We were lucky enough to be on Cape Cod.
It was sunset. On the ocean. Bo was eating Cheerios out of a container. To get each piece, he had to stick his whole hand in, rummage around, and then squeeze his hand back out. His brow furrowed with every try. The wind ruffled his sweet toddler hair. When he got his ‘O, he grinned with his whole face, stuffing the cereal into his mouth and chewing exaggeratedly.
It was heaven. Our son sat with us on the beach. He was happy and tired out from a day of running and swimming and smiling. He was having a snack.
In less than a week I’ll be returning to work full time after a blessed, lucky year off to spend with my son. Of course I will still have so many of these moments with him, but there will be fewer. I will miss a bunch of them.
As I go back to work working in schools with the Reading and Writing Project, I can’t help but think of Bo, and my dreams for him when he starts his formal education. Above all, I want the light I see in his eyes, the one that shines like a beacon from his sweetest little heart, to never be extinguished. I know I won’t always be able to control this. I know that his light will change – it will turn from a fully open searchlight of joy to a more subdued, big kid twinkle. I just hope the light remains. And if I hope that for my son, then I must hope it for yours, especially if I’m going to be working with your kids.
There are some things I have thought about during this year off, things that I hope to hold onto as I dive back in to school. I share them here to try and etch them a little deeper into my teaching commandments as I move forward into the new years to come as a working mom.
When Bo was a newborn, he was easy going – until he wasn’t. One minute he was super chill and cooing, the next he was shrieking for his life. We realized we were going to need to teach him how to take in the world a bit. And so we studied up. We got advice. We worked actively on how to best teach this baby how to go to the park (later, how to eat with a spoon, sleep by himself, use some signs to ask for what he wants). There were many paths we could have chosen, many philosophies of parenting (French, Spock, Attachment, Old School) and probably all of them would have worked – as long as we worked at it. Because we had a philosophy of sorts, (really philosophy is overstating it, we basically flailed until we settled on something that felt right), we could be somewhat consistent, we had a framework for how to move forward, and we had a community to talk to when we ran into trouble.
The same is true in schools. As teachers we need to know what we believe in when teaching, say, reading and writing. And our practices need to match those beliefs. There are many curriculums out there. Researcher Michael Fullan suggests that many of them will work – as long as everyone really commits and tries to reach high levels of implementation. That is probably true. But any curriculum worth its salt needs to be flexible enough to allow you to respond to the kids in front of you instead of the box set of lessons on your desk. This is one reason why I have devoted myself to workshop teaching – when you break it down, workshop is a philosophy of teaching and a series of structures that supports those ideas. But you might choose something different. Here are three things that seem to matter most when developing curriculum:
- It focuses on the kids. A principal I work with in Queens said this about working with the Reading and Writing Project (I am paraphrasing): “All the other curriculums we were being offered came in a big shiny box, and there was some representative telling me that everything I needed was in there. But you guys don’t do that. You guys tell me that we are going to have to work hard and get to know our kids and go from there. I like that.” Any curriculum that tries to be “teacher proof” is not going to have the kids in mind.
- There are resources to draw upon. Once, back in the late 90’s, I wrote a unit on teaching philosophy in the reading workshop. It was awesome and gratifying and soooooo much work. I couldn’t keep that up if I tried. Plus, a few years later all this stuff came out about teaching philosophy to kids and I was like, “wow, that’s waaay better than what I came up with!” It helps to choose, at least part of the time, a curriculum that others have worked on too.
- There is a team. When I was in school, the quality of your education was greatly determined by the teacher you happened to get from year to year. Each room was its own kingdom. Most good professional development aims to shift that – to create communities of practice rather than a few good teachers. When I choose what kind of teaching to embrace, I want to be sure that my colleagues are in on it too.
…But curriculum doesn’t matter THAT much.
I was talking recently with a friend about where to send her kid to middle school. She had a few choices, and we weighed them out one by one. About a half hour into the conversation, I started chuckling. We hadn’t even mentioned curriculum. Here we were, two educators who spent a great deal of time thinking about and writing curriculum, and when it came down to where to send our kids, curriculum was far from our minds.
What mattered more? The teachers, and whether they were kind and responsive and thoughtful. If there were extracurricular activities, like sports and arts and music, and whether those pursuits were supported during the school day. The community of kids in the building – if this place felt like an empathic, happy group of kids. What we cared about when we considered which school our kids would go to was how the school felt – not really what it taught. That’s not to say that we would have been cool with bad curriculum. But we first focused on how kids would see themselves in the building, the offerings, the people.
As I walk into my schools this year, as someone who primarily works on curriculum and teaching practices, I hope to remember that what I do is important – the lesson we teach and how we teach them matter – but that what matters way more is how we treat each other, how we see our kids, the vibe we put out into our classrooms and hallways and gyms and cafeterias. While this is a big goal, there are some things we can do on the daily to help:
- Be the light. We can’t control what other people do, but we can control how we react. This is the first thing that you learn in therapy (I’ve, um…heard). Once I worked at a tough school where the teachers didn’t really want to work with me. For awhile, I tried to convince everyone I was right, that I was worth listening to. Then, I shifted. I decided to try just being kind, funny, loving, no matter what. “Be the light,” I said to myself each day as I walked into the building. It worked. The vibe lightened and we found ways to work together. We can do this anytime – in our classroom, our staff meetings, on parent night.
- Keep it simple. It’s impossible to create a happy climate when we are completely stressed out maniacs trying to do everything at once. The problem is, we have a culture in education right now where we are told that being stressed out maniacs is a part of our job description. The fact is, you can’t teach all of the Common Core or whatever in one unit. Or one year. So instead, lets take a deep breath and ask ourselves this transforming question: What one or two things do I want my kids to be better at without my help by the end of this unit? If we center our work around this question, we can create some space for ourselves and our kids.
- Find the fun. We have to have fun in our classrooms. Not all of the time, not at the expense of good work, but we have to have fun. If we don’t, the kids won’t. And if the kids don’t, we will lose so many of them. Let your sense of humor shine. Use a video clip from pop culture in a lesson. Play a ridiculous song to help kids transition. Choose funny read alouds and stories from your life to tell. Smile. A lot. Even before November.
Always have a snack (and a rest, and playtime).
I was amazed this year at how often Bo’s problems could be solved with something to eat. Or a nap. Or some fun. One minute he would be fitzing out, the next, after a piece of fruit or a laughing chase around the room, he would be blissfully content.
In school, though, we ask kids to sit in chairs and work hard for hours at a time. Granted, our kids aren’t toddlers, the 8th graders I work with don’t need a nap every three hours. But I remember feeling hungry at 10:30 every day in school. I remember feeling exhausted at 1:30. I remember craving just a little bit of fun in the middle of Math class.
Research shows that this is not just coddling – it’s good teaching practice. Loads of research supports the need for recess, good nutrition, and rest when learning (or working). But of course if your school does not offer these things, it can be tough to find the space. Here are a couple ways to start:
- Invite students to bring a snack. I am eager to try this, even in my middle schools. Third period and seventh period feel like good times. For the kids who don’t bring one I can bring a bag of something or other. Even something small, like a baby carrot or two, can help.
- Give kids a minute of quiet time. When I remembered to do this in my classroom it made a world of difference. Before going back to our seats after the lesson, or before starting work, turn off the lights and let kids think,rest, daydream for a full minute. It’s a long time, actually. And it shifts the mood in the room.
- Incorporate fun into your lessons. We have to have fun. We just have to. (See above)
Don’t work too hard.
If I worked with you before 2014, I want to apologize. Before we had Bo, I am pretty sure that when push came to shove, I defaulted to suggesting that we should take lots of work home. It felt like the only option, it felt like what teachers just did. And it is. There is no way to avoid having work to do during our off hours, but if we want this career of ours to be sustainable and nourishing, I now see how much we will have to figure out how to work less at home. As I go back to work this year, I realize that there is no way that I will be spending all night crafting the perfect read aloud, or reading swaths of student work just for the information it gives me about my class. I may want to, I may believe in these things, but I will want – need -to spend time with my family more.
It is a goal of mine this year to look for more and more ways to follow my colleague and friend Colleen Cruz’s advice, “Work smarter, not harder.” Here are a couple things I am going to try:
- Work effectively during the day. I shudder to think how I used my preps sometimes. Gossiping and copying, mostly. Instead, I wish I had gone digital, chatting over texts, and used my preps to look at student work and plan. Also, this year I commit to being sure that all of the meetings I hold with teachers during the school day are as practically productive as humanly possible. If we are going to take a teacher’s prep, we have a responsibility to make sure it takes work away from them, not just adds more work to their load.
- Schedule manageable bits of work. After my first week of teaching, I went to a bar to meet up with some of my new teacher friends. I carried a huge duffle bag loaded down with writers notebooks. Sharon Maier, MS 51 social studies teacher extraordinaire, took one look at me and said, “I see you have the martyr bag.” Collecting 30 or 100 notebooks is silly. It’s not like I can do a good job assessing all of those in one weekend. Instead, I learned to schedule how many I could do a day, and tackle small bits at a time. Five or ten notebooks or essays, a day became easy.
- Share the load. Don’t do alone what you can do with others. Plan units together and divvy up the work. When grading performance assessments, work with colleagues so you can norm what a low middle and high is for your kids, which helps make the work go faster. Ask for help and reach out. It will help make the work less odious, and it will make everyone smarter to boot.
In less than a week I’ll be back at work, leaving Bo before he gets up for the day. I’ll miss him every second, even as I am glad to get back to the profession that has shaped my identity for the last 16 years. I have a renewed sense of what it is that schools can be, what my dreams are for Bo’s education and for every student. But I also have another hope. This year at home with my son has changed me. It has left a mark. I hope that as I go back to work, I find myself better than I was. I hope that I won’t forget what I have learned, even as the crash of the school year begins.
Feel free to remind me:)
– Kate and Maggie