The Best Teacher Ever

I struggled to find the words to express my thoughts about the most recent (why are there so many of them?) school shooting. I sat in my coffeeshop last night, NYT in hand, and pulled a few words from yesterday’s cover story until I found my voice. The resulting poem follows:

A kindergartener proclaimed
You’re the
Best teacher 
I’ve ever had

Me: (Unflattered
I’m the only teacher
You’ve ever had
So why do you think so

Her: (Enamored eyes
Head pressed into my soft belly
Without hesitation)
You protect us
You keep us safe

With a semiautomatic AR-15
A 19 year-old gunman
Had prepared for the

Huddled in horror
Training cellphones on carnage
That began with a few shots
Then continued

Oh my God!
Oh my God!

Over and over

Death toll 17

The aftermath
An eerie shrine
Of floors stained with blood

Computer screens
with bullet holes

Lives too

Noelle was in history class
The second amendment
Is still there
An unyielding
Eagle perched
On the teachers’ bookshelf

The shooter wore a gas mask
The President tweeted
Thoughts and prayers

Oh my God!
Oh my God!
Why the hell are THEY okay?

You never think
This is going to happen to
Then it does

I kept
My classroom door

I’m the
Best teacher
Ever had

I don’t
Want to be
The only one

I Still Believe

I left on a jet plane. I know I’ll be back again on Sunday, but I’m not going to let knowing that the hallelujah teacher revival known as NCTE will come to an end damper my spirits. There’s a lot of rightful frustration and negativity surrounding our annual gathering this year. I’ve decided not to let that drag me into the doldrums either. Why? Because. I’m. Totally. Selfish. There. I said it. I NEED NCTE.

I need NCTE for so many reasons, the least of which is not doing some deep thinking and tough self-analysis to hone my teaching. But more than anything, I need NCTE for the same reason I’ve needed it since I began attending the conference a decade ago: I need my people. I need my people to vindicate my beliefs. I need my people lift my spirits and reenergize me. I need my people so that I know I am not in the battle for child-centered, progressive education alone. I need my people to hold my hands as we rededicate ourselves to the cause for all children because, though it gets disheartening to stay the course, I still believe.

I still believe that children become better readers because they spend increasingly more time with increasingly complex texts – both those they read and those that are read to them – and have all the time in the world to talk about them, not because they practice discrete skills through endless mouse clicks. Speaking of those mouse clicks, I still believe that the best way to assess young readers is for a real teacher to sit next to them with real texts and listen. I still believe there is no substitute. I still believe children need teachers who listen and books that speak. I still believe that carefully curated classroom libraries are the most essential component of nurturing lifelong readers and, incidentally, educators living in the opportunity gap.

I still believe that readers are made in the loving arms of other readers. Hence all young kids, but especially those who are experiencing word poverty, need to be read to all day, every day at school. I still believe that oral language is the foundation of all knowledge, but especially all literacies. I still believe that because of this and SO many other reasons, kids need to be provided with authentic opportunities to engage in thoughtful conversation, which means they must have sacred, uninterrupted choice time every single day that teachers guard with their lives. So, yeah, I believe that reading aloud to children and play are intervention!

I still believe that anyone who says they are preparing kids for “the future” while prioritizing their interactions with computers over those with books, repeatedly presenting children with texts where they do not see themselves, and engaging in any practice that suggests that one size fits all – you know, a script – has lost their way. I still believe that anyone who says they value human diversity in all its forms while imposing a narrow definition of success on all children and failing to provide access to the resources needed to achieve that success is fooling themselves. I still believe that our education system as a whole, not necessarily its parts, is colonizing the minds of our children and their families.

I still believe that words do not bring realities into existence no matter how great they sound. I still believe that actions – our collective, everyday ones – are what matter most. I still believe that we teachers, not I or you, who work with children day in and out, are the smartest in the room and ought to be the ones who decide what happens to the kids in our care. I still believe that those of us who fail to think and reflect in the company of others are enacting violence.

I believe all of these things because I believe in children. And I believe children are the truth. I’ve got their backs! The research does, too!

#ncte17, I’m coming for you. I’m coming to get my learn on. I’m coming to get my deep conversation on. I’m coming to get my solidarity on. I’m coming to get my hugs! And, you know it, I’m coming with an empty bag to get me some of dem free books. (Yeah, I still believe in being a teacher vulture, too!) And then I’m gonna go back home with the progressive teacher blues, yet renewed and ready to wage on, beliefs intact.


Ten a Day

For more than a decade, since I began teaching the beautiful Native children of northern and western Alaska, I have committed myself to not closing, but living in (more on that later, in another post) the opportunity gap that impedes children who are marginalized from realizing their potential and achieving their personal goals. This has led me to change my philosophy and practices in radical ways.

I believe now more than ever before that the primary difference between children who do well in school, and ultimately life, and those who do not, the one thing that I can personally and dramatically impact during the one year children spend in my early childhood classroom, is their language. Language is everything. It has been used to subjugate some folks and has empowered others. Oral language is the foundation of all other literacies. I often call oral language “instruction” (there are better terms, but I can’t with that right now) the manipulative – the bear counters, ten frames, and base ten blocks, if you will – of the development of reading and writing skills.

If we ignore this critical component, if we don’t deliberately integrate this manipulative into our work with children, we are engaging in malpractice. We are perpetuating violence. I know it sounds harsh, but without the power of words, our precious students are doomed to become casualties of those of us who have mastered them, myself included.

Most teachers are well aware of the thirty-million word gap between children who live in poverty and those who do not Hart and Risley (1995) discovered in their studies. This disparity is, however, rarely considered in most school reform efforts. And when it is, the solutions are too often contrived or too heavily scaffolded without gradual release to make any lasting difference. We measure our success with computerized assessments that test a narrow range of isolated skills, never expecting children to transfer those skills from one context to another. Basically, we do what is easiest, what is expedient, what is best for us. We put a band-aid on a hemorrhaging wound and pass the victim around until it’s no longer our problem. Willfully ignorant, we perpetuate the problem. We are content to enact violence.

Yesterday while chatting with my roommate, a high school ELA teacher, and ranting about I don’t remember what specifically (it’s hard to recall when you feel like you’re in a constant state of rage, ALWAYS ranting about education policies) . . . Oh, I do remember. Cueing systems. I was ranting about teachers only teaching kids to use graphophonic cues to “read” texts. I was telling her how much it frustrates me that we provide the exact opposite of what kids who live in poverty need to experience when they come to school. I was telling her how colonization today is less visible because we are colonizing minds. And, and . . . Anyway, that led me to do some calculations. I landed on the number ten.

I have been teaching for two decades, but I still have so far to go! I have so much to learn. Because of this, I believe in questions. To the frustration of many, I question everything. Everything!

Most people are aware that one of the most important things a caretaker in any capacity can do for children is engage them in read alouds. Teachers (should) do it every day. But, after my rant, I had to ask myself some questions, “are we reading aloud with the urgency and conviction our students who experience word poverty need us to? Do MY practices reflect my beliefs, the very things I’m griping about?”

Though I read, at the least, twenty books to my kids a week, after calculating how many texts a five year old would have had read to them by the time they enter kindergarten if their caretakers read one text to them each day, I decided that I am still missing the boat. I’m not living in the gap.

Ten. That’s the number of texts I should have been reading my kindergarteners each day since the first day of school to even begin to approach meeting their needs. Unfortunately, I didn’t start on August 16, but I will begin fixing that up right now. I am challenging myself to do whatever it takes – read in the lunch line, read while we are in savasana, read all types of texts, sacrifice something less important – to read ten texts to my students every single day.

There are all kinds of nuances to consider and discuss, but I’ll save that for later. For now, I just want to make my commitment public and go on record saying that I believe in the power of books to promote language acquisition and development. I’ll document what happens next – our, mine and my students’, progress and reflections – here on Kinder Bender.


Highway to Heaven

Today was the fifty-sixth day of school. During our daily Number Corner mathversation about how many days we have been in school, a woman child said, “hey! I’m noticing something!” as we did a “close reading” of the numeral. She confidently marched up to the front of the room and said, “it looks like when we’re counting. First five, then six. Five. Six.”

“Hmm,” I thought aloud, “I wonder what would happen if we started at one and tried out what you’re thinking.” I scrawled 12 onto the board. “One is in the tens place and two is in the ones place. One. Two. But is that how we read that numeral? What is that?” A chorus of students sang, “twelve.” I kept going. They kept responding. Two, three. Three, four . . . Eight, nine. “Oh dear! If I keep going and write nine and then ten, I’m afraid that numeral is going to be too tricky for us. What are we gonna do?!” I said as I wrote 910.

As I expected, a few kids said that’s ninety-ten. “Do you guys remember the other day when it was the fiftieth day of school and we talked about needing a new column in our place value chart for hundreds when we get to the one hundredth day of school?” I asked. All the tiny heads in the room nodded back at me. “I think we need the hundreds column to help us read this numeral, too,” I suggested. “Let’s see, nine is in the hundreds place. One is in the tens place. And we have zero ones. Hmm . . .” Eyes squinted and fingertips met chins in deep thought across the room.

“I think I wanna give it a try. I think I got it,” a big voice shouted from a little body across the meeting area. “Oh my gosh! YOU’RE SO BRAVE,” I exaggerated. He took a deep breath and said, “nine hundred (another deep breath) ten. NINE HUNDRED TEN!” “WOOHOO! Ooh, chile! You’re a genius. They seriously gave me all the geniuses this year! Is this even kindergarten?!” I exclaimed while doing my signature, five-year old giggles inducing black church praise dance. “Seriously,” another child shouted, “you are so smart. You are so brave. I think he gets five jumps!”

Jumps. These are the kindergarten equivalent of hitting the jackpot. “No, girl, he gets fifteen jumps on the trampoline! Go! For! It!” And boy did he.

This wasn’t on my lesson plan for today. Reading three-digit numerals isn’t even a kindergarten standard. They tell me I should post and articulate a content, behavior, and language standard every day to be an efficacious teacher. I think we did okay today with a few manipulatives and lots of bright, inquisitive five-year old minds. I don’t do what the big people tell me to do. Or even what I want to do. I go where the children lead me. That always seems to be the right destination, the highway to heaven.



Choose Hard

I opted not to purchase a car when I moved to San Jose because, quite frankly, I hate cars. On average, a car’s value depreciates 19% within the first year of ownership. They insist that you care for them as if they’re living beings – feed me, clean me, insure me – and Mother Nature doesn’t respond well to the pollution they cause. While I understand the need many folks have for car ownership, I live in a big city where, most of the time, it’s just not necessary. Public transportation is reliable (and a dream for this writer/people watcher). It requires more thought, more planning than just walking into the garage, but it’s worth it!

I’m not suggesting that the pedestrian lifestyle is easy. Twice this week I’ve hurled materials for my classroom onto my shoulder(s) and trudged from stores to bus stops to school. We must have pumpkins for our pumpkin study, you know. And birdseed must replace the fall leaves in our sensory table as we delve deeply into understanding the lives of those plants that, we’ve recently discovered, produce their own food. But how, oh how, did those plants get there? And, dang, why is all this learning so heavy?

When I arrived at my classroom today – of course I work on Saturday – I was downright exhausted. While I was in the garden supply store, it began raining. On my journey from there to school I had to stand in the rain while waiting to transfer to another bus that doesn’t come as often on the weekend schedule with twenty pounds of birdseed in tow. And, because my middle name is klutz, I slipped on the sidewalk right in front of the school and got more intimate with the birdseed than I’d planned! As a woman who has six screws in her ankle and spent weeks teaching small children from a wheelchair, every tumble is a trigger that fills me with the fear of re-experiencing post-orthopedic surgery pain. . .

After catching my breath, I poured the birdseed into a sensory table and ran my hands through it. Ahhhh! It was pure ecstasy, learning joy. “My babies are going to love this!” I thought. And that was it. I didn’t spend one more second thinking about the long, uncomfortable, and treacherous road that brought seed to table. I fast-forwarded my thoughts to the joy of watching thirty-eight tiny, perfect hands attached to nineteen tiny, perfect humans enjoy a sensory experience that will lead to new questions and deeper learning.

This got me thinking about the journey of learning itself. I encounter so many folks who think teachers and kids can just hop in a speedy vehicle made of scripted curricula, sentence stems, behavior charts and standardized tests (to name a few things) and head straight for the glorious destination of learning. But that’s not how it works. That’s not how any of this works. That vehicle comes with consequences. As soon as those lessons are over, those scaffolds are released, as soon as that vehicle is driven off the lot, its value depreciates. And the pollution destroys the very foundation of our great nation.

Only 83% of America’s students graduate from high school, while 73% of jobs require at least a high school diploma. Despite more than fifty years of attention, the achievement gap between students of color and those who are white persists. School-to-prison pipeline statistics are astounding:


I get it! Teachers come and go. Teachers NEED lives outside of work. Libraries filled with real books are expensive. And authentic experiences that create opportunities to acquire language in natural ways cost even more! Attending to the actual needs of children whose lives are being destroyed by traumatic experiences at home is hard work. However, if we want to do what is right for children, we won’t allow ourselves to be seduced by the wiles of expedience and we’ll opt to take the long, uncomfortable, treacherous, and, yes, costly road instead. If we want our kids to experience the ecstasy of deeper learning, learning joy, we must choose to be more thoughtful. We must choose the path that requires more planning. We must choose to do the heavy lifting. We must choose hard.

And when the children “arrive,” our thoughts won’t be fixed on the journey. We’ll just be thinking, “it was worth it!”

Kinder Bender

Fifty-one school days . . .

About this time last school year, nineteen years into my teaching career, I decided to take a deep breath, lift a glass I’d been holding for years to my mouth, close my eyes and chug. I spent the whole of the second semester reading, writing, observing and thinking. I was going to be prepared.

The month of May came and brought conviction with it. I resigned from my teaching position. It was a difficult decision, but six months later, I still am confident it was the right one. Unemployment, particularly by choice, has a way making us hasty. I threw myself at nearly every job opportunity with which I was presented, but, to the frustration of many, I ultimately rejected every single one. Something just wasn’t right. My desire to be right, in complete alignment with the Universe’s plan, trumped my need for security and, let’s be real, even food.

In June, I took a leap of faith and made the decision to move to San Jose, CA in July with nothing but a nest egg, a place to rest my head, and a friend who said her friends would certainly become mine. I pored over job ads in anticipation, but still nothing piqued my interest. “I’ll get a job teaching something,” I eventually conceded. “It won’t be what I’ve been obsessing over for months, but I won’t starve. I’ll pay my dues now and get what I want later.”

On July 7, I boarded a jet bound for SJC. Upon my arrival, a woman I’d never met opened her door, and her heart, to me. At her house, the very next day, I met the woman who would eventually open the gate to my path. She introduced me to a principal who had one opening for which I am qualified at her school. As fate would have it, it was the exact role for which I had been preparing myself for months.

I engaged in the requisite stalking, including googling and driving slowly past every side of the school, which is a short 1.5 miles from my house. It was love at first sight! I interviewed for the job and was hired the same day. In my twentieth year as a professional educator, after years of consideration and months of thoughtful preparation . . .

I was finally going to be a kindergarten teacher!

Fifty-one days of school later, I’m absolutely intoxicated. I’m drinking daily, at all hours, from the glass of five-year-old giggles, hugs, innocence, brilliance, awe, and passion for life. You guys, I’m on a Kinder Bender and I don’t care who knows!