What if I Don’t Want to Teach My Students to Calm Down?

This year, my district has adopted a new social-emotional curriculum. As I have expressed in the past, I have some serious concerns about this specific program and about using pre-written and scripted programs in general. Yesterday, I completed the mandatory online training for this program. There were several things about the program and about the training that were upsetting to me, but one of the hardest things for me to deal with was the repetition of the concept of self-regulation throughout the course of the training.

One of the things that this program prides itself on is that it teaches students to self-regulate. What I think that means is that it teaches children how to calm down when they are upset. Strategies are taught to the children such as taking deep breaths, counting to ten and using positive self-talk. These strategies are to be used by the students and reinforced by the teachers in order to reduce the number of conflicts that erupt into more serious situations.

Now, I think it is great that we teach our students ways to deal with anger. When that anger results from not getting what they want or not winning a game or being jealous of their friend’s new toy, then I think it is great to teach students ways that can help them to calm down so that they can think about the situation more clearly and then find a way to deal with the problem that will help to solve it and not make it worse. I happen to think that these strategies would be more meaningful if they came from the students themselves and if we showed them that no one strategy is going to work for every child, but I do understand the need to help students learn how to calm down in certain situations.

However.

I also think that it is important for us to teach our students that there is a difference between anger that is the result of not getting what you want and anger that is the result of witnessing an injustice in the world. I believe that in school we spend a whole lot more time teaching kids to calm down, when I think our world might be a better place if we spent some of that time also teaching our students how to get angry. But I notice that there are no lessons on that in this new program.

I worry that the message that we are sending to our students is that anger is purely a negative emotion that leads to only negative things. I worry that we are missing opportunities to show our students that anger over injustice can be used to spark social change and to make our world a better place. I worry that we are telling our children that any outward display of anger is bad. I worry that we are teaching our students to think that when they see people who are expressing anger in a way that doesn’t involve taking a deep breath, counting to ten and using positive self-talk then these people are doing something wrong. And I think that is a dangerous message to send to our students.

Because I want my students to know that there are things in this world that are worth getting angry about. I want my students to know that sometimes counting to ten isn’t going to work. I want my students to know that there are things that are worth fighting for in this world and that there are things that are not. I want my students to know how to tell the difference between the two. I want my students to know that there are sometimes when you will need to shout and scream and let your anger show in order to talk about the things that make you upset because there will be so many people in this world who won’t want to listen. I want my students to know that sometimes when they see people on t.v. or in their own lives yelling and screaming and letting their anger show, it is because they have been forced to be a part of a system that has oppressed them for too long and they are tired of not being heard and they are tired of being told to just calm down. I want my students to know that there is such power behind this kind of anger. And I want my students to know that they have no right to judge the anger of other people until they sit and listen and try to understand what people are really so angry about.

And I don’t think that we teach this to our students often enough. I certainly know there are no lessons in this new program of ours that deal with the concepts of using anger to spark social change. And I don’t want to be too cynical, but sometimes I think that we don’t teach this to our students because that wouldn’t make them the kind of students we want. The kind of students who sit quietly and swallow their anger if they feel they have been wronged by a teacher or someone else in power. I worry that we don’t teach our children to be angry because then we might actually have to deal with their anger and the things that they are angry about.

I worry that we spend so much time teaching our students how to calm down that we forget to teach them how to be angry about the injustice. So then, I worry that they will just stop seeing the injustice. Because how can you really look at injustice without getting angry? How can you really see the terrible struggles of this world and not allow your blood to boil? How can you really count to ten and take deep breaths after witnessing the lives that our society forces some people to live? Is that really what we want?

Again, I am not saying there isn’t importance in teaching our students to calm down. I think it is necessary. I think that when dealing with injustice, there is a time to be calm. A time to try taking deep breaths. A time to try counting to ten. But I also think that there is time for anger. And anger that is loud and noisy and sometimes scary. There is a time to be the opposite of calm. And I think we owe it to our students, and really to this world, to teach lessons about both.

And so, I as prepare to head into this school year and find a way to adapt this program to fit the needs of my students, I know that one place that I will be starting is by asking my students to think about times that they need to calm down AND times that they need to get angry. I want us to have conversations about the positive use of anger. I want us to have conversations that discuss the possibilities that exist other than calming down. I want us to talk about the benefits and the dangers of always calming down after experiencing anger. I want us to talk about all of this because I think it will help them to view the world differently. I think it will help them to know that there is not just one correct way of dealing with anger. I think it will help them to stop judging the people they see reacting to anger in ways that are different than their own.

I think, in the end, it will help them to not just be better students, but instead to be better human beings.

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Helping Other Teachers By Sharing the Process and Not Just the Product

For the past two years, I have had the incredible pleasure of being a part of my district’s model classroom program.  The program allows us to get into each other’s classrooms in order to look more closely at specific aspects of our literacy instruction.  The program is possible because of the incredible and intelligent Ellin Keene who has been a consultant for our district for several years now and whose guidance has been invaluable in helping me to be the kind of teacher and human being that I am today.

Each year, those of us who open up our classrooms offer different types of labs on different aspects of literacy instruction. In the past, I have offered immersion labs which run throughout the course of the entire year. Participants in the lab come and observe all of reading and writing workshop in the classroom for two mornings at the start of the school year, two in the middle of the school year and two at the end of the school year. The afternoons of those days are spent debriefing, reflecting and learning about what was observed and what the participants want to take back to their classrooms.  I have also offered topic labs which are just two days of observations and are focused on one particular aspect of the reading or writing workshop.  I have had topic labs about using small groups as a part of our literacy instruction, using informational texts as mentor texts in the writing workshop and engaging students in literature discussion groups that are completely student led. These topic labs also leave time for the incredibly important debriefing session.

I have learned so much from being a part of these labs.  Not only are the participants learning new things through these observations and debriefing sessions, but those of us opening up our classrooms learn an incredible amount as well. This process forces you to be deliberate in your teaching and reflective as you attempt to explain to others why you have made the choices that you have made. All of these labs are voluntary which means that the people who sign up to participate really want to be there and really want to learn. This allows for some incredibly powerful discussions. Having an entire afternoon devoted to talking about our literacy instruction is such a luxury and often this is where the most powerful learning comes from.

It is one thing to go into someone else’s classroom and admire a lesson or copy down an anchor chart that you see on the wall.  It is another thing entirely to stop and talk about why the teacher chose to teach the lesson in the way that she did and what led up to the creation of that specific anchor chart.  Just observing someone else’s classroom often leads to teachers returning to their own rooms and simply copying what they saw and then being at a loss of where to go next. However, being engaged in a discussion that allows people to see the journey that you, as a teacher, went on in order to arrive at the particular lesson that they saw is a much more powerful experience.  When teachers can see the thinking that led you to where you are, then they are much more likely to engage in that kind of thinking themselves and arrive in a place that is right for them and right for their students.

It is in sharing our process that the real learning takes place. Sharing our final products might make us feel good and it might allow us a chance to celebrate our hard work, but it does little in helping other teachers to accomplish their own hard work and their own successes with their own students.

Today we had a meeting with all of those who are involved in running the model classroom program. All of us who open up our rooms for observations were there. This year, we are rolling out some new aspects of our reading curriculum. There will be some pieces that are entirely new for all of us. Some new thinking about the best ways to run reading and writing workshops and new types of work that we are doing with our students.  There is going to be a lot of new.

Some of the new is so new that we don’t really fully understand it all yet.

However, as model classroom teachers, we are being asked to help teachers in the district to think about these new changes and new ways of instructing our students.  And that is really scary.  The reading units we are supposed to teach, aren’t finished being written yet.  The new ways that we are supposed to be instructing, aren’t finished being taught to us or understood by us yet. And we are supposed to invite people into our classrooms to watch all that.

There is a lot of push back against that idea. Why would I want someone coming in to my classroom to watch me flail around while I try to figure out what on earth I am supposed to be doing? Why would I want someone to watch me fail as I try to figure out how to make these new things work for me and, more importantly, for my students? Why do I want to invite people to watch me struggle?

It is insane.

And it is also brilliant.

Because too often, we only invite people to see the things that we are most proud of. Too often, we only ask that people learn from what we know how to do really well.  I have spent the past three years really focusing on making my reading conferences as effective as they can possibly be. So it is easy for me to have people come into my room and watch me conduct reading conferences with my students. It is easy for me to talk about how I got to where I am because I am really proud of the work that I have done and I know that what I am currently doing is helping my students to be better readers.

But when I do that. When I invite people in only to see the things that I have spent years figuring out, then I am really only sharing my final product. Yes, that product will continue to evolve, but what people are seeing is a somewhat polished version of all the really messy stuff that I can now cover up.

This year, what we have the chance to do is to let people in to see the mess.  We can ask teachers to join us as we struggle through something new. We can ask teachers to come along with us as we figure out how to make our new curriculum work for our students. We can show teachers that the only way that any of us gets to a place of doing really great work is by starting somewhere not so great and continually reflecting and changing and adapting based on what our students are telling us and showing us.

And that is what we really want other teachers to witness. We want them to see the power of reflection. We want them to see that we often try things that go really really badly. But that doesn’t mean that those things aren’t worth doing. It means that, instead, we look at what we did, we look at how it worked for the students, we think about what we want our students to be able to do and we think about how we are going to help them get there. Then we try again. Then we listen to our students, we watch them carefully, we take their suggestions, we invite them into the process. And then we try again. We bring our students a new experience and we see if it is getting any closer to where we want them to be and then we go back and we discuss it with our coworkers, we write about our work, we spend car rides and time we should be sleeping thinking about how we could do better. And then we try again. Then we look at student work and we see what they have learned and we look at what they still are not able to do and we don’t blame the students, we think about what we have yet to teach them and then we find a way to teach it to them. And then we try again. And again. And again.

Too often we only want to share what comes as the end of all this trial and error. It is so much easier to invite people in at the end of this process. But this year, I hope that I will be brave enough to invite people in at the beginning. So that we can struggle through all of this newness together. So that we can lean on each other through our journey of reflection. So that we can learn from each other and push each other and challenge each other and all end up in a better place because of the path that we have walked along together.

Beyond the What and How of Reading Comprehension Strategies

Since I started teaching, my reading instruction has centered around the teaching of reading comprehension strategies in a reading workshop structure.  I have been lucky enough to teach in two school districts who have been committed to teaching kids how to be better readers and not just teaching kids to read the books we pick for them to read.

When I began teaching fifth grade, I thought I did a pretty good job of teaching my students about what good readers did.  I knew the research. I knew that it was clear that good readers were able to make connections, predict, infer, visualize, question, determine importance and synthesize. And over the years I gathered, what I thought to be, some pretty inventive ways of teaching kids about WHAT these strategies were.  I did the lesson where we looked at items that were found in a person’s bag and made inferences about that person based on what we saw. We looked at compelling images and asked thick and think questions. We read poems and then drew the images that came to our minds.

At some point in my teaching career, I realized that I had to do more than just teach my students WHAT the reading strategies were. I had to also teach my students how exactly to use these strategies as they read. So I did more work to make my own thinking visible and to break down these complex strategies so that my students could actually see HOW to use them. In this way, I thought that my students would be more likely to use these strategies as they read independently.

And it worked. My students would do what I asked them to do. If we were working on making inferences and I asked them to look in their own books for places where they could infer, then they would do it. They would come back at the end of our reading workshop ready and eager to share their inferences with me.  If we were working on questioning and I asked them to find places where they could ask thick questions in their own text, then they would do it. Again, they would be happy to share with me and with the class how they had done exactly what I asked them to do.

Except something was missing.

In the past few years I realized that while my students were giving me what I asked for, while they were complying, they weren’t actually using these strategies in any meaningful way. The primary purpose of their use of these reading strategies was to complete an assignment. I knew I wanted more than that.

So I started to think about what was missing. Why wasn’t I seeing what I wanted to be seeing? Why weren’t my students using these reading strategies to actually dig deeper into their texts and why weren’t they using them in a way that went beyond the texts they were reading? Obviously I hadn’t taught them something.

And that’s when I realized. I never really stopped to teach my students the purpose of all of these comprehension strategies. I taught them to ask good questions, but we never really talked much about WHY they should ask questions as they read. I taught them to make all sorts of different types of inferences, but we didn’t spend much time talking about what there was to gain by making inferences as you read.  There was a lot of talk about the WHAT and the HOW of reading comprehension strategies in my classroom, but not nearly as much time was spent talking about the WHY of reading comprehension strategies.

So this past school year, I made a commitment to think, for myself, about the purpose for using each of the reading strategies in my own life. I had to start there. I had to understand why I was using these reading strategies before I helped my students to understand why they should use them. And as I did the work in my own reading life I started to see the reading strategies in a really new way.  Suddenly it was about more than skills that I had to teach my students. Instead it was starting to turn into a responsibility that I had to show my students how they could use these reading strategies in order to allow reading to transform their lives and their understanding of the world.

Once I did the work of thinking about these strategies for myself, then I was ready to bring that new understanding to my students. And all of a sudden the reading strategy instruction in my classroom took on a new life. A life of meaning and of purpose. And because I thought about how I used these strategies in my own life outside of the classroom, my instruction became more authentic and therefore more useful to my students. It was no longer just about completing an assignment, now it was about reading to make our own lives better and to make our understanding of the world better.

With each reading strategy that we focused on, I tried to show my students not just what the strategy was or how to use the strategy, I also tried to explicitly teach WHY we would use these strategies in the world. Here are some of the ways we looked at the strategies in the past school year:

CONNECTING: When we read, we make connections to our texts SO THAT we can feel less alone in the world. We make connections to our characters and to the real life people that we read about SO THAT we can feel a sense of community and know that we are not the only ones feeling what we feel or experiencing what we are experiencing.  When we read, we make connections to our texts SO THAT we can better understand the lives of people whose lives are vastly different than our own, but with whom we still share commonalities.  When we read, we make connections to our texts SO THAT we can build empathy for people who are different than us and treat people that we meet with more compassion and understanding.

VISUALIZING: When we read, we visualize SO THAT we can better understand what life is like for our characters or for the people whose lives we are reading about. When we read, we visualize SO THAT we can build empathy for others and better understand what drives them to make the choices that they make. When we read, we visualize SO THAT we can experience, with all of our senses, the difficulties, struggles, joys and experiences of people whose lives are different than our own. When we read, we visualize SO THAT we can better understand the things that we have little experience with ourselves.

QUESTIONING: When we read, we ask questions SO THAT we can check for inaccuracies and bias. When we read, we ask questions SO THAT we can think about whose voices are being heard and whose voices are not being heard. When we read, we ask questions SO THAT we know what else we need to know in order to really understand what our text is saying. When we read, we ask questions SO THAT we can read critically and think about more than just what is written on the page. When we read, we ask questions SO THAT we can begin to think about perspectives other than own and wonder about how others view the same text we have read.

INFERRING: When we read, we infer SO THAT we can understand the social commentary that an author is trying to make and decide whether we agree or disagree with it.  When we read, we infer SO THAT we can understand what an author or a text is trying to teach us. When we read, we infer SO THAT we can understand how a character’s or real life person’s life and background impact the way he or she is acting or feeling or the choices he or she is making.  When we read, we infer SO THAT we can understand the intended and unintended messages that are being sent to us through a text and then fight back against those messages with which we do not agree.

SYNTHESIZING: When we read, we synthesize SO THAT we can put together multiple perspectives on a single event in order to more fully understand the complexities of that event.  When we read, we synthesize SO THAT we do not rely on one single story to help us understand an entire group of people or country or time in history. When we read, we synthesize SO THAT we can correct our own misconceptions as we gather more information.

This is just a short list of some of the real world purposes that we looked at this past year for using some of the reading comprehension strategies that we focus on in fifth grade. What was important to me is that I helped my students to see that these reading comprehension strategies were about more than just better understanding the text they were reading. These strategies were really about better understanding the world we live in.  That had not been coming through in my previous years of teaching.

My work with this has only just started and I am eager to continue working on finding real meaning and purpose for each of the reading comprehension strategies so that my students will start to see them as more than something that their teacher is forcing them to do.  I would love to hear any ideas on how YOU have helped your students to see the purpose of these strategies in your own classrooms.

Standards: If You Can’t Beat Them, Use Them To Your Own Advantage

When the Common Core standards first came out, I hated them.  To be completely honest, I hated them before I had even read a single one. I hated the idea of them more than I hated the actual standards themselves. I hated the fact that something, other than the students sitting right next to me, was supposed to tell me what I should teach. I hated the fact that someone who had never met my students was going to tell me what was best for them. I hated that the standards assumed that each child, in each district, in each state across this country was starting his or her fifth grade year at the same place and therefore should be able to accomplish the same things by the end of the year. I hated so much about them before I even read them.

Most of what I thought about the standards came not from reading the standards themselves, but from the hype that surrounded the standards. Before I even had a chance to read what they said, I had listened to countless new reports and parents and other teachers tell me how bad they were. And I jumped right on that bandwagon. Because who doesn’t like a good fight against standardization when it comes to the very un-standardized children we teach and love?

And then I stopped myself. I realized that I was letting others form my own ideas for me. I realized that I was doing exactly what I asked my students never to do, I was making judgements without doing the work to inform myself. I was jumping to conclusions before I did my research.

And so I did better. I read the standards. I thought about the standards. I talked to others about the standards. I argued with others about the standards.

And slowly I began to grow. To deepen my own understanding.

To be honest, after working with the standards for a while, many of my feelings about them remain the same. I still push back against a system that tries to standardize everything. I still raise concerns about valuing consistency above doing what is best for an individual child. I still argue with the idea that one set of standards can ever meet the needs of every child in this country. However. I can now at least say that I understand the argument for why we need a set of standards. I might not fully agree with it, but I can at least understand it.

I also better understand the standards themselves. I see that they are not a curriculum but a list of objectives and learning targets for us to strive for. I see that they are not mandating how we teach, but rather explaining what our students should be able to do.  I do see that the standards allow for flexibility in our teaching methods and our teaching resources. I do see that there is value and worth in these standards, even if I don’t agree with their existence completely. I believe there are things that the Common Core got wrong and I also believe that there are things that the Common Core got right.

But here is what I have also come to believe: standards, in one form or another, are not going anywhere. This is the age we are in. This is the educational system that we are teaching in. This is where we are as a country.

And I do not believe, in any way, that we should just accept things as they are. I believe that we need to speak up and fight for our students and fight to make things better. And I also believe that in the meantime, until things change, if we can’t beat the standards, we should at least use them to our own advantage and to the advantage of our students.

And to use them to our advantage, we must know them. We have a responsibility to know what the standards say. For us and for our students.

We must know the standards so that when others falsely tell us what they say in defense of bad programs or bad instructional strategies, we can speak up and speak from knowledge.

We must know the standards so that we can use them to defend the practices that we know are best for kids. So that when someone questions our methods or our work, we can confidently tie them back to the standards we’ve been told that we must teach.

We must know the standards so that when someone brings us a new program that we do not believe in, we can ask, “What standards is this program teaching towards?” And then, more importantly we can ask, “Can I teach to these same standards in a way that works better for my students?” Because who can argue with that?

We must know the standards so that we can invite our students into the process of unpacking them, figuring out what they mean and finding ways to meet them and show mastery of them.

We must know the standards so that we can use them to do the things that we know are best for kids.

So that we can take a standard that says, “Analyze multiple accounts of the same event or topic, noting important similarities and differences in the point of view they represent,” and use it to justify why we are teaching students to analyze texts from the media for bias. So that we can explain to a parent who doesn’t understand why we are teaching about the riots in Baltimore or about Eric Garner or about race to fifth graders that we are using these current events in order to teach to one of the Common Core standards. So that we can justify our teaching of social justice issues by explaining what an effective way it is to teach this particular standard.

So that we can take a standard that says, “Integrate information from several texts on the same topic in order to write or speak about the subject knowledgeably,” and use it to justify writing inquiry circles into the fifth grade reading curriculum.

So that we can take a standard that says, “Engage effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grade 5 topics and texts, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly,” and use it to fight for literature discussion groups as a part of our reading workshop.

Too often, as teachers, we fall back on the standards as an easy explanation as to why we can’t possibly do all the things we want to do in the classroom. And yes, sometimes, the standards CAN be limiting. But they can also be used as a reason we can give as to why we are doing the work that we know is good for our students. But for that to happen, we must know what the standards really say. That is our responsibility.

And I know it won’t always work. I know that even armed with our knowledge, we will, sometimes, be told that we can’t do something that we believe in.  But what I know for certain is that we are always better off if we know what the standards say. If we are ready to explain how what we are doing is meeting those standards AND best for our students then we become infinitely harder to argue with.  Because those who want to just push teachers around and tell us what to do are hoping that we don’t do our research. That we give up. That we say that we are beat by the standards. So I, for one, do not plan on letting that happen.

Please Stop Insulting My Students and Me

Yesterday morning I walked into school feeling great about the energy that has been surrounding the end of the school year. My students have been working hard, using everything they’ve learned this year, wrapping up the year with a few important-feeling, student driven projects.  As I passed by the front office, I noticed that there was a large binder sitting in my mailbox.  As I got closer, I saw that the binder was filled with a tightly shrink-wrapped, thick package of paper covered in images and text.

And then I knew.

This was our brand-new, fresh out of the box, “easy-to-use”, prepackaged social-emotional curriculum.

And my heart sank.

And it only got worse.

I made the mistake of taking the binder to my desk and ripping off the plastic shrink-wrap to get an idea of what I was supposed to teach next year.  And it. was. awful. Not only were all of the lessons written as if I was too dumb to be able to figure out how to teach something on my own, but the lessons themselves were terrible.  They were the kind of lessons where the kids very clearly get the message from the very start that they should sit and listen and answer my questions in the one way that this program thinks that they should be answered.

The lessons were insulting to me.  The lessons were insulting to me because they assumed that I was not smart enough to know how to teach. They assumed that I did not know my kids well enough to talk about real situations from their real lives and so they provided me with situations about Pedro and Kristin and Anton. They assumed that I did not know quality literature from which to learn lessons from characters that we love so they provided me with poorly-written scenarios and scripts to feed to my students instead.

But the lessons were also insulting to my students. It assumed that they were not smart enough to be engaged in real discussions about the real issues that face their lives. It assumed that they were not powerful enough to be able to grapple with the issues affecting our world. It assumed that their priority was learning to be a compliant student and not learning how to be a better human citizen of this world. Every lesson I read was an insult to the children that I teach every day.

In fact, this program COMPLETELY took my students right out of the equation. It didn’t take into consideration their emotions, their struggles, their unique strengths and weaknesses.  It didn’t because it couldn’t. Prepackaged curricula never can. They can never be written for actual children because they are written to be used with every single child, in every single classroom, whose school has purchased the prewritten lessons.  Whoever wrote this program does not know the pace at which my children learn. They do not know the topics that are relevant and meaningful to the specific group of children sitting in front of me. They do not know the challenges that we will face in a year that we need time to grapple with together and learn our way through. They do not know the books that we have read and the characters that we have loved that have given us more real-life lessons than any program ever could. They do not know who we are and yet they are trying to tell us how we should learn.

And every time that a district puts a prewritten unit into the hands of teachers, it is taking away a powerful opportunity for us to learn.  Every time a district puts a unit into the hands of teachers, it is sending the message that it is not our job to figure out the best ways to teach our students.  Every time a district puts a unit into the hands of teachers, it is telling us that we should not reflect, collaborate, struggle, innovate or create.

It is a dangerous thing we are doing to teachers. Because when we have a written out unit that we believe we are “supposed” to follow then we start to lose the skills that make teaching an art.  I love sitting around a table with my coworkers and looking at the targets, objective and standards we are supposed to meet and discussing possible ways to meet them. I love talking about how each of us has tried to meet these standards. I love talking about what has worked and love talking about what was a huge failure.  That is how we learn. That is how we reflect. That is how we get better at what we do.  And every time a unit is placed into our hands, we lose a little bit of our passion to do just that.

So please. Stop insulting me. Stop insulting my students. Stop giving me prewritten, prepackaged curricula.