Wednesday, January 3, 2018

The Power of Simplifying

I have learned that there is power in simplifying, especially in the classroom. Less really does equal more. The past three years I have been working hard to make my classroom a place where my students can focus, work together, and enjoy a joyful work space.

These are a few ways I have simplified the classroom:

Purging
Each season I go back over my classroom and make decisions about what stays and goes. If my students are not using something or I have not touched it in that year, it goes. This helps me focus on what is most useful in running a smooth classroom. When I clean out, I either donate to another teacher, give to Goodwill, or let it go to the trashcan. I have found by letting go of the things my students and I don’t use on a regular basis has helped my classroom look bigger, cleaner, and be a place where the students are proud to work.

This purging has included my classroom desk. I now put my computer on top of a bookshelf so I have it for my Mimio and projector each day.  Getting rid of my teacher desk gave my students so much more space and has given me the opportunity to reflect on what is most important in the classroom. When I need to work, I just move my computer to one of the work spaces in the room. This helps push me to stay focused on the students, my real purpose.


This seasonal purging was very challenging at first, but the more I have practiced, the better I have become at letting things go and focusing on what matters most in teaching. It has also helped me with thinking about upcoming purchases. My spending has become reasonable and I don’t feel guilty when buying something I know I truly need for my students.

There is a sense of peace that comes with letting go.


Community Supplies
In my classroom, I have a shelf where all the daily supplies are laid out in baskets or bins. The students use these supplies whenever needed. My students all have a book bin where they keep their reading books and anything special to them such as their own scissors, school store pencils, etc. but for the most part, we all use the community supplies. I also have a tub on each main table with pencils, crayons, and markers. I have found using community supplies has been a huge time saver in students working and in clean up. Since everything we use is shared, students seem more careful in putting everything away. In our room, everything is accessible to the students. This includes cabinets, shelves, and drawers. My theory is that if I make everything in the room accessible to them that they will become more independent.  Each year this has become more true, by January my students know the room like the back of their hand and they love getting everything out themselves and they really do clean up with a sense of pride.



 In the beginning of the year community supplies is a challenge for many of my students and at times students argue, take things from each other, and even take more than they need, but after a few weeks of modeling, teaching, and role play the students take turns, share, use please and thank you, and even get supplies out for other students. The community supplies have been a huge help in empowering my students to take more ownership in their classroom and being a better community member.


Work Spaces
When I set up the room each year, I think of our classroom in work spaces. Changing how I set up the room has benefited my students greatly. They now have work spaces all over the room where they can choose to work throughout the day. These spaces include different types of tables floor & standing, working on the class stage, working outside in the hall, using different seats, and using our floor mats with clipboards. Allowing my students to choose anywhere to work instead of a designated area has helped my students become extremely motivated. They know that if an area is not working or someone is distracting them they can to move. They also know at any time I have the right to move them, but this is a rare occurrence especially after the first month of school. 



Having my students choose their place to work has helped my students focus, therefore getting more work done. Looking at my class during work time, I see happy kids who are happily working.


Experiences over Things
In the past, I felt it was very important to have all the latest and greatest, whether this was a new book, gadget, game, or even a new holiday decor. I spent much of my thinking, time, and money looking for whatever item would make my class a little better or brighter. As I have seen myself purge many of these items I have realized that it is not things our students need as much as experiences. I have become more thoughtful with my lesson planning to make sure my students have experiences to build lasting memories, which I have found also helps in providing motivation in attending school, not wanting to miss out on anything. 

The past few years I have added things to my weekly lessons such as science demonstrations/experiments, PBL projects, STEM activities, art projects, food lessons, and creating things like memory books. Many of these lessons are free or very inexpensive.  I have also found many parents are willing to help and teachers are willing to go into these lessons together. I feel like my students are happier than they have been in the past, even though years ago I would have thought getting them EVERYTHING was what was best for our classroom.



Learning that experiences over things is what really matters has helped me value our time together.  I know besides how I treat my students each day, experiences is what they’ll remember most about each year.


Listening
I have learned over the years, (Yes, unfortunately this took me awhile) that it is not about me in the classroom, but all about my students and THEIR voices. My story is not as important as the one they tell and I must listen carefully putting in much effort to know who they are.

One thing I have been practicing is listening to my students daily. Each day our class has a share time where only the speaker talks. We then get the opportunity to ask the speaker questions. We learn so much from each other during this time. I am often able to refer back to their stories throughout the year, building better relationships with my students.

We also have share times during our many workshops. We take the time at the end of each lesson to share our own work. The person sharing or speaker says, “I’m ready for questions and comments.” The students then get the opportunity to ask questions or give specific feedback on what they noticed about the students work in reading, writing, or math. The speaker loves the chance to answer questions about their work and see that their work is valued. They learn through this sharing process that their work matters and they work harder the next lesson to make their work audience ready.

I have found that listening to our students during times out of class is also vital to the relationship. If a student comes up to me during lunch, recess, or during our brain breaks even if an adult is talking to me, I finish that sentence with the adult and then talk to my student.  I believe that my job is to put students first, so if my student needs me or even wants to talk to me about something important to them, it’s my job to create the atmosphere that they are always important enough for me to stop and listen. I make sure I give them full eye contact and many times I put my hand on their shoulder as we are talking. I want them to know they have my full attention, I also want them to know this is how we should treat others we are listening too. This is something that sounds so simple, but it has taken me years of practice to be successful.



The more I have let go of stuff, the need to be fulfilled with more, and let go of self,  the more I have gained as a person and as an educator. 

I have found that the world loves to tell you to buy more, be more, and focus more on ourselves, but this has not worked for me, instead it seemed to create unrest, discontentment, envy, and the feeling I wasn’t enough.  The past 3 years in becoming simpler, I have found that my classroom has become a joyful place full of peace. It is a place I love coming to each day and so do my students. In our world, which at times can be so over whelming, our classroom must be a place where students feel safe, motivated to work, and empowered to be their best.

If I could go back to my younger educator self, I would say to her simplify your class, create a community, use work spaces, build experiences, and listen more than you speak. I think if I had done these things earlier, I would have focused more on what mattered most, teaching my students.


Here's to a New Year filled with love, laughter, hard work, and experiences! May you be blessed this year in all that you do!






Saturday, December 23, 2017

For Blair, A PLN Tribute

During the summer of 2016, a group of educators found each other on Twitter and what came of that connection became the very first PLN (professional learning network) I have ever had the privilege of being a part of.  We came from different places around the US and world, and connected on things such as faith, flexible seating, social media in the classroom, and so much more.  Shortly after meeting on Twitter, we created a Voxer group, and named it “Our PLN”.  No matter the time or day, we always knew we could depend on one another within that group.  Sometimes we shared professional ideas and thoughts, and other times we shared things that were personal and very dear to our hearts. I have never met Alana, Mike, Blair, Todd, or Marilyn in person, but they felt like family regardless. -Amy

Through this amazing group we all learned that love has no boundaries and that you can become connected to one another over time by opening up to each other, appreciating each other’s strengths, and caring about each other through good times and bad. We hope that by sharing memories of our friend, Blair, that we will honor his heart and his memory. -Alana


Amy Storer:
One of my best memories of Blair is when I was able to connect with his class in Australia to show his students how to use Buncee.  Shortly before that, he participated in EdChange Global, and virtually attended my session on Buncee.  He ended up winning a subscription to Buncee, and I was so excited about showing him and his students the power of this creation tool.  We scheduled a time for us to virtually meet, and because we both lived in different countries, we got creative.  That is one of the many reasons why I respected him so much! He always found a way for his kids.  He even had Skype Nights at his school where the students could stay the night so they could connect with classrooms in the United States.  He knew how important it was to connect his students with the outside world.  I loved being a part of his class on that day, and was so excited about them starting their Buncee journey!  


Each and every time that I visited with Blair, he inspired me to do more as an educator.  His positivity was contagious, and his eagerness to grow as a lead learner was something to be admired.  You will never be forgotten, my friend. “Our PLN” will honor you always.  Thank you for coming into our lives the summer of 2016.  We are truly the lucky ones!

Never take for granted this gift that we have been given-the gift of global connections. So many of my PLN are people that I know I can count on, but have never met in real life. That is huge. If you haven’t gotten connected as an educator, I encourage you to do so.  You will not regret it!
-Amy Storer
Montgomery, TX, USA
@techamys



Alana Stanton:                                                                                                                     
Two years ago I got on Twitter with the hope to be inspired to be a better educator. I never realized that the people I would meet would become such dear friends who would inspire me to be a better person in all that I do. One of the first educators that truly amazed me was Blair Smith. I was first amazed at his classroom, which was made for students and had flexible seating. I was also impressed with how he used simple things to innovate his classroom such as whiteboard tables and table projections.

 My husband and I both connected with this educator turning our rooms into flexible seating classrooms with whiteboard tables, in turn this inspired many of the teachers around us to change their rooms to fit the needs of their students. We were so encouraged by Blair who always took the time to answer our questions and give us encouragement. This was much needed for Mike and I because we were taking a huge leap to change our classrooms, but Blair reassured us it would turn out great and we had his support at any time.

Last year Blair was highly involved in my classroom even though he lived in another continent, Australia. He taught my students about The Great Barrier Reef, the outback, and the amazing animals that lived there. He even took pictures of kangaroos on his drive to work, so my students could see them in the wild instead of in the Atlanta Zoo. Blair always took time to answer my student’s questions on Voxer and Twitter even though he was extremely busy living life as a basketball coach, educator, administrator for his school, and being an involved family man. He even took time out of his week to help my own children with their Australian Day. He taught them a special song that only Australians would know for patriotic events. The girls learned the song and sang it for their school making it a very special day.

Over time Blair, my husband Mike, and I got into our first Voxer group with three other educators Todd, Amy, and Marilyn. We loved hearing Blair’s encouraging voice. Through this group I found out Blair was a Christian educator. We both read the book, Jesus Calling by Sarah Young. We were able to share these encouraging messages with each other on challenging days. This is when I started to realize that I was a Christian educator and I should be open to share this through my posts, blog, and in my classroom. Blair knew that being an educator was soul pouring and he showed me the importance of starting each day with prayer. He specifically taught me how to pray for my students. I now pray daily for my students knowing there’s a power higher than me that can help them succeed.

Blair will forever remain in my heart and in my classroom. I will always remember the impact he had on me as an educator and as a person. He was and will remain one of my most favorite educational heros. My hope became a reality when I got on Twitter two years ago and I’m grateful I got the chance to know this inspiring man. 
(Psalm 34:18-19)

-Alana Stanton,
Dacula, Georgia, USA
@StantonAlana

Chris Quinn:
It was a blessing for me to get to know Blair through a number of different Twitter chats, over the past few years. I have not been part of the PLN Voxer group, but I have come to know many of its members. Blair was a dedicated family man, teacher, athlete and Twitter friend to many! He brought life, passion and goodness to so many of our conversations. He put kids first, as evidenced by the way he approached teaching, always welcoming change, global connectivity, innovation and flexible responses, based on the needs of his students. He truly was (and remains) an edu hero for me and for so many!  He inspired many of us to continue to grow as educators, in collaboration with each other!

His passing is a tremendous loss for our education community, for his dear family and for his friends.  His life is the gift that will keep on giving for many years to come.  May we find some comfort and solace in knowing that he left an indelible mark, through his ‘giving from the heart’, on the many lives he touched, and in the hope that he now rests in peace with our Creator.
-Chris Quinn
London, Ontario, Canada
@ChrisQuinn64



Mike Stanton:
The summer of 2016 was a great summer of friendship. The friends I made I never met face to face, however I knew I could count of all of them. Blair, Todd, Amy, and Marilyn were new friends that my wife Alana and I connected to through Twitter. We enjoyed growing together and sharing ways to change our thoughts, ideas, and teaching practices. We pushed each other to try new things.

As friends do, we began to share our lives through connecting on Voxer. We would not only learn about our classrooms, but also about our families. We shared our hopes and dreams with one another and opened up to each other in the process. We shared stories that were close to our hearts and dreams we had for our future students and our families. We also shared our fears, challenges, and heartaches.

Our group came together and were truly lead by Blair Smith. He was strong enough to push us to our limits but gentle enough to help guide us along the way. He was innovative yet down to earth. He was most importantly a friend we could call on for laughter, support, and advice. Blair became part of our thoughts, ideas, and classrooms. We will forever hold onto those pieces he shaped in us and transformed in our classrooms. His legacy lives on through the children he has influenced across the world.
-Mike Stanton
Dacula, Georgia, USA
@micronmike

Marilyn McAlister:
Our precious, Blair. Through time, space, Twitter, and Voxer, we are better people and educators because of you. The sound of your voice, the smile on your face, your words of encouragement, and your sharing of best practices will forever be reminders of your goodness.

At one point in life, I could never grasp that relationships could be built through a virtual space. But then our PLN came together. Amy’s fun and feisty Texas accent, her passion for Buncee and global connectedness, and her precious niece on #PassTheScope kept us on our toes. Alana and her love for her girls, her husband, her Kinders, and her school kept our hearts open. Mike, although the quietest of bunch, always had words of wisdom just at the right time. Todd was always ready with a relevant quote, a story about his high school leadership students, and words of affirmation. Chris is our encourager that helps me see the big picture.

And Blair. Our precious, Blair. He would tell stories of his drive to work. Although I’ve never been to Australia, my mind conjured up a scene of him driving and laughing through the winding road to school. But his classroom, now that we could envision. There’s much talk of being an innovator. Blair is the epitome of an innovative educator. At the beginning of each year, he would put all of the furniture in the middle of the room. Literally!!! Students would design layouts and the room would take shape. It was a delight for him to give his students autonomy from the very first day. No desks, but couches, a variety of tables, both high and low, chairs, bean bags, rugs, and the like. Each student had their own tub of supplies. The tubs were carried and moved around the room, then stored nicely at the end of the day. Blair created a room where learning and relationships went hand in hand.

Innovation did not exist only in his classroom. He reached out far and wide. For two years in a row I watched, read, and heard about his international Skype nights. He was the master of global collaboration. I loved the pictures he would post of his students skyping with other classes, educators, authors, and scientists. Read more about his Skype nights here. I picked his brain on numerous occasions about Skyping. He kept prompting me, but I was scared. I’m not sure why, but I was. Now I have to Skype with a class. What a gift Blair gave his students. The gift of diversity, connectedness, and authentic learning.

It is with tears that I end this reflection. Blair left a legacy. His humility and kindness were apparent to all that crossed his path. His family, his students, and his PLN are better because of him. Let us all live our lives in a way that will bring honor to those that love us. Blair lived his life with zest, compassion, and humility. Let that be our example.

Our precious, Blair. Forever in our hearts.

-Marilyn McAlister
Imperial, California, USA
@MarilynEDU

Everyone in this PLN has been touched deeply by Blair Smith and grown as an educator whether it was by his ideas, his innovation, his passion, his humbleness, or his heart. We will never forget him because in some way he is found in each of our classrooms and even in our teaching philosophies. We all know that it is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. We will continue to reflect on who we are as people and educators hoping we can carry on a little bit of his spirit with our flexible seating, connecting our classrooms, or by staying present in the moment like Blair choose to do with each and every person he connected with. We were all blessed to know him and hope this post shares a little bit of why he made the world a better place for students, staff, and a world full of educators.

Blair you will forever remain in our hearts. We know we will get the chance to meet you in person one day and when we do we know you will have that beautiful smile waiting for us as you greet us at the door. -Alana

                                                                Blair Smith
                                                                1971-2017


Sunday, December 10, 2017

If It Snows, We Go!

I remember a certain day during my third year of teaching as if it was yesterday. That was ten years ago, but I remember it clearly. It was such an exciting day. My first graders were learning about fractions, so we made pizzas at school. We used fractions to help us with toppings and after baking our pizzas, we reviewed fractions by slicing each pizza into equal pieces.

That day we also had a writing celebration, called Poetry Coffee House. The students made the room look like a hip coffee house, we wore all black with fun hats, and listened to jazz music in the background. We enjoyed hot chocolate with our families as we snapped along as each student read their poem at the mic.

As the parents, left Poetry Coffee House that day our class was sitting by the window reading a story, when we saw snow falling outside. Outside our window was the most beautiful scene of falling snow. Snow perfect to play in, so what did I do to celebrate this amazing moment in Georgia...

I had them watch the snow from the window and write snow poems. Yes, that’s it.

Why didn’t I let them go outside and play in the fresh fallen snow you might ask because of FEAR.

I had too much fear to take them outside in the snow. What if my principal didn’t want us outside, what if we are the only class out there, what if the parents didn't want their child playing in the snow, what if the kids didn’t have a warm enough jacket?

Sadly, enough I let the fear of what ifs take over such an important moment. A moment that could have been worked into so many lessons, a moment that could have allowed our class to experience an event together, a moment that they would have remembered over pizza and poems.

Later that day my husband who also worked at the same school at the time told me all about his class’ adventure in the snow. They played together, had a snowball fight, raced in the snow, and came in with complete joy.

My first question for him was, “Did you get in trouble?” I remember asking this like this was of the utmost importance. “Of course I did” he told me. After being outside for ten minutes, the principal herself came outside and asked him what he was doing. His response was, “I am giving the kids an experience in the snow. An experience many of our students have never had.”

It was at that moment that I decided I would never let fear hold me back from doing what's best for my students. My new motto became, If It Snows, We Go!

This Friday (12/09) I got the experience to live this motto out with my kindergarten class and my very own two children. The weather Friday predicted a light snow in the morning. My students came into the classroom with a skip in their step to get the chance to witness snow. I had one of my students’ pull the blinds all the way up to keep an eye on the window throughout the morning. We called her the Snow Watcher.

We were reading the story during Literacy when all of a sudden our snow watcher yelled, “It’s SNOWING!” Many of our students rushed over to the window. Their excitement all a glow in the room. As I looked outside my own excitement grew, It was SNOWING!

I told them, “When It Snows, We Go!” They quickly got their jackets and gloves on and we headed outside or should I say we practically ran outside.

Once out the doors my class ran down the sidewalks, jumped up and down, caught the snow in their hands, and just played. They watched the snow fall on the bushes, they wondered why the snow disappeared when it hit the pavement, and they gazed up into the sky to watch it fall down so quickly, falling right on their joyful faces.



My class got the chance to experience real snow, something our part of Georgia does not get very often. I teach a unit in January about winter and snow, but this was not a lesson, this was the real experience. An experience that my students all needed and deserved.

When my husband and I got home, we took our two girls back to the school to go and play on the big playground and the next day we took them to Mulberry park to sled on the biggest hills. 



It was so much fun watching my own children play in the snow and to get to play with them. It was especially fun to watch my husband play with the girls. He is such a great daddy and I feel blessed to witness his journey as a dad. He just has this magic touch with them. He allows them to be children, but he also goes right into their world becoming a child himself, it is just beautiful to witness.



What has been surprising to me the past few years of our light snow is that there are not many people out in the snow or playing outside. Usually we are one of the few people playing in our neighborhood, school, or local parks.

Last year there was only one other family at the park and a Gwinnett Daily Post Journalist went to three parks looking for people playing for the newspaper. Our family and the other family were the only ones he could find for the paper.
http://www.gwinnettdailypost.com/local/gwinnett-residents-face-icy-winter-weather-woes-little-snow/article_52bef409-8c1f-5e4b-87e2-f869683fa311.html

The strangest thing is when I let people know this year we were heading out to play in the snow I got the responses from multiple people: “Be careful!”,“Stay safe!”, “Are you sure you want to go out there?” or “Wow, you guys are so brave!”

I have learned from my own experience that third year of teaching when I chose to keep my students safe and warm by that snowy window that we cannot let fear or those what if questions guide our lives.

We will always have fears, it is a natural part of life, but we have to push through them, so we can actually live our lives, helping our students and our own children make memories, make experiences, and live. We have to take every opportunity we can to challenge ourselves, therefore helping the future generations become brave, daring, young at heart, and full of life.

I am so thankful years ago, I learned such a valuable lesson, to seize the moment even when you think there might be back lash or even when you are fearful.

Those who know me well know I do my best to follow rules and things expected of me, but they also know I have a rebellious spirit for doing what is best for kids. I pray I always keep that little rebel spirit. I believe it has been created in me to make sure I live a life that's full and to remind me that sometimes doing what is best for kids requires a little bit of rebel in all of us.



Thursday, October 26, 2017

A Little Light

In my classroom, I have a very special student who I will call Caroline. She is special because each day she spreads a light that burns brightly in our classroom.

As I stand at the door each morning to greet my students, Caroline comes into our class with a huge smile and ready to learn attitude. Her smile is contagious and reminds me of the smile I need to be bringing to life each day.

What has made Caroline so special is the way she treats the students in our classroom. She is kind to all of our students and loved by all, but she has been especially kind hearted to our students who have started the year nervous or worried or have had some challenges being ready for school.

This past week Caroline has really stood out in our room and has given me some reflection on the impact we can have on others each day.

I have a student who has struggled with positive behavior and focusing during our lessons. This week he found a new friend in Caroline. She took him under her wing and made sure he felt included in the group, during lessons, lunch, and recess. Caroline then introduced him to her friends, giving him more champions in our classroom.

During one of our number lessons this week he took a seat next to her on the carpet. He had some trouble writing one of our two digit numbers, so I headed over to give him some assistance, but before I could get to him I saw Caroline take her marker and write out the number on his paper. He then copied over her number with his marker. This is something I often do when a child needs a model for writing. She didn’t think twice about helping him out. She then whispered, “Now try again” and he started to get busy on the rest of his work. By the end of the lesson he yelled out, “I did it.” Holding his paper as high as he could. His smile was all over his face, but boy did that smile shine in his eyes. We all started singing our class song to him which includes the words "On Fire." He certainly was on fire, burning a light brightly for all of us to see.

Yesterday as I started our mini lesson in reading workshop, I noticed he patted Caroline on the back. He had the sweetest smile on his face and she gave him her biggest grin. Then he intently looked back at me to start the lesson, showing he was ready to learn.

I have noticed a complete change in this little boy. He has come into the classroom more focused, he has gained motivation, made amazing choices, and has started asking questions during our lessons to gain better understanding.

Now as a kindergarten teacher, I do work hard to set up our classroom in a way that will bring success to students and confidence in who they are, but this change in attitude is more than what I have brought to the table. This change in attitude is also due to a student like Caroline seeking the good in others and showing others they matter.

Today I contacted Caroline’s mother to let her know what a light she is to all who meet her, I let her know how she helps students in our class shine by being a joy to each of them. Her mother let me know Caroline has talked about loving others in our classroom in many of their conversations. She explained that it made her heart so happy to see her daughter living out the values they uphold in their family.

This past week has been an eye opener for me. Our students have the power to make such an impact in the lives of others just by being who they are. They can make other’s feel good about themselves, lead them to seek out their best, and most of all help others shine.

As educators, we have to model this light each day in the things we say, do, and the things we choose not to do, so we can be our best. In modeling who we want our students to be, we help our students become lights in our world.

Thank you Caroline for being a light for my students and myself, shining your light in our classroom so we can all learn to burn more brightly.

Thank you for reminding me of my purpose each day, to make small impacts, which hopefully lead to great changes.

Alana Stanton
@Stantonalana


Saturday, September 23, 2017

Be Patient with Yourself

Last year I would describe myself as on fire. Every day I just wanted to be better and better. I wanted to be a better person, a better mother, and a better educator. I was captivated by what I was learning on social media. Each day I loved reading new blogs, quotes, watching Ted Talks, and reading different books such as Teach like A Pirate, Ditch that Textbook, and Teach Like Finland. My favorite thing was to try to live out the new things I learned. With each new blog I read I had this yearning to be the best educator I could be.  

Now let’s talk about this year. This year has been a challenge for me. I adored my summer. I loved being with my husband each day and my two girls. Waking up to their giggles each morning (at 9am may I say) was almost like having a daily cup of coffee. Getting to read one to two books a week and take a walk outside whenever I wanted was infectious. For the first time in my career I didn’t go up to the school in June to set up and I barley went in more than 4 hours total to set up before preplanning. I just knew I needed each moment this summer to enjoy with my loved ones.

Walking into this year has been different for me. I was in my first trimester of being pregnant with bad nausea, my grade level changed, and my dear friend left the school. Last year our school witnessed one of our beloved staff member’s children and former student fight for his life with cancer. Our precious 6th grader lost that fight on September 2nd, 2017 to AML Leukemia a few weeks before his 13th birthday. This created a loss in our school which will always leave a scar on all of us. We are healing, but it will never go away nor should it.  Even though we are a strong community with a strong faith, our hearts are broken.

This year I have had to push myself to be the educator I have been for 12 years prior. I have felt that even though no one notices the changes in my spirit, I notice that my heart has not been fully in each day. I have never enjoyed so much hearing the sound of my end of the day alarm to pick up our girls from school.  I have found myself running to get my girls who are literally in full sprint and screaming “Mommy, Daddy, Mommy, Daddy” over and over as they run across the big playground to get to us. They give us both the biggest hugs. These are the kind of moments you know you have to appreciate because one day they will be too grown to run for us.

I cannot explain the feeling of gratefulness that my husband shares the same school with me. My heart had always told me year 5 at this school would be the year I felt most at home. Having him at this school to lean on or be someone he can lean on has been the biggest gift.

To be honest, I miss my old class. I miss that we went through so many amazing things together and we experienced heartache together too. I truly poured my heart into that group. I am so proud of last year. I know I will look back on this year and be proud too. I know I will do it again. I will bounce back to my energetic self who is always seeking her best.  I already see my heart opening up more and more to this group, but it is happening slower than normal for me.

I have to believe that is okay. I am human. I am not a super hero, yet I am often guilty of referring to every educator as one. I am a woman who is a wife, a mother, and a person just trying to be there for others as best as I know how.

And I have realized something this week. This feeling I have right now is okay. I am learning right now I cannot be everything all the time to everyone. I am going to go through seasons of change in my life and in my career. It’s up to me to make sure I’m doing what is best for kids, but it is also my job to be patient with myself and allow myself to adjust to my new class, new grade level, and new emotions. Some of these emotions are joy, but I am also feeling grief, sadness, and a sense of loss not only for our community, but for my coworker who I respect and love dearly.

I wanted to write this piece to be honest. I also wanted to write it because maybe someone out there feels a similar way. If you are having any feelings like me this year, please know you’re not alone. Please know that it’s okay to have your heart hold back for a while, and that fire will come again, but please also know that YOU come first. That your family comes first and to know that is okay!

I cannot wait to write that blog soon to tell you my heart is just captivated by this year, but if it isn’t written I know that is fine too because I know what I have to give this year will be enough. My family might be the ones in need of my heart most this year. 

And for the first time in 12 years I’m proud to say I am trying to truly put them first, I know that will not go unnoticed.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Pizza in the Park


At the end of the school year I usually hug my students good bye knowing I will not see them again until the start of the next school year. But this ending was different. As I hugged my students and parents good bye I was able to say, “We can’t wait to see you in July for Pizza in the Park.”

My husband Mike and I decided that we wanted a chance to celebrate our student’s accomplishments over the school year. We also wanted the chance to enjoy our students and their families, so we both invited our kindergarten and fourth grade classes to Little Mulberry Park to have a celebration as a class family one last time.

I planned the event, so my friend Teresa Gross our class Twitter buddy could attend. My students were so excited to get a chance to meet the person who had spent so much time reaching out to our class by reading to us, answering questions about New York, and sending pictures of a snowy winter.

Throughout the summer I would see our students, talk with them, and each time I walked away I would say, “See you in July.” It felt wonderful knowing we would get to spend quality time together before rushing into a new school year. We knew not everyone would get the chance to attend, but we were hoping a third of our students came out . When we sent out the Evite, we were thrilled to see more than half from each class would be attending.

At Pizza in the Park Mike and I got there a little early to set up thinking the kids would arrive soon, but we were surprised to already have a fourth grade student, Aidan waiting for us. We found out that this was a very special day for him because he was moving in a week. The family did not know they were making these changes at the end of the school year. His mom told us that he couldn't wait for Pizza in the Park to get a chance to say goodbye to his classmates.

Many fourth grade students arrived at Pizza in the Park, we came out to greet them all, but of course I caught myself many times looking for my own students. The first student I saw running down the track, was Shari. She was as fast as ever. I ran down to meet her, “Shari I knew you would be the first one!” She didn’t know it, but little tears were in my eyes. Hugging her made me realize how much I missed my students and how special this event was going to be for all of us. Shari and I gave each other a big hug and talked about her summer. She had so much to tell me. The beautiful thing was I could really take it all in and listen intently because there was no lesson coming up, just time to spend with my students. I then introduced Shari to Teresa. Shari had a huge smile on her face since she had usually been the student taking class pictures to send to Ms. Gross.  Her family and Teresa were able to connect by talking about New York and their visit to Paris, France.

As each child from my class showed up I felt blessed to know each child and their family. We told families we had dinner covered and not to worry about food for others, but almost every parent brought something to share with the classes whether it was slices of watermelon, bags of chips, juice boxes, or cookies. We even got to celebrate Michelle’s 6th birthday with both classes. Singing happy birthday to this sweet, strong, and humble child (no longer afraid of bees) was a highlight. Her brother who I  taught years ago was standing beside, proud to be there by her side. Seeing those two pass out cupcakes to all the students there including their siblings amazed me.

One of my students, Jackson let me know that his family was in Canada. His dad had stayed with him, so that he could attend Pizza in the Park. This touched my heart to think mom, sister, and brother had gone to visit family, but Jackson wanted to stay to spend time with our class one last time. It let me reflect on the importance of the relationships we build with our students and the relationships they build with each other,

It was truly magical for Mike and I as we looked around seeing parents talking to each other sitting on camp chairs, fourth graders playing football, kindergartners swinging together, and even my own children keeping up with the big kids. Our girls looked independent and happy to hang out with their soon to be Mulberry family.

Mike and I at one time thought maybe we should let the event go. Thinking would many of our students be able to come out, would we be able to pull it off, and wondering if the park would even work as a location. I am so thankful Mike and I pushed through with this event! It was amazing to talk to the families not about academics or the school year, but just to hear about their lives as a family. Hearing amazing stories of students who visited Norway, Paris, Virginia Beach, New York, New Jersey, The Smokey Mountains, and Atlanta were priceless.

Mike and I will keep this day in our hearts for years to come, remembering each year it’s a gift we can give to our students, but also a gift we receive right back by seeing all our students celebrate their year as a class family. We are so grateful to be in this wonderful community serving so many families.

Mike and I are thankful each year we get to be called educators. I am personally thankful I get to share this career with my best friend and husband, Mike Stanton who reminds me daily of the impact great educators have on their communities. May we always remember the impact of Pizza in the Park and may it remind us that hard work needs celebrated and love is always received.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Newborn Twins: My Summer Professional Development by Guest Writer Sheldon Soper

Newborn Twins: My Summer Professional Development

By Guest Writer Sheldon Soper @SoperWritings

For as long as I can remember, my response to the age-old question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” never really changed. The answer always came back to fulfilling two dreams: I wanted to be a teacher and I wanted to be a dad.

A decade ago, I realized the former. I landed a job teaching in an amazingly diverse, supportive, and forward-thinking district. Over the course of my tenure there, I have had the privilege to teach classes of third, fifth, sixth, and seventh graders and have loved the experiences.

As a teacher, I have been given the chance to pilot new classroom technologies, try new innovative best practices, take creative risks pushing rigorous content, and even lead professional development sessions for my colleagues. This is not always the case for educators in most districts; to say I have been lucky is an understatement. Dream 1? Check!

Last fall, my wife and I got the surprise of a lifetime when we found out we were having twins. After a long, unforgiving pregnancy (it turns out my wife is, in fact, a superhero), we were blessed with our two amazing kids, Francesca and Henry. We walked out of the hospital together five days later as a family – everyone healthy, everyone beautiful. Dream 2? Nailed it!

I’m in my mid-thirties and have achieved the two major milestone goals I have been working towards for a third of century. So now what? Anyone who is either an educator or a parent knows how loaded that question really is.

A Different Kind of “Working Vacation”

Whether it is teaching or parenthood, you have to hone a craft to be effective at it.

This summer I have found myself in a unique position. Typically, my “months off” in July and August are spent attending and leading professional development opportunities at my school. This summer is different. I feel the undeniable pull to be home spending time doing whatever I can to both support and enjoy my family. So this year, while I am heading in a for a few professional development sessions here and there, I’ve cut way back.

My heart and my calendar both know this summer is all about clearing my plate and working to be the best father I can be (Full disclosure: it has been an amazing journey so far and I would not trade it for anything!). However, part of my summer brain will always be in “How can I make this upcoming school year even better?”-mode.

In my quest to satiate that nagging craving to improve my teaching practice, I came to one conclusion that instantly erased that pull towards the school: the majority of the lessons I’m learning to best serve my newborn twins will also be lessons I can apply to my seventh graders in the fall.

For instance, here are some of the things my twins have already taught me this summer:

Not all cries are the same

Babies cry. Anyone expecting a child has to know this going in.

As parents of twins, my wife and I were prepared for a life perpetually without silence. Luckily, we were blessed with two fairly even-keeled babies that have been quite kind to our ears. Now don’t get me wrong, these babies cry; but when they do, there’s usually a solid reason.

At first, sorting out why we had an upset child meant running a checklist of potential causes. We would look for the usual suspects: signs of illness, hunger, a loaded diaper, gas, clothing issues… After some detective work, the problem would be discovered, solved, and we would be a few cuddles away from having content babies again. Things started to change once my wife and I started honing in on the actual sounds Henry and Francesca were making.

Just telling the difference between the babies’ voices was tough enough at the start. Over time, though, it has gotten easier. My wife and I have not only gotten better at identifying which baby is crying, but also what the actual cries themselves are telling us.

Is Henry in a full-blown huff? Time to fill the tank!

Is Francesca starting to whimper and squirm? She’s gotten a limb free from her swaddle.

Is Francesca hitting notes only the dogs can hear? Call the EPA; her diaper is probably an ecological disaster.

For me, these experiences have reinforced the notion that so much of vocal communication comes down to the voice’s musical qualities like rhythm, pitch, and intonation. When your ear starts to latch onto to those aspects as effectively as it can actual words, you end up with a clearer picture of what someone is really saying. Without really trying, caring for babies has definitely helped hone my ability to hear.

I already know this will make a big difference on my capacity to manage and support a classroom full of students. As it stands, I am pretty good at picking up on student remarks so that I can swoop in for a teachable moment or redirect students slipping off task. Not to pat myself on the back too hard, but I can still pick out a strong whisper from across the room (despite a youth spent blasting my eardrums with a Walkman and 90s rock).

This year, I am going to make it a point to focus on what my students’ voices are saying beyond just the words they are forming. Henry and Francesca have shown me that dialing into the wordless aspects of students’ vocalizations can be just as important as catching every word they say. I know that at times I have failed to consider tone when hearing what a student is trying to communicate. Thanks to my babies, I am confident I will be better attuned this year.

Boundaries are Adjustable

One of the most challenging responsibilities that comes with being either a teacher or a parent is setting boundaries for kids. Teachers create limits to help students focus and keep their learning environment productive. In a classroom, this means creating a management plan including things like behavior expectations, seating arrangements, and daily routines.

With newborns, there are really only so many limits to set. So far, it seems like the most important set of boundaries for our twins has been when to let them stretch and flail their little limbs and when to swaddle them up like little snuggly burritos.

In both cases, too much freedom can mean an onrush of overstimulation and distractibility. For students, a lack of boundaries can increase the likelihood of getting off task or making poor decisions. For our babies, not having the security of a tight cuddle can mean certain daily routines (like sleep) are harder to accomplish.

However, knowing when to loosen boundaries can be just as important as establishing them in the first place. When students feel things like tight regimentation or overly prescriptive tasks are boxing them in, they can become frustrated and disengaged. Similarly, if you leave a baby swaddled when they don’t want to be, they’ll let you know!

Knowing how to finely tune the balance between limits and freedoms is a tricky proposition. Good parents and teachers have to be zeroed-in on where the ever-changing thresholds need to be at any given moment.

When things are running smoothly, you can afford to offer up more freedoms to help kids gain a greater sense of autonomy and responsibility. On the other hand, when it seems like freedom is starting to teeter over towards anarchy, there is nothing wrong with tightening the reins to get things back on track.

Regardless of their ages, kids need boundaries. The key for adults is staying dialed in to be able to keep those boundaries flexible enough to promote a balance of growth and accountability. I feel like this is something I have always known, but my new dynamic duo has really cinched it in for me.

Never Underestimate a Healthy Grain of Salt

From the moment my wife and I shared the news that our little bundles of joy were on the way, we were bombarded with advice from all sides. Everyone seemed to know exactly how to survive the pregnancy, what we needed to register for, how we should set up our nursery, and what we would need to do to be great parents.

Don’t get me wrong, I will listen to any advice that anyone is willing to offer. However, there was a glaring issue with most of the advice we received: it came from people with the same total lack of twin experience as we had.

Having twins is totally different than raising one newborn at a time. It just is.

To start with, a twin pregnancy is immediately considered high-risk; that means more unpredictable symptoms, a bunch of extra trips to the doctor, and a whole lot more uncertainty and nervousness about what could go wrong.

Then, once the twins arrive, everything takes twice as long as with a single baby. Each day has twice as many potential issues to go along with double the daily routines (i.e. twice the mouths to feed and diapers to change). Making things even more interesting, the things that work for one baby don’t necessarily work for the other. It’s a loving ball of constant chaos.
I could go on, but If you have never experienced twin parenting, there’s really no way to do it justice in words.

As such, my wife and I learned (very quickly) to take unsolicited advice with a big grain of salt. We knew people were just trying to help. While some words of wisdom were useful, some were not so much. Regardless, we listened and were, at the very least, grateful that people cared enough to offer.

Teachers face this same conundrum, too. We are inundated with advice and “new” best practices (sometimes solicited, sometimes not) from colleagues, professional development sessions, and administrators. Sometimes the advice is super helpful. Other times, the advice is truly great, but it comes at a point where it is not immediately useful. At its worst, you receive suggestions that seem completely ignorant to what actually is going on in your classroom with your students.

Nevertheless, whether you are a parent or a teacher, the advice will continue to pour in. In the end, teachers know their students, their own pedagogical strengths, and what just works. Parents know their children and find ways to make the right decisions for their families. The key is having a nice shaker of salt handy to help shrug off what is not relevant and continue doing your best for the sake of your kids.

With all the things parenthood would bring to the table, I never though professional development would be one of them. It amazes me how the needs of my 12-year-old students really are not that different from those of my 6-week-old children.

All middle school immaturity jokes aside, by spending the summer working hard to hone in on the needs of my newborns, I’m serving both my family and my future students. Ultimately, this connection has finally allowed me to sleep more soundly this summer: it turns out sometimes the best professional development is personal development.

…Just kidding! I’m the father of twin babies. I don’t sleep…


Sheldon Soper is a content writer for The Knowledge Roundtable. He is also a New Jersey middle school teacher with over a decade of classroom experience teaching students to read, write, and problem-solve across multiple grade levels. You can follow Sheldon on Twitter @SoperWritings and on his blog.