Wednesday, August 15, 2018

A New School Year

Student with unidentified insect
The 2018-2019 school year begins soon!  Every August I look forward to meeting my new group of students.  It is always exciting and a bit intimidating.  Although I've been teaching for over twenty years, each class holds the promise of new adventures and new struggles.  Each year I meet a new group of students with their own unique hopes and dreams for fourth grade.  I hope I don't let them down and that I can help them along their educational path.  Each year we have new curriculum and new learning targets.  All of these unknowns leave me a bit anxious during my last days of summer break.  That being said, there are also some deep truths about teaching and learning that don't change much over time.  Great thinkers have been sharing their knowledge about learning throughout the ages and they continue to inspire us with their truths.  Here are a few that come to mind. . .
"Tell me I forget, teach me I remember, involve me and I learn."  --Benjamin Franklin

"Imagination is more important than knowledge."  --Albert Einstein 

"Each life is made up of mistakes and learning, waiting and growing, practicing patience and being persistent."  --Billy Graham

"Some things are true in spite of statistics and philosophy and tabulations.  Some things we know because we know them."  --Liberty Hyde Bailey, Universal Service, 1918

"There is no way to help a learner to be disciplined, active, and thoroughly engaged unless he perceives a problem to be a problem or whatever is to-be-learned as worth learning, and unless he plays an active role in determining the process of solution.  That is the plain, unvarnished truth, and if it sounds like warmed-over "progressive education," it is not any less true for it."   --Neil Postman & Charles Weingartner, Teaching as a Subversive Activity, 1969

"Education is the lighting of a fire, not the filling of a pail." --WB Yeats 
There are many more quotes like these and they all point to truths about teaching.  None of them talk about curriculum, content or delivery.  They all point to something bigger and more universal.  Teaching is more than what we learned in graduate school or a trick or a performance or a chromebook.  It is more than the latest formulated curriculum or set of goals and objectives.  Teaching is an art.  And like art, it is always unique and takes many forms and shapes based on the students and the teacher and even the moment.  Sometimes I fail miserably.  Sometimes I'm amazed by what students are able to learn and discover.  But always it is a new adventure.

In these last days of August, there are many small projects that occupy me. . . setting up my classroom, gathering supplies, reacquainting myself with curriculum and planning the first few weeks of school.  The outdoor learning center needs attention.  There are weeds to pull and beds to mulch.  In addition, I'm raising about twenty monarchs (I will bring to school) that all need fresh milkweed on a daily basis.  And Harold, our class pet, needs to readjust and return to the classroom.  There are lots of things on my mind.  But mostly, I realize that in a few weeks my new students and I will embark on a new adventure.  Hopefully, it will be a year full of discovery, inspiration and joy.

To everyone returning to school, I hope that your next year is a great adventure!

Peace and Love

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Birding, Planting and Enjoying the Last Days of School

Russ helping us identify a bird in the yard
Planting Milkweed in our Butterfly Garden

Planting milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa)

Today we had the wonderful pleasure of going on another birding expedition with Russ Schipper in our backyard!  What fun!  We saw lots and lots of birds and heard even more!  It's amazing how many birds inhabit our forests, wetlands and grasslands at North Shore!  In addition, Russ brought with him a flat of Asclepias tuberosa (a form of milkweed) from his lovely wife, Ilse.  My students and I planted it around the edges of our new Butterfly Garden.  With a bit of rain, sunshine and good luck we will have even more great looking milkweed growing this summer!  Earlier this fall we planted lots of native plants thanks to a grant from The Wild Ones.  The monarchs will have great nectar sources, along with a variety of milkweed options to lay their eggs.  Two of our raised beds now have hearty stands of Asclepias syriaca (common milkweed).  Hopefully, we are developing a grand smososbord for butterflies and other nectar feeders.   Thank you Russ, Ilse and everyone who has been helping us with our new garden!

Writing on the trial

Recess with friends!

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Spring Education

Study in our bulb garden

"Science but increases the mystery of the unknown and enlarges the boundaries of the spiritual vision.  To feel that one is a useful and co-operating part in nature is to give one kinship, and to open the mind to the great resources and the high enthusiasms.  Here arise the fundamental common relations.  Here arise also the great emotions and conceptions of sublimity and grandeur, of majesty and awe, the uplift of vast desires,--when one contemplates the earth and the universe and desires to take them into the soul and to express oneself in their terms; and here also the responsible practices of life take root."  

--Liberty Hyde Bailey, The Holy Earth

Running on the trail

Writing in Writer's Notebook

It's spring and we are back to running every morning on the trail!  Our bulb garden is up!  The spring peepers and the red-winged blackbirds are singing!  The bird feeders are emptying at an incredible pace.  There are signs of life everywhere!  My class and I are turning our minds toward the season of spring and looking toward that amazing summer break that promises barefeet in the warm sand and lazy bike rides down the Kal-Haven trail.  It makes it a bit hard to stay inside.  

This past week, we celebrated Earth Day.  We picked up garbage on our campus and wandered over to the middle school to clean up their campus as well.  We learned how to make recycled paper (paper we will use for a special writing project in May).  We picked daffodils in the "hidden garden" (a huge patch in the woods) and we studied our own bulb garden.  I shared some of my favorite Earth inspired books (Dear Children of the Earth, The Other Way to Listen, Just a Dream, and Whisper from the Woods).  
Mother to Mother image found in Dear Children of the Earth
Written and Illustrated by Schim Schimmel
The above picture is from one of my favorite pages in Dear Children of the Earth.  The book is written as a letter from Mother Earth to us.  On this page, Mother Earth says,
 " . . . I need your help.  And the animals need your help, too.  "But Mother Earth," you ask, "how can I help you and all my sister and brother animals when you are so big, and I am so small?"  Well, my children, let me tell you something, I am not so big.  As a matter of fact, I am quite small.  When you go outside at night and look up at all the millions and millions of stars, you will see how small I really am.  Compared to the night sky, I am no bigger than you!"
What a powerful image.  The story continues by asking the children what they think is the most important thing they can do to help her (at this point students have all kinds of ideas).  The response is simple . . .
"I need you to love me.  That's all.  Just love me as much as I love you.  Because when you love me, you will care for me.  And when you care for me, you will protect me.  And when you care for me and protect me, you will save your Home, and the homes of your sister and brother animals."
 My students wrote letters back to Mother Earth after this inspiring and beautiful book.   They did a wonderful job and the letters were filled with love.  I was so pleased.

Cover and letter written to Mother Earth

"...when one contemplates the earth and the universe and desires to take them into the soul and to express oneself in their terms . . . the responsible practices of life take root."
I am reminded that education is more than facts, it's an emotional relationship.  Happy spring everyone!

Friday, March 30, 2018

Spring and the Irony of Education

By Mary Oliver
     a black bear 
          has just risen from sleep
               and is staring

down the mountain.
    All night
          in the brisk and shallow restlessness
               of early spring

I think of her,
     her four black fists
          ficking the gravel,
               her tongue

like a red fire
     touching the grass,
          the cold water.
               There is only one question:

how to love this world.
     I think of her
              like a black and leafy ledge

to sharpen her claws against
     the silence
          of the trees.
               Whatever else

my life is
    with its poems
          and its music
              and its glass cities,

it is also this dazzling darkness
          down the mountain,
                breathing and tasting;

all day I think of her---
     her white teeth, 
          her wordlessness,
               her perfect love. 

There is a great irony in education these days . . . maybe its always been this way and I've just started noticing it more . . . . maybe it's my years of listening to children or my own personal love of learning. I'm finding that the process of  learning is less and less respected and harder and harder to come by lately as we focus more and more on the product . . . I don't know. . . my imagination is falling short in the face of this national educational crisis.  We are not getting smarter and there is something we are losing . . . 

It has become really easy and slick to test students on details and facts.  We can give an online test and have it scored in minutes and know the percentage of students who missed question number 8 and discuss why they missed it and how we can better teach that answer next year . . . but we often don't bother to question the question or what we are actually testing.  It is a genuinely a good question?  And don't we realize that every computer generated question, has a computer generated answer and that those questions and answers can be done by computers?  What's the point?   Isn't it all obsolete with A.I. (Artificial  Intelligence)?  Why does anyone in this day and age think facts are more important than thinking?

Where is the poetry?  Where is the music?  Why aren't we learning to love the quest for knowledge over facts?  When will we embrace the wisdom of Albert Einstein, when he said, Imagination is more important than knowledge?  Doesn't he know something about learning?  When will professionals, that step everyday into a classroom, get heard when we say, enough is enough with all these tests?!  

There is only one question:
    How to love this world.

I often turn to Mary Oliver for wisdom.  It's not the kind that is generated by Siri or some other AI (I use AI to figure out how to make my way to some destination or to give me some random fact).  AI is very handy, but Mary Oliver reminds us that spring is here and there are bears that wake up and remind us who they are . . .

. . . this dazzling darkness 
down the mountain, 
breathing and tasting;  

all day I think of her--
her white teeth, 
her wordlessness, 
her perfect love. 

I don't know how to express how much we need to listen to the poets and artists of our time.  I don't know how to express that we need to encourage imagination in our students in a world that seems so lacking in vision.  And maybe even more, we need to listen to the bear that wakes in spring and the birds that build their nests and the snails and the plants and the songs that persist in our hearts.  There is only one question:  How to love this world.  This is where learning and exploring begins and ends. . . all the rest is just. . .all the rest.   

Saturday, February 24, 2018

The Great Backyard Bird Count With Russ Schipper!

Pointing out the Rock Pigeon on the roof
Russ answering questions in the field
On Monday, February 19th, my class had the good fortune of having Russ Schipper take us birding for the Great Backyard Bird Count, through Cornell University.  We walked, looked and listened on the school grounds for signs of birds.  It's pretty amazing the number of birds you can hear when you are quiet and listening for them!  Russ is an avid birder and educator of all things bird related.  He is a leader in the Kalamazoo Audubon Society, no doubt sharing his knowledge and love of birds with its members as well as the young students he teaches.  This has become an annual tradition with Russ and I (every year for the past 6 years) and it is an honor be a part of it.  Each year, it is a new adventure.  This year was very wet (we had just had a huge snow melt) and so we kept to paved surfaces.  The forecast called for rain but thankfully the rain held off.  We spotted and recorded lots of birds in our fifty minutes outside.  We sent our results into the Cornell site after we reviewed our findings in the classroom.  (If you go to:  you can see our findings along with millions of others.)

Russ comes to North Shore Elementary every fall and gives a presentation to each classroom on birds (4th graders) and owls (5th graders).  He is a gift to our school and to the many other schools that he visits.  He has actually visited hundreds of classrooms and never tires of a student or a question.  Russ has spread this love of birds to thousands of people both young and old.

All of Russ' work educating us on birds is really rather incredible, but he shares more than his bird knowledge with us-- he shares a model of good living.  We have a lot of programs trying to tell students how live . . . how to be kind or how to do the right thing or how to treat people right. . . Here's what I think. . . It's people like Russ that show us how to live.  And it is people like Russ that change the world for the better. . . one child, one bird, one teacher at a time.   Russ exemplifies  the notion that no question is too small, no child is unimportant and that everyone has a place and can learn.  And he exemplifies the art of generosity, both with time and birdseed (I have a huge stash of sunflower seeds from him for our schoolyard birdfeeders).   Many years ago a wonderful mentor of mine (Marianne Hueston) told me, "You teach who you are."  As a seasoned (some might even say old) teacher, I have learned over and over again that this is true and very wise.  If we genuinely want to teach children curiosity, kindness and generosity we need to model those traits.  Teaching doesn't happen from talking (or testing) it happens from being.  A huge thank you to Russ for his many teaching gifts!  I'm looking forward to next year!

Tuesday, November 28, 2017


My Parents with Lena
"There are many great deeds done in the small struggles of life."  --Victor Hugo

The above photo is of my parents; a couple of heros of mine.  They have both spent their lives in service to others and they continue to model that lifestyle.  My parents continue to teach who they are by their actions and the way they live every day of their lives.  I will share just one story that captures a bit of who my mom is. . . My mom lives with Parkinson's disease.  It has made it hard to communicate and perform some of the basic tasks in daily living.  My dad is her constant companion, helper and caregiver.  He is pretty amazing and I could write a great deal on his accomplishments, but that is not the story for today. . . My story for today is about a recent hospital visit I took to see my mom and a bit about her story.  My mom was in the hospital suffering from pneumonia.  She has weak lungs and the Parkinson's disease makes this complicated and dangerous.   At any rate, my mom was in the hospital and very frail.  The nurse was trying to bring her into conversation.  My brother and I started telling stories about her years as a junior high school home economics teacher.  She taught in an inner-city school in an American Indian community on the southside of Minneapolis.  There was a great deal of poverty, alcohol abuse and broken families in that community. . . issues often associated with a culture that has been displaced and so often disrespected in our wider society.  On that day in her hospital room, we recounted a story about one of her students that spent most of the afternoon in her classroom.  He was technically not assigned to all her afternoon classes but he was such a distraction and discipline issue, spending the afternoon in home economics seemed the least harmful.  He was a handful.  One day my mom was out sick and a substitute teacher was in her room.  The notes very specifically said that this student was not allowed in the hallways without supervision.  The substitute however, allowed him a bathroom break thinking no great harm could possibly happen.  Within a few minutes, he had started a fire in the bathroom and there was smoke everywhere.  The entire school had to be evacuated.  The principal later told my mom to give him a heads-up next time she would be gone, so that he could made sure that student also took the day off.  The nurse in the room said, "Boy, I bet you were glad to retire!"  My mom, who struggled to get out every word, said, "I felt privileged to be a part of his life."  And then she said, "I was talking to a student once and he said (with junior high angst) "Why should I listen to you?!""  My mom responded, "Because I care about you."  The student looked at her and said, "No one has ever said that to me before."  My mom's class became a refuge for those who needed a safe place and genuinely needed someone who cared about them.  They were lucky to have her as a teacher and no doubt they were better people because of her.  And my mom really was privileged to be a part of their lives.

Today, my mom struggles with many of the things most of us take for granted.  She has a hard time telling her elbow to bend so that she can bring the spoon to her mouth to eat.  She has a hard time putting thoughts into words and speaking what is on her mind.  She struggles with balance and all sorts of daily activities we take for granted.  But here is what I notice now more than ever . . . she is strong.  She struggles through each day and still smiles when she sees someone she knows.  She continues to care about other people, when it may seem that her own struggle is more than enough to care about.  She continues to teach us how to live and she continues to be a hero to those of us who know her.  I know that I speak for my whole family when I say, we are lucky to have her in our lives.  She and my dad have taught us over and over again that caring for others is a way of life and a privilege.  This is an amazing gift and lesson that my brothers and I were fortunate enough to receive.  Teaching is so much more than what we say.  Teaching is about how we live our lives.  Thanks Mom and Dad!    

Friday, October 6, 2017

Outdoor Learning and Common Core Curriculum

A child's world is fresh and new and beautiful, full of wonder and excitement.  It is our misfortune that for most of us that clear-eyed vision, that true instinct for what is beautiful and awe-inspiring, is dimmed and even lost before we reach adulthood.  If I had influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life, as an unfailing antidote against the boredom and disenchantments of later years, the sterile preoccupation with things that are artificial, the alienation from the sources of strength. 
--Rachel Carlson, The Sense of Wonder

Every morning (weather permitting) I take my students on a short run around the lower loop trail.  We are outside for maybe five minutes. . . just enough time to get our blood flowing and prepare for the day.  It's also just enough time for students to catch up with each other and with me.  I hear about their latest soccer games, a favorite book or the reason homework isn't quite done.  Sometimes we are graced by a large flock of geese that like to graze on the soccer fields nearby and then take flight over our heads.  Sometimes the moon is an amazing crescent and we watch it wax or wane over the next few days.  Sometimes we find strange fungus growing out of the ground after a rain that seems to have appeared overnight out of nowhere.  Sometimes we see a monarch and wonder if it was one we released a few days earlier.  Those moments outside in the morning often offer something to amaze us and our days are brighter for it.

Earlier this year, my students helped plant our butterfly garden.  They learned about parts of the plant and what plants need to survive.  They learned a bit about producers and their place in ecosystems.  We have had hot and dry weather since our plantings so during recess, volunteers have been helping me care for the plants.  We carry gallon jugs of water out to them and check on their progress.  As we walk, again, we have time to talk and catch up on what is going on in their lives.  When we get to the garden, they examine the plants that they planted and others that they did not plant.  I hear them call to each other, "Make sure we get them all, don't leave anyone out!"  We empty our jugs and students run to catch the last few minutes of recess.  Maybe the words, "don't leave anyone out" are still ringing in their ears (I hope so).

In past posts, I have examined a variety of ways to teach in our outdoor learning center.  The most obvious connections are in math and science, but we also go outside to inspire our poetry writing.  These lessons connect with our Common Core Curriculum.  If I am teaching perimeter and area, we will go out and measure our raised beds.  The bonus is, we will also measure the height of the plants and estimate the total number of plants in the garden.  Maybe students will even learn the name of a plant or two.  These are extra teaching points that I can slide in (also most likely in the Common Core Standards).  It's not hard to connect our curriculum to the outdoors.

There is a lot of debate over Common Core Curriculum.  For those of you who are not in education, Common Core Curriculum has the goal of making educational standards that are nationwide.  They are the lists of things that we should be teaching at each grade level.  The concept is that students are roughly getting the same knowledge or information at each level no matter where they live in the country.  That's not a bad concept.  In our culture, families are pretty mobile and it would be great to know that you could move anywhere in the United States and the educational expectations are about the same.  I don't have a problem with this concept and the ongoing development of a Common Core Curriculum.  It isn't the evil (in my mind) some make it out to be in our new centralized and politicized educational system.  We have always had standards and benchmarks, now they are a bit more specific and we are encouraged to make note of them in our lesson plans (something tedious but not too hard with computerized lesson plans).  It's not the Common Core Standards that weigh us down. . . it's how we have decided we use them that have made them a burden.  The standards are a tool and a guide; they are not how we teach and they aren't even what we teach.  We teach children.  We teach children.  I say this twice because it bears repeating.  The Common Core is a framework for professional teachers to use as a guide in their classroom.  It's nothing more than that.

It is when we use standardized tests to measure achievements of the Common Core Curriculum and then we set point goals for students that we have taken a step down a rabbit hole that leads us off course.  And that is when the tools of Common Core become a burden that seems to take over our classrooms and our lives.  We now require our students to take online, high stakes tests throughout the year.  In the fall, the tests (in math and reading) determine where a student is academically and an algorithm will project where that student should be by the end of the year.  Unfortunately, measuring and projecting growth for children is a bit difficult and the algorithms are flawed.  I have lots of examples of this, but I will share just one.  A couple of years ago, I had a really good math student.  His fall scores were high and his expectations (via the computerized algorithm) were high.  At the end of the school year, this student scored in the 99th percentile in math (in the country)!  Amazing.  You can't score higher than 99 percent, however, he was somehow one point away from his goal.  I received an email from his mom later that night.  She said that he had cried himself to sleep because he hadn't made his math goal.  I called her and reassured her that her son was amazing and could not have scored better.  When the student came to class the next day, I explained to him that he was well within the margin of error (something that isn't taken into consideration by our administration, although is proper statistical analysis) and he could not have done better.  His score caused unnecessary grief and his score was actually amazingly good.  There are similar issues with students who have low test scores, as their projected growth requires more than the average point gain.  This is because the algorithm expects teachers to "close the gap" with our low students.  Students who may have taken five years to make perhaps three years growth are expected to make more than a year's growth to help "close the gap" (this projection is often naive and without logical basis).  In addition to unrealistic goals, there are emotional issues, test taking fears, and wasted educational time (we spend hours and hours every year testing).  However, when we see the bar graphs as full-color, glossy, and well formatted printouts, they look so good that we are often lulled into thinking they must be right.  They are all wrong.    To return to Carson again, they are "the sterile preoccupation with things that are artificial, the alienation from the sources of strength."       

The other morning when we were out on our daily run, we noticed a loud flock of geese in the yard.  They were landing in groups of six and eight and they were squawking and carrying on as if there was some sort of family disagreement going on.  Later that morning, while I was in the midst of teaching reading (I can't recall the lesson) that flock of geese starting walking toward our classroom windows.  We stopped and watched. . . "What are they eating? . . . How can you tell the females from the males?"  We watched carefully (my lesson not nearly exciting enough to compete) and we decided they were eating the grass, not really digging up insects.  I got on my phone and asked Siri how to tell the difference between male and female Canada geese.  Apparently, the males are slightly larger but the color patterns are the same.  Moments later, the flock took flight and we resumed our lessons.  I don't remember the language arts lesson, but I remember what I learned about geese.  I'm guessing it was about the same for my students.  Moments like that are joyful and full of wonder and excitement.  That is what I want to encourage and that is what I needed to teach in those few moments.  Isn't that what we want for our children. . .?

If I had influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life. . .

My hope for the future of education, is that we turn away from high stakes testing so we can fully focus on the amazing children that enter our classroom.  Let's remember that curriculum is just a list of things to teach and that we are here to inspire our students and help them to hold onto the wonder that is childhood.  And perhaps it's the little moments that make the day joyful . . a flock of geese, a walk to the garden or a view of the moon and those little moments are what can inspire us to learn and grow.  Happy teaching and learning!