Total and Uncontrollable Chaos.


When I was a classroom teacher, in a public school, I was constantly reminded of the fact that our structured educational plans were often interfering with the glorious creative chaos of our children.

Now that I am a “Stay at home Nonni”, watching two or three toddlers (depending on the day), my thoughts have changed. Now I have become even more convinced that if we truly want to foster creative thinking in our kids, we adults need to shut up, back off, and be willing to clean up the mess when it’s all done.

Today was the perfect example of this educational philosophy. Today I was home with 18 month old Johnny, who is completely 100% focused on pushing buttons, opening doors and placing items into various containers.

I was doing my best to corral his curiosity and keep him engaged in socially appropriate activities. Those activities are mostly cleaning (he can use a broom and push the dirt into the dustbin and throw it into the trash) and cooking (he can crack an egg, use a garlic press and add flour to a working mixer.)

Meanwhile, three year old Ellie and four year old Ella were engaged in some kind of pretend play in the living room. This play, whatever it was, involved a great deal of shrieking, a lot of dramatic cries, and a “treasure map”(my tossed out mail) that had to be followed in order to save some vague hero from an even more vague bad guy.

While Johnny and I minced onions and stirred our pot of chili, the girls raced around the house. A bridge of pillows was built. A blanket was tossed over two chairs to create a caste. An old cardboard box became a baby’s special bed. And a bookshelf was emptied to make a hidden cave for a fairy.

I think.

To be honest, I didn’t really follow all of the action. I was busy trying to make a batch of chili while keeping Johnny from getting into the bathroom plumbing.

But when it was all over, and it was time for me to sit the three kids down for lunch, I realized a lot of learning had taken place while I was busy.

I learned that the kids had figured out that one size had to be smaller than the other if something would fit into something else. They had worked out a truly creative way to merge the stories of two royal sisters (Frozen) with the story of a magical pony (My Little Pony). They didn’t just travel on parallel tracks; they managed to mix the two stories into an entirely new adventure.

While creating all of this magic, the three and four year old girls had managed to cooperate, negotiate, take turns and share their ideas.

All on their own.

This isn’t magic, although I have to admit that seemed like it to me.

It was simply the power of the young, unfettered human mind when it is left alone to do what nature has always intended.

Kids are magic. Kids are our problem solvers.

Kids are everything that we always wish we could be.

This aging educator is learning that the less I try to teach, the more these children learn.

But don’t just believe me. Look at these videos produced by people who are far more educated than me.

The Best Kindergarten You Will Ever See.

We Are Born Creative Geniuses

Thanks to my wonderful niece, Erin Eberle, for these links, for getting me to think about this topic, and for sharing her wonderful little ones with us.

They hadn’t met before, but they figured out a way to have two Elsa’s in the same room.

Try To Remember….


….the kind of September….

When I was a teacher. Try to remember the late August days that used to bring me anxiety, excitement, joy, a sense of purpose, lost sleep and far too many credit card charges at Michael’s Crafts.

I do remember.

I remember what it felt like to watch those precious days of summer begin to fade. I remember the excitement of facing a new school year.

I remember seeing my class list, and recognizing some of the names. I remember knowing some of the siblings of “my” kids. Knowing some of their parents. Recognizing the faces and thinking, “how can she be in fifth grade already?”

I miss those days. I miss them.

I miss the little heart flutters that used to come with printing out the tags to go in each hallway cubby. I miss the pleasure of opening up new boxes of clean, pure notebooks.  I miss throwing out the old broken crayons and replacing them with new, whole, optimistic replacements.

I miss the new books. The clean desks and shiny new pens.

I miss it.

I miss the long walks that I used to take in the week before school started, memorizing my list of students in alphabetical order. Walking, and reciting, and walking some more. “Adams, Bates, Cohen, Chevaliar, Dulakis…..”

I miss the first day of school, when I would look each child in the eye and tell them how nervous I was about meeting them. I’d tell them about waking up at night, worrying that they might not like me. I would laugh as I told them about picking out my first day of school outfit, and changing my mind five times before the first day.

I loved being a teacher. I loved the joy of taking a group of disparate souls and helping them to form a cohesive classroom unit.

Mostly I miss those completely unexpected moments when all 25 of us would break out in laughter.  I miss the hugs. I miss the snacks. The history lessons, the incredibly touching and surprising written words. I miss the smiles, the frowns, the pushing back against my “authority”.

I was a good teacher. I loved being with my students every day.

I wish that I hadn’t been pushed out of my classroom by an insecure and over controlling administrator.

I wish that this was that week when my stomach would fill with butterflies and my heart would skip some of its beats. I with that I was in my classroom, placing name tags on desks and getting ready to know and love and laugh with a whole new group of inspiring young people.

I remember what it felt like to come to the end of August knowing that you were about to enter a demanding and fulfilling September.

I remember.

And I’m sad.

I wish that I was one of those lucky teachers spending this week opening boxes of brand new markers.

I miss it.

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My old self……

Memories of a snowy school day


Happy snow day to everyone living in the Northeastern U.S. It’s been pouring down hard all day, and we’re enjoying time by the fire.

Of course, now that I’m retired from teaching, a snow day is a mixed blessing. I get the day all to myself…yay! But I get the day with no beautiful granddaughter…boo.

I was lying in bed this morning, watching the snow falling out my window. I was thinking back on past storms, past snowy memories. Thinking of the times I enjoyed the snow with my own kids and the kids in my classroom.

There is one particular school day memory that still makes me smile.

It had snowed hard the evening before, but the roads were clear by dawn, so school was open. It was the first significant snow of the winter, and everyone was talking about it when they arrived.

I was standing in my classroom, teaching math, I think. The kids were restless. Feet were tapping, pencils were being rolled on desks. They weren’t misbehaving, but their minds were clearly not on multiplying fractions. I tried to pep things up a bit with made up word problems using their names, but it didn’t help.

I caught one little boy sitting with his chin in his hand. His face was aimed at me, and he was sitting quietly in his seat. But his bright blue eyes kept cutting to the window.

I looked outside myself.

The sky was the same china blue as my student’s eyes. The sun was shining down on a scene of perfect, pristine, sparkling snow.

Our playground didn’t have a single footprint on it.

I glanced at the clock. Two hours until recess.

Without saying anything, I suddenly closed my math book and snapped off the Smartboard. The kids sat up straighter in surprise. Every eye was on me.

Were they in trouble? What was going on? Why would a fifth grade teacher suddenly stop teaching in the middle of a math lesson?

“OK, gang.” I said, reaching under my desk for my boots. “Get your coats and snow gear on, quickly. If we move fast, we can be the first ones to hit the playground.”

The sound and the sight of those 24 ten year olds bursting through the back doors and racing across the snow has stayed with me for the past 10 years, as clear as can be.

They were the embodiment of pure joy.

I just stood there in the sun, watching them jump and kick and roll in that perfect snow.

For a little while, I felt like the greatest teacher in the world. I felt like a hero.

I hope some of them remember that morning. I hope they remember what it felt like to let go and just give in to happiness.

I’m sure they all went on to eventually master fractions.

But I hope they remember that sometimes it’s important to drop the book and just get jump in the perfect snow.

 

Wearing My Own Skin.


Guess what?

I was a teacher today!

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My old self……

Actually, I’m going to be a teacher every day for the next 2 weeks, and maybe for a couple more after that.

It isn’t really teaching teaching, because there is no curriculum or academic work. I don’t need to test anyone or keep careful records or anything. But it still felt good.

No. It felt great.

It felt like I had put on my own skin again and walked right back into my world.

In the district where I taught for 22 years, there is a fabulous summer program for elementary aged kids. The teachers run classes that we think would be fun and the schools advertise them in the spring.

One friend of mine is teaching “Sculpey charms” so she is spending the week with a small group of girls who are making art out of clay.

I’ve seen classes in “Wizarding”, “The Science of Building”, “Baking with Books” and even “On Broadway.” Its pure fun.

This week I am teaching “Improv Theater” and next week will be “Cooking Around the World.”

See? No state tests!

But here’s the funny thing. When I walked into the school building this morning and entered the classroom, I was swept right in my old familiar role. I became my old teacher self.

Without any effort at all, without even thinkings, I welcomed my group of five young children, smiled, laughed, and put them all at ease. I created a circle, set some expectations and we took off. The kids, I’m sure, thought that we were all playing games. They most likely thought of it as silliness and fun. Certainly not real school.

I coaxed a bit, I set some limits, I adapted as we went.

It was so easy and familiar. I felt like I was wearing my own skin.

There was no testing. There were no standards. No one was observing me or the kids.

But guess what?

I was a teacher today!

And that means that tonight, as I sit here and look forward to tomorrow, I can tell you this about “my” kids, with whom I spent 3 hours.

Two are more visual than auditory. One has auditory memory and sequencing concerns. One misses social cues because of internal distraction and because he hyperfocuses on small details. One struggles with nuances of language, but is quick to ask for clarification.

As a group, they do best with a lot of clear, frequent positive feedback and very concrete expectations and goals.  As a group, they will get the most out of the week of “fun” if I can gently coax each of them to take a few steps outside of their comfort zone.

I could go on, but I need to do some quick planning for the week, based on what I learned by observing and assessing today.

In an age of data, data and more data, isn’t it refreshing to see that a teacher can step right back into her old skin and do a real evaluation of student learning even without a bubble sheet?

 

Have a Happy New Year, Friends!


My old self......

My old self……

Today is the last day of summer vacation for my friends and colleagues in the district where I used to teach.  I know exactly and precisely how they feel.

They feel like today is the longest of days, as each second ticks-ticks-ticks away. They feel like today is the shortest of days, as each hour speeds by.

I’m sure that they are anxious.  I can imagine the thoughts that are racing around in their heads. “Did I label all of the cubbies?”  “Did I copy the classroom scavenger hunts?”  I bet that they are double checking their work bags on and off all day, making sure that the popsicle sticks have been labelled with all of the names. Reorganizing the folders into alphabetical order.

If they are like me, they are also mentally planning what they’ll wear all week, what they will bring for lunch, maybe what easy and quick dinners they can whip up .  If they are like me at all, they are also wishing that the next two days, the days of sitting in endless meetings, would fly by so that they could get to the day when the kids arrive.

I am willing to bet that a lot of them are very sad to see the restful days of summer ending.  My colleagues with children are thinking about the fact that they will miss their time together.  They will look at their sleeping babies just a little bit longer tonight, sighing a bit and thinking forward to the next vacation.

I know that they are all a bit excited, too.  They know that every year is a new start. They have new books this year, new materials to use, new lessons to teach.  They will have some kids who will be a challenge, and some kids who will be a dream. They are determined to do their best for both.

Today is the last day of summer vacation for my friends and former colleagues.  I won’t be with them this time around.  For the first time in 21 years, I won’t be there to swap vacation stories, to hug them hello, to hand out the agendas for the staff meeting.

I won’t be there. But I’ll be thinking of them.  Wishing them all a Happy New Year!

I’ll miss them.

“Let’s put on a show!”


drama

At the end of every school year, my class puts on a play.

They cut up huge cardboard boxes to make sets, they create the costumes out of old scraps and outgrown clothes.

They create the script.  They direct.  They make the posters and the programs. They practice and memorize and improvise and fine tune.

At the end of every school year, I ask myself why I tolerate the chaos and the mess and the paint smell. I ask myself if all of the time and money spent is really worth it.

And every year, I realize that it definitely is.

My students create a play that is original, always a bit random, and often completely confusing. By the time they have completed the creation, the rehearsals and the multiple performances, I am always exhausted.

But it is worth it.

It. Is. So. Worth. It.

Why?

I’ll tell you why.

There is no rubric.

There are no scores to measure success.

The children are allowed to create on their own.  They are allowed to make the story their own.

There is almost no adult guidance or control

Which means that the kids have to compromise, work together, support each other, listen to each other.  They have to learn how to share a stage.  They have to be able to imagine a place and then to create that place.  They have to learn how to depend upon each other and upon themselves.

They get to laugh.

They get to be silly.

Every year, every single year, at least one shy child steps forward and assumes a leading role.  Every year, at least one assertive child learns to step back and listen with an open mind.  Every year, children learn how powerful it is to share a stage with friends, and how exhilarating it is to be a part of a cooperative group.

I don’t interfere in the play. I don’t insert my ideas or my beliefs.  As much as I possibly can, I do something else while the play is being created and shaped and fine tuned.

And this is the true meaning of education.

When the kids in my class put on their wigs, their bacon costumes, their tiaras and their matching tutus, they are showing all of us what they have learned in the fifth grade.

It is so not about the rubrics. Or the test scores. Or the stupid state tests.

What they have learned is that they are competent.  They have learned that they are kind.  They are cooperative. They are funny.

They have learned that they can work in a group and can put forth their very best efforts to make that group a success.

When we do our play, my students have learned that nothing is sweeter than hearing the audience laugh, and knowing that you and your friends made that magic happen.

Number two on the list of things that I will miss.  My annual class play. 

Field Trip Magic


Olde Sturbridge Village...how quiant can you get?

Old Sturbridge Village…how quaint can you get?

Ah, field trips!

Those wonderful carefree days of no actual school work.  Parents often think of those days as “days off” for teachers.

To which teachers respond, “Bwahahahahahahaha!”

No kidding. We actually chortle.

I woke up this morning at 5:45, showered, drank my cup of coffee and headed out the door.  I usually have at least two cups of said coffee, but knowing that I would be trapped on a bus for an hour and a quarter made me forgo my second fortifying beverage.

Also, I know how cranky I can get with all that caffeine coursing through my veins.  So I skipped it.  Sadly.  And with a few bad words.  I skipped it.

But I got out the door in plenty of time, and headed off to school.  I had told the class to be in the room by 8:00 AM at the latest, assuring them that I would be at my desk by 7:30, and could handle anything that came up.  As I got on the road and glanced at my watch, I was buoyed by the realization that I would be at school in PLENTY of time.  No worries!

Until the traffic on the highway came to a grinding halt.  And I sat for ten full minutes without moving a foot.

Gah!  Time was ticking by.  What should I do?  I booted up my GPS app, and saw that it would take me 40 minutes to get to my classroom.  Gulp!  40 minutes would put me at TEN PAST eight!  The bus had to leave at 8:15!!!  I frantically texted my ever serene and uber organized colleague, Amy Jo, and asked her to get my classroom ready for the kids.

I came careening into the parking lot at 8, and entered my classroom at 8:02.  I greeted the kids, handed out medications to the chaperones, filled out the “before school” attendance sheet, and got ready to head for the bathroom.

And all the lights went out.  Bam.

We were in the dark.

I turned on my phone, used the facilities, and got everyone lined up and ready to go.

Onto the busses we went, chaperones, incredibly excited kids and me.   Phew!  I gave orders (“No standing up!  No screaming!  No eating on the bus).

And I settled back to relax.

Almost immediately, I had two little girls in the seats across from me firing questions my way. Had I been to Sturbridge Village before? What would we see? Would there be animals? What kind?  When was I last there? Did I always know that I wanted to be a teacher? How old was I , anyway?  If I could have any animal on earth as a pet, what would it be?  Did they have bees in the 1800’s?

I did my best to answer, and I chatted with the kids.

Its what teachers do.  We talk to kids.  We answer the questions that they ask.

After about 40 minutes, one of the chaperones turned to me. She is the young mother of one of my most intriguing kids.  “I hope you don’t mind, ” she said, “But I was listening to everything that you said.  Wow!  I think I love you!  No wonder my daughter loves you so much!”

I was completely taken aback.  What?  My talk with the kids impressed her that much?  But that’s how people should always talk to kids, I thought.

I was delighted, and grateful.  But truly surprised.

I thanked her, and sat back to think.

The rest of the day was filled with rain, and laughter, and a hundred kids from 20 schools rushing around and shouting questions as only kids can do.  We flew from the blacksmith to the tinsmith to the cooper to the printer. We petted the baby cows and the fluffy little lambs. Because we are fifth graders, we laughed and commented as the bulls peed and the lambs nursed.

We manned the pumps, threw rocks in the pond, raced across the covered bridge.

We got back on the bus and we headed back to school.

And now I am at home, feet up on the coffee table, glass of wine in hand.  My mind is filled with the images of the day: my sensitive and anxious boy clinging to my side, asking me a thousand questions about the safety of the bridge and the sanitation in the animal pens; my social and smiling boy, asking his friends to back up and make room for younger kids who had come into the potter’s shed; my smart, sassy, learning disabled girl, pausing to think about the oxen, then turning to me with a smile as the meaning of “neutered” made its way into her consciousness.

I love my job.

I love those kids.

I love the caring and warmth and support of these loving parents.

I wish that I could teach the way I want to teach.  I wish that my connection to the kids would be evidence enough of my success as a teacher.

Letting it go


OK. Let.It.Go.

OK. Let.It.Go.

I just had a birthday.

At my age, this is a big deal.

I mean, I’m not ready to pull the dirt over my head quite yet, but I’m not exactly dancing around and celebrating my “double digits” either,  if you know what I mean.

I’m getting on in years.  Getting long in the tooth.  No longer a spring chicken.

If you think about the average life span in the US, I’m past halfway to home base.  Way past halfway in fact.

So birthdays are definitely a time for reflection.

Last weekend, I reflected.

“Yay, me!”, I reflected. “I am still active and working and learning and enjoying my food and drink. I still have fun at the beach and I can still dance at weddings.  Yay, me!”

“On the other hand,” I reflected, “I can’t hula hoop any more.  I can’t eat too many beans. And I don’t know any of the songs on the radio.”

So I’m in that funny space in life. The one where everyone who sees you thinks you’re on the downhill slope, but you still feel like you’re new to the game.

And as I have reflected and thought and sipped on a few refreshing beverages, I have come to some conclusions that can only be reached by wise old owls like me.

And I’m willing to share my wisdom with you. Lucky, lucky you.

I have realized that its time to let go of some things.   I’m ready to let go of beauty.  I had some, once.  But I don’t have to worry about it any more.  The hair is silver, the jowls are jowly, the boobs are heading south.  Let it go.  I am happy to hand off the gift of beauty to my daughter and my young colleagues.  I will celebrate your glowing skin, your silky hair, your tiny waists.  I will raise a cup of hot mocha with whipped cream, and happily cede the joy of beauty to you.

I am willing to let go of fashion trends, too.  I have never actually understood the whole “spring colors” thing anyway, so what the hell.  I am willing to admit that I still buy Levis when I can get them.  I wear Dansko clogs because they stop my knees/hips/back from aching all night.  I do not understand leggings and I never will.

And I am so so happy to never again have to think about this year’s eye shadow tones!  Let it go, let it go.

I am happy to let go of the pressure to say “yes” to every request.  “No”, I am happy to respond, “I cannot volunteer at the local food coop. I’m old. I’m tired. I’m resting.”

“No,” I can now respond.  “I won’t be available to work for two weeks this summer on the newest version of a reading program.  I will be lying on my back on a beach.  I won’t be awake enough to help.”   Let it go, let it go, let it go.

But even as I am letting go of the frivolous, the superfluous, the unnecessary, I am happy to embrace a whole new world of joy.

I am ready to embrace my free time.  I’ve earned it, dammit, its mine.  I am not going to gum it up by writing elaborate lesson plans on how to add fractions.

I am ready to embrace my sick days, too. I’ve saved them up for 22 years now; when I wake up with a terrible headache or a burning sore throat, I am no longer going to make some tea, swallow some ibuprofin and hope for the best.  Nope. Now I am going to log onto the sub folder, click on “sick day” and go back to bed.  And maybe I’ll watch a marathon of “Dog Whisperer” while I eat my chicken soup.  Who cares?  I am embracing my mortality.

Time has gone on.  I had a birthday.

I will let go of my frustration over changing educational fads.  I will embrace my joy as I talk with my sweet students.  I will let go of my sadness at no longer being relevant, and will embrace the freedom that comes from being ignored and left alone.  I will let go of my “mommy” days, and will embrace my new role as the funny, happy relaxed “Nonni” who makes the awesome cookies.

Time to Let It Go.

It’s all in how you look at it.


 

When I was a little girl, my sister and I watched a Disney movie called “Polyanna”.  In the movie, a little girl (played by Hayley Mills, how’s that for a good memory?) comes to live with a grumpy old lady.  I don’t remember much about the story, except that there was a scene where Polyanna notices a prism hanging in the old lady’s window, and makes a big deal of the beautiful rainbow and all the colors.  The old lady notices the beauty for the first time, and the two of them take apart all of her lamps and hang prisms all around the house.

Not the most subtle of metaphors, but it stuck with me.

This morning I woke up to yet another school cancellation day. I have nothing to do, having prepared my lessons and done my corrections yesterday.  I have baked brownies, made meatballs and sauce, walked the dogs, done laundry, read a kids book for the class.  I am bored. And cold. And crabby.

I want sun!  I want warm breezes!  I want to barbecue, but the grill is buried in four feet of snow.

I look out my living room window, and see nothing but white.  I’m sick of watching snow fall; its making me dizzy.  The garden fence is almost buried.  My walk is only a foot wide, with five foot walls on either side.

The window is filled with icicles, handing down from every inch of the gutter.  Sharp, jagged, icy teeth, making me shiver just looking at them.

I decided to lie down on the sofa so I could fully indulge in my misery.  I wanted to look at the icicles, those threatening, terrifying blades clustered together, reminding me that I am falling farther and farther behind in the curriculum, and that the kids will be distracted little cyclones tomorrow.  I wanted to use the image of the ever growing ice daggers to help me enhance my total crabbiness.

But guess what? When I laid myself back on the pillow and looked out the window, I found myself looking through the beautiful fused glass wind-chime that my son and his girlfriend gave me for Christmas.  All of a sudden, the icicles were shining through the brilliant colors of the glass, and the little bit of sunlight that was leaking through made them gleam like rainbows.

My plan was thwarted; my crankiness went away.

I felt like Pollyanna!

SONY DSC

The Sound of Elementary School


cyberscooty-kids_smiling

Ah, the magical sounds of elementary school in mid-December!  Such sweet music!  Truly.

Of course, I am not always able to appreciate the subtle loveliness of children’s voices in the week before the big vacation break.  I sometimes fail to appreciate the joy that they are sharing on the first day of Hannukah and a week before Christmas.

Sometimes, in spite of my best efforts, I find my own voice raised to scary levels as I desperately try to corral them long enough to walk down the hall to music.  There are moments, I must admit, when I am hard pressed to find the positives as 24 just-about-hysterical ten year olds attempt to work together to solve math problems in this sugar heightened time of year.

At times, it is all I can do to remain calm as I patiently repeat my mantra, “If you can hear my voice, clap once. If you can hear my voice, clap twice. If you can hear my voice, clap three times.”   At any other time of year, there is silence by the time I get to three.

Today I had to resort to, “If you can hear my voice, clap seventeen times and then stare at anybody who is still talking.”

Sigh.

But you know what? The joyful noise manages to penetrate through to me in spite of my hoarseness and my minor frustrations.

The joyful noise of happy, excited, well loved, well nourished children seeps into my ears and my heart and my soul, and I end my December days thinking, “I am so incredibly lucky to be here.”

Here are some of the sounds of our school in the past two days.

One of my little girls was dancing around in the meeting area, twirling and flinging her arms out with joy.  Her hair was flying, and her gorgeous turquoise eyes were gleaming. “Have yourself a Merry Little Christmas”, she sang in a husky voice.  I was trying to gather the children for a math lesson at the time.   “Honey”, I said to her, “I can see that you’re excited for Christmas.”

“No, I’m not!” she replied as she twirled, “I’m Jewish!”

  menorah-157983_640

Two little first graders were walking in from recess, holding hands.  Both were flushed with the cold, and both were singing. “On the First Day of Christmas, my chula gave to me….”  The tiny blonde waved at me with the hand that wasn’t holding her friend’s.  Her black haired, dark eyed friend grinned at me, and the song resumed, “A partridge inapin free!”

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And there is the sound of tapping, drumming, clanging, pinging that goes on all day as little restless bodies do their very best to contain their excitement and hold in the giddiness.  Tapping on the desk, drumming on the book, clanging the pen on the back of a chair.

They can’t help it.  Music is joy, and they are joyful.

Sometimes I want to smother that joy, just for a second. Just so I can get them to sit still while I hand out the math paper.

Then I think of the children in other places, where war is raging, or famine is rampant. I think of children who are sad, or scared, or lonely, or lost.

And I look out at the churning mass of December joy in front of me, and all I can do is sing.

“On the first day of Christmas, my chula gave to me…….”