Looking Ahead, Looking Back

I’m looking ahead, right on the precipice of the start of a new school year. The cycle begins again. Tomorrow. I still feel the summer behind me. Glorious free days full of family and friends. Walking. Berry picking. Splashing in water of any kind, from muddy puddles to the salty sea. Visiting farmers’ markets and playing on playgrounds. Sharing the world with my daughter. Trying to etch each minute into memory.

Still, I am looking ahead. Ahead to “Get to Know Each Other” and “Let’s Make the Most of This Year Together.”

The thing that’s always a little disconcerting about this time of year: I’m between classes. The students who walked out on the last day of school are still mine…but not really. Their lives, their needs, my year with them is still floating around in my mind. My starring role in their lives is over, but they haven’t started the next act yet. My new class will soon fill up my thoughts, and time has told me that this will happen soon and quickly, but not for a little bit still.

So I sit between an ending and a beginning. While I keep looking ahead, I also look back.

On walking in the woods.

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On growing things.

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On observing.

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On being together.

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Here’s to finding the greatness ahead, and remembering the greatness behind! Happy New Year!

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The Peace Project

Peace: a state of tranquility or quiet; freedom from civil disturbance; harmony in personal relations   –Merriam-Webster online dictionary

A few years ago, at about this time, I began a peace project with my students. I don’t remember if I began for my own sanity or if something sparked the kids’ interest in this area, or what, but this year, we needed all the peace we could get. Let’s face it. This is an exciting time, and if you are a kid, you’re just about jumping out of your skin right now. Thanksgiving fell late this year. It was already December when we returned from our Thanksgiving break. Imagine three short weeks of school stand between you and the holiday you live for the whole rest of the year. My students needed some peace. I needed some peace. We needed it badly. So we began a three week journey to infuse our lives with a little bit of peace.

Because books always manage to engage us and calm us at the same time, we read a lot. We began with a colorful and simple story.

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Can You Say Peace?, by Karen Katz, teaches how to say peace in many different languages. A brief history of the Nuclear Disarmament movement was discussed, and how that movement created the symbol we now know to represent peace. Winston Churchill and his “V for Victory” speech were also mentioned.

We read  The Peace Book, by Todd Parr, and wrote about what peace meant to us.

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Some favorite responses: Peace is a sunset. Peace is helping your teacher when she needs it. Peace is being with your family. 

We discussed peace, and why we needed it in our lives. We looked at what peace looked like in different parts of the world through Barbara Kerley’s, A Little Peace.

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And because kids so often think of peace as the opposite of war, we read The Librarian of Basra, by Jeanette Winter, and learned of the true story of a woman who tried to preserve peace in the midst of war.

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A lot of deep breaths were taken, working to cue little bodies to become still, and little brains to become focused.

We read two books that exemplify the best parts of the holiday season, giving and kindness towards others, and then we began our own quilt based on the idea of peace on earth.

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We spread a little peace throughout the school by making and sharing wearable peace signs.

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Interspersed with this talk of peace we made a Night Tree.

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We made ornaments.

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We made crafts.

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We watched the 1966 version of How The Grinch Stole Christmas, and we sang Christmas carols. We had a Holiday Brunch on the same day we finished our Peace on Earth quilt.

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The peace signs flip up to reveal our messages about peace!

The juxtaposition between spreading peace and celebrating the season stood out in high contrast. We rode a roller coaster of excitement and calm, and for the most part the effects of each balanced the other out.

I’d love to say that we were cool, calm, and collected right up to the end, but that would be an untruth of vast proportions. We did pretty well, though. We enjoyed the time together, and we did spread a little peace into our own lives and the lives of those around us. At the end of the week, I may have taken a deep breath and done my own little “V for Victory” celebration as the last kid walked out the door. We made it. Peace on Earth. Good will toward all!

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A Writer’s Reflection

This class has guided me in a direction that has changed my teaching forever. This is a dramatic statement. It is also completely true.

This is acting as a final reflection for the class I was a part of this semester.

My teaching has shifted this year. Subtly but surely. It is because I have been writing. I have been a part of a Learning Through Teaching class where we were charged with forging a link between our writer selves and our writing teacher selves.

I knew I could only make this connection if I actually wrote on a regular basis. I had to make myself vulnerable to the process of writing. I had to experience what I ask my students to experience, what all writers experience. The sharing of writing is the sharing of oneself. So began this web log of my journey.

Our district’s writing instruction uses the traits of good writing as a guideline to help navigate the writing process with children. I began this blog as a means to work through my own writing process, and to provide me with opportunities to experiment with ways to make my writing better.

In the beginning, I was struck by how much I revise my writing based purely on how it sounds when I reread it. Over and over. I can tell when my writing doesn’t sound right, but sometimes it takes a lot of tries for it to ring true. That revision process is ongoing for me, and repeats itself again and again before a piece is complete.

The first time I decided to write through the lens of the sorts of teaching points I try to impart to my students, was in the post, A Gateway to Conversation. I wanted a more powerful verb: 

Inspiration grew at the super market when I put heaved a gigantic pumpkin into our cart and my husband asked dryly, “Didn’t they have a bigger one?”

This simple switch made a world of difference! It also crystallized what I was trying to do with this venture.  I was trying to make my own writing better, and as a result I was trying to make my students better writers as well.

I found myself jotting down plans and ideas for my classroom, and searching for how they would translate into the written word. I tried playing with conventions.  Could I experiment with them? Have one word sentences? I redefined punctuation for myself, and for my students: Punctuation tells the reader how to read your writing. Because writing is meant to be read. And because writing is meant to be read, every time I completed a post, I held my breath, and hit “Publish.”

I worked on being clear. I worked on decluttering my sentences. I accompanied purposeful thinking with purposeful writing. This translated into more purposeful teaching. I have been working on clarity with my students. I have been targeted in my writing conferences. I have invited parents in to conference with kids. We have been writing. In the end, and in its most simplistic form, this is what we were charged with.

As this semester winds down, I think of what I will write next. I think of my students’ notebooks in their desks. I think of how they have changed as writers since their first pieces back in September. I think of how I’ve changed since my first piece. It is all connected. The first chains in the link have been forged. They will be made stronger with time.

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The Boots of Another

Sometimes to venture outside the walls of our classroom we have to walk for a while in the shoes (or boots) of another. It means having important conversations. Conversations that are serious. Conversations that need to be handled with both honesty and discretion. A day off from school in observance of Veteran’s Day began the conversation. Upon learning that not a student in the class knew what a veteran was, we began, like all else, at the beginning. We came up with a simple definition:

Veteran: a person who has served in the armed forces (a.k.a. Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard)

The conversation continued, fueled by family stories and family memorabilia, family pride and family history.

We read excerpts about the United States military and about Veteran’s Day.

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We began a project inspired by the idea of empathy. What would it be like to be a soldier, away from home and away from family? We wrote about it in our Writers’ Notebooks. Then we wrote letters to active duty soldiers.

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A little art allowed us to continue the conversation.

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We connected back to the natural world.

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Then we imagined ourselves as soldiers.

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Our week closed with a powerful and patriotic all school assembly, complete with former and active duty service men and woman.

Afterward, we had a conversation that was both important and serious. I wanted to hang our Army Art in the hallway, but some of the kids had included weapons in their pictures, because that is the reality of being in the military. The reality of fighting. The reality of war. I didn’t want those weapons to be misunderstood. I didn’t want them to be trivialized or glorified or taken for granted or worst of all seen as cool or the way to fight “bad guys.”

So. We talked about guns. We talked through the idea that real life is not like a video game. There are no extra lives and no restarts. Things got really serious when kids realized that even “bad guys” have families and homes and people who care about them. That sometimes what is important to our enemies are just things that are different than what is important to us. There is no easy answer and many shades of gray and that peace and kindness might really be the only way. Then one of my eight year olds said, “You know, different is not always bad. Just different,” and I realized that there is hope. Things learned can be applied other places. What our veterans have fought for is not in vain. The future can be bright. It is full of potential.

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We decided that if we wanted to hang our soldiers up, we would take out the weapons because not everybody else in our school had the same discussion as us. Not everybody would see it the way we did, and we didn’t want to make anybody nervous or scared or worried.

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This wall holds the future in more ways than one. Walking for a while in another’s shoes, or boots, allowed some students to walk in their own shoes with a little more awareness. A little more understanding. A future veteran could be looking back at us.

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A Piggy Looking Cavy

The natural world is full of living things. Things that grow and change over time. Things that need food and water, shelter and air. Things that thrive with their roots growing deep into the ground and things that race and run and scamper and hop.

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Living things have been coming into my classroom for years. Painted lady and monarch caterpillars, a cricket I nicknamed Clarice, plenty of plants and flowers and things that grow in the ground. One fall we had a snail called Karl that I found in a head of lettuce from my farm share.  Miss Piggy, though, was my first real  class pet.

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She was a sweet blonde guinea pig and she lived in my classroom for two years. Miss Piggy gave students a glimpse into the responsibility that comes with taking care of another living thing. She needed to be fed, watered, and cleaned. We had to be respectful of her space and her tolerance of noise. She needed room to roam and things to entertain her and keep her thriving and happy. She needed families to care for her over the weekend. I loved Miss Piggy, and she left her mark on the hearts of the students that knew her. The reality, though, is we just didn’t have the space to keep a guinea pig in the peak of health and happiness, so the family who brought her to me found her a home where she had room to explore and room to grow.

Miss Piggy inspired a number of families to welcome other guinea pigs into their homes. Last week, two such guinea pigs, Snickers and Bugsy, spent the week in our classroom.

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They were an instant hit!

We read my favorite guinea pig book, I Love Guinea Pigs, by Dick King Smith.

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We watched. We observed. We sketched.

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We became architects of a Guinea Pig Dream Habitat. The idea of needs and wants was discussed.

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We began with this:

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Then we built!

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A well-stocked kitchen.

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An entertainment zone.

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A maze to get lost in.

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Two living things exploring the habitat built for them by 23 other living things. It was a fun week.

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Each Season As It Comes

Outside our windows, all around us, all the time, something is happening. Because of the tilt of the earth, and our distance from the equator, my place in the world has four distinct seasons. Sure, the seasons blend and flow together. Late winter and early spring meld together into days of raw, wet, and cold, sprinkled with a balmy bit of sunshine to tempt you with what is to come. Late fall always offers up a few snowflakes and bitter cold to temper our bodies for winter. Each season, though, offers its own weather patterns, and the earth around us responds accordingly. Celebrating the seasons, and what marks them for what they are, is one of the ways my students come to see and know the world around them.

In New England in early to mid-fall, the maples and oaks  twinkle and wink their yellows, reds, oranges, and browns at us. The air feels crisp and cool and sweaters are cozy until the sun comes out and shines warmly over all. Nature dons her most brilliant outfit, as if she’s helping us squirrel away bright memories to shore us up as we face the dark days of December ahead. As part of our study of plants, we observed the different types of trees on our school grounds and how autumn effects them.

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As part of a home to school project we collected leaves. Inspired by Leaf Man, by Lois Ehlert, and Look What I Did with a Leaf! by Morteza E. Sohi, we created Leaf Creatures. Big catalpa leaves created bodies, brilliant sumac leaves turned into feathers, curled ferns became eyes. A beautiful way to study different leaves!

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Gardens are withering and browning under first frosts and pumpkins shine brightly from farm stands and supermarket bins. We marked the season by making our own pumpkin patch.

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At the halfway point between the first day of fall and the first day of winter (a.k.a. Halloween), we held The Day of the Pumpkin.

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We read pumpkin related books, watched a pumpkin video, wrote pumpkin and Halloween themed Guess Who? stories, and of course, cracked our Giant Pumpkin open and counted the seeds inside.

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We grouped our seeds into tens, and then into hundreds.

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One classmate’s estimate for how many seeds our pumpkin held was 1,010…only five away from the actual total of 1,015!

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I love each season as it comes. Each blankets the world in different sights, smells and textures, and as each winds down, just when I’ve had enough snow, or heat, or humidity, or mud, we welcome the change of a new arrival. So much to see. So much to explore. So much to celebrate!

 

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Seeing As Art

How much is there each and every day that we don’t really see?

Truly seeing the world around us is an art. Seeing as an act of noticing, naming and appreciating. Seeing as an active participant in our lives in this place in this time. It helps to be mindful and present in the moments we are living right now. And now. And now. Sometimes it just takes realizing there is something there to see.

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We decorated the covers of our Nature Notebooks. We will use these little notebooks throughout the year to collect our observations about science and the natural world. We’ll put what we see into words and drawings.

Knowing that we will eventually explore four ways that New Plants grow, we began with something small and familiar. We began with seeds. Seeds manage to be everywhere and all around us, yet still maintain a bit of mystery. After all, how is it possible that life can begin from such an unassuming source? So we set out on a seed hunt.

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We walked.IMG_1488

We discovered.

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We collected.IMG_1813

We saw.

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We used tools scientists use.

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We recorded our observations.

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True art.

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