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.