Friday, November 16, 2012

The Mary Poppins Principle

Here is the description of the water aerobics class I like to attend: "Get fit with this challenging water workout!  Improve strength and cardiovascular endurance without the impact on your joints.  Burn up to 400 calories."

I have participated during different days and hours under the tutelage of five different instructors. They all knew the content. They used similar teaching strategies and curriculum.  Yet one stands above all the others so much that I now look at the calendar to make sure she is teaching before I don my dreaded swimsuit and make myself go.  

The difference?  She makes it fun.  People who attend her class want to be there.  We enjoy our time together.  We work hard and rarely glance at the clock to see how much time is left.  It is obvious that she enjoys what she is doing.  Her attitude and energy are contagious, causing us to enjoy what we are doing as well.

I can't help but think about how this might relate in our classrooms.  We have district, state, and even national standards to meet.  We have resources we must use.  But if we really love being there every day, love the students we've been blessed with, are passionate about the content and the benefits of what we are imparting to our students, they can't help but love being there, too.

We laugh often in my room.  We infuse fun whenever possible, whether it's pretending to be ninjas as we move down the hall, or playing Mrs. Sabo Says during brief transitions. When it's time to clean up at the end of the day, we do it to music, ending with a brief dance party before settling down for one last story or poem.

Many years ago, Bob Sherman wrote a song for Mary Poppins that has become my fun mantra for life.  Do you remember how "A Spoonful of Sugar" starts?

"In ev'ry job that must be done
There is an element of fun
You find the fun and snap!
The job's a game."

I'm not na├»ve enough to think that everything we do is going to be fun, especially when hard work is involved.  But I think there is a principle here worth internalizing.  A spirit of fun is valuable and infectious.  If it improves motivation and engagement for our students, like it does for my friends and me at the gym, it's worth getting our fun on!

Saturday, August 11, 2012

August 10 for 10 Picture Book Event 2012

Beautiful, Beautiful Picture Books, how can I choose just ten of you?  Alas....I must.  This years choices are:
14 Cows for America by Carmen Agra Deedy
Stunningly beautiful remembrance and honor to the memory of 9/11.
A Seed is Sleepy by Dianna Hutts Aston Beautiful, beautiful, in illustrations and vocabulary.
And Then It's Spring by Julie Fogliano  A lovely story! It makes me want to put an end to all the brown as well.

Boy and Bot by Ame Dyckman
I loved this story of a boy, a robot, and misunderstandings.

Green by Laura Vaccaro Seeger - This lovely book celebrates all the shades of green.

Over and Under the Snow by Kate Messner - This is a must add if you want mentor texts for Writer's Workshop
The Golden Rule by Ilene Cooper - Over 120 languages are spoken in my highly diverse district. This beautiful read aloud honors our diversity while helping to build classroom community by instilling the importance of honoring and respecting one another.
Out of Sight by Francesco Pittau - This is a stunning and interesting lift the flap/pop-up book. Kids would love it. I loved it. However, it is oversized, which would make it hard to shelve in my classroom. Not sure how long the pop-ups would last without being damaged, but it would be beloved as long as it lasted. A simple fact behind each flap makes it a great non-fiction book for early readers.

Stars by Marla Frazee - Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.....what a wonderful book you are!

Thank You, World by Alice McGinty - Stunning artwork, beautiful language, culturally diverse. A great book!

Friday, April 13, 2012

8 Liquid Lessons

I’ve been attending a water aerobics class at our local gym, and despite the inconvenience of having to shave my legs and the horror of having to wade into a pool of strangers in my bathing suit, this good fit exercise has offered up a myriad of lessons that transfer to the non-liquid classroom.  If we are to be teachers of the highest caliber, the following will be mirrored in some way in our own rooms.

Positive Reinforcement:  The first thing the instructor does each session is to walk the length of the pool checking for water bottles (I did not have one the first day).  She points to each bottle saying, “Gold Star!”  “Gold Star!”  “Gold Star!” No one is scolded for forgetting or not knowing they should have had one.  There were no actual gold stars, but I still wanted one….so I brought a bottle the next time and my inner six year old swelled with pride when she pointed to mine and said, “Gold Star!”

Modeling:  Modeling is explicit, with verbal as well as physical cues.  She shows the correct way and the incorrect way, declaring, “Like this, not like this!” in order for us to get the greatest benefit from our independent practice. 

Monitoring:  Once instructions are given, she vigilantly monitors, providing praise, encouragement, and small corrections as needed. 

Differentiation: It is understood and expected that we participants are at different levels, and it is ok.  Instruction is given to all, and modified briefly for those who are new and those who are advanced.  “If you are new or not a strong swimmer, come to this end of the pool and do it like this, those of you who have been here 6 weeks or longer, try it like this…” 

Purpose:  Everything is explained with phrases like, “This is what you are working on, this part of your arm right here” (my dear fellow teachers, we were tightening up the part of my arm that waves at first graders when I am writing on the board).

Element of Fun:  After working hard, we play a game that keeps us moving, but energizes everyone.  The pool of strangers can’t help but giggle as soft squishy toys are tossed all around the pool.  

Celebration:  Today you burned 400 calories!  Cheers and applause end the class. 

Current Research: There are two different instructors.  One is a certified water aerobics instructor, and the other….well, she is a sweet, kind, and well meaning, but her class doesn’t even begin to compare with the teacher who has the most current knowledge in her schema.  This element is especially important I think, because it doesn’t matter how nice I am, how fun I am, or how much I like kids; If I don’t have a solid, strong foundation based on the most current research, I can not possibly provide what is truly best for my students. 

And that’s it….except for the lesson to always have your glasses so you can see the numbers on your lock when you get back….but that doesn’t really pertain to the classroom…so we’ll just leave it at that.  

Friday, March 30, 2012

Concert Connections

Music has the power to take our breath away.

I was reminded of this as the Seattle Festival Orchestra performed melodies by Mozart, Sarasate, and Rimsky-Korsakov, which washed over the audience like transportation devices.

Soloists performed technically demanding pieces, leading audience members to envision forest scenes where gypsies danced around blazing fires.  They played haunting melodies which sent us, voyeurs, to witness as Sultana Scheherazade saved her life by weaving tales of intrigue and adventure for the Sultan.

When I wasn't being transported by the proficiency of the musicians, I was wishing that I could do that; wishing I had the skill to unleash such magic from an instrument.

Then I realized I do.  We all do.  We just play a different instrument.  We play books.

Our read aloud time is a daily concert of words that entertain and inspire our audiences.  When Abilene finds Edward (The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane); when the photos fall out of Fox's pocket (Fox in Love); when Maddie and Peggy find out that Wanda Petronski moved because of their cruelty (The Hundred Dresses); our students experience the delight, surprise, and grief of each moment.  And when they aren't being transported, we are instilling that deep desire to be able to do that too.  The ability to play words in such a way that one can only sit and wonder that they came from such a simple looking instrument.

We must not let the time crunches and schedule demands rob our students of read aloud time.  We are the concertmasters, and when we let our voices wash over our audience, carrying them to places unknown, it is the surest way to inspire them to pick up our instrument of choice.

Friday, February 17, 2012

My Lying Pants

I am wearing pants that make me look 10 pounds slimmer.  I am wearing them because I want to look good in front of people and don't want to be subject to their judgment.  But the truth is, the pants aren't really fooling anyone.  I am pudgy right now, so they are just big fat "liar, liar, pants on fire" pants.

A beautiful gym recently opened a few miles away, so I joined.  I went wearing my lying pants.  No one pointed, no one laughed, and no one called me "fatty."  Instead, it was filled with people of every shape, size and color, all working in different ways to achieve their personal goals.  There were trainers there who were delighted to assist me.  They introduced me to a variety of machines, classes, and exercise options, helping me to find my "good fit" routine so I can reach my own goals.

Let's be honest, the work isn't fun.  However, I'm finding that as I begin reaping the benefits, my attitude about it all has started to shift.  It isn't fun yet….but I don't hate it anymore.

My lying pants remind me of Marcos.  I was a librarian a few years ago and Marcos, a third grader, was new to our school.   He was reading at a beginning first grade level, yet he carried Harry Potter around everywhere.  Marcos wanted to look like a reader, an impressive reader, so even though all he could do was point to and call out about 20 intermittent high frequency words when he found them, he carried his lie around.

We worked hard at that school to create a culture where everyone valued each other regardless of where they were in their learning journey; novice, apprentice, practitioner, or expert.  That resulted in a climate that felt safe, where genuine celebrations of growth happened everyday.  It was trickiest for new kids like Marcos, who hadn't yet learned to honor where they were in their own journeys.

So, how do we move students like that?

  • With a mixture of honesty, respect and transparency about the hard work it will take, as well as a passionate belief that it will be worth the effort.  (It is no more fun for a struggling reader initially than it was for me at the gym, but it will be worth it.)   
  • By having the ability to see the daunting goal and break it into smaller, more easily attainable increments.  (I don't have to try and lose 10 pounds in one week, which would doom me to failure, but 1-2 pounds a week is manageable.)  Our struggling readers need reachable goals.
  • By providing focused and intentional teaching and scaffolding that ensures success.  

The hard work will lead to results.  Results lead to an intrinsic sense of accomplishment and pride which helps perpetuate continuing effort and success.

The end result is that Marcos doesn't just look like a reader, he is a reader, and he rocks Harry Potter just like I will one day rock my lying pants.

Friday, January 6, 2012


I recently attended a conference for musicians.  Before you are inclined to be impressed, let me add that I don't actually play an instrument.  Well, there was an ear-numbing year of violin in grade five, a couple years of organ instruction which culminated in a rousing performance of Never On Sunday (fortunately the inappropriate lyrics of this selection went right over my preteen head), and a stint of flute in marching band which ended abruptly after the instrument was stolen out of the back of the car.  I promptly joined choir and discovered that I love to sing, which is why I happened to go to the conference.

One of the sessions I attended was with an amazing vocal coach named Tim Carson.   He said something that has been resonating in my mind since:  "Open your heart and mind to your potential."

Under his tutelage, it would be entirely possible that my car and shower concerts would be worth listening to. He knows his stuff.  He knows how to listen, assess, and determines just what to zero in on to move a student forward.  When he demonstrated with a tentative audience member, I was reminded of the power of one-on-one conferring with a good coach.

I want my students to open their hearts and minds to their potential.  As their coach, I will listen, assess, zero in, and teach.  I want them to feel the same way I would feel if Tim were my vocal coach…."I am in good hands.  What he is telling me is important.  If I practice, I will achieve my goals."

Don't you want the same for yours?  Like Tim, we have to know our stuff.  We have to keep growing and developing our craft so the students in our care are in the best hands.  Gail and Joan, The 2 Sisters, have been instrumental in helping me refine my practice.  Professional books and beloved colleagues have also coached, mentored and pushed my thinking.

A new year is upon us.  Let's refuse to let the current educational climate squelch the spirit that called us to this profession in the first place.  Let's open our hearts and minds to our potential as teachers of the highest caliber.

(cross-posted at