present: fear, excitement, insecurity. In many ways I feel like a new teacher again.

But it's good. This is good. Despite the knots in my stomach I know this is good. This is an opportunity to stretch my teaching muscles much further than I would have had I stayed in primary. I have the chance to transform my teaching and myself in an unanticipated way. And most importantly, I can make a difference with a whole new group of little humans, a group who is impressionable and vulnerable and in need of a good, strong, caring teacher. I can do that. I can care, and I will be strong, and I'll do everything I can to be good, too.

And I know you will, too. I wish all teachers out there the best of luck in this new year. Thank you for your dedication, your bravery, and for everything you do for our students.

In closing I want to share a quote that inspires me. A courageous teacher/speaker actually shared this quote at the NNSTOY conference this summer, but it bears repeating:

Like a small boat in the ocean
Sending big waves into motion
Like how a single word can make a heart open
I might only have one match
But I can make an explosion

(-Rachel Platten)

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

The Love of Literacy

How can a teacher foster the love of literacy within a child?

I once had a student who transferred to my classroom from another school within my district. In my first interaction with him, he told me he hated reading and couldn’t read. Smiling, he said both things with a matter-of-fact attitude. This child wasn’t being difficult- he was very innocently trying to help me get to know him. Honestly I can’t remember my exact response, but I’m sure I said something like, “Of course you can read!” (This is what I always say to any student, ever, who tells me that they can’t read! After all, if you put a McDonald’s sign in front of her, won’t she likely say, “McDonald’s”? Is that not reading, in its simplest form?)  He then began to learn what we do for literacy instruction in my classroom: balanced literacy centers, explicit phonics instruction, writing workshop, and reading workshop. The keys to these models of instruction which I have chosen to implement in my classroom are independence, choice, and differentiation. One by one he learned each of our independent centers, which in summary reinforces previously taught skills at each child’s level. He began to write during the writing workshop, creating books and projects of his choice with individualized conferences to help him understand his strengths and implement the newly introduced craft or mechanic of writing. He learned spelling patterns for reading and writing, with exposure to “grade level” patterns as well as small group work with phonics at his level. He enjoyed fiction and nonfiction stories with our class, subtly absorbing comprehension and decoding skills through modeling, partnerships, and work with appropriately leveled, self-selected books in his very own book-basket.

And so, at the end of the year, this boy came to me and told me that our school was his favorite school of all. I asked him why he felt that way. His response: “Because we have so many books!” I credit his amazing transformation to the keys of literacy instruction: independence, choice, and differentiation.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Brazil, in Perspective

“We have arrived in São Paulo, and amazingly I feel fine, and not too tired. We’ve gone to the market and the museum so far. I had pasteiras grandes caramão.”

That’s all I wrote while I was in Brazil. I fully intended to journal my experiences as they happened, but what I experienced was writers block instead. Following that last sentence, I stared at my iPad for a good long while, listened to our guide, and stared out the bus window. I was overwhelmed. I had no words.

I had no words, and I decided that was okay. Having resolved to take everything in as it came, I packed my iPad away and began the sensory overload.

Our initial bus ride through Sao Paulo was an incredible sight. I’ve been through some seedier parts of New York City, and of course our more poverty stricken areas here in Schenectady (“The Hill”), but never had I seen anything like the atmosphere in our first thirty minutes of driving through São Paulo. Graffiti covered every available wall space. Trash was strewn about the streets, and in one case I believe I saw what may have previously been flaming garbage, but was then smoldering remnants.

I’ll admit this was a bit of a shock. I don’t know what I was expecting, to tell the truth. What I did know immediately was that I had to keep an open mind- based on all of my readings and conversations beforehand, I knew this was NOT all that was Brazil; it was just my first impression, and it was not the whole picture.

Stopping at the Municipal Market I quickly learned that the folks in Brazil are welcoming to visitors. All the vendors we encountered countered the dismal look of the city outside with bright smiles and a vivid welcoming attitude. We were offered delicious and strange looking fruits to sample, and as we finally exited to meet our bus a nice young man teased me with a mischievous smile while holding out some sort of what I believe was probably sea food but really looked like a giant spider (um, those of you who know me realize what I felt like when he held that creature towards my face…).  “Não, obrigada,” I said.

Comfort was creeping into my being, and Brazil was finding a place in my heart. But, we hadn’t even begun our most important mission yet- to see and experience the education of Brazilian youngsters.

Our first experience was at the Escola Alexandre Humbolt, a high school in São Paulo. I immensely enjoyed this experience! The students and teachers were delightfully excited to have us as visitors, eager to demonstrate their culture of dance and their close-knit community, and inquisitive about us as Americanos. They performed several dances for us- outstanding, and impressive to say the least! While their “library” was intensely smaller than even our elementary school library- it was vaguely the size of an average living room I would say, with four (I think) shelves of books and a cozy reading space- it was clear they were very proud to offer these resources to their students. There was a well-kept computer lab, and the classroom in which we observed a philosophy lesson was like many other classrooms all around the world- full of desks, students, a board, an interactive white board, the teacher, and some posters. Students cheerfully filled the hallways and nooks and classrooms wherever we went, and many went about their high school business despite the interruption of about 45 Americans marching through their hallways. Students were engaged.


Following the high school experience was the Escola Henrique Dumont- an elementary school. My excitement at meeting little children much like the ones I have the privilege to teach every day was immense! This was a school of six to ten year olds, with thirty-seven teachers and 734 students. I was so pleased to discover that in advance the school had separated our large troop into smaller groups in order to move us around the school in a center-style orientation, complete with pre-printed and color coordinated nametags. (How very elementary!) After having been so incredibly “wowed” from the first school, I had no idea what a tremendous experience we would have at this school!

In each and every classroom the brave Brazilian teachers modeled teaching. Despite the language barrier, the power of the lessons was evident. The power of the student engagement was evident. A love of learning was evident. I wanted to spend all day there. (I wanted to spend a week there!) All that I saw impressed me: students moving about freely between classrooms, students collaborating on a computer, students interacting during a math game and taking mutual responsibility for each other (“Quem está dormindo?- Who is sleeping?”, said jokingly when someone didn’t realize they had the answer), students singing and dancing during physical education. That was perhaps the most incredible lesson I saw during the trip. This physical education teacher sang, danced, taught both physical education as well as social studies, and kept his entire class engaged. Then he included the Americans and we all partook in a circle of physical education. I had so much fun! It was obvious the children did, too. Singing, dancing, music, and social studies during one physical education class. Wow.

And then we went to the garden. In the garden we had the opportunity to help the children plant seedlings, which would eventually grow, be harvested, and included in the meals served to the children. Need I say more? (Okay, one more thing: as all the little boys were lined up and making muscles at the various photographers surrounding them, one little boy began to sing, “Macho, macho man!”)

It can’t get much better than that, right? Wrong. The next day we visited the Meninos do Morumbi Project. I think perhaps a switch got flipped in my being that day. This project, begun by Flávio Pamento, incorporates courses such as painting, computers, English, dance, and music for children of all backgrounds in São Paulo. Words cannot express the joy I felt at watching those children perform feet in front of us. The children’s faces were bright with energy and pride while they danced, sang, and worked the musical instruments.

We visited two other schools as well- another high school and a middle school. In every school, every teacher, every guide, and every child I encountered I felt the same thing from them: pride, welcome, and a love of education.

It’s been several days since our return to the United States, and I still feel like I am processing all that I took in during that nine day trip. If I had to summarize in one word what I found to permeate through all the experiences I had in Brazil it would be this: identity. It seemed to me that the people of Brazil were strong in their sense of identity. It’s difficult to describe how I think this is so. Except, it simply seemed so. All of the students seemed to have a strong sense of culture and who they are. Perhaps it is nurtured in the physical education classes of music, dance, and history. Maybe it’s the community responsibility in growing and eating your own food when you are six years old. Perhaps it is the dances- the samba, and the capoeira (dance/martial art) - that every child learns and connects them together. I don’t know, but it seemed so.

Or maybe it’s the soccer- I mean futbol, of course. Serendipitously the Confederations Cup was taking place simultaneous with our trip. I was out souvenir shopping during the game against Uruguay. Every shop owner and every person seemed to be watching the game- it almost made me feel bad to interrupt with checking out my souvenirs. Further, clearly every person in a vehicle was listening to the game, as was evidenced by the triumphant honking of every passing car when Brazil scored against the opposing team. And if that is not enough, the very next morning when I went to breakfast in the hotel and sat down with my back to the television- which was replaying the game from the night before- the waiter immediately came over and very courteously and with concern told me I could switch my seat to see the game better. He was very concerned that I could not see the game.

In whatever way it happens, it seems to me that Brazilians have a strong sense of identity. Which leads me to my questions: Do my students have a sense of identity? Is there something we do that binds them together as a culture? If there isn’t something we already do, what can I change to create that sense of culture? What I wrote in my notebook during one debriefing session is this: Identity through Community, and Community through Identity.

While there are many other anecdotes and experiences from Brazil stirring around in my mind and trying to break free as I write this blog, today I end here. I have learned so much. The children of Brazil have taught me. The teachers of Brazil have taught me. The people of Brazil have taught me. My lessons are still ripening, but first and foremost I am now in search of identity.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013


I stand at the door as they swarm into the room- 18, 19, 20. There should be 21, but I know that the last will arrive late. The variety of needs is great; some need intensive services right away, while others can wait until a little later; but they ALL require the products of my training nonetheless. I can’t believe every day this happens that I’m in charge of such an enormous range of needs every second of the day that I work my job. I do, however, know that I’m responsible for each and every life here, and it is my support that will help determine if they have a future. Thinking back to my internship- my on the ground training- I recall the adversities from back then as I face some of the same issues now, and I feel confident that I have had the intense, rigorous, specific training (and passed the multiple licensing exams) my field requires to save these lives.

Taking down the chairs, they put their snack on their desks, chat a little with friends, and get out books to read as the lunch count is called. Within moments every child has picked one or two learning activities for later, to keep them engaged while the teachers are teaching small reading groups.

Wait. Did you think I was a doctor? No. I am a teacher.

The profession of my heart has been quite discouraging as of late. In my district, my state, and my country the tide of education is changing and churning. It seems like everywhere a teacher turns, discouraging news reports and negative newspaper articles crash over him. Policymakers and Successmakers (who I also fondly refer to as teachers) need more than ever to work together; but first we must know each other.

I am a second grade teacher. I have been educated by an accredited undergraduate college where I obtained my Bachelors of Science in Education with a 3.78 grade point average. I also earned a Master’s Degree in Education with a 3.98 average. As I said before, I passed multiple licensing exams to earn my certification.

I am a teacher, and I teach in Schenectady, New York. I am also the 2012 New York State Teacher of the Year. For many readers, that probably makes them think that I am the “best teacher in New York”. This is absolutely untrue. Instead, I am a representative sample of the teachers in New York. As a matter of fact, I believe I am a representative sample of the teachers in Schenectady. I believe this because I did not form in a bubble, as I like to say. I became the teacher I am today, the New York State Teacher of the Year, because of the support and inspiration of my colleagues here in Schenectady. I have emulated the teachers around me since I first began teaching in 1998. Who I am, as a teacher, is in large part an imitation of the teachers who I’ve worked with throughout the years.

Since becoming a teacher, like the teachers I have worked with, I have taken numerous professional development courses in reading, writing, math, behavior management, working with parents, science, education policy, differentiated instruction, suicide, bullying, Therapeutic Response, and technology to remain current in educational research and practice. During the rare year that I did not take an official course in professional development, I read professional books and articles regularly, as well as collaborated with colleagues to discuss methods and best practices.

I am highly qualified to teach my students. I teach with expertise as well as enthusiasm. It is not enough to say that I care about my students- which of course I do, deeply. It goes without saying that my love of teaching rests in the students I teach.  But let it be known that I select individual, research based methods that match my students’ learning styles. Let it be known that after getting to know each and every child in my class through personal interaction as well as both formative and summative assessments, I select instructional methods to deliver the Common Core State Standards that will best suit our class, as well as individuals. I collaborate with other teachers at the same grade level, above and below my grade level, as well as with other education professionals on a daily basis to ensure sound instruction for my students.

I know my students. I know where they began their year in my class, and how far they’ve come. I know how to evaluate their progress and report it to parents. But more importantly, I KNOW that every child in my class can and will learn. I will never relent in teaching them, and I will never allow them to give up on themselves. I have never, nor will I ever wash my hands of any child. If they don’t know it, I will find a way for them to do it. I will scaffold their instruction and use my vast training to teach them at their level and help them achieve their fullest potential. I do this because it is my calling, and because I know their life depends on it. I do this because I am a teacher.

I am not just a teacher. I am a teacher. I am an educator. I’m a go-getter, do-better, self-reflecting master. I educate, facilitate, create, and negotiate. I’m a collaborator and an innovator, an achiever, a believer, and a tattletale receiver! Teaching is the most challenging, complex, incredibly rewarding, exceedingly difficult profession in the world and I love this job and I’d do it for free- but really you should pay me more. I’m a life-changing, mind-molding motivator every single day that I teach. I’m a teacher, and I teach in Schenectady, New York.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Now That's The Truth

I joined an interesting webinar tonight hosted by NNSTOY, featuring Charlotte Danielson and Teacher Evaluation. Needless to say, it was incredibly informative. About halfway through the webinar I realized I should have been taking notes...because Charlotte speaks the gospel as far as I can tell. So while I missed my opportunity to scribe the words of wisdom that were tickling my brain at that moment, I did manage to capture one major epiphany.

What struck me as bold and true was this statement:
Teaching is so hard that it can never be perfect.
Knowing that one of the most well-respected gurus in education believes teaching is hard is validating. I recently had a conversation with another educator, in which the educator characterized elementary teaching- primary in particular- as babysitting. This popular misconception changed for her after working in an elementary school for one day.

Charlotte furthered her statement with this quote:

…..classroom teaching…. is perhaps the most complex, most challenging, and most demanding, subtle, nuanced, and frightening activity that our species has ever invented….The only time a physician could possibly encounter a situation of comparable complexity would be in the emergency room of a hospital during a natural disaster.

-Lee Shulman, The Wisdom of Practice

As many of you know, in my Decree Your Degree initiative, I have often compared teachers to doctors.

So, yes, my formal APPR observation was last Friday. I couldn't believe how nervous I was! I don't know what came over me. I've been less nervous to speak in front of an audience of thousands...but I digress. Or do I? Could it be that I recognize how incredibly difficult teaching is, and that despite the best laid plans most lesson are more similar to the emergency room scenario noted above than a choreographed dance? 

Teaching is so hard that it can never be perfect. Thank you, Charlotte.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

You'll Be Fine

Last night I didn't sleep very well. I tossed and turned. I had a disturbing dream. What was the dream, you ask? Well, it was a teacher dream.

I dreamt that I was forced to transfer to sixth grade (I teach second grade). I dreamt that I had no choice in the matter, and was not consulted. I dreamt that I was nervously greeting my new students, trying to get to know them, while at the same time trying to remember what I was supposed to teach. The overall feeling of the dream was incredible discomfort, nervousness, and a sense of hopelessness at not having a choice in the matter.

Now why did I share this information with you? I shared this because I have very real feelings of nervousness and anxiety about the changes to our new teacher evaluation, just like all the other teachers I know. Yes, yes, the dream was not exactly about APPR, but the reality is the feelings I experienced are the same as those I feel about my upcoming observation. Regardless of the generous titles I have earned, (and the most wonderful experience a teacher could ever have) I am still a human teacher who sometimes has lessons flop. I, like every other teacher I have spoken to in NY this year, am very nervous about this brand new process, as well as very hopeful that the day my administrator observes me is not one of my "off" days!

On countless occasions during a conversation about APPR I have been told, "You'll be fine." On many of those occasions I've also been told enthusiastically (and very kindly,thank you) "You're Teacher of the Year! Why are you worried?" Yet, I'm still nervous, and of course I have put forth an extraordinary effort to complete a thorough pre-observation form (thanks for the help Jen R.!) and a well thought out lesson plan. Wouldn't you?

My point is this: Every good teacher- every great teacher- is nervous. That's because we are reflective, conscientious, determined professionals. And, we are ALL  striving to put our best foot forward. Anyone who looks at me in response to a question about my lesson  and deprecatingly says to me, "Ugh, your APPR? You'll be fine. Geez. I can't believe you're asking me that." doesn't understand the true nature of teaching, or teachers.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Teacher Truths

We had a wonderful field trip to Siena College to see a basketball game. It was a fantastic experience for the children! They had the best time! I had a great time, too, watching my students enjoy themselves while staying in control and being both respectful and responsible...a teacher's dream! I returned to the school relieved, and partially deaf.
After the game, I got to thinking about some things that have happened over the last few days, and how "stuff works" as a teacher. Here are some teacher truths that occurred to me today:
No matter how many times you have told them to "go back and reread", they don't.
If you say, "Put your name on your paper", at least one person won't.
If you tell the children to use the bathroom, and one says he doesn't have to go, he WILL have to go as soon as you don't have a bathroom nearby.
If there is a bathroom on the bus, the children will use it. Unless you tell them it's broken, and then magically nobody has to go.

That's just a few from today! There are many, many teacher truths. Can you think of one?