Saturday, October 30, 2010

My Plate Runneth Over

If I could propose a buzzword du jour, I think it would be "balance."

I suck at balance. 

I think I suck at balance because I have the chronic problem of trying to balance too many things at once.  Which, now that I think about it, becomes a much larger (and much more delicate) balance between me and The Edge.  Lately, I feel a bit like I'm staring over said Edge...I'm basically holding on by my fabulous heels.  (Yes, Mommy Mimi is back in her heels and LOVING IT!)

As teachers, we have So.  Much. To.  Balance.  (Secretly, I think we'd all be really good at juggling plates or flaming batons...comes with the territory.)  We have to balance what we've learned in our latest professional development with what we think (and know) works for our friends.  We have to balance what we are passionate about with what is mandated.  We have to balance bathroom breaks with learning time.  We have to balance our desire to stop and look at a topic deeply and the constant administrative drive to move on, move on, cover everything, don't stop, don't pass go and (for the love of God) DON'T collect $200, are you crazy?  Teachers are overpaid and get summers off!

See?  That last bit?  That little sarcastic rant?  It's those moments when I think The Edge just may be winning.

In Mrs. Mimi's world, the compulsion to pile things onto my proverbial plate bleeds into my personal life as well.  Actually, if I'm honest with you (which I always am, my lovely readers), I think I function better when I have a lot going on.  When my plate gets too empty, suddenly I find myself in front of the TV watching hours of Golden Girls re-runs and wondering where my afternoon went.  Again, though, it's all about balance.  How much can I pile on so that I stay productive and don't tip the scales over to Crazed Whirlwind of Activity Yet Actually Finish Nothing Town.  That place blows.

I'm currently working with teachers.  I heart me some teachers.  And I'm watching these teachers struggle with balance as well (which is what leads me to think it's one of our occupational hazards).  I'm trying to help them balance new, purposeful strategies for teaching with what they feel comfortable doing in their classrooms.  And I'm seeing them trying to balance new ideas that they are excited about with how much change they realistically think they can handle.

Friends, I think I have had a revelation.

The more we push on teachers, asking them to reshuffle their already very delicate balance, the more resistant teachers are going to become.  And can you blame them?  Forget about having a healthy work-life balance...most teachers are just trying to balance the demands of their work life enough to get through the day without feeling like they just went into battle.  Yet instead of respecting that balance, acknowledging that balance, being real about the balance, what happens?  More and more and MORE gets put on the teachers plate and then, that finger gets pointed when the teacher fails to achieve the perfect balance.  Does it feel like a finger-pointing set up to anyone else? 

If we want things to change, and I think all of us do, the first step may be toward acknowledging what a teacher ALREADY HAS on her plate.  Then, wouldn't it make much more sense to strategically remove some of those responsibilities before adding on even more?  Don't we want teachers to be able to focus their energies and achieve a successful balance?  Because right now, it feels like The Powers That Be are just looking for a plate to dump all their problems on. 

I don't know about you, but my plate is full.  Grab a fork and help me if you want...

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Think Carefully Before You Point That Finger

This whole "let's blame everything on bad teachers" business has really got me steamed.  I'm not sure why tearing teachers apart is suddenly a trendy thing to do - personally I think it's one of those trends that is about as stylish and hot as those shirts that changed color with your body heat.  Remember those?  I think they were called Hypercolor Ts or something ridiculous like that?  At the time, some may have thought they were cool, but now...NOW I am hoping those same people are looking back at pictures of their past, shaking their heads and thinking about how LAME that particular trend really was.  How it lead them down a road of fashion don'ts.  How it was a waste of time and money.

Here's to hoping that all of this finger pointing goes the way of Hypercolor shirts.  Years from now, with any luck, the people behind those self-righteous digits will be thinking back on their past, shaking their heads and thinking about how LAME this particular trend really was.  How it lead our schools down a road of overly standardized don'ts.  How it was a waste of time and money.

Friends, my point is (Yes, I have one.) that sometimes doing what is trendy is nothing but a waste of time.  I liken our schools to the closets of individuals who have fallen victim to too many passing trends.  Disorganized, costly and with no true focus. 

But hey, let's totally blame the teachers for all that mess.  You know, since they have so much say over what they do in their classrooms...

What a minute.

May I share a little story with you?  A story about what I see when I am in classrooms?  A story about what is actually going on in our schools despite all of the finger pointing, all of the negativity, all of the buzzwords that never seem to really go anywhere? 

I recently spent time with an early childhood teacher.  She is a veteran teacher who has been working with the small fries for many years.  Her classroom is adorable.  I sat down to read to the group and immediately noticed how wonderfully they were all sitting on the carpet.  Except for one friend.  This one friend would call out comments about the book despite all of her classmates modeling quiet listening behavior.  She threw her body around the rug, taking out several similarly small fries in the process.  I watched as these other students simply dusted themselves off, smiled and continued to listen.  As I continued to read (Mrs. Mimi is determined.  Must. Read.  Out.  Loud.), this friend ran over to her teacher's desk, grabbing a handful of stickers.  When the stickers were taken away, she grabbed at a nearby chart.  When the chart was taken away, she went for a marker.  I think you get my point.

Girlfriend was beyond disruptive.  But instead of appearing to be malicious in her movements, this little girl truly seemed to have no control. 

After my read aloud (which still managed to ROCK, thank you very much), I sat with the teacher.  She was honest with me regarding her struggles with this particular student.  She told me how frustrated she felt at times.  She told me how difficult it was to help this girl to understand how to keep her hands to herself. 

And then she told me how bright this little girl is.  How much she craves individual attention.  How far she's come in just a few short weeks.  How she is committed to helping this girl, survivor of the earthquake in Haiti, learn as much as possible. 

During our conversation I heard no blame.  I heard no excuses.  I heard nothing but the honesty of a gifted teacher as she acknowledged the struggle and considered solutions. 

So, Powers That Be?  Perhaps you should pause, look inside an actual classroom and see what you can see.  And then maybe you can put those blame-ridden, trend-loving fingers away and get down to work like the rest of us. 

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Just Shoot Me

I think my love of all things Barnsy is pretty well established at this point, don't you?  I don't know how many times Mr. Mimi has joined me in my beloved Barnsy, gotten separated from me and found me spread out on the floor with a pile of new picture book titles and a gleam in my eye that says, "I'm gearing up to spend heinous amounts of money on these bad boys" as my debit card begins to vibrate with anticipation.

I also think that I speak openly of my addiction to picture books in general, no?  I mean, we're talking about a woman who, in her third trimester, waddled around several public libraries tracking down 100 different titles just so that she could blog about them.  And fantasize about reading them out loud to Mini Mimi who is one lucky little cookie because, let's face it, Mommy does a mean read aloud. 

I think picture books are amazing.  A.  MAZ.  ING. 

What would I do without Birdie's Shoes? or The Paperbag Princess or The Other Side or Oink?! or The Dot or Strega Nona or....

Do I really need to go on? 

So you can understand how this article in the New York Times felt like a slap in my Barnsy loving face.

Basically, the article talks about how picture books are collecting dust on the shelves of bookstores as more and more parents push their children to read picture books at an earlier and earlier age.  Presumably because they are crazed by test scores and some sort of psychotic need to outdo the neighbors kids. Or whatever.

I will now attempt to restrain myself from running to Barnsey and violently shaking any parent of a child who is incapable of doing little more than word call the words on the page of their look-at-what-my-kid-can-do chapter book. Perhaps for their next trick, said child could jump through a flaming hoop...

Okay. (deep breath) It sounds like I'm hating on chapter books, which I'm totally not. Mrs. Mimi loves her some Pinky and Rex, some Junie B. Jones, some Judy Moody...I know I kind of let my review of children's novels fall by the wayside but that really had more to do with the insatiable need of a new mom to read all things breast feeding and sleep scheduling.

What really has my proverbial panties in a knot is that abandoning picture books in favor of chapter books before your child is ready is LUDACRIS! First of all, I'm not totally convinced that all those small fries out there toting around huge awe-inspiring sized volumes can do more than simply say the words on the page. Meaning, helloooooooo, comprehension? Ever heard of it? It's relatively important to, oh I don't know, reading and all, but whatever.

Second of all, shame on everyone who overlooks the beauty of a picture book. Many of the themes handled in these little gems are very sophisticated, lending themselves to interesting book talk and challenging thoughts. Just because a book has chapters, doesn't necessarily mean that it is more difficult in content or in text than a picture book. Ironically, that sort of limited thinking is called "judging a book by it's cover.".

Third, there is nothing quite like the image of a classroom full of children sitting on the rug, staring open mouthed at their teacher as she reads from an enchanting, wonderful, irreplaceable picture book. Nothing! I think that image is more powerful than a ScanTron sheet full of correctly bubbled bubbles. So for the love of all things literate, stop thinking about those freaking tests for just one second, one picture book lengthed second.

In a nutshell, let children be children and let those children love books, no matter how thick or thin they are.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

And The "Can't Dos" Have It

I am really getting sick of everyone starting off sentences with "Teachers can't...." or "Teachers don't know how to..." Evidently, America's favorite past time has become filling in that blank and preparing their finger for some extensive pointing. 


Now, Mrs. Mimi has worked with some suckity suck suck teachers as colleagues.  I know they are out there.  But once I left my former classroom and the rage started to settle, I began to wonder if they all were always that terrible or perhaps (insert glimmer in my eye here) they had been beaten into submission by a system that is broken and hellbent on standardizing us down to how many pencils to sharpen and when.  No sharper!  More point!  You're doing it all wrong!

Teaching is hard.  Teaching well is even harder.  Combine that with all of the demands that are placed on us (ahem - collecting, recording and interpreting data, writing lessons, planning assemblies, communicating with parents, dealing with fights, social development, social justice, raising test scores, meeting standards, charting standards, filing paperwork, creating portfolios....need I continue?) and all of the fads that are simply dumped in a heap in the middle of our classrooms (oh, I don't know, like Smart boards for one?).  Tell me.  How do you expect a person who already doesn't have enough hours in the day to magically incorporate new technology into his or her teaching with little to no professional support in said technology? 

Or are teachers really getting fancy shmancy new things just so that we can continue to say, "Teachers don't know how to integrate technology."

I wonder.  What if we focused on what teachers CAN do.  What if we looked at individual teachers' strengths and then held them up as examples and resources to the remainder of the staff.  Someone probably rocks the Smart board and could hook their other peeps up with some practical and related knowledge.  Someone probably WORKS their data in ways that inform their instruction like you wouldn't believe.  That person could probably give the rest of the staff some pointers.

Oh yeah.  I'm going there.  I'm suggesting that perhaps we utilize the amazing teachers that everyone admits are out there but no one wants to point a finger at unless they are dressed entirely in leather and/or spending 18 out of 24 hours in their classrooms which is totally ridiculous....wait, where was I?  Oh yes, USING OUR EXISTING EXCELLENT TEACHERS AS RESOURCES.  REAL RESOURCES.  And not just resources for raising test scores.

I say to all those finger pointers who have crafted quite the distraction, "Step out from behind the curtain!  It's time for the show to be over."

Your hot air balloon and actual progress are waiting. 

Monday, October 4, 2010


I think it's been a very sad week for education.  We began the week with all sorts of excitement over the highly-promoted Education Nation over on NBC.  How naive...

I sit here blogging now, thinking back on last Saturday afternoon.  I had worked myself into a frenzy of DVR madness as I attempted to record every last minute.

I was ready to soak up all the dialogue.
I was ready to see teachers take a stand.
I was ready to see complicated issues tackled...things like the impact of poverty, standardized testing, RTTT, the common core standards, accountability, teacher evaluations...holding my breath with nerdy anticipation.

I was foolish.

How could I not smell the dog and pony show a mile away?

Then, a lovely reader directed my attention to the absolute ridiculousness that is happening in the LA Times.  I mean, how many times can it be said that using test scores to measure the overall effectiveness of a teacher makes about as much sense as tits on a bull?  (Pardon the expression, but honestly?  At this point, there's no other way to slice it.  It's just ridiculous and has to stop.)

No sooner did I step down off my soap box, fresh from my latest rant on the bullsh*t that is publicly humiliating teachers and calling it reform, then I found out that a teacher mentioned in this LA Times assault on teachers committed suicide.

Now, we don't know if this particular gentleman had other problems in his life, however, I am fairly certain that being publicly labeled as "ineffective" did absolutely nothing to help.  I am sick over this.  Sick.  First of all, using test scores alone to label teaching in some of the hardest school districts as "ineffective" without considering any other contextual factors is irresponsible and disgusting.  Tell me, HOW does this type of behavior help teachers?  Help children?  Help anyone but the people trying to sell newspapers?

So ENOUGH with the public shaming of teachers.  Hard working teachers are the LAST people who should be ashamed over the state of our public schools.  And in this situation, we have NOTHING to be ashamed about.  If I see one more finger pointed at us, I'm telling you, I'm going to reach across the internet and Snap.  It.  Off.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Childrens Book Reading Extravaganza 2010: Picture Book Party #s 6-2

Are you getting excited???  We are just one post away from PICTURE BOOK NUMBER ONE!!  (Hollllaaaaaa!!!!!)  Friends, it's been a long ride, but I have loved every minute of reading the Top 100 Picture Books and sharing my strange little thoughts with you.  My wallet?  Well, let's just say it's recovering. 

I can barely contain myself, so let's get started.

Starting us off at #6 this morning is Make Way for Ducklings by Robert McCloskey, another Caldecott Award winner.  I remember Big Mama Mimi reading me this one (and maybe even had it on record too...yes, again, I said I had it "on record"...on vinyl...whatevs.  I had it Fisher Price style).

Make Way for Ducklings (Live Oak Read-along) (Click on the images if you want to shop 'til you drop, nerdy style.)

Mr. and Mrs. Mallard decide to make a home on the Charles River in Boston, close to the bread throwing tourists in the Public Gardens.  Mrs. Mallard soon has eight ducklings, who she tries to take out on the town.  Suddenly the family finds itself in the middle of a busy intersection until Michael, a police officer the Mallards had befriended, rushes to their rescue.   The ducks continue on their way (with a police escort of course) down Beacon Street toward the Public Gardens  where Mr. Mallard is waiting as promised.

This book is such a classic that it's almost a crime NOT to read it. Despite my whole need-to-make-every-read-aloud-super-purposeful thing, I would suggest this one as a Let's Just Enjoy Reading Together book, or even (gasp - this may be sacrilegious) as a substitute/emergency read aloud.  I think our friends in kindergarten and first grade would enjoy this one the most...coming in at a Level L it would also probably make a lovely independent reading book for second grade friends as well.   

At #5 is another appearance from my boy, Mo Willems.  (I seriously can NOT get enough of his books.)  Have you guys ever read this one?  Believe it or not, a three year old totally introduced me to it and I have loved it ever since.  It's Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!

Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! 

The genius begins with a bus driver asking us to watch the bus for a minute and reminding us to not let the pigeon drive.  From there, the pigeon proceeds to make a very convincing argument as to why he SHOULD be allowed to drive the bus.  Sounds strange, but in reality, is hilarious.  There's rationalizing, begging, yelling...seriously, it's fantastic.  Like watching one of your little friends beg you for the extra donut hole after your writing celebration when you know full well that a snowball will sooner have a chance in hell than they will to get that last munchkin but, dammit, they are going to try every trick they have in their back pocket.  In the end, the pigeon does not get to drive, the bus driver returns and we see the pigeon move on to fantasizing about driving a big old truck.

I know it doesn't sound all that fabulous when you're reading my meanderings here, but take my word for it, it's pretty great.  The illustrations are simple, the text is simple, the story is simple, but put them all together?  Fabulous.  I can see myself using this with the small fries for pure enjoyment or as a humorous introduction to a (not so successful) piece of persuasive writing.

We have a classic book coming in at #4 which is The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats. Another Caldecott winner, y'all.

The Snowy Day

Although I totally don't get this kid's snowsuit, do you?  What's with the pointy hood?  Anyhow, this book is about Peter's day out in the snow.  He does all the things a kid does in the snow...make snow angels, check out footprints, think about throwing snowballs.  He even puts a snowball in his pocket to save, but after his bath, he discovers it melted.  He dreams that the sun came out and melted all the snow away but happily discovers in the morning that even more snow has fallen.

Another total classic.  I think it works really well with your kindergarten and first grade friends as part of a study on winter.  However, if you want to take it up a notch, Ezra Jack Keats is great for a study on author's craft - there are sound effects to check out and the interesting ways that he uses just a few words to stretch out actions we might otherwise breeze by.

Number 3 is The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle.  I think by this point, my love for Mr. Carle has been established.

Very Hungry Caterpillar

I'm thinking there is no summary necessary with this one.  The hungry caterpillar eats a bunch of stuff and turns into a butterfly.  The genius comes in the brilliant illustrations.  Brilliant.  Use this one to spice up a unit on insects with your kindergarten or first grade friends OR (my personal choice) use this one to inspire some really fabulous collage art projects!!

(drum roll please)

In position #2 is Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise.  I think Mini Mimi already has five copies of this one, but hey, can't go wrong with a classic, right?

Goodnight Moon

Ah, Goodnight Moon.  Shall I recite it to you from memory?  Because I have read it EVERY SINGLE NIGHT since my little friend was born.  And have loved every single reading.  I have always imagined this as a mommy read aloud and less of a classroom read aloud, but you know I'm open to hear how you all have used it in your rooms.  Thoughts?

Speaking of Mini Mimi, I think we're off to read some Elephant and Piggie.  I seriously have love for those two characters.  Is it wrong that I laugh every time I read them and, now that I am familiar with the stories, have taken my read aloud to dramatic new heights?  We're talking dramatic pauses, voices, hand gestures...the works.

I hope you can contain yourselves until next's NUMBER ONE, NUMERO UNO....the big cheese. 

Try to hold it together. 


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