This week, I am taking part in the Long Island Writing Project's Mini Summer Institute, via Zoom. I LOVE the Long Island Writing Project and always feel home there. Not only do I feel deeply valued and respected, I always learn new things and meet the most passionate and interesting educators through these workshops.
One of our "assignments" this week was to create a Flipgrid video where we introduce ourself and share 3 different artifacts that tell about who we are. This is brilliant and I have learned so much about the different participants by watching their videos. I've been trying to make connections when I reply to each person- to let them know who else in the group also has a dog, or loves nature or has twins. It's been so interesting to see the themes of what is shared and to get to know people in a new way.
In my third grade classroom, I often started the year with students bringing in a bag of items that represent themselves. If we are in a hybrid model or remote, I will absolutely plan to have students share their items via Flipgrid. This activity allows each student to think about himself/herself and tap into identity. By sharing his/her identity with the group, we can build community around shared interests and also establish who is an "expert" in some areas.
Connections are so important. As I think of the next school year and the challenges we will face, ideas that allow students to share pieces of themselves and get to know each other are so worthwhile.
How might you help your students share their identity and build community if we are in a hybrid model or home for remote learning?
Now that the 2019-2020 school year is officially done (as in, "stick a fork in me"), it's time to start reflecting. And here's the thing: Before we left the classroom in March, before the Covid-19 pandemic hit, we really weren't okay.
I've been a teacher since 2001. Aside from the one year I took for maternity leave when I had my son(and the 4 months maternity I took for my daughter), I have been IN IT. I've taught 6th grade, special education, kindergarten and third grade. I deeply care about teaching and growing in my professional skills. I value education and work hard. And....I was utterly drowning.
26 students. Every subject. Differentiating instruction and small groups to plan. One prep a day that could be eaten by a teacher arriving late to pick up her students, a phone call to return, a grade level meeting, a broken photocopy machine (more often than not). Lunch was often wolfed down in the first 10-15 minutes, then back to trying to get the afternoon planned. Bus duty, meetings, tutoring. Then having to dash out of work to get home to take my children to soccer, or acting class, or religion. Homework for them, dinner for everyone, showers, bedtime. Exhaustion. What time was there to look at one of the 26 students' work? What time was there to reflect on the day's teaching to make more thoughtful choices for the next day?
There was none. It was go, go, go and do the best you can. And don't complain that you don't have time to get the work done because, hey- summers off, right? You get to leave at 3:15 each day. The one time I told an administrator I was getting up in the middle of the night to do work, it was kind of like "Yeah- I am up early too."
We are expecting our teachers to be able to thoughtfully and skillfully teach reading, writing, math, science, social studies, technology skills, and character education. We are expecting them to build relationships and deeply know 26 or more students at a time. We are expecting them to to plan and teach multiple small groups a day. We are expecting them to do this with very little planning time.
I know every job has its challenges, but the thing about teaching is the time I am at work I am with children or doing other professional duties almost the entire time. The planning it takes to be prepared for my teaching day is all done on my own time. The grading, the reflecting- it is all done after hours. This was hard when I was a single teacher in my 20's but the truth is it is impossible as a mom to two children in my 40's. I simply don't have the hours to give unless I stop sleeping.
Can we talk about this? Can we talk about the impossible expectations put on teachers? Can we talk about why so many have left the profession to become life coaches who want to help teachers deal with burnout? While we are envisioning a new and better system of education, can we consider that we are expecting the impossible from our teachers and their mental/emotional health is suffering? Every teacher I know (who is tenured and allowed to admit it) has sacrificed physical health, emotional health, family time and more trying to keep up with ever-changing, yet always impossible expectations.
Can we get our teachers off the hamster wheel?
"Here I'm singin' happy birthday
Better think about the about the wish I make
This year gone by ain't been a piece of cake
Everyday's a revolution
Pull it together and it comes undone
Just one more candle and a trip around the sun"
Last year, I turned 40. It was momentous, with a weekend trip with my husband to Boston, wineries with my sister and sisters in law, spa time with a dear friend. 40 was a big milestone and I am now very grateful it came last year when the world was a different place.
41, in times of Covid-19, was a quieter celebration. Dinner out for the first time since early March. Dining in the parking lot which is the makeshift outdoor seating. I was grateful for a family celebration which was impossible a few months before.
I am grateful for birthday greetings from family members, friends past and present, colleagues and even friends I've never met in person but follow online. I am grateful for summer weather and new patio furniture to enjoy. I am grateful for my health. I am grateful for the possibility of days to come.
My head felt so much lighter, and looking at the hair on the floor surrounding my chair, there was good reason. My first hair cut in 4 months felt glorious, but not as glorious as the color that came next! Roots were made lighter and highlights were happily put back into hair that had missed them. No longer black roots with reddish blonde ends. A cut and color made me feel lighter.
Each evening after dinner, I lace up my students and walk around my neighborhood. My goal is to hit 10,000 steps a day and this quarantine lifestyle doesn't make it easy. An extra walk is required to hit that target. I listen to my friends on Voxer or I learn from podcasts. Slowly, every so slowly, the quarantine pounds are starting to shed. My body feels lighter.
The sun goes down later now. It is lighter, pushing bedtime for my children off to after 9. Sometimes 10. Nowhere to rush to usually so an early bedtime is not necessary. I sit in my screened-in porch, next to the sky blue hydrangeas that are on the other side of the screen, and read what I want to read. My workload is lighter.
We are starting to see friends and family. Father's Day was not all alone like Easter and Mother's Day. It feels happy and right to be around people. There is social distancing. There are no hugs. Yet my soul is lighter with these moments of togetherness.
The world is full of light and dark, joyful and painful times. For so long, it felt so bleak, so isolating, so scary. We are not through the woods, but I see a clearing. As the expression goes, there is light at the end of the tunnel. We've been in a tunnel for a long time.
I look to the light. I look for the light. I look to be the light.
I am lighter today.
Last Day of School 2020 Nonet
We wear masks
Students wave, cheer
Teachers cry, blow kiss
Strangest last day of school
Covid-19 changed it all
Presents passed through open windows
Uncertainty in the summer air
This poem was inspired by Irene Latham's book Nine: A Book of Nonet Poems. I am sharing a #classroombookaday each day this summer for books that I would like to read with my third graders. You can follow my reading this summer on my website
or on Instagram @mrssokolowski.
What follows is the letter I composed to my third grade students, to be sent to them on our last day of school.
Dear Third Graders,
It has been an unforgettable year. Many years from now, you will look back on 2020 and your third grade year and realize you lived through a very historic time. I know I will never forget this school year or any of you. Just like I hope I might live in a corner of your memory (and maybe your heart), students leave their marks on teachers, too. I will remember the fun we had while learning together in room 215 and the ways we came together and continued learning through our screens.
It hasn’t been easy.
When we left our classroom on March 13th, I never imagined we would never be back there together as a class. Learning (and teaching!) from home has been full of challenges. Together, we realized that we needed flexibility to try different platforms and programs. We needed persistence to keep going and try a new way when the way we thought it would work...didn’t. We needed resilience to pick ourselves up and try again. We needed empathy to understand that all of us were doing the best we could in very complicated times. Being flexible, persistent, resilient and empathetic are skills that you will use time and again in life. They are lessons you will keep learning over and over again, but they are worth knowing. This year was a crash course in all those skills! I know we are stronger for the lessons we learned.
An important realization I’ve made is that learning happens all the time and everywhere- beyond our classroom walls and even when buildings close. Relationships and caring about each other also continues even when we are not in person together. Whether we were together in our classroom or learning virtually in Google Classroom, I hope you’ve always felt my love for you and my belief in you. I hope you know that I care about each of you deeply and know that you have untold potential. I hope you know that I care about you, your families, your lives. I always will.
There have been many lessons I’ve been asked to teach you this year. My scope and sequence has required me to teach you estimation, multiplication, division, and fractions. I’ve been required to teach you about geography, some history, about government and culture. I’ve taught you how to read the blurb of a book and how to think about the most important thing in a chapter. While not directly on my scope and sequence, I hope I’ve taught you that being a reader can change your life- can teach you, expand your mind, and help inspire new ideas. I hope I’ve taught you that being a writer can change you too and those around you- when you use your words to share your story, show appreciation, question unfairness and advocate for change.
This year, we’ve read countless books on our own and together. We’ve read many picture books and I read aloud 5 chapter books to you. I want to pause and think about the chapter books we read aloud together as a community. Each one has lessons I would like you to remember.
How you treat others matters. Consideration of others wants, needs, and feelings is important.
Your voice matters. Be strong and confident that what you have to say is important. Don’t allow other people to make you feel less worthy.
It’s never too late to make a new start for yourself. Allow others to help you when you need it.
Stories are light in a world that feels dark. Be the light. Understand that all of us have both light and dark inside but do your best to lean towards kindness.
“Once you learn how to do this, you will be forever free.” The answer to that riddle was “READ.” Reading will open countless door for you. The library is a powerful and important resource in your life that allows you access to so many books and new knowledge.
My hope for you is this: That you keep learning. Keep growing. Keep reading. Keep writing. Be kind. Be brave. Be flexible, persistent and empathetic. Our world needs you- your ideas, your perspective, your energy. I know you will do great things. I am counting on you to make our world a better place. I believe in you.
In my teaching heart, there are students.
Present students, who I see on Google Meet and Flipgrid
I remember their smiles each morning and the sound of their laughter.
Past students, at all ages and stages of life-
a new middle schooler, a high school senior, a college freshman,
I remember their faces as children and how fast our time together went.
My future students
are in my teaching heart too
as I look for ways to be better
so they can become who they're meant to be.
In my teaching heart, there are books.
Books full of beautiful words,
Words that challenge you, change you, charge you
Words that make you laugh from the silliness
Words that make you cry from the pain you've known
You're not alone, the book reassures you.
Books fill my classroom- real and virtual.
Books and words fill my teaching heart.
In my teaching heart, there are mentors,
Fellow teachers, leaders, educators
who show me new ideas and ways through
when I've felt all roads are blocked.
Their kindness, passion, expertise and advice
help me to keep believing
in the power of a teacher
to affect eternity.
In my teaching heart, there are tools.
Markers, chart paper, chrome books, apps,
Stickers and Screencastify
Pencils and Padlet
Folders and Flipgrid
Binders and Buncee
Real life objects and digital tools
Help me show my students
flexibility and resilience.
In my teaching heart, there is hope.
There is faith.
In my teaching heart, there is love.
A teaching heart must always
begin with love.
My teaching heart has broken
so many times
but it has always healed,
always mended itself
A teaching heart,
always finds a way.
Whether it crouches in the corner,
during lockdown drills,
Or wears a mask,
Or connects with students virtually,
A teaching heart makes the impossible possible
for the ones who need it so very much.
Tools, teachers, books, students,
These are what fill
my teaching heart.
One foot in front of the other. Again and again and again.
The Jones Beach boardwalk stretched out in front of me. 2 miles one way, 2 miles back. My son wanted to do the whole thing. I was wearing slides and carrying a 5 pound-ish pocketbook. The last time we went to the beach, the kids ended up playing in the sand and I had socks and sneakers. Trying to correct my mistake, I wore slides only to have the kids want to walk the boardwalk- the entire boardwalk- instead.
This was a walk I did often as a teenager and in my 20's. Maybe even early 30's. At almost 41, I haven't done this walk in some time. The last couple of months have led to a decline in moving. When I was teaching in the classroom and otherwise living normal life, I would average 12,000-15,000 steps a day. Last week, I had like 4,000 steps on one random, same-as-before, day of the week. Quarantine has not been good for my body. Sitting more, succumbing to the treats that are around more often, I don't feel good or look good. It's time to correct that.
The last few days, I've been eating the way my body enjoys. Lots of vegetables, lean protein, fiber-filled carbs earlier in the day. Less sugar. Far less sugar. Less impulsive choices. More movement. More water.
The journey feels so long. Just like the boardwalk felt endless. I felt like I would never finish. I felt like I wasn't capable of doing it. But every step forward led me closer. I was the slowest one in the family but I got there. 4 miles, in slides, with a heavy pocketbook and an out-of-shape body.
So maybe, in everything, it is one more step when you think you can't. Keep going.
-"Okay, Flowers, here are the ground rules," she told them as I dug in the soil, kneeling on my lavender gardening pad, and grabbing for the next flower to plant. My daughter Megan had just finished reading Mo Willems' The Pigeon Wants a Puppy to the flowers, because, you know- carbon dioxide. And who doesn't bloom from being read to, really?
The "ground" (ha!) rules consisted of "Do not block each other's sun" and "Do not get tangled in your own roots." As I pushed down on the soil to secure a new flower in its' spot, I thought there was such brilliance in those words. How life would be better if we didn't try to block anyone else's sun, or maybe steal their moment in the spotlight. If we just accepted the sunshine that came our way. And if we didn't allow ourselves to get tangled in our roots- our old stories, our old habits, the way we think we are supposed to be.
Last week, my fingers touched mostly the keyboard as I worked away each day. Today, my fingers touched seashells, sand and soil. I inhaled the ocean air. I planted flowers. There was still keyboard clicking. The work remains, endless, as always. But I am working to restore balance to my days.
Much like the flowers, I needed some ground rules too.
She sat next to me on the bed, mouse ears in place. I'd been reading aloud The Tale of Despereaux on Flipgrid for my third graders. It was the perfect story, in my opinion, for quarantine. The idea of darkness and light, good and evil, and stories bringing light to a dark world. In sharing this story with my class, I hoped to bring them some light. The comfort of a read aloud and a compelling story about an unlikely hero.
My daughter Megan, a first grader, listened to me read the book before I decided to read it to my class. I read it to her and her brother and after finishing it, decided it would be the next book I read to my students. Still, Megan wanted to be next to me as I read aloud. As the days went by, she took more and more of a role in the read aloud.
First, she would start us off with a "Hello Guys" and a message. Then, she started working the filters. And somewhere near the end of the book, Megan became Despereaux. She donned her mouse ears from her two previous productions of being a mouse- last summer in camp when she was one of the 3 blind mice without any lines in the production of Shrek and once in the winter when she was the mouse in Aesop's Fable The Lion and the Mouse in an after school club. She's always the mouse, she says. But she is quite good in the role.
She was a star in the role of Desperaux. It brought the book to life to have her act out some of the scenes. I hope my students will enjoy watching her be part of the read aloud as something funny and different from what would have been if we were actually in the classroom together. Megan would have been in her classroom and the dramatic interpretation would not have occurred.
Quarantine or social distancing or whatever it is to stay in your house and go nowhere for weeks on end brings about many moments or boredom or frustration. But also moments of joy that wouldn't have happened otherwise. I was impressed with Megan's ability to read the words with inflection and emotion. She is in first grade and Kate DiCamillo has a beautiful but sophisticated way of phrasing things. Megan didn't miss a beat. Snuggled up next to me with her mouse ears, I wonder what she it taking in about language and literacy and teaching and learning and connection with students. When she is a Superintendent or a President of the World or some other big fancy job as I have no doubt she is capable of being, will the memory of her school teacher mother reading aloud to her students each day become part of her core? About what she believes about learning and life?
I hope she will remember being the mouse in a read aloud during a time of quarantine. I won't forget it.
Kathleen Neagle Sokolowski