On beginning readers as well as lifelong ones…

I was blessed to have grown up in a household of books and I am sure my mother read to me from the womb. While I cannot remember the first time or first times I was read to as a child, I can remember the moment that I learned to read independently. That moment was life-changing for me- unforgettable.
I was five or six years old, half way through kindergarten, and at the time, we were on vacation at my grandparents house. I was alone in the upstairs bedroom passing the time, and for whatever reason, I had a book that I was looking at- which in one moment I wasn’t reading for message and content- and in the next moment, I was. It was like I went from darkness to light. I still remember running downstairs to tell my family that I could read. Still remember the excitement and pride and absolute wonder at it all.

Today, my kindergarten students got their very first guided reading books to take home with them for homework. I brought the books out and told them what we were going to do- that we were going to read some books together- with them reading alongside me independently. And one Little Guy piped up, “But I can’t read yet!” I assured him that he most certainly could, and that they had been reading for quite some time (that is, reading our morning message, sight words, word work, letters, words in Big Books, environmental print, etc.). But I got what he was saying. This time, it was different. They had an actual book in hand and it was their job to do the reading- not mine. We got started and within minutes, the students were noticing words and letters and pictures…and low and behold: they were reading!

They were READING.

We read the book through three times together on our classroom rug, and they read it on their own twice. And the pride that we all felt was palpable. I could hardly contain it myself! Thankfully, a colleague dropped by to relieve one of the educational assistants for a break, and I was able to nab her and share with her this most transformative of moments. I was bouncing, I was so excited.
I can only imagine those students tonight as they read to their moms and dads and significant others in their lives- reading school books out loud for the very first time. To me, it is a milestone up there with walking and talking. I would like to think today is the first day of the rest of their lives spent as lifelong readers. I hope that they always find joy in reading- joy as I saw on their faces today.

It never fails to move me to watch a child read for the very first time.

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Safe Havens and Soft Landings

You know, I have had many people tell me over the years that they could never be a teacher.  Could never do my job. That they don’t have what it takes. That it is too demanding in terms of the behaviors and the complicated issues children present. Too hard on the nerves. Too taxing on the stress levels. Never mind the additional stressful academic responsibilities that come with the job.

Honestly, it isn’t the easiest profession. It isn’t the easiest calling to be drawn to. It hasn’t been the smoothest sailing I’ve ever known. There are many challenging days, many hurdles to jump. Many deep waters to traverse.  There are many moments when I wonder myself. That all because: it is hard being there for people, day in and day out.   Hard staying the course when the ride gets bumpy.  And truth be told, the ride is very treacherous.  And all because there are so many variables.  So many children with so many stories.  For in our classrooms, there are children who have seen things I will never know about in my lifetime. Who have heard things I will never hear. Watched things transpire that I can only envision in my worst nightmares. Who have lived lives in their short years that I will never live.

It isn’t easy being a kid at the best of times. Try being one at the worst of times.

There are days when these same children come into the classroom and they just your push buttons. They try your patience and test your resolve. They act out, cry, push, scream, whine, slap, punch and spit. They holler and run. They pull things off the walls and shove things on the floor. There are days when you just want to give up and walk out the door.

There are certainly days when you wonder why you ever thought teaching was a good idea in the first place.

But sometimes, there are days when everything comes together for you.  When the pieces of the puzzle just FIT. When there is clarity and everything murky is finally clear. Days when something happens and a door is opened, a view is granted into the inner sanctum of a child’s private life. And you see for the very first time why it is, this child is angry. Is hurting. Why it is this child is wounded, frustrated, broken and scared. And all of the moments that happened before- when you thought seriously about pulling out your hair and giving up the fight- those moments are all but forgotten.  All but a memory. Because you’ve just seen a child for who they truly are for the very first time.

Seen that their anger is just a disguise for pain.
Seen that their screaming hollers are sometimes a cry for help.
Seen that the physical aggression they exhibit is sometimes a response to what they know as familiar.
Seen that their hurtful words are just the everyday vernacular of their private world.

And in those moments of clarity, you realize: I am a safe haven. I am a lighthouse- a beacon of hope. I am a soft landing for this child. And I am such so that when they come to school, when they come to my classroom- they know they are loved.  Know that they are protected, accepted, wanted, appreciated, valued, enjoyed, liked and seen. They know they don’t have to be afraid. Don’t have to fear.

Because here…they are safe.

That is all I could ever really hope for as a teacher- to be a safe haven and a soft landing for my students to fall on. A person they know who will be there for them, each day and every day… through all the moments, both shining and otherwise.  There to be a caring, loving presence in their lives.  Unwavering through the storms.

As a teacher, it’s all I ever really needed to be.

{photo retrieved from crislorenzana.wordpress.com}

The joy of field trips…

Retrieved from Johnston’s Schools website

I came home tonight after watching a killer last set in my daughter’s volleyball game (please do not ask a whole lot of questions about the first four sets, ‘cause that score was kind of private) to which I heard the following anguished cry from Youngest not even five minutes after lighting the home fires:

“Mooooooooommmmmm….(heave, heave, sob, sob)…..I just….(sobbing) burned down my house on Minecraft…accidentally. And it was my favoritest house ever. And I just had made it…..(sobbing).”

It’s interesting how these funny little things follow me around- just begging for me to write about them. We were at the dentist today about a permanent tooth that Daughter had broken two weekends ago on a Saturday afternoon. How do you tell the inquiring dentist that your child broke said tooth playing “Abduct the Baby” with her little sister? It’s just not the normal excuse. And just for the record, the dentist did ask. (I was very vague). I mentioned this all to a friend at the store and she said that her child had also had a similar catastrophe, only to another part of the body while straddling the black bin in their driveway, singing at the top of her lungs.

I could just totally relate- neither one of us thought either occurrence was less than normal. But I guess the average person does not live this way.

So what this story is REALLY about is our school field trip today. Wow, just wow. Where do I begin…? For the record, the above stories were just my warm-up.

How does one frame a blog article about a field trip adventure in which a bus full of three kindergarten classes of children ages 4-5 is pulled off the road for an hour and a half because its crisis exits are screaming “Emergency! Emergency!” in a language all their own? How do you even start discussing bathroom issues? Or temporary bushes with prickles that can serve as the restroom when all else fails? Thank goodness for Kleenex.

All I have to say is this: to those passer-bys that saw a woman jumping up and down, touching her derriere, rubbing her belly and then doing scissors jumps/jumping jacks, you try entertaining 35 youngsters for an hour and a half on the side of the road. I dare you. It’s a game called Simon Says and kids love it. Maybe you’ve heard of it.

Okay, seriously. I am just so thankful for the neighbors who saw me (obscurely, I swear) hiding in the bush with one Little Person and then kindly offered their “facilities” to the rest of the kiddos on the bus. Thank you. Words cannot express… I am sure I looked like a wild woman because at the time I was also trying to protect said child from the dog that kept barking at us from across the road. I was sincerely concerned for everyone’s safety, not the least of which was my own.

Back to the woman across the road. She was simply the best. And what she did was humbling, it was simply just too kind. (Now that I think about it, were we doing them a favor by removing ourselves from the bushes on the sides of their road?) At any rate, that woman deserves a Good Neighbor/Good Citizen award- she was amazing. Simply above and beyond amazing. She turned her television on, offered us her washroom (which we paraded in steadily for the better part of an hour, boots, dirt and all) along with water to drink from her kitchen faucet. And she trusted us enough that she left and drove off with all of us still on her lawn. I mean, really: where but the country would this ever happen. We then continued to enjoy the property, playing numerous games of Duck, Duck Goose and the afore-mentioned Simon Says until the Department of Transportation showed up in all their glory after having got lost a time or two on the back-roads of P.E.I. and generously fixed the bus

It was a time. A TIME I say. I sure had fun.

Needless to say, I had planned a full slate of activities for the day. I am nothing if not a glutton for punishment. I had invited a professional chef to come into the school and bake apple pies with each of my students as a surprise for their parents. Boo hoo, ’cause that unfortunately never happened. But then again: the apples were not ‘all there’, shall we say, by the end of the day anyway (became the snack); even if they had been, cooking pies in a half of an hour would have been even an absolute miracle even for her and she’s one of the most amazing chefs I know.

So, it’s been a slice. A slice of every kind of apple I know, including Honeycrisp (which the bus driver ended up finding and picking for me after I had run all over the orchard looking for them during my five minute break (or I could call it my ‘break your neck’ as that’s my kind of luck), I spent my time aimlessly running around the orchard only to find these beauties were growing in the row marked “Jona Gold”. So that’s how they keep ‘em a secret. Who knew.

Can’t wait for the next field trip.

On Intelligence

Someone asked me once whether I felt a certain child we both knew had intelligence. Not a question I get asked every day. Not a question I appreciate, to be honest.  Needless to say, this question was alarming to me on many levels, not the least of which was that it was asked of me by another educator, another teacher. Someone who should know better than to ask. A person that should have known: intelligence is only part of the picture. One piece of the puzzle.  And thus known that there are many, many intelligences to consider when discussing intellect. Truth be told: a child’s intelligence is not a topic two professional educators should be discussing when there are hosts of other issues more deserving of their time and thought. More deserving of their endeavors.  For each student who shows up in our classrooms is capable and intelligent. And each has an intellect, having been endowed with God-given gifts, talent and ability.

Call that what you may; I call it intelligence. Because every child is able.  Every child CAN. And every child has capacity- ability, clarity and certain aptitudes- certain leanings toward learning and understanding. And every child has an interest in varying topics and knowledge that serves their particular intellect. When teachers make judgments about students in this way- as we often do when comparing one student to another student for purposes of understanding, assessment and evaluation, we quite often fail to see the best in these individuals. And thus fail to see these same students’ potential. The possibility that lies in their ability. Because here’s what we miss in these situations: the fact that everyone has intelligence- it’s just that we’ve been given different kinds.

Intelligence is obviously not the same in everyone.  Thank goodness for that.  What a boring world this would be.

Because intelligence has traditionally been measured by narrowly defined standards- standards that accept commonly accepted academic goals in subject areas like language and math as being the most important criteria by which to measure a person’s smarts, we often don’t recognize intelligence as being varied.  And by that, I should add: we don’t appreciate and value those variations. We do recognize intelligence as being widely interpreted, but we only favor certain interpretations. For the standards that prepare students for the workforce are what we typically equate with intelligence- those academic pursuits associated with our school system. These are the standards that prepare students for a life of employment and labour. Standards which are measured and compared and found wanting, but nevertheless- still pursued.  That’s the intelligence we value.  Not the wide breadth and depth and extent of what intelligence CAN be.

It’s time we saw intelligence for what it truly is: diverse and wholly worthy in it’s variation.  It’s time we remembered that everyone has intelligence.

That student with the blank stare in your history class- they are a gifted sketch artist.

That child who is only approaching math expectations on the standardized test you just issued- she is a brilliant gymnast.

That boy who never answers a question in class and seems to fade into the woodwork- he’s a fabulous piano player.

And that bubbly girl who talks unceasingly every time you turn your back- she’s someday going to blow your mind with how she’ll end up changing the world.

We can’t believe fully in our students and simultaneously feel pity for them. Care is not pity. It isn’t weak-spined, sympathy that reaches out to the less-thans- the weak and deficient. No, that’s not care. Care is strong enough to surmount the odds. Care calls us to believe in the best each child has to offer- and it requires of us a new way of thinking.  And care knows better than to feel sorry for anyone when believing in them is so much better.

It’s time for a renewal of sorts.

We must care enough for our students to see their ingrained intelligences, whatever form those intelligences might take. We must care enough to care to change our own narrow forms of thinking.  And care enough to be open-minded, gracious, loving and hopeful in our perspectives.  We simply must care enough.  The rest will take care of itself.

After all, when we believe that all children are intelligent, we offer hope and future to our students beyond the narrowly-defined futures that await them within traditional understandings about intelligence.  All students have intelligence. It’s up to us to help them discover how.

And it’s up to them to use their varying gifts and talents, knowledge and understanding…to make this world a better place.

Believe

They showed up one morning. Could have been any morning, really. And there they were. Bright eyes, smiling. Hello, Mrs. Gard and then the pause. Waiting for my response. Their faces searching mine for that encouraging smile.

Do I believe in them?

He fell asleep every single day in my history class. The room was dark and calming, a glow from the overhead bulb the only light. His long hours at the fish plant gave him little time to sleep. Little time to be the teenager he should have been.  Little time to care about facts and dates.

Did I believe in him then?

The boy and his mother walk the halls. It’s his first day of school ever, coming up this Thursday. There are fears and worries, but mostly just excitement. Everything is new and inviting. School is cool when you’re four.

Do I believe in him?

Do I believe… in them?

Teachers: we have children who will walk into our lives, into our halls and into our classrooms in the days ahead. They will have stories and experiences, expectations and worries- hopes and fears. They will have dreams. Dreams they believe in.

Do I believe in them?

We have children coming who will challenge our patience, try our tolerance, question our leading, test our resolve. Children coming who will make us laugh and make us cry. And some who will make us want to shelter them with everything we’ve got. These children- they will work their way into our hearts. Will work their way into our world. We will come to love them like our very own. We will teach them, listen to them, care for them, nurture them, inspire them, learn from them, hope for them. And when we have to, we will fight for them.

And all because we believe in them. Because we care.

Do you believe?

Do you believe in them?

For if you do, they will believe in themselves too. They will believe they can.

And because they can, they will:

Learn.

Grow.

Understand.

Discover.           

Mature.

Develop.

Into the amazing, creative human beings they were meant to be. And they too will inspire and encourage others to believe in themselves. To believe that they too CAN.  And all this because YOU believed. Because we as teachers believed in them.

Believe.

Because that’s one small step we teachers can take to make the incredible happen.

What I Want To Teach This Year

I fill a bucket with water and soap. Bubbles slowly rise to the surface as the two substances combine into a froth of white foam. There is much to do today and little time to do it all in. I have my classroom sectioned off into centers, so today’s goal is to clean the computer station and the puzzle and games center.

It might look like I am cleaning, but what I am really doing is readying the classroom for the little bodies that will plunge through that door (at the bottom of the stairs- turn right) come Thursday morning of next week. I am readying things. Making sure all is clean, orderly and attractively arranged. It’s slow work, but I like the quiet.

Gives me time to think.

For while I clean shelves and wipe down cupboards, I ready my mind. Clean out the cobwebs, so to speak. I need my head to be in the game, need my thoughts to be organized. Need my mind to be clear. For when all is said and done, it’s not the classroom that houses the potential and possibility to make this year the best one ever for my incoming class: it’s me.

I’m the teacher.

With that in mind, I’ve been reflecting on what I plan to teach this year, along with the usual letters, numbers, reading and writing. And what I want to teach this year is how to love.

How to love, not how to hate.

How to care for one another. Reaching out beyond one’s own familiar world so as to make a difference in the life of another.

How to be compassionate. Showing concern for those going through hard times, displaying empathy for those with struggles and consideration for the needs of others. Above all, living a life marked by gentleness in one’s interactions toward all living things.

How to be grateful. Thankful for what we’ve been given. Appreciative of little gestures and small tokens of thoughtfulness. Pleasure for the gifts of life that are not transitory.

Because what I want to teach this year is the art of loving, not the vanishing pleasure of greed.

How to see that what we’ve been given is enough. Acknowledging that we have a responsibility to share the love, share the blessing. Spread the message of hope.

How to give from the heart, expecting nothing in return. How to live one day at a time.

How to strive for justice and freedom for all even in the midst of everyday living. Not just saying that we do- living it as well.

Yes, what I want to teach this year is love, not apathy.

How to see that indifference is the same as condoning the same behaviors we find offensive in society.

How to acknowledge that one’s lack of interest in speaking out about what they believe to be of value and of worth is weakness.  We need to find strength in our convictions.  Hopeful joy in our abilities.

How to see that one’s boredom and lethargy is the obstacle between self and understanding the world better.

For what I want to teach this year is that love is both the message and the outcome of a life lived well- for one’s own joy as well as for the joy of others. Not denying my place in history, but embracing it.

What we really need is love. It’s what I really need. Because it’s not the world I am trying to change:it’s me. And I know it will happen if I just take it one day at a time.  One sure foot placed securely in front of the other.

And starting with me as the student, that’s what I want to teach this year.

It Matters That We Remember Our Students

I recently ran into a former professor of mine from my undergrad days at U.P.E.I. I actually had been invited to attend a talk that he was presenting to a small group of people in his home- thus the reason for our paths crossing. As I was re-introduced to him by my friend (after a fourteen year hiatus from studies at the same university where I had first met him), I had already convinced myself that he wouldn’t remember me. After all, the class had been held in an amphitheater-style classroom- I was just a face in the crowd. A number on a spreadsheet.

Why would he remember me?

Why that mattered to me that he remembered me, is an interesting thought. Does it matter that teachers remember their students? As his student, I certainly remembered him- his style of teaching, his topic of interest- even some of the things he had said. But for some strange reason, it mattered to me- in that moment- that he remember me.

As pleasantries were exchanged, he assured me that he did indeed remember me. And he paused to talk to me about my life, work and writing. As we reacquainted, I remember feeling honored that a teacher at the university level would remember a former student from many years prior and thus take the time to talk to that student, me- showing an interest in who I had become.

It mattered that he remembered. It mattered that he was that kind of teacher that remembered. And I am of the opinion that it matters that we care enough for our students to remember them. To remember the essence of who they were when we were a part of their lives.

Can we always remember their names? Regrettably, no. This is a grief of mine. Can we remember all their likes and dislikes? Not likely. All the ins and outs of their lives? The ideas and beliefs they espouse? Their dreams and ambitions? Hardly.

We can’t remember everything, but we can remember something. And that something essentially is that we can remember the person.

It matters that we care enough about our students to remember them, that we care enough to remember the person.

I have students whom I still remember from my student teaching days fifteen years ago. Do I remember everything? Again, this is an unreasonable expectation. I sometimes find myself forgetting details as the years go by. Yes, I forget details at times, but I still remember the person. And I believe I do so in part because I challenged myself to take the time in the classrooms I was blessed to be part of, to be in the moment. To really make what I was doing an experience that I was present for, not just something I put my time into so as to make a buck. So as to do a job, fulfil a mandate or complete a task.

I remember because I made it a priority.

Caring for people requires investment. And when we invest our time- using that same time to open up discussion, opportunity, possibility and conversation, we have more of a chance of remembering. More of a chance of keeping connection. And it’s worth it to ourselves to remember the people who’ve touched our lives, our students. It’s worth it. Because those same students we remember, for better or for worse, are the very reason we do what we do.

They are the reason we are in this profession. The reason we teach.

So in thinking about remembering people who’ve changed my life, I wanted to share with you some students I remember:

That boy in my third grade class who brought his favorite CD in for me to listen to

That girl who loved to figure-skate, whom I drove forty-five minutes to watch practice

That boy in my high school history class who always fell asleep because he had worked at the fish plant until 11:00 p.m. the night before

That boy who I eventually won over- even after I caught him starting a fire in the school gazebo

That girl I wrote a letter to and read to her class after I watch her being bullied

That boy I would have followed to the moon and back after he shared with me what had happened to him that morning before he’d even made it to the bus

That little girl I knew needed extra love- and her parents too

That boy in my tenth grade law class who scribbled words I can’t even describe- whom I knew needed to be read by someone with more authority than me

That girl whom I nominated for a music award

That boy I sang a duet with at the school variety concert

These students I remember, these students I will never forget- for they are blessings in my life, even though I may not have known it at the time. Little graces that I have known along the path. People who have touched my life in this journey of mine as an educator.

True- sometimes my memory fail me. The details become a little fuzzy. The faces might even lose their defining features in my mind. But the person behind that face is forever etched in my heart.

I will always remember these students- their stories of hope, resilience, determination and sheer grit have made me the teacher I am today.

May I never forget the reason for why I chose to be a teacher. For why I am who I am.

It’s because of my students.