Summer School, 2015
Below is a series of journal entries from my summer school teaching experience in the South Bay Area. After five years as an elementary school teacher, I went into a doctoral program for teacher education and curriculum studies - but I missed being a part of the daily life of elementary school. So, I returned to the classroom for a summer, mentoring two student teachers as a partnership between the Stanford Teacher Education Program and the Sunnyvale Public School District. It might have been one of the best - and most growthful - summers of my career.
I can't remember the last time I was this tired. Oh wait, yes I do - it was two years ago when I left classroom teaching. This is both brain-tired, that kind of tired where I struggle to recall the next word in my sentence, and body-tired, eyelids drooping, sweaty in my half-attempt at business casual, covered in marker and spilled milk from lunch.
Every morning, I am waking up at 5 AM and driving an hour south of my home to teach an incredibly sweet bunch of six-year-olds for just four hours, and I. Am. So. Tired. Knocked-off-my-feet-tired. After a half day!
What I am doing this summer is pretty small potatoes (is that even a thing? I'm too tired for appropriate idioms). I say this as a reminder to myself and to you that this this is what many teachers do on a daily basis, for an eight- or nine-hour day. I mean, really - imagine yourself with twenty-five or thirty people in a room that you alone are responsible for. Then, imagine high-stakes demands on what you are supposed to get those thirty people to do. Now imagine trying to make every moment of those eight hours joyful and productive on top of that, while switching topics and activities every 10-20 minutes. And THEN, you've got an afternoon of grading, phone calls to parents & caregivers, and prep for the next day(s). So many teachers have families at home, children to make dinner for or take to soccer practice. I have no idea how they make it work, but they do. And most of the time, nobody thanks them for dutifully nurturing and tending to the young minds and hearts of small humans all day long.
I am so humbled and honored to be a part of the teaching profession. These days, as I find myself in the relative comfort and privilege of academia, I am even more aware of how incredibly (and impossibly) demanding the job of being an elementary school teacher is. Respect, respect, respect.
For the first two weeks of summer school, we're studying the classroom and how it works. Today, we started labeling all the classroom objects. The kids became a little more self-directed as they hurried around the room, eager to get a label on everything in sight. I admit to having that not-yet-unfamiliar pang of teacher panic as my students started to wander freely around - "Is this going to descend into total chaos?" But there was some real electric thinking about what a visitor to the classroom might need to know in order to be able to make sense of the space, and that kept us all motivated in the task.
"We need to label the toys so people can find them!"
"We need to label the pencil bin so people know where they go!"
This may seem simple, and in practicality, it is. But the broader meaning is important: as they became responsible for titling the parts of the classroom, the kids also became more attuned to the environment, and got a little more control over the space we share.
What a valuable thing it is, after all, to be able to name the place you're in.
"That's the wind," E. said.
"Where?" I asked. I didn't see it.
"Right there," he explained, pointing to the diagonal blue lines on the page.
When I looked at E.'s picture, I saw a pretty standard kid-drawing - a house, a yard, a single tree set against a classic blue sky and corner sun.
"And inside my house, my mom is cooking for my cousin and me. Do you see?"
Today, I remembered how important it is to attentively observe and listen to children. In the din of a classroom, it isn't always easy, but I see so many more layers when I do.
Thank you for showing me the wind, E.
I really do believe we are born naturally curious, but finding the language to share the questions we have with the people around us isn't easy. Adults, especially, are pretty hell-bent on a certain kind of sentence structure and the use of words. Stubborn adults.
Last week, when we started summer school, I realized that most of my students weren't able to communicate many of their questions. So, we've been working on it - slowly. We started by identifying the words that people use to start questions (who, what, when, where, how, how many, etc.), and then filled in some things that we wondered about each other. We used those questions to start to interview our student teachers and learn about what their favorite foods are, what they like to play, what their favorite colors are, and so on. It was a great start!
And then, today, we hit what felt like a home run. We read "Questions, Questions" by Marcus Pfister (I highly recommend it!), which features lots of big, seemingly unanswerable questions about the universe - like, how do birds learn how to tweet?
Afterward, we came up with a list of our biggest questions, the ones that feel really hard to answer. Here are a few:
- How does the moon light up?
- Why does the moon change shape?
- How/why do leaves change color?
- Why do our teeth fall out?
- What do teachers do when kids aren't at school?
- How do butterflies change color?
- How does an astronaut breathe in space?
The power of literature, I tell ya. We have certainly come a long way from last week!
We celebrated by walking like elephants to lunch.
The contents of my pockets after school today:
2 paper clips
1 Quest bar wrapper (my lunch)
1 blue crayon
1 Expo marker
2 Band-Aid wrappers
1 digraph card from a word sort
a toy car
1 confiscated Airhead candy
and so it goes!
And then, there are the days that are not home runs. Ones that weren't amazing, but not necessarily bad. For me, as a teacher, these are the days I agonize over. I want every day to be full of wonder, for my students to leave each afternoon excited to return to school. I think all teachers want that.
Today wasn't a home run. Don't get me wrong, we did some fantastic work! The kids are interviewing each other, still asking questions and engaging in conversations with new people, and they are learning to write the words they want to share. It's beautiful. A colleague came to visit our classroom, and the children totally lit up for the theater games she played with them - lucky us! But math, reading, they were just so-so. Our readaloud was kind of a dud. The kids were on the rug for far too long. They wanted to be outside. They wanted to play. So did I. But I read the book because I couldn't make it to the library to get another one last night, and I stuck with the lesson plans I had because I felt like I had to get through the curriculum for pacing's sake. We didn't play outside because my leg is broken and I just can't move around all that much.
As a teacher educator, I have lots of ideas (my graduate students will tell you - they're endless) about how things "should" be that I think are in alignment with with most teachers want. What this experience is reminding me, though, is how hard it is to actualize that vision when you are planning for (typically) an eight hour stretch of time in a room with children, and you, the teacher, are also a person who has a life on top of the infinite professional demands you face.
It is so important for teachers to be gentle on themselves, I know, but oof! It's hard to look out at a room full of 6-year-olds whose faces are bored and tired, and to know that you *could* do better, but the circumstances or (lack of) resources simply don't allow for you to *be* better.
Today, we made room in the day for an extra long choice time. The kids got to make play-dough with one of our student teachers, do watercolors with the other, play with dinosaurs with one of my colleagues, and build with blocks alongside another. What a difference play makes. There is so much communication that takes place - that is, language development - in these exchanges, and it's so much less pressure than speaking one at a time in front of all your peers during a lesson.
The students negotiated which dinosaurs could eat each other ("You can't eat mine! That's not a meat-eater!"), exclaimed at the stickiness of playdough ("Ay-yi-yi! It's so sticky, I can't get it off my hands!"), described a structure they were building together ( "Let's build a castle. I want it to have a tower that's SO big. Get that block, the circle one, let's put it on the top.") ... they were classifying, quantifying, describing, over and over again, using complex language ... so much more than they do with me during lessons.
The day goes so much better when I talk less, hang back more, and let the kids do what they are most interested in, and ultimately, it provides them with experiences they can talk about, write about, and make connections with in their reading.
I can't believe there's just two weeks left!
I figured that it was about time I did the work I'm asking my students to do in generating questions, so here is a (very) small sampling of some of the questions I think about on my drives home and evenings after work ...
- What are the benefits of scripted curriculum for students?
- Did we celebrate that child's birthday enough?
- How can I support J to take more responsibility for his actions when he hurts his friends?
- How will parents respond to students' phonetically spelled writing if it looks different from my colleagues' students?
- Why didn't that play-dough recipe work out according to plan?
- Did my students actually understand the concept of graphing I taught today?
- Did I leave the play-dough bucket in the sink? (Whoops.)
- Do my student teachers feel supported?
- What is the ideal first grade summer school enrichment program?
- What kind of note-taking paper should the kids use tomorrow?
- Do I have enough clipboards?
- How can I help M become more aware of his body in space?
- Did I remember to email the garden volunteers about our interview with them this week?
- Why didn't D want to play during choice time?
- How is it possible that this school is so under-resourced with Apple, Nokia, LinkedIn, and so many other giant tech companies located within a five mile radius? (I know the answer to that one)
- Why am I so tired after 7 hours of sleep?
- How do you find the right balance of play and structured work time in early childhood classrooms?
Honestly, I could go on for a whole lot longer.
I became a teacher because I wanted a job that I could leave each day being able to say that I had made some observable change. In some ways, teaching is a great job for that - certainly, students in my classroom experience many new things every day, and in that way, change has been made. Mostly, though, I have learned that teaching requires extreme patience and dedication.
D entered my classroom two and a half weeks ago totally silent. The data I was given at the beginning of the summer listed him as one of the most struggling readers in the class, and he is easily overwhelmed by social interaction. In the first several days of school, he regularly started crying inconsolably during reading time (which is its own separate challenge - how do you make one child feel seen and acknowledged in their sadness and frustration while attending to the needs of 23 others?). I was pretty concerned.
We started doing small reading groups last week, and D started talking, just a little. When we read a book about a grocery store, he was excited to share about what he has seen in his own visits to his local store. He pointed to "can" and "see" in the book, and excitedly identified them. But still, no words during whole-class conversations, and frequent crying and frustration during choice time, when he tried to play with his peers.
Today, D came into the room and excitedly told me that one of his pet parakeets had spit on him earlier that morning - the blue one, not the yellow one. He had so much to say! During the morning greeting, he asked the kid sitting next to him what his name was without any help. Then, he raised his hand for the first time during a whole class lesson. We were reading the morning message, and he recognized one of the words written on it. When we went outside to do some observational drawings of the garden, he sketched up a storm. He is just. working. so. hard. At the end of the day, he left to go home, and five minutes after leaving, he came running back in. "I have to give you a hug," he said, and then scampered out as quickly as he came in.
I know all of this sounds saccharine, and maybe it is (it is first grade, after all, it's hard to avoid), but I am so glad that I made that decision to become a teacher, though it's certainly not the instant gratification I was hoping for when I began. I know that the changes we're seeing in D are resultant of many many more factors than just his teacher and classroom, but I am certainly humbled by witnessing it.
I've been thinking about this quote from John Dewey's "My Pedagogic Creed" all day: "I believe that education, therefore, is a process of living and not a preparation for future living. I believe that the school must represent present life-life as real and vital to the child as that which he carries on in the home, in the neighborhood, or on the playground."
Dreaming of Deweyan ideals, I've been working with my class on a study of the school environment, and it's been exciting to see the students engage in examining, questioning, exploring their immediate surroundings. Our day is broken into discrete subject areas (reading, writing, math, etc), which makes this process harder and sometimes it feels really rushed and disjointed. I am not sure that breaking the day up in this way is the best way to support young children in their understanding of the world, and sometimes I feel pretty frustrated with and restricted by the traditional model of school. And yet, there is still so much that is possible in this context. Here we are interviewing the school's office manager and taking field notes today. I think the highlight for most of us was when she showed us how to use the walkie-talkies!
Today was great. Kate (STEP '15) came to visit, which was fantastic! Our class toured the cafeteria and the garden, and we interviewed the people who work in both places. The kids were thrilled, and they took fervent notes throughout. But all this is not what I am reflecting on most today, even though I'll include a picture here because it's too sweet not to.
This afternoon, I am thinking about the incredible veteran educators I am working with this summer. Some of my colleagues have been teaching in early childhood classrooms for over twenty years. That's most of my lifetime.
And then, enter me - 29 years old, male-presenting, a doctoral student doing this as a temporary summer gig (in other words, I am not completely exhausted from just finishing a ten-month school year with five-year-olds). I've got lots of ideas, many of them weird, many of them a departure from the traditional curriculum and the school district's way of doing things, and we are expected to collaborate. In all fields, collaboration is easier said than done.
In education, new stuff is risky - if the stuff flops, it can not only ruin your day, but it can negatively impact children's learning, something that, as you witness it, will relentlessly gnaw at your gut. The stakes are high. And it's true, some of the ideas I dream up in comfortable chairs in the ivory tower don't pan out as I expected when I try it them out in schools. Sometimes they flop. That's part of why I wanted to be in a school this summer: I needed to remember these challenges and feel them in my bones again.
All that said, I have been blown away by my peers' openness to trying new things. Conducting interviews and doing observational field notes of the school environment alongside first graders like this is not something they had done before, but they were willing to try it. It hasn't been perfect, but the kids have been hyped to get out of the classroom and explore, and I think the folks we've been talking to have been hyped to talk to our students. And I think the teachers have been enjoying it too.
Once again, day after day, I am humbled. I am saying this repeatedly because I don't want to forget it. I have learned so much from my coworkers this summer - they've kept me grounded and practical. They've tethered me back to the realities of six-year-olds and California public schools when I start floating off into academic dreamland, while still being willing to be flexible and try out some of my weird ideas. All of this is what it looks like to be a good teacher - as Lucy Sprague Mitchell said, "the teacher is ever a learner." I can only hope to be so open when I have spent 20+ years in the field.
I've got to say this again - watching children play is one of the most incredible parts of my job. It's amazing to observe my students, especially the ones for whom an academic setting is a challenge, move adeptly through the playground, swinging their bodies masterfully on the monkey bars, climbing complex structures, with a sort of nimble speed and grace to which I can only aspire. Today, I watched four students make up a complicated narrative about dinosaurs at war with one another, each dino with a slightly different personality. In their dialogue about the play, the kids were exploring gender roles, power, and violence.
I often wonder why we adults interrupt children's play so frequently, rather than climb and stretch with them on the playground and in the imaginary world.
For every class I have taught, there's always been at least one child that resists the structure of school, no matter how sweetly we build community, no matter how energetic and positive Mr. Keenan's affect is or how creative the curriculum, school is still school, and school appears to be decidedly not their thing. The reality, though, is that that child has to stay in the classroom for a large part of their day, every day, because, legally, they have to be there.
This summer, J has been resisting the traditional bounds and structures of school at every turn. He talks when others are talking, he wiggles incessantly on the rug and distracts his peers, and generally does not start his independent work without multiple rounds of prompting from one of his teachers.
On one hand, I get it. J is 6 years old. It's summer. It's hot. Who wants to be sitting and doing work all day? Using one lens to examine the situation, J is a real voice of reason! On the other hand, his academic performance is "below grade level", and while my quotations are intended to indicate that I question the standards that dictate what that means, his being labeled as such is going to impact his next year(s) in school. He's in this program because someone identified him as potentially benefiting from it, and his parents send him to school every day with the expectation that he is going to do some academic work. So, I want him to do some academic work, too.
I've been trying to figure out how to get J to explore and learn some new stuff in a way that works for him. Today, something really cool happened. During choice time, which is sort of becoming "the hour of wonder" in my classroom for both me and my students, J and his friend were playing with blocks. They were constructing an elaborate Minecraft-style tower, and J was using the green blocks (cones, rectangles, and triangles) to represent Creepers. "I need more!" he said.
"How many more?" I asked.
"I need 12!" he replied.
"How many do you have?" I responded.
He counted. He had 5.
"How many more do you need?"
He shrugged, furrowed his brow. "I don't know."
"How can we solve this problem?" I asked.
"I can count more ..." he said, counting on from 6 until he reached 12.
"Yessss!" he exclaimed.
"Wow, J, you figured it out! It would be pretty cool if you shared what you did during closing meeting. How can you show your friends how you did this?"
"I could write a number sentence?"
I gave J some Post-It notes, and he wrote a number sentence to represent what he'd done. At closing meeting, he carefully set up his blocks to show his peers his work, and his face lit up as he explained his procedure. His peers were impressed, and I dare say he was proud of himself. And mostly, he did it all on his own, of his own volition. "Can I take the Post-Its home and show my mom?" he asked.
Every day during "math time," though, J sits and colors in the margins of his papers, or chats with his friends. He doesn't do what I ask him to do. Perhaps that is an eventual goal, but today what I learned is that J is quite capable of the mathematical thinking I'm asking of him. He just doesn't want to do it my way. And again (and again and again), I learn to be patient, to look carefully and wait.
I couldn't spend my summer teaching and not talk a little bit about testing.
I'm sure you won't be surprised by how I feel about it: it's a real bummer.
As you know, my students are six years old. In less than four weeks, they've had two rounds of approximately forty-five-minute sessions of computer-based standardized testing. That is a very, very long time for them - most of my lessons last less than ten minutes because that's about how long their attention holds strong. More and more, this kind of testing is becoming the trend. The intentions behind the task are arguably noble - in order to help the students learn, it's useful to find out what they know and don't know. Theoretically, that information can help teachers like me plan instruction that will help our students learn to read. Computer based assessments seem efficient, and we've come to see them as neutral.
But then, there are the realities that tests and computers don't see or forgive. We all file in to the computer lab, the students sit down at the computer, put on headphones, and click through the test. Some headphones don't work. Some kids don't have the fine motor skills necessary to effectively use a mouse. Perhaps most concerning is how the skills of reading are largely ripped out of context and placed into multiple-choice questions that, simply put, don't reflect the way we read. The kids feel pressure, I feel pressure, they get nervous, and so do I.
Assessment is important. I believe that. I'm bought in. But this kind of testing is not designed for children, it's designed for the convenience of adults. We could find the same data through playing games or reading with children, by carefully examining their writing. Many schools still do that, but the tradeoff is that it can be quite an investment in time.
There aren't easy answers when it comes to figuring out how to assess young children in school, but a helpful guide for me as a teacher has always been that if I am making a decision because the adults are the only ones that benefit from it, it's the wrong one to make. In our desire (and increasingly, our pressure-borne need) for efficiency, we risk teaching our students that deeply understanding them is not worth our time.
There are few things that are simultaneously as much fun and as rewarding as writing with six-year-olds. My students have so much to say, and we never have enough time to listen - really listen - to all of it. I wish we did, and I'm learning to create more opportunities for my students to talk to each other and to me. But when my students write, I get a view into what they think about, and how they see and interpret the world.
This week, the kids have been writing non-fiction texts about places at our school, based on the interviews and field observations we did last week. Like I said, each of them has SO much to say (even, and maybe especially, the quietest ones), but writing each individual word is a physically laborious and cognitively demanding task that requires a great deal of persistence.
K runs up to me during Writing Workshop and asks, "Mr. Keenan, how do I spell cafeteria?"
"Cafeteria" has no fewer than nine letters. That's a lot. I try to affirm the challenge she faces while still cultivating some independence.
"Wow, that's a big word, huh?"
"Yeah." She looks daunted and expectant.
"Where can you find that word in the classroom?"
She gives me a half-smile. She knew that response was coming. It's true, it's become a routine procedure this week.
"I think it's on the chart," she says, playing her part.
I play mine, too. "Can you show me?"
She nods and runs over to the poster we created as a class with our notes on the cafeteria. Then, she returns to her chair and starts the (likely three to five-minute) process of writing the gargantuan term.
The results are pretty exciting to me, not because my students are spelling (some) things right, and not primarily because they are forming sentences, but because they are finding new tools to express their views and share them, so that we can all read what they have to say.
Since I began teaching my first kindergarten class nine years ago, it has driven me a little bonkers when adults look at the work a child has produced and say only "Aw, that's so cute!"
I know that makes me sound heartless. Yes, the work in question is usually totally cute. In fact, it can be heart-crushingly adorable. And don't get me wrong, I find myself tearing up at the tiniest gestures of first graders all the time (I generally hide it well). But their projects are so much more than cute. They are the result of hard work, deep thinking, self-motivation and the encouragement of their classmates and teachers. They are complex, often much more nuanced than they first appear, and sometimes laced with intense and heavy themes that might actually be painful for the adults in their lives to see. "Cute" is reductive, and I'm not sure what it does for children to get that feedback.
Now, I'm not about to start jumping on any parent/teacher/caregiver that praises a child's work as "cute." Kids need love, and calling their work "cute" is indeed an expression of love. I just want us all, as adults in the lives of children, to push ourselves further. Let's ask them questions, get down on their level, seek to see what they see, and learn from them, not just about them.
And then, all of a sudden, it was the last day of summer school. The last day of school has always been hard for me. Much as I look forward to catching up on summer blockbusters and going out on weeknights, it really is difficult for me to say goodbye. Teachers pour so much thought, love, and energy into their students. And transitions are always hard.
Over the last four weeks, I have worked hard to get to know my students in the limited time I've had with them, and have spent a lot of time thinking carefully about how to design curriculum that is responsive to their lives and interests. And then - poof - it's over. The children are gone, the walls are bare. The classroom is empty, and I feel a little hollow. There was so much more I wanted to do, so much more I wanted to learn. I want to see what happens next, but I won't, as the students disperse and return into their home schools. Will the tubes that got put in G's ears this week help him to hear and speak? Will J come to love school in first grade, will his energy be squelched? Will he learn how to play more collaboratively? I hope nobody makes fun of P for not being able to say her "r" sounds, because she is so delighted by learning and school. How is T going to feel, change, be, now that her mom is back in prison?
The last one has always been a bittersweet day. And this time, the feeling is intensified by my anticipation of returning to the world of academia, a place that sometimes feels quite distant from the lives of children.
I will miss starting my days singing songs and playing games and the excitement and wonder of exploring alongside six year olds. I'll miss reading stories aloud in silly voices. I'll miss M, whose wiggling always reminded me that children sit too much at school. I'll miss E, who could never keep up with the line as we walked down the hall, and whose illustrations were the most detailed I've ever seen from a first grader. I'll miss B, who taught me all about dinosaurs, and who very proudly brought me the gift of a tiny plastic bead today. I'll miss the endless unpredictable puzzles and challenges of spending my days in first grade.
Most of all, I will miss being a part of a community of 26 people learning and growing together each day, and having a whole lot of fun while we're at it.
bell hooks wrote that "the classroom, with all its limitations, remains a location of possibility." This summer has certainly affirmed that for me.
Thus concludes my summer school broadcast ... Over and out for now, folks.