students

In the Wake of Parkland: a Love Letter to my Students

February 15, 2018

Dear Students,

I set out yesterday to write you a Valentine’s Day letter, to accompany the chocolate I have shoved at you all week. However, in the wake of yet another school shooting, I lacked adequate words, and a simple letter about your greatness was the wrong tone.

Don’t read me wrong: you are great. As many of you have said (correctly) over the past 10 years, you are the children I didn’t birth. You live here; sometimes it feels like I do, too.  I’ve taught grades 1 through 12. I have kissed your owies. I have counseled your broken hearts. I’ve covered puberty and sexuality education; you’ve given me pink eye and strep throat. We’ve seen each other through migraines, bronchitis, linguistic milestones, graduations, hailstorms, and power outages. Your writing and artwork have been astounding and heartbreaking.

You are amazing.

Over the past 10 years, our school has changed a lot. We lock more doors, we have better alert systems. The teachers wear badges. Sometimes we practice fire evacuations.

Or the dreaded lockdown.

My worst nightmare as a teacher is a lockdown.

Last night, I cried when NPR’s Ari Shapiro interviewed students from Parkland. One of them talked about a staff member shoving students into a closet to protect them from the shooter.

A month ago, I woke up sobbing, and my boyfriend held me while I shook. I’d dreamed about a former student coming back with a gun. Through my tears, I said, “I couldn’t save them. I couldn’t get the door open. I couldn’t get to my kids.” He comforted me and said, “It’s just a dream. You’re okay.”

It isn’t just a dream. Parkland isn’t a dream. Sandy Hook wasn’t a dream. Columbine wasn’t a dream.

Every teacher has students that need extra: extra love, attention, concern, support. We all have someone whose needs are above our training. Maybe not this year. But if we have been teaching long enough, we have taught a student who needed more than we thought we had to give.

My students, I love you. I love you when you are sick, when you are demanding, when you are puzzling. I love you when you are triumphant.

I love you when you are in danger. I will throw you in a closet, behind a bookshelf, under my self if it is necessary.

I love you if you are dangerous, and I am sorry I cannot do enough for you. I am painfully aware of this fact. We strive to provide the resources for you; I hope it is enough, on time, something.

My dear, dear students… I love you.

Always,
Your Elle

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Standardized Tests, Open House, and My Students’ Actual Progress

My students started their SBAC standardized tests last week.

I have third and fourth graders, so for three of my kiddos, it was their first time taking the tests. The interface has been updated since last year, so my fourth-grader needed a refresher. Plus, I’m a scribe for one student with motor challenges. There’s a lot to manage in Testland. We did practice tests together on my touch screen laptop and made a fun activity out of it. We practiced accessing the accommodations–the pop-out ASL videos are accessed via a drop-down menu. We talked about trying our best, making best guesses, and pausing to stretch and blink.

When test day came, each student selected a novel or graphic novel to read when they were done, and we descended upon the computer lab.

When my scribe-ee finished and we arrived at the “submit test” screen, she looked at me and asked if she could go back and check all her answers. All 36 of them. She had already tried her best. She had attempted to solve problems on math content she’d never seen before. She knew the test was hard. I asked her why she wanted to check the answers. She sad, What if I didn’t do good? I think I am a little bit wrong.

Plus 10 points for knowing when you’re wrong. Self-awareness is a good skill that many adults don’t have.

Plus 10 hugs for that self-awareness making you feel like you’re not enough.

You see, this kiddo, like most of my students over the past seven years, arrived with some big gaps. She was in third grade, performing single-digit addition. She’d never seen subtraction before. Now, at the end of fourth grade, she can read, write, compose, decompose, order, and compare numbers through 1,000. She can add and subtract three-digit numbers with regrouping, without using manipulatives (although we definitely started with them). She has flexible number sense and can play a variety of number games I use in the classroom that utilize 10-frames and 100-boards and base-10 blocks and chips. She can tell time. She can do one-step word problems in addition and subtraction.

She loves math. She works slowly, but when she finishes her work, she looks at me and says, It’s not a race, and I am smart. My brain is big! All of those things are 100% accurate.

And after her standardized math test, she looked deflated. So I reminded her that she’s done a lot of really good math in class. And I asked, What’s more important, do you think? All the math we do every day, that you love and can do and feel good about, or a test we take once in May that makes you feel rotten?

She said, The computer test?

This is not how we hold children and teachers “accountable” for learning and teaching.

Last night we had our spring open house for the elementary department. We worked long and hard getting ready to display and show our work to our families and friends. All five of my students’ parents came to the open house. They were so.excited. all day. All week, even. We showed how we went from reading Frog and Toad in the fall, only discussing two characters and one problem at a time, to reading Charlotte’s Web and discussing multiple characters and problems within a larger plot arc, and connecting our lives to the story. We had a bulletin board comparing non-fiction reading and historical fiction reading from our Native American unit. We shared videos of our poetry projects and our music video.

My students were all smiles, all hugs, all jumping skipping dancing in the halls, waiting checking texting parents. The energy was palpable. My little math kiddo? Her grandpa came and she nearly fell over with excitement. She was so tired from running around and showing her work to her dad and her grandpa and her mom and her sister (who attends a different school) and her friends’ parents and the other teachers and the principal that she reached that giddy manic run in circles level of exhaustion by the end of the night, like a toddler who just keeps walking so she doesn’t fall asleep. We are reading C-H-A-R-L-O-T-T-E-S W-E-B and my favorite character is C-H-A-R-L-O-T-T-E because she is a good friend. She take care of pig W-I-L-B-U-R. We have four chapter left. Then watch movie eat popcorn compare book and movie. Ms Danielle sign story funny. T-E-M-T-O-N rat funny greedy funny Ms Danielle sign funny! But my favorite spider sweet!

After the second trimester, I was feeling frustrated and dejected. I had not accomplished the things I set out to accomplish with my students. Their growth seemed small compared to what I thought it should be, we were in the mid-winter slumps, and I was feeling scrutinized by the people around me. The principal came down to talk to me, and started the conversation by saying she’d seen my students’ (standards-based) report cards and progress notes. They’ve had some really wonderful growth this year. They’re readers, Danielle. I see Ponyo with a book wherever she goes. And they’re all building wonderful relationships with others in the building. And they’ve really made some good progress in math. I hope you see that.

This growth took a lot of work over three years of sweat and tears (so.so. many tears…most of them mine). But there are kids who’ve made two years of progress in a year-and-a-half. And one girl who has grown from needing intensive behavior intervention and weekly de-escalation to basic behavioral reminders like a typical third-grader. And a shy student who used to only whisper who nailed the role of (signing) Olaf in our Christmas play of Frozen this December. And a little boy whose dad died two years ago who told me he was fine one day, and I finally really believed him. And a student who used to be the only kid in his school with hearing aids who now has friends with hearing aids and cochlear implants. I’m not saying this to toot my horn, or to say what a great teacher I am for turning these kids around. (But the fact is, I am a damn fine teacher; the headline-makers and book-deal-getters are the unorthodox teachers who love their students and also raise their test scores.) Because today, I am exhausted and possibly even more excited for summer than my students are.

So we’ve made some progress.

So after we hit [submit] on that pointless math test, I looked at my student and blew the biggest, wettest, tonguey-est raspberry I could muster. And I said, THAT’S how much you need to worry about the computer test. Your brain is more important to me. And your brain has lots of math in it. 

Migraine Monday: Tampons and TMI

This morning, I felt like Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation. Every morning, I feel like Data. I wake up and do a complete systems check, focusing on usual offenders to see how I’m feeling.

Today, I did not pass inspection.

The left side of my head hurts, specifically behind my left eye, and my C2 vertebra. My hips are tender. I have cramps. But after a weekend of digestive failure, my upper and lower GI tracts seem to be functioning at satisfactory levels and I can eat and drink without stabbing pains or bloating.

Also, I have cramps.

Fortunately, I can function, and I am able to work today. I have a baby-migraine and cramps, but not a knock-me-on-my-butt migraine or a make-me-pass-out menstrual nightmare. I have experienced those as a one-two punch before, and it’s unbearable. Today is bearable, and I’ll take the win.

Like Data, my pragmatic filter leaves little space to leave out such information about various bodily functions when my basic functionality is on the line. When my ability to even get out of bed is at stake, there is no TMI.

When it comes to teaching my students about their own bodies, and helping them understand that there is no shame with their own body processes, the TMI line blurs a bit then, too.

Granted, there are some definite, hard-and-fast boundaries between my life and my students’ lives. My first two years of teaching, I taught a kiddo (now a sophomore in high school) I shall refer to as Sherlock. He was a very, well…investigative fellow. I once left the classroom for 15 seconds to grab worksheets off the printer in the classroom that was literally four steps away from mine. I returned to find him standing on my rolling desk chair, reading my email off the Smart Board. He was also known for such observant quips as, You should really try 5-Hour Energy so you don’t crash at 2 p.m. every day, and Did you give up coffee because you burp less during calendar now. He was also very impulsive and inquisitive and lightning quick and would rummage through other people’s things while they were present, that is, until the day he discovered my tampon drawer. He was horrified. I never again had to remind him not to open my desk drawers, that it is inappropriate to ask a woman if and when she is going to have babies, and not to tell classroom visitors, My teacher Ms Danielle doesn’t have babies but she has houseplants.

Back to the tampon drawer. The year his mother was pregnant, he suggested I have a baby. When I said that was a very personal topic, he then suggested I buy a baby. Sherlock was always up in my business. My friend James doesn’t have a middle name, so he used to write NMI for his middle name on documents (indicating No Middle Initial); Sherlock’s middle name should be TMI.

But here I sit, six years later, ready to show my tampon drawer to one of my kiddos. On purpose. She started her period this year, and she’s pissed. She started out excited about her first bra. She and mom went on a special shopping trip to buy one, and she told us about it at morning meeting the following Monday. I was cheering her on–no body shame here! We’re growing up, and we’re strong and awesome! She didn’t show anyone, and so it still stayed mostly private. And that was it. One announcement, boom.

Then she got her period. No one was expecting it this soon, none of us were really ready for it, and mom didn’t have the signing vocabulary to explain what was happening. She wants the purple pads, but they’re not the right kind. None of the other girls have theirs yet. She cries the whole week before she gets it and doesn’t know why she’s sad. It’s awful, and it makes her mad. So I’m going to show her my tampon drawer and tell her that this week is my turn. Because my period makes me angry, too. For the last seventeen years I have experienced severe dysmenorrhea that, as of my surgery in October 2013, does not correlate to what is actually physically going on. It’s frustrating as heck and when my GP and two specialists can only offer a shrug and an IUD, I shrug and take it. And then the week before my period I turn into a dinosaur who bloats out of her clothing and tries to staple people’s mouths shut. And that’s just the PMS, while on treatment, and I have the clarity to talk myself down. I don’t know how I functioned in my pre-meds days. I really really don’t.

So, she’s angry about her period. I’ll offer a little empathy and a peek in my tampon drawer. And then I’ll take some Aleve (which works for both the migraine and the cramps, at least to take the edge off, anyway). It may be TMI, but it might just be the TLC she needs. Because if I’m 30 and I think this is all BS, I can’t imagine what 3rd grade must feel like right now.

Fit Friday: Tank Tops and Taking Up Space

It’s May, and Idaho has made that quick and awkward transition from cool-and-almost-springy to my-kids-come-in-from-recess-hot-and-smelly. I have third-graders who needed to start wearing deodorant this spring, which is a new one for me. My second year of teaching, I had that fun conversation with my fifth-grade boys about DEODOROANT>AXE**. Their big takeaway was, Ms. Danielle taught us how to get chicks in middle school! But, it got them to start showering daily and give up the Axe in favor of pit stick, so I marked it a success. I’ve had fourth grade girls start their periods before. But third grade… I was just not expecting it this year.

That first group of students I taught? They’re sophomores now, for three more weeks. Most of them are taller than I am. You can insert any number of cliches here about how they’ve grown, and how old I feel. It’s been fun, though, to watch them. That’s one of the perks of working in a small school–I can see them every day, if I make a point to be in the hallways between classes or after lunch. We have high school students who have transferred to our school, too, over the past seven years who have added to the mix of personalities. And to the dating pool. I bring up this last point  because that’s a Big Deal in the middle school and high school. When I taught these students, boys and girls played together and were friends. Now, it seems everything is viewed through the lens of dating and pairing up and sex. This is not just the perspective of the students, but also the staff. When you are teaching students who are preoccupied with who is dating whom and the tangled webs thereof, it’s important to pay attention and to be proactive and involved.

Here is my disclaimer: I am not in these classrooms. I don’t interact with these students much. And there is a lot I’m missing.

What I see is this (in the hallways, staff meetings, and handbook revisions every spring): Girls have been chastised for wearing tank tops; boys are not. Girls’ clothing is sexualized; boys’ is not. Girls try to take up less space; boys try to take up more.

Toxic body image affects girls and boys. Girls see one version of the ideal body, and learn to lose pounds and inches and to take up less space. Boys see one image of the ideal body, and learn to build certain muscle in certain places. Self-perception and self-worth often hinges on these limited definitions of acceptable physical femininity and masculinity. (I’ll expand these more in the future, and provide more nuance).

In my anti-diet support and resource group, we talk a lot about giving ourselves permission to Take Up Space. To wear tank tops, even if our arms are not toned. To wear the clothes we want before we reach our goal weight. To wear the clothes we want without allowing our body parts to be scrutinized or sexualized. Do you know why we have to consciously give ourselves permission to do this, at the age of 20, 30, or even 60?

Because this kind of body shaming and sexualization starts in high school. When we talk about the dress code, we talk about girls wearing tank tops, and the boys getting distracted. We talk about the girls not having enough “self-respect,” about the girls using their clothes to get attention, about it detracting from the learning environment. When we talk about the boys wearing tank tops… we don’t. We have not, in my recollection, talked about boys wearing tank tops. A former student wears tank tops and sleeveless muscle shirts almost daily. I have never seen nor heard him told to cover up or change shirts during the day. I have seen multiple girls forced to wear t-shirts or hoodies or zip-ups over tank tops that were deemed inappropriate.

It starts before high school, when I am expected to tell a second grade girl that she cannot wear a tank top on a 90ºF day because of the dress code. Second grade girls (generally) do not have bra straps or breasts, and they definitely do not have sexy shoulders. Second grade children do not think about their own bodies in that manner, unless the adults in their lives create environments where those aspects are amplified.

Are there adult men and women who find shoulders, breasts, cleavage, or clavicles attractive? Yes. Are there adult men and women who find well-defined biceps, triceps, and pectorals attractive? Yes. Do we objectify every adult human that walks past us in a tank top? I sure hope not. Why can’t we teach our high school students to do the same?

Why can’t we teach our high school students to do the same? I might raise a stink if the dress code comes up again. I might bring it up myself. Our girls should be allowed to take up space; they should not have to “hide” their bodies. The boys should not have free reign to take up as much space as they want by wearing shirts that reveal their entire torsos from a profile view, especially if we’re using the idea of “professionalism” as the rationale behind other pieces of the dress code. Melissa Atkins Wardy at Pigtail Pals & Ballcap Buddies had a pointed piece about reframing dresscodes as “Don’t Wear Saturday on a Wednesday.” It strikes a sensible balance between allowing girls to retain agency of their bodies and clothing, respecting boys’ ability to control themselves and treat girls as humans, and teaching students to dress for the situation and venue.

Happy Spring! I’ma go garden in a T-Shirt while it’s still cool enough to do so. Once it’s mid-June…sports bra. Lots of sunblock. Not because it’s sexy, but because it’s just too hot. Also I have six-foot fences, soooo..

**I have to credit my sister Katrina with the approach to this one. This was said in a very kind manner. I am not the Takes No Prisoners teacher with my kids.

When you rub an onion and an orange together, it doesn’t make the onion smell better, it just makes everything smell kinda gross. Trust me, you don’t smell good. I used to be a middle school girl, and the people around you would much prefer you to shower daily and wash your hair than to smell like a can from a commercial. This is your homework for the next two weeks: Shower every day, wash your hair, wear deodorant. There will be a test, and it will be the asthma of the para across the hall who cannot breathe after you spray that stuff in the boys’ bathroom.

Charlie Chaplin Made the Best Movies Ever

Content note: accessibility, d/Deaf history, educational theatre, film history

The Idaho Shakespeare Festival Theatre for Youth’s production of Maggie Lumiere and the Ghost Train came to campus last Friday. The four person cast features a Deaf actress, and three hearing actors who signed. Everything the Deaf actor signed was accessible to non-signers either by the voices of other characters, or by silent-movie style title cards. It was visual. It was funny. It was fully accessible. 

(Note: since we also have students who are blind or low-vision, our orientation & mobility instructor provided verbal description of all the action via a multi-headset FM system we use for such events)

During the Q&A, one Deaf teacher mentioned that he had attended many interpreted theatre performances before (which, we might all agree, meets one definition of accessibility, and ISF has done a great job of this), but he always misses large pieces of plot or dialogue because he always has to look between the actors and the interpreters; he, along with several Deaf students of all ages, and Deaf staff, shared that it the first, or one of the first, fully accessible theatre production they had ever attended. Several students said that they had always wanted to do theatre, but had never believed it would be possible for them until now. The actors teared up hearing that. They said that this was their 71st performance–performances 1 through 70 were for hearing audiences, but this was the most nervous they had ever been doing this show, because they knew this was the one that mattered. My kids were engaged the entire time. They understood the premise. They laughed in all the right places. They felt suspense during the suspenseful parts. They were able to converse with the actors after the performance. It was incredible. I cried. Three times, even. I already sent a note to the playwright (who lives in Boise) thanking him for writing it. Sure, there were a few bits of the script that I found a little problematic, but I can have a conversation with my students about it because the whole script was accessible to them! 

Theatre for Youth is educational theatre, and as such, there is a downloadable teacher’s guide with information about theatre itself, and about the content of the show. For my class, I focused on the history of early film. The plot of Maggie Lumiere involves a Deaf girl and her three friends making a silent movie, an homage-of-sorts to Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid. We didn’t have time to watch The Kid, so I showed them the following clip, the opening chase scene from the 1917 film The Adventurer:

I usually project videos on my interactive whiteboard, but this year my desktop computer took a dump, so imagine four kids huddled around my tiny tablet/laptop hybrid (a ThinkPad Yoga, if you’re familiar with them). If you didn’t watch the above clip, please do. It’s about 4 1/2 minutes.

They. loved. it. They laughed in all the right places. They felt suspense during the suspenseful parts.  All four kids begged to watch it again. The only time they’ve ever done that is when they watch a video of themselves. The second time through, they added their own sound effects and dialogue. I hadn’t even thought to suggest that yet; they spontaneously took the film to the next level.

We spent the next half-hour watching clips, each one twice. Boxing. The Circus. TLK looked at me, wide-eyed, and whispered in most serious voice, He made the best movies ever. After the show, Freckles, who attends public school most of the day and had missed all our Charlie Chaplin excitement the day before, said, I wanted to be a cop or a firefighter since kindergarten but now maybe I think acting might be a better choice for me because I’m funny and I don’t sit still enough to be a cop. 

Before the play on Friday, we reviewed appropriate audience behavior, but I really think this was the only time I didn’t have to do so. Even Ponyo, who gets a bad case of Bleacher Butt™ right about the same time I do, was attentive the entire time and only solicited the help-me-refocus back scratches once (she even put her head on my shoulder during the most tender-hearted bit–that was the first time I cried). Before the show, she was so excited, and she asked to take a selfie. So we did. Then she said, Selfie text mom!! So I pulled up my messaging app and her mom’s phone number. She typed, We are seeing a play. I am very excited. An obligatory smiley followed. When mom asked what the play was about, Ponyo tagged me to type the synopsis. Then she said, Tell mom C-H-A-P-L-I-N Y-O-U-T-U-B-E.

I have a hunch they watched a lot of silent movie clips this weekend.


I know I promised yesterday  that I would update the sComm situation today, but I needed to share this first. This is absolutely critical to understanding why Jason Curry’s insistence on English as superior to ASL, his stubborn refusal to recognize interpreters as empowering accommodations, and his disgusting “Communicaphobia” video that uses the word “crippled” in regards to ASL and depicts the use of an interpreter as an owner with a dog on a leash, is so damaging and insulting to my students, and to d/Deaf people everywhere:

I had a conversation over the weekend with my principal about getting my kids to record short “reviews” of the play for the Idaho Shakespeare Festival website. I mentioned our lesson on Charlie Chaplin, and she said something that stuck with me, hard: Silent movies were the golden season for deaf people. Total inclusion.

On Friday, I had been sick for two weeks, and throat was raw.  After the post-show Q&A, my students wanted to meet the actors. The gymnasium was loud, and my voice was ka-put; I could not have interpreted for them. Because all the actors signed, Ponyo could go right up to one of them and say, I’m deaf! I have an implant and I sign and I talk! You are great and funny and I love you! all by herself.

On Friday, I literally had no voice. But because of accessibility, my students owned a piece of theirs.

Self Care

I’m really tired.

My body is tired. My brain feels crunchy. My heart is tired.

So today I chose to limit my focus:

  • help my students through a rough Monday
  • catch up on my Spanish homework

I accomplished both tasks mostly unscathed. There were tears; none of them were mine.

The things about which I want to blog will still be there tomorrow. Tonight I will go to bed early. Self care is paramount.

I’m really tired.

Chicken Butt

A new student arrived in my class yesterday. At the end of the day, I was chatting with him and TLK about all the new kids he met. During said chat, it may have been mentioned that one of his new friends (a second grader) is currently quite enthralled with the word poop. The new student was baffled by this: Why would someone think that word is funny, since poop is gross? Au, contraire, my good man. I felt compelled to tell him the following story to illustrate why I find it perfectly acceptable to find words like poop and butt funny:

Several years ago, I had a brand new first grade student in my class who was very shy and very scared. He was overwhelmed all the time. He cried a lot, which made me sad because I wanted him to feel safe and happy in my classroom. I am a fairly relaxed teacher, so I hoped that during my conversation-style lessons we could get to know each other and he would become more comfortable. One day during writing, I wrote a sentence about my house and drew a picture of my five hens. The student asked me, “What happens if they poop in your bed?” At that moment, I realized that I had been talking about my pet chickens for two whole weeks and my new student had assumed they lived inside my house like a pet dog or a pet cat, and he imagined my house was full of feathers. I smiled at him and told him my chickens lived outside. I explained that as baby chicks, when they were very small, they lived inside a box in my living room, but when they got big they moved to a coop in my back yard.

The conversation continued, with the student asking if they had big wings. I said, “Yes, and big feet.” We listed body parts back and forth (vocabulary building activity!) until I said, “And big butts.”

That was the first time I heard my brand new first grader laugh. He laughed and laughed. He laughed so hard I honestly thought he would fall out of his chair. Hearing his teacher, a grown up, use the word butt was just too much to handle. He laughed for five minutes, I think. When he finally calmed down, I looked him straight in the eye, with my most serious teacher face, and I asked him, “I am so sorry. Should I have said bottom instead?”

He lost it again.

By this point in the story, both students were smiling and giggling at this story. I looked at TLK and asked if he knew who that shy first-grader was. He said he didn’t know.

Before he knew sign language, before he could use his voice above a whisper if there were two adults in the room, before he could verbally express the giant heart filled with empathy he has inside him, before he could read books and help his friends and read a book aloud to his friends…two-and-a-half years ago, that shy first-grader was TLK.

I almost had to pick his jaw up off the floor. After blinking at me a few times, he said, quietly but with a huge grin, I remember being scared. I cried so much. I’m not scared any more.

I looked him straight in the eye, with my most serious teacher face, and I told him, You are so strong and brave and smart. And the first time I heard you laugh is my most favorite story about you.