Thursday, November 17, 2011


Every year during the weekend before Thanksgiving I get a mini-vacation. I spend a working and learning weekend with new and old like-minded friends in another city, away from the normal life of university committees, teaching responsibilities and mom worries. I'm currently in a taxi, viewing the Chicago skyline, my stomach filled with butterflies of excitement. For some reason, NCTE never seems like work.

Monday, October 31, 2011

The Year Halloween Got Canceled

I had just finished tucking my son in for his afternoon nap when my husband called to me, "Look at your clock."  It was the only sign on the bright afternoon that the power had gone out.  I had spent most of the week worrying about the neighborhood trick-or-treating, which we had scheduled a month ago for Saturday night.  With a forecast of 3-6 inches of snow for Saturday afternoon, I was worried my kiddos wouldn't get to trick-or-treat.  The flurry of email exchanges reassured me that we would just dress the kids in parkas for trick-or-treating and then enjoy the Halloween party in costumes at our neighbor's house.  Earlier in the day on Saturday, with the snow coming down heavily, we had canceled the outdoor treating, and with the power out, the party was in jeopardy.  Twenty-five kids and their parents in a house without water or lights would not have been a good idea.

Ultimately, we moved the party to a house with a generator, and the teenagers took our bowls of candy to the upstairs rooms, where the kids had the most interesting trick-or-treating experience of their lives.  My family left the comfort of the party, and the warmth of our neighbor's house, to sleep at home, where we had no lights, no water, and no heat.

On Sunday morning we woke to a balmy 56 degrees, and while my husband spent  nearly four hours removing snow from the driveway and sidewalks, brushing snow off of sad tree limbs, and cracking the mound of snow deposited at the entrance to our drive by the overnight snowplow, I played with the kids.  All of us had on knit hats, and my son even wore mittens while we constructed a helicopter and truck out of his blocks.  We burrowed under my down comforter, the three of us snuggling for warmth and reading book after book, every so often before heading back to the toys. "You're hands are freezing," my son kept telling me.  "It's hard to build helicopters with mittens," I replied.

When my husband returned inside, I told him that we had to take the kids somewhere with heat.  Our plan was to shower at our neighbor's, eating lunch from the leftover party fare, and to head out for errands.  Though we did not expect the power to return, we were hopeful.  Then I looked at the power company's website on my charging phone.  "Oh, my," I exclaimed.  All the adults in the full kitchen looked my way.  "All the dots are red.  This is worse than how it looked during Irene."

Even with the 6 day power outage during the aftermath of hurricane Irene 2 months ago, my husband had been dragging his feet about buying a generator.  Our neighborhood loses power frequently, but most of the time it is restored within a few hours.  Of the 14 houses in our neighborhood, 4 had generators prior to Irene; 2 more hooked them up during the Irene power outage, and another purchased one to use for "next time." With seven generators in the neighborhood, my hubby figured we would be ok.

When we realized we were looking at another week without power, this time in cold weather and during my academic year when I had to commute, my husband decided we needed a generator.  NOW.  My friend and I called about 15 Lowe's in a 2 hour radius before we found one with generators in stock.  My hubby took a 4.5 hour trip to get all the supplies he needed, and he, the neighborhood gang, including the resident electrical engineer, got us running water, lights, and most importantly, heat.

As I woke this morning at 5:30 to get ready for work, the heat kicked on and the water streamed out of the shower.  Of course, the lights dimmed since these two things happened at the same time, but I was grateful to be getting ready for work in the warmth, in the light.  Since the train lines are still down, I had another hurdle to overcome getting here today, but I'm currently looking over Lincoln Center, the sun shining on the windows of the building across the way, in a heated office with a computer.  I owe my husband, friends, and neighbors a big thank you for getting me here today.

As for Halloween, the town has postponed the downtown trick-or-treating and parade, and we won't be home to enjoy it, and since most neighborhoods in our area don't have power, it would be difficult to trick-or-treat with the kids.  Besides, they brought home more candy than we could ever eat from the indoor treating on Saturday, where, ironically, they didn't wear the costumes we had planned for them.  So they won't trick-or-treat, and they probably won't wear their planned costumes.  It's a "mixed-up Halloween," as my daughter would say, and I'm sure it's one we will never forget.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Sounds of Silence

The light in the hallway flicked on. I silently groaned, knowing my hubby was coming upstairs to turn on the TV in our bedroom. I was 3 pages from finishing my pre-bed chapter, hoping to turn out the light in just a few minutes.

After he checked on the kids, he opened our door, just as I was closing my book. "Do you have to get up early tomorrow," he asked?

"Yeah," I replied.

"Wow... You get home at 9 tonight and you have to get up at 5:30 tomorrow?"

"Actually 5:00. I need to get the earlier train."

"Why do you have to go to the city tomorrow?" His tone indicated that he truly didn't understand why I would need to come home so late and turn around the next morning to repeat the process. Thursday isn't a teaching day this semester, and it isn't a regular meeting day. I knew that explaining the work I had to do would take more effort than I had at that moment. I chose the answer that has universal understanding...


He nodded, suddenly understanding why I had asked him to switch his morning kid duty from Wednesday to Thursday this week. I had juggled my schedule so that he didn't have to do both days, knowing he is going to be handling a lot when I am traveling later this month and then again next month.

I prepared myself to chastise him for having the TV on while I tried to sleep. It's an ongoing conversation we have. He uses the tube to relax and fall asleep. I lie awake, disturbed by the flickering light and high-pitched hum that only I and the neighbors' dogs can hear. On the nights when I rise before dawn the next day, I play the "you get an extra 1.5 hours to sleep tomorrow" card. I was ready to play that hand last night.

But he surprised me. He nodded, said goodnight, and turned back to the hall, closing the door behind him. I heard the TV downstairs as I drifted to sleep. I don't know what time he came to bed. I fell asleep immediately, lulled by the sounds of silence in my bedroom and the feeling of content that my hubby finally "got it."

-----Sent from my mobile-----

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Pushing through the Wall

Last year I had the opportunity to teach with a colleague who is a runner. She is one of those people who loves the physical exertion of running, and she methodically trains with a keen understanding of her body and the art of exercise. I know this about her because she often used running metaphors to relate educational concepts to our students. Her penchant to turn to running in her explanations became an inside joke in our community ---especially because most of us, myself included, were not runners.

Recently, I reviewed a manuscript for a few colleagues who love baseball. I know that they love baseball because their text was filled with examples of baseball, arguments about baseball, and laments about their favorite teams. Personally, I related. After all, as a Mets fan I'm in constant defense of my team and in perpetual lament of their standing. I questioned the authors, however, because I wasn't sure that all members of their audience would enjoy the baseball chatter.

I am, somewhere inside of me, an athlete. I am a sports fan. But I am both of these things in my second soul, and perhaps that's why I've questioned my colleagues' use of sports analogies and metaphors. However, as I struggle to hit my stride this semester, I think back to my dad's encouragement as I trained for soccer season in high school, hating every step of the distance runs down our country road. "Push through the wall," he used to say. "Find your stride."

This semester I'm having trouble finding that stride, and a sports analogy is the only way I can describe my struggle. I've been working longer hours than normal, including two 12-16 hour days in the city. I've been getting up before the kids to work on the days I work from home, and I spend good chunks of time on the weekends at my computer. Still I'm just keeping up, sucking wind every day - and hoping this will be the week I hit my stride.

-----Sent from my mobile-----

Friday, September 16, 2011

A Summer Highlight - A Princess and A Race Car

At our faculty's opening of school meeting, my chairperson asked us to share a professional high and a personal high from the summer months.  Though I couched it as a personal high, A Princess and a Race Car was both professional and personal.  My time in the preschool served me well.  I successfully planned and managed (with a lot of assistance) a dozen four-year-olds for 2 hours. 

Ironically, shortly into the party, I realized that I had organized my support team so well that I had nothing to do! I stood in the middle of my patio, spinning from the princesses, who were eagerly creating necklaces with our babysitter, to the racers, who were engaged with my hubby and pop as they built their race cars.  My mom was in my office, printing the pictures she had taken of each child for their party favors.  Everyone seemed happy.  I felt useless.

They did need me, of course, and that 5 minute period proved to be my last respite as we read the story, ran the race, held the dance party, and served lunch.  It was glorious chaos. 

I received an email that night from one of the moms, who said that her son had not stopped racing his car around the house and that they had read the story to both of their children multiple times at dinner.  This feedback made me smile, but when my daughter asked for A Princess and a Race Car to be her bedtime book for several days following the party, my heart soared.  It's still a favorite in our house.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Digital Twin Mom When Power Goes Out

I am typing this entry on my phone, trying to comprehend how teens today compose essays on their mobile devices. We are well into our fifth day without power, and twin life without electricity has drained my energy. Fortunately, we have amazing neighbors with generators and a community pool with showers - so none of us smell too bad. However, I've come to realize those things I take for granted, ways of life that are completely inconvenient (and therefore exhausting) when the lights go out for an extended period.

Top Five Things I Miss This Week

1. Computer and Internet: I have been able to stay in touch with friends via mobile phone but my work has suffered. The local library has been so packed with community members that the wireless kicks me off, and the folding tables they have set up for workstations in a meeting room are not conducive to quality writing. I also cannot talk on the phone and be looking at shared docs on the Internet at the same time. I've realized that this practice has become habitual in my work life.

2. An outlet to charge my phone - it's my window to the world, and even though the system has been slow, overwhelmed with others whose window out is also a cell, my cell has been my sanity savior. Unfortunately, those Facebook posts and texts eat up battery, so I've needed to consider carefully when and where I can recharge. My friend brought me a battery charger with a DC adapter yesterday, and it has made all the difference.

3. Electric garage doors - opening and closing the doors manually was such a pain that I got in the habit of just leaving then open for the day. Then we found out that thieves were preying on our area. Though I have no jewelry to be stolen, we do love our cars!

4. Refrigerator - I only find this item a major inconvenience because I'm trying to feed my kids healthy food. It has been impossible these last few days to stick to our meal plans. I miss the fridge most, and the microwave second.

5. Shower - I'm fine using a bottle to brush my teeth, and the 5 gallon jug us just fine for drinking. But having to pack a bag every day to go shower adds to the exhaustion. I also really need to shave my legs...

On the plus side, we haven't missed the TV, and we haven't even opened the portable DVD players that we charged fully in preparation for the storm. Not once have my kids asked to watch TV or play on the computer. They have been super kids, and I'm just trying to be a good mom and keep my patience with them, which is the hardest thing for me to do during this adventure. But I am finding a light in the fact that this digital mom has been doing okay so far at keeping her preschoolers from being hooked on the screen.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Final Exam

There was no question that my kids would have a birthday party.  After a full year in preschool, both understood the importance of birthdays, and of parties.  Even before their pretend birthday celebrations at school in June, they told me what they wanted for their parties.  My son wanted "a race."  My daughter wanted to be a princess.  For months we have been talking about their birthday parties.

There was also no question that the party would be at our house.  I enjoy crafting, planning, and the stress of parties.  A kids' party is a place to let the creative juices flow.

So all I had to do was figure out how to combine princesses and race cars and, more importantly, how to manage a gaggle of 4-year-olds for two hours.  I realized that I had created my own exit project, my final exam for the semester of learning I had done at the preschool this year.  As lead teacher, I would plan and implement a class for my children's friends, all of whom had seen me as their teacher at some point in the last few months. 

Tomorrow we will host "A Princess and A Race Car," a party for our preschool friends that focuses on the story of the day and builds activities around that tale.  Kids will count, they will write, they will have fun, and they will exercise.  And of course, we will have music.  I've taken all of the lessons I've learned from my teaching mentors - preparing crafts ahead of time, sorting materials into boxes for little fingers, offering a mix of structure and free play - and I'm giving myself the test.

It's been a fun challenge to combine princesses and race cars, giving each of my children an individual party without planning for two events.  After a small panic attack, when I realized how many children might be attending, I reminded myself that I had just spent four months in a preschool.  I thought about what engaged the children in school.  Stories and crafts kept their interest, and I knew that I could combine the two parties by writing them together.  I wrote a story for my princess and my racer with the highlight of the party for my son - a real race - and my daughter - a dance party with her princesses - coming together in the story.  Because I know they will listen, I will read the story to the children tomorrow before they "shake their sillies out" in a footrace (the boys in their handcrafted car suits) and the girls in their dance party (wearing their princess garb). 

After my "lesson" with its only true objective being "to have fun," I will reflect on how I planned and how I executed that plan.  Like my own students, I will think about what I learned from my apprenticeship this past year and whether I was able to implement my knowledge effectively.  This party has become my exit project, the test of my ability to teach (or at least manage) a class of preschoolers. 

Monday, July 11, 2011

Tech Poser

My colleague, the one who introduces me to new tech gadgets and cool web applications every time I see her, recently called me a TECHIE!  She gave me that shout because I wormed my way into Google+ a little earlier than other people in my circle, about two days before she broke in.  Her comment reflects an ongoing inside joke.   As my brother, who continues to receive SOS calls to fix my computer despite the fact that he lives 3,000 miles away, would attest --- I am not a techie.  I just pose as one.

Somehow I have always been toward the front of the pack as a user of technology in my professional life.  At the turn of the century, I put my homework assignments online in a primitive, sortable database (that my brother built and that I could not actually edit if I made a typo).  The next year I sought out an online grade book that allowed me to give parents password protected access to their children's English grades.  I paid for the service myself.  The year after that I found Turnitin, and when my individual, free subscription ran out, I convinced my department chair to purchase it for the school.  I embraced Inspiration and became the school expert on this software, offering PD workshops to my colleagues.  I even suggested that my students hold book club discussions via chat - before social networking had been born.

When a student told me about this cool, new website, I joined MySpace to see what he meant.  I opened an account on Facebook when you still had to have a .edu address, and I joined Twitter when there was no one to follow, and no one to follow me.  So it was natural that I would join Google+ before I could figure out how to make the tool useful to me personally or professionally.  It's the newest "thing," and I'm sure my students will be talking about it - so I need to know what they are talking about.

All of this tinkering, however, doesn't make me a techie.  It doesn't make me comfortable with new technologies or even happy about learning them.  It just means I'm in the game, refining my skills as I go.  My willingness to jump in with both feet, however, has made me a tech "expert" among my university colleagues.  I keep telling them I'm a poser.  And I keep hoping a real techie will join our department and expose me.  Then I can happily follow without the pressure of tech-spertise.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Worthy and Indispensable

I have been writing like a madwoman for the last three weeks, trying to meet two self imposed deadlines that have given me several migraine headaches and carpal tunnel pain shooting up my right arm.  I gave myself these deadlines because I am seeking tenure at my university.  And let's face it, deadlines make me more productive.

One of these two projects arose out of a conversation about some data that a colleague and I had collected this spring.  A few days before our talk, an editor of a journal had solicited an article from him.  In the academic publishing world, editorial solicitation is known as a "lay-up," the fast track around months of grueling writing, revising, and rejection.  When one is on the tenure track where publications matter, lay-ups are much appreciated.

So my colleague and I decided to go for it and to draft an article from nothing into something worthy in less than a month.  Our task was complicated by two factors: (1) I had a grant proposal due the same day as the article, and (2) my co-author was leaving for Europe to spend his summer "vacation" teaching abroad. (Despite popular opinion, in higher ed, as in public school teaching, we rarely get a summer vacation.)  Thank goodness for modern technologies, namely Skype, Google Docs, and Dropbox, that have allowed us to craft this article together. (By the way, I added the links because in his book Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts, and Other Powerful Web Tools for Classrooms, Will Richardson suggests that real blogging links to outside resources.)

During one of our Skype conversations, as we compared hectic schedules and made plans for continuing our work, I joked with my co-author that my life would settle down, hopefully, in 2014, when I had proven myself worthy and indispensable.  I was referencing, of course, my tenure year, and I repeated the joke to my husband, who happened to walk in the house as I was signing off of Skype.  My husband nodded, sympathetically but not with empathy, and as he smiled at me, I realized that in my world of mom, I had already proven myself.  I am both worthy and indispensable.  My ah-ha moment lifted my spirits, and I began to think about A, my colleague at another university, who also happens to be a mom on the tenure track.

In the middle of my three-week writing binge, I stepped away from my desktop to attend a conference.  At this conference, I saw A, had several great conversations with her, and planned a future collaboration.  During one of our discussions, A gave me reason to pause.  Unlike me, who sees publications as lines on the CV that will move me to tenure, A said that she thinks about "who is going to read it."  She cares whether her work will make a difference to someone's own research or practice.

I realized that I too care whether my work will make a difference, and I choose projects that I find valuable.  I do not want to be the academic who publishes just for the sake of publishing.  Yet with my indispensable role of mom, it is difficult to find the time to write and revise worthy pieces and to find the appropriate outlet for that work, a publication that will affect others in their research or practice.  I know that I must publish to achieve my career goals, and so my struggle, I think, is about balancing life on the tenure track with life at home.  A seems to have figured this balance out.  I hope that it doesn't take until 2014 for me to think about "who is going to read it" when I write for publication.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

What I Learned in Preschool

My digital story is finally done.  It's not perfect, but I can't fight the technology any longer!  Creating the story helped me bring together what I had learned from my visits to the preschool this semester.  I continue to think about how to take what I learned to the world of secondary education.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Happy Pretend Birthday

My birthday is in July, and when I was a child, I felt bad that I could not celebrate my birthday in school.  All of the other kids, it seemed, had their day with cupcakes and cheer in the classroom.  I felt left out.  My mom, brilliantly, began sending cupcakes on my "half" birthday in January.  She still remembers to wish me a happy half birthday.

I assumed I would carry on the tradition of half birthday with my own children, who were born in August. Secretly, I love that my kids have summer birthdays.  It saves me from the "invite the whole class" rule for their parties, which for twin moms whose children are in separate classes, makes for a terrifying gaggle of young children.  I remember very clearly the dread that spread through me as my good friend, a veteran twin mom with children about four years ahead of mine, explained her search for a location that would host over 50 children.  (She now holds two separate parties for her son and daughter.) So for a twin mom, the summer birthday is a blessing, but for my kids, who now understand what it means to celebrate their classmates' birthdays at school, the August birthday means they miss out on an element of childhood. 

I had planned to celebrate their half birthdays in February, honoring their special day with their school friends in the same way my mom had honored mine.  However, the preschool had already taken summer birthdays into account, assigning each child with a birthday in June, July and August a day toward the end of the school year to celebrate.  Since my children are in two separate classes, they were assigned to two different days.  My daughter's "birthday" was held last Thursday.  My son's will be held this coming week.

I appreciated that the days were split as it allowed me to attend both classes, a visit with each child that I know other moms have enjoyed throughout the year.  I didn't anticipate my son's angst over the separation of his birthday from his twin sister's.  In the car ride to school, he cried that his birthday was supposed to be the same day as hers.  "But my birthday is the same as M's," he persisted even as I explained that it was a pretend birthday and that he would have his pretend birthday next week.

Eventually, he came around, and he began making a pretend cake for his sister.  As I drove, I heard him in the backseat adding eggs, flour, and sugar to his pretend bowl, mixing it, and popping it in the oven.  When he took it out to give to her, he sang, "Happy birthday to you.  Happy birthday to you.  Happy birthday to M....  (M pushes his hand away from her, as siblings in the backseat of a car are apt to do.)  NO M I AM SUPPOSED TO SING HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO YOU AND GIVE YOU THIS CAKE." Well, at least he came around to celebrating separate pretend birthdays, I thought.

My daughter milked the pretend birthday, telling her ballet teacher that it was her birthday, which prompted a chorus of "happy birthday" from her classmates at ballet that afternoon.  That night she described to me the "princess party" she wants to have in August, for her "real" birthday.  My son wants a car race for his birthday party, and I'm trying to figure out how to build a racetrack around a princess castle in my backyard.  I suppose it's a good thing that their pretend birthdays at school fall two months from their real birthday; otherwise I would have to explain to twin 3-year-olds that they had to wait six months past their half-birthdays to have their parties.  That's a conversation where I would not win.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Star of the Week

I've thought a lot about the "Star of the Week" that the four-year-old classes have implemented at the preschool.  I've wondered if middle and high school teachers could capitalize on the practice, which values individual differences, highlights out of school literacy and learning, and encourages parental participation.  In professional development workshops I've held this semester, I've asked upper school teachers whether they thought "star of the week" could be adapted for an adolescent classroom.  A few nodded their heads.  Most balked, saying that the teens would not want to be on display and that parents would not participate.

I run into resistance a lot in the work that I do, so I wasn't surprised by the negative reactions.  I was encouraged, however, by the nods of those few teachers.  After visiting the four-year-old class in May, I am even more convinced that we need to find a way to bring "star of the week" into the ELA classroom.  As I watched the teachers individually assess and instruct that day's star, who was in charge of leading the morning circle each day that week, I realized another advantage of the practice: it allows for, and encourages, the individualized work that many students need.

I haven't quite figured out how to do "star of the week" in an adolescent classroom, where admittedly the students are often resistant to being center stage and the stakes socially and academically are high, but I think there might be a way.  I think we could learn a lot from the preschool setting.

My return to the 4s and their literacy learning

I've had the notes for this blog post on my desk for nearly a month.  I won't make excuses.  It just is.  My note to readers is simply that this reflection is a little less "real time" than some of the others.  It's still worthwhile to me to write it, however. 

As I walked back into the four-year old classroom, after three months away, I noticed a marked difference in my confidence.  The nerves were gone.  I smiled easily at the teachers, called each of the children by name, and walked immediately to a group that was playing with magnetic letters.  As I knelt, one boy asked, "Mrs. T, what does this spell?"  He had assembled a series of Bs and Os, with a few Ms mixed in.  I started moving letters around, forming real words.  He wasn't interested in my efforts and nearly as soon as I sounded out the words for him, he moved them back into his formation.  "But what does this spell?" he inquired again and again.  So I went with it.  "It spells, bmoombbmoobb."  Satisfied, he added some more letters, and we repeated the process of my trying to show him real words and his rejecting my attempts.  Was it enough, I wondered, that he was interested in what the letters spelled?  That he knew that letters make up words?

My time at the preschool has taught me that name recognition is an early skill, and names are often the first sight words children acquire.  The four-year-olds had moved to last name recognition when I visited in January.  During my May visit, I watched as one child searched methodically for his name during the morning circle.  The teachers had chosen last names that day, but it was clear that the child thought he was looking for his first name.  He paused as he passed his surname, clearly finding it familiar but rejecting it all the same.  When he stood, lost in the center of the circle, the teacher prompted him to look for his last name.  He immediately found it with no outside help.  I could see schema theory at work in this young boy's literacy development.  Without the frame, he could not recognize his last name.

The letter of the week was "M", and as the teacher listed M words, called out by a chorus of young voices, she reminded the children that certain words need capital letters.  In grammar textbooks we call them proper nouns.  Smith and Wilhelm, who write for middle and high school English teachers, argue that when teaching usage and style, in most cases we should use words that are more descriptive of function, rather than formal grammatical terms.  They suggest that we can get away with using the word "name" in lieu of "proper noun."  Preschool teachers already know this trick.

As my mentor teacher capitalized the "names" on the M word list, I pondered how this issue of capitalization, which is so clearly taught in preschool, continues to plague educators of all levels.  High school teachers blame middle school teachers.  Middle grades pass the buck to the elementary teachers.  But actually, I think, all  of us are teaching capitalization.  It's one of those prescriptive rules that just doesn't stick, perhaps because, as Sterling suggests in a NY Times article, capitalization is sometimes redundant, and quite frankly, omitting capital letters does not impede comprehension.  That said, it's a traditionally taught convention - and it's teaching begins in preschool.  I will be sure to stress this fact to the high school teachers who complain that their students don't know how to capitalize!

I could see growth in the individual students in the four-year-old class.  They were developing early literacy, and I could see how the structures of their classroom had been facilitating this process.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Professional Me x3

In my absence from writing for this blog, I have been using nearly every minute to write for my job.  I'm writing several articles; I've prepared several presentations; I've written lesson plans and rubrics; and I'm working on a grant.  My time has been consumed by my university business, but next week I am headed back to preschool. 

I'm excited to return to the world of four-year-olds, even more excited after I popped my head yesterday into the classroom I had visited in January.  I was greeted with smiles by my mentor teachers, who excitedly asked, "Are you coming back to visit?"  I felt welcomed and wanted, and it made me warm inside.  I have no doubt that the children will do the same for me on Tuesday when I return to see how they have grown in my absence the last few months.

Later that same day I will present a workshop to the parents of these preschoolers, where I will talk as an academic about issues of technology and literacy.  It will be my first time presenting to a parent audience about the work that I do at the university, and I'm excited to share what I have learned as an academic who experiments in her parenting.  I look forward to hearing the challenges they themselves have when it comes to raising children in a digitally saturated world.

Of course, Monday night, before I meet with the preschoolers and then their parents, I will facilitate conversation among my graduate students, who will be Skyping with an expert in the field of digital writing.  My class will consider theoretical and practical issues about teaching writing in a digital world. 

Three audiences.  Three settings.  Three purposes.  I guess that means that within 24 hours I will create three version of "me, the professional," and I wonder at the end of the day, which one will suit me best.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Spontaneous Hug

Last Tuesday my shadow sneezed on me while the group sat at the table preparing for snack. Three days later, the most common incubation period for strep throat, I had the symptoms. The next day I was in the ER, thinking about that sneeze. It's not that I blame my shadow for an illness that incapacitated me for two and a half days, but I can't ignore the coincidence. When it happened, my mentor teacher joked that I would swig an Airborne and all would be ok. I did take Airborne. My new warning label for the box:

WARNING: Not effective against streptococci bacteria.

I haven't been this sick in decades.  Welcome to the world of teaching preschool.

Thursday, before I knew what my weekend would hold, I received my first spontaneous hug from a preschooler. She came from nowhere into my lap, her arms around me, her face full of smile. It took me off guard. It brought a tear to my eye. This girl gave me three hugs that day and called me by name at dismissal. Though I have been warmed by the reactions of the children in the preschool, for the first time, I felt truly loved by a young student. 

I have seen these kinds of interactions between students and my mentor teachers throughout my stay in the preschool.  Each time a child threw his or her arms around the teachers legs, I smiled.  Each time the same child said, "I love you Mrs. L," my heart secretly hoped that someday a student would feel that way about me.  In those moments, I was envious of the simplicity of the relationship between preschool teacher and student.   The teacher loved: the child loved back.  

Spontaneous hugs do not exist in high school, at least not in the way I have witnessed them in preschool.  High school students guard their feelings; many resent their teachers (or any authority figure); and often showing emotion earns labels of "uncool."  In addition, in many schools "no touching" policies discourage any sort of physical contact between student and teacher, and a hug would certainly cross boundaries.

I have hugged students, girls who cried in my classroom before school, students who needed a pick-me-up during a particularly difficult time, kids who were leaving my class at the end of the year, but nearly every one of these hugs was purposeful, and it was initiated by me after careful thought about the consequences.  I cannot remember a spontaneous hug from a student who just wanted to say "I love you."  I cannot imagine it happening.

Perhaps it was fitting that I received this gift from a "Lamb" on my last day at the preschool for a while.  My university responsibilities will be keeping me in the city and away from the little ones for the time being.  I will return before the end of the semester, and maybe in the meantime I will seek out the one graduate student I know who gives spontaneous hugs.  She is a preschool teacher, after all, and I think maybe her hugs mean more than I once thought.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Confidence Shattered

Last week I had the opportunity to work with a group of teenagers during a symposium coordinated by Operation Breaking Stereotypes.  It was the first time in a long time that I planned and delivered a lesson for adolescents where the goals and pedagogy were completely my own.  It felt good.  At the end of the session, as I was riding a teaching high, the event coordinator said to me, “You still have it in front of teenagers.”  He was right, and I knew it.  I felt entirely comfortable in my role as teacher.  I knew how to “work the crowd.”  I knew how to bring rowdiness to focus.  I knew when to extend and when to transition.  In short, I knew how to teach this group of high schoolers.

Yesterday, the preschoolers shredded that confidence.  During the morning as the lead teacher worked individually with the children to complete their projects, I interacted on the rug with the remaining group.  At one point, the second teacher in the class took three of the children to the bathroom (when one has to go, the potty train chugs out of the room), leaving me with one of the more challenging children and a pile of stackable “Os” in various colors.  I had noticed the teacher helping the child make his stack, and so I shifted into place to become that support for him.  At first the game went well; he picked up an O, I helped him maneuver it onto the pile, and he pushed it into place.  After we had four in a row, I pointed out the pattern of color and suggested the next color O in the pattern.  He caught onto the game, and we continued for two more levels before my shadow joined our game.

My shadow, as I’ve come to think of her, is a cute-as-a-button blondie who caught my eye the first day I entered the 2.5 class and who consistently finds her way to my side, no matter what the activity.  I was not surprised to see her slide onto the rug next to me as I worked with this other child.  Unfortunately, her presence disrupted his focus, and it upset him.  As his angst became more vocal, I tried desperately to refocus him on the task at hand.  I held the stack of Os up to him, pointed to the next color in the pattern, and said his name clearly, asking him to find the next color.  I used techniques I use with my own son when he gets upset; I mimicked techniques I had used with the rowdy teens the week before.

My focus tricks did not work, however, and the director of the preschool, who was also in the room, came behind the child to rub his back and soothe him.  I noted the contrast between her approach and mine.  “Was I doing it wrong?” I thought to myself. “Should I be more nurturing, less demanding?”  At that moment, my confidence left me.  I had no idea how to teach this child.

Ultimately, the boy came back to the task, but it was neither me nor the director that brought him there.  Rather, it was my shadow, the young girl whose presence had set her peer into a frenzy.  Gently, more gently than I thought would be possible for a not quite 3-year-old, she handed him the next color in the pattern.  He took it from her, put it on the stack, and with my help, snapped it into place.  Though his cries hadn’t subsided, we repeated the process – my asking for the next color in the pattern, the girl’s handing the O to the boy, and his placing it on the stack – four more times, and as we did so, he quieted.  Amazed by the transformation that had occurred in front of me, I moved back from the tall tower, and invited the two children to knock it down.  They giggled together as they collapsed the structure and then moved on to other play. 

In hindsight, I should have known how to bring the child back to the task.  I was humbled by a young girl who knew instinctively that he just needed a little help and a little patience to get back on track.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Best Gift I Gave Myself - NWP

I think often about Mitch Albom’s story The Five People You Meet in Heaven. For me the book’s message focuses on turning points in life, on the interactions between people, and on the importance of recognizing how one individual can affect another. Albom invites me to think about the five people who have most impacted me, who have altered my life in meaningful ways. Though not an individual person, NWP is one of my five.

In 2002 as I studied for a doctorate in literacy education, my supervisor dropped a yellow brochure on my desk with a sticky note that said, “This sounds like you.” I read about the Summer Institute, a four week program where teachers would come together as a community of writers and reflective researchers, and I immediately called my advisor at the university to see if I could add the SI to my course plan that summer. He agreed, my application was accepted, and I began a journey that has changed me professionally and personally.

Attending that SI and becoming conncected to NWP is the best thing I have ever done for myself. Though I earned my MA at an ivy league college and my PhD at a Research I institution, studying for neither of these degrees has shaped who I am as a teacher more than the NWP. The four weeks that I spent during the summer of 2002 gave me a community of educators who care deeply about their students. My NWP community has grown  over the last decade from local, like-minded educators into a national network of teachers and researchers who I can call on to help me think hard about issues of literacy. When I go to a conference and I learn that the person next to me is an NWPer, we immediately bond, and we immediately begin discussing practice. The NWP has given me colleagues in arms; it has given me friends who foster my personal growth.

The NWP fights every year for its federal funding, support that allows the 200+ non-profit sites to do the kinds of work that support K-16 teachers of literacy in ways that rejuvenate them. Without these funds, NWP sites will cut programs, and the effects of the organization, which are research proven, will be minimized. More importantly, I’m afraid, is that teachers who see NWP as a professional home, a community that revitalizes their teaching year after year, will lose heart.

NWP has changed me professionally and personally. The teachers I have met through NWP continue to impact me and my practice. I hope that we, as a nationally supported organization, can continue to affect other teachers, to alter their lives in truly meaningful ways. I hope that young teachers throughout the nation will have the opportunity to add NWP to their Five.

To read more about teachers like me who want to save NWP, see this intitiative.

The Patience of a Wrangler

The JV and varsity basketball players in my high school were expected to serve as coaches for the 5 – 8 grade intramural program. It was one of my first experiences as a teacher, and after coaching both the 5/6 graders, many of whom had never held a basketball before the session, and the 7/8 graders, most of whom had played in the 5/6 porgram, I knew that being a high school teacher was the route for me. “I want to refine skills,” I told my mom, my teachers, and my counselors. “I have no patience for teaching the basics.”

Spending time in preschool this semester has changed my thinking. I think I could, in fact, work with 3- and 4-year-olds on a regular basis without losing my grip on sanity, guiding them as they develop basic skills that will help them to succeed in school and in life. The persona I’ve developed as a preschool teacher has helped me talk to children; it has made me comfortable in situations where I wasn’t before; and it has increased my patience – both with my teaching and with my own children at home. In the last two months, I’ve grown to believe I could actually do this: I could be a preschool teacher.

And then yesterday I entered the 2.5 year old class, where I was reminded of basketball intramurals and why I preferred working with the older kids.

The morning began with green play dough, but unlike in the older classes, where children played freely with self-selected toys, the “Lambs” all gathered together around their classroom table. The children obediently smashed and rolled, cut and tore the dough with the teachers encouraging them to “use those muscles.” My realization last week that play dough serves as an important tool in fine motor development helped me understand this morning routine.

I noticed immediately, however, that even though there were two teachers and only eight students, the smallest ratio I had yet seen, the adults had their hands full. In fact, as the morning progressed, my mentors never stopped moving, constantly and physically guiding the children to stay focused, stay in line, and stay on task. As we worked collaboratively to create a large rainbow, gluing colored squares on a 4-ft-wide arch, the children helped eagerly. The teachers kept the project moving with quick hands and focused directions. As we selected colored pom poms to throw into the parachute during the “what color do we have” song, the teachers moved with lightning speed to keep small fingers from taking too many pom poms. As she read the story during circle time, the lead teacher called attention back to the book on nearly every page, using her voice and her hands to settle the children whose attention started to roam.

On the play yard, I noted the differences between recess with this group and the older group. When I have watched the older children on the playground, I chat with the teachers, who only occasionally intervene in the children’s play. At this age the children need much more attention, and for a good portion of the recess, one of the teachers engaged them in a 2.5 year old version of tag.

Though independence is encouraged and supported, the tots have trouble controlling their id and following the rules. “You are a wrangler!” I joked with my mentor as she expertly steered three children, one right after the other, back into the line in the hallway. She laughed, obviously at ease with her role. I thought of the 5th grade basketball players, moving without plan or skill in packs or independently across the court, and I knew that the teachers of the 2.5 year old class had more patience than I would ever be able to muster.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Props to My Husband and the Envy in Me

My husband and I have been working on, though we have not mastered, the division of labor between two career parents. On occasion, when I know he has had a particularly long day or rough week, I take out the garbage or recycling, but as a routine, that’s his job. Similarly, when the laundry has piled to the point of empty sock drawers, he will throw in a load and even fold it, but only after I have separated the colors. We have our roles, and for the most part, we accept them.

As the kids grow, the routine inevitably changes, and currently we are still working out the kinks of car-share. We have two cars with car seats, one of which is reserved for the babysitter to use while we are both at work. When I have to go to the city after dropping the kids at school, I drive my husband’s car, the second with car seats, so that the SUV remains at home for our babysitter to collect the kids. On these days my husband takes my car, which doesn’t have car seats. Neither of us has perfected the ability to think ahead, to be considerate, and to routinely park a car with a filled gas tank in the garage. Somehow the empty gas light in my husband's car always seems to taunt me on days when I don’t have time to stop at a gas station before dropping the kids at school, which is every day I drive them, and there is not a convenient station on my way to the city. Last week my DH left my car on empty, and the dreaded orange light evoked curse words as I climbed behind the wheel before dawn, realizing that no gas station would be open that early in the morning.

So we have bumps in the road as two working parents, but I feel lucky that I have a man who is willing to shoulder some of the burden. My friend recently blogged her frustration about her husband who does not understand the work of being a mom. She posted a list of things she does each Thursday morning in order to get her preschooler out the door and suggested that she take a mini-vacation so that her husband could empathize with the stresses of being a mom. Understanding these stresses completely, I couldn’t help but feel grateful that my own husband does know what it takes to get the kids ready and out the door. He does it at least once, and sometimes twice, a week, managing to get himself showered, shaved, and dressed in his suit as well! In fact, I am currently away at a conference, trusting my husband to take care of the kids and get them to school two days in a row. I have no doubt that he will succeed.

Even so, I can’t help but feel jealous that my husband gets, and deserves, props for being Mr. Mom when the work is simply expected of me. I felt utterly ashamed when my daughter’s teacher did not find her library book in her backpack and when I forgot to grab her stuffed bear for hibernation day. I apologized in advance to both sets of teachers for anything that my husband forgot while I was away. I made sure to RSVP for the Father’s Day program before I left, knowing my husband would not read the invitation that asked us to do so. In short, if something does not get done for school, if my children are not dressed appropriately, I know it will reflect on me, the mother. Dads get more breaks in life, I think.  The expectations simply aren't as high for them.

Perhaps this is why I felt such a stab when I helped my son’s class prepare for the Father’s Day program. Each year the preschool holds a Mother’s Day program during a school day close to the holiday. To be fair to dads, whose holiday comes after the end of the school year, the preschool plans a Father’s Day celebration in March. They hold this celebration on a Saturday, perhaps because they assume that dads who work during the week would not be able to attend a weekday event.

As I interviewed children in the three-year-old class for the Father’s Day program, documenting their ideas about their dads, I smiled time and again at their responses, and I wondered if they would do a similar activity for the Mother’s Day program. I would love to see how my own children answered these questions about me! While my thoughts were on the joy of the Mother's Day program, a time when all the expectations would be worth the honor bestowed by the children, a terrible thought filled me. What if I had to work? What if I had to miss the Mother’s Day program? I had already missed the Halloween celebration and had to take a day off to see the Christmas program. Missing the Mother’s Day program would depress me – big time.  I want that honor.  I want that special day.  My envy threatened to suffocate my heart.

I know I am not the only mom at the preschool that works, and I wondered about those other moms whose jobs might be even less flexible than mine. Why were dads given the opportunity to visit on the weekend? Why couldn’t Mother’s Day be held on a Saturday too? It seems an inconsistency considering moms shoulder the majority of the parenting responsibilities. Wouldn’t it be nice to allow all moms, even moms who work, the chance to attend this special program without having to take a day's vacation?

I applaud my husband, and those like him, who work stressful jobs and still play Mr. Mom when they are called on to do so. I am glad that the preschool honors dads by holding a program on a Saturday so that they can attend with their kids. Yet I wonder if there are working moms, like me, who would like the same recognition. Or should we be content that “having it all” requires this kind of sacrifice?

Age, what a concept!

Last week I spent Tuesday and Thursday in my son's class, my final days with those 3-year-old friends. I asssited during station time at the play dough table, helping two boys construct a train to run on their self-created train tracks, and suggesting to another boy that he cut small, medium, and big hearts. As he pushed his cookie cutter into the dough, we recalled the Goldilocks story from the week before. I learned that play dough, which I have eschewed as a parent, actually helps build fine motor skills and that tasks like rolling balls and flattening a pancake thin enough for a cookie cutter to break are not easy for little muscles.

My mentor teachers asked me to take charge of interviewing the children in preparation for the upcoming Father's Day program, which, in order to accomodate dads' work schedules and the end of the school year in early June, before the actual holiday, will be held this coming Saturday. Confident in my ability to talk to preschoolers, a skill I have been working on during my apprenticeship, I enthusiastically agreed. I love filling in blanks, and I thought the job would give me insight into how 3 and 4 year olds think. Looking over the questions on the sheet, which included items such as "My daddy is ____ years old," and "My daddy weighs ___ pounds," I thought the interviews would be easy, that I would finish them quickly and certainly within the 45 minutes allotted. I was wrong.

I realized early in my conversations that not all of the children possessed the conceptual understandings needed to respond to my questions. Some children easily answered "How old is your daddy?" with numbers ranging from 5 to 72. These answers amused me, though the answers that ranged in the 42-47 range, which were probably accurate, amazed me. I imagined in those cases, daddy's age had been mentioned or discussed at home. I wondered, however, if some of these children were guessing a number that fell within an appropriate age range because they understood numerical values. My son was one of the children who answered my query with "I don't know." For these children I had to guide them to a numerical response by asking their own ages and then asking them to guess how old their daddy was. Nearly all of these cases put their daddy's age at "5."

I had to work hard to understand and translate some of the children’s responses, and I was only able to finish 10 interviews the first day. Having missed Wednesday for university obligations, I returned to the preschool on Thursday determined to finish my task and to enjoy my last day with these friends. While I sat at the play dough station, one girl said to me, “Where were you last time?” I was touched that she noticed my absence, and I realized that I had been accepted quickly into the classroom community by these children. Just as I had been with my four-year-old friends in January, I was sad to say goodbye and amazed at how quickly the students adapted to my presence and trusted me as a teacher.