Category Archives: Reflections on teaching

A Slice of Writers’ Club

Slice of LIfe
Part of Slice of Life by Two Writing Teachers Thanks for stopping by!

Tuesdays are Writer’s Club days. Fifty or so third, fourth and fifth graders race to the All Purpose room after school to get started writing. We have a quick introduction, and then the kids decide where they want to go. They can go collaborate, they can write quietly on their own, or they can stay in the All Purpose room for an invitation to write.

Today’s invitation was character work. I brought ink pads, and a roll of white paper. And sharpies.

And yes, after the kids left and I was using hand sanitizer to clean off the sharpie marks that bled through the paper onto the cafeteria tables, I still told myself that it was worth it…Because there is something about a giant piece of paper, rolled out across a table, some ink pads, and a bucket of sharpies.

Three boys sat, 6 feet apart, making characters, collaborating on characters, creating stories, and laughing, There was so much laughing.

They looked up at me, eyes wide.

“Are we in trouble?” One of them said.

“Nope. I like laughing.” I told them.

Another boy said “Yeah, what do you think? Teachers don’t believe in laughing or something?”

And then they all laughed some more, before stopping again to make sure they weren’t in trouble.

An older girl walked in, and I asked her if she wanted to use the roll paper or her notebook. She held up her notebook and said, “I’m going to fill this whole notebook with character development.” She sat down and carefully wrote “Character Development” on the first page of her notebook.

She still started with some big paper, an ink pad and a sharpie though. There’s just something about that big paper!

She and a couple of other girls quietly filled their large papers with pictures and words, thumbprints and stories. The boys continued to laugh.

There was another writer who came over. He had needed some help writing earlier and was a little quieter than the rest. He wanted to sit at his own table, and only wanted to use his notebook and a sharpie.

“So what kind of character are you going to create?” I asked him.

“A famous one.” He said and he showed me his page.

“Oh! Wow!” I said. “That’s a great idea! Maybe you can draw a bunch of people all around trying to take pictures of him! He’s like ‘No pictures, no pictures!'”

I tend to get excited when working with kids as they create cool characters and stories. . .

He shook his head though. “No,” he said, “He’s rich. Not famous. Just rich.”

I laughed and asked him what the character’s problem was going to be, but he interrupted me to ask how to spell rich.

“R-i-c-h,” I told him, and he asked me to repeat it, and then wrote “Rch.”

He sat and quietly worked for a bit, and then showed me his page, where he had a whole story mapped out. I should have been recording as he explained. There was the rich guy, who was dropping his money along a path. There was an arrow to show the path, and another character picking up all the money, and more!

As we cleaned up to go home, the boys with the giant piece of paper were having a hard time deciding who would get to bring the roll paper home. The girls didn’t want to stop. “I’m not finished!” One said to me, with her eyebrows crunched with worry.

I told her she could take it home to work on, or leave it at school for next week. She quickly started nodding her head at the prospect of taking it home.

Lining up, I got to hear more about the rich guy story.

“That is amazing!” I said, “You have a whole graphic novel planned out! You could write each part on a different page of your notebook!”

He looked excited, nodded his head and then said, “Yea, but I might need a little help with it.”

I reminded him that that’s what we are here for, and he nodded again, and walked down the hall and out the door, then back in. He shrugged his shoulders and said “I forgot my backpack.”

The three laughing boys walked by and I asked them if they decided who would have the paper. They hung their heads and told me they couldn’t figure it out, because they all wanted it. I’m thinking their parents are all unknowingly grateful for the decision to leave it at school for next week’s work.

Tuesday is Writers’ Club. Today was our second meeting, and I can’t wait for next week!

A Slice of Heartbreak

Slice of LIfe
Part of Slice of Life by Two Writing Teachers Thanks for stopping by!

These kids are breaking my heart.

It’s the way they call out my name “Hi Ms. Thought!” in the hallway.
Or pass me on the way to music and say, “Ms. Ona! I miss you sooooo much.”

Or, today when a class walked by me on their way to the library. They all waved and said hello. I told them I hoped library was super fun. The last boy passed me, waving. He said, “I don’t remember who you are. But, hi!”

It’s N, who comes in from book club, walks over to me, as I sit observing his class, and says “Can I draw? I want to draw a cherry.” I convince him to listen to the writing mini lesson instead, and he cartwheels over to his spot. When his teacher corrects his behavior, I think, “Oh no! He isn’t going to want to sit there now.” But instead he becomes engaged, helping with a shared writing. Later he is the very last to go to recess, because he wants to finish writing his book.

Last week I helped protect his toy all day in my office cabinet. He isn’t allowed to play with toys during class, but he really loved the one he snuck to school. He was hiding under the coats, and I coaxed him out, asking him what his toy did. He popped the toy out of the coats, pushed a button so the monster character started waving around. “Whomp, there it is!” he said. We walked the toy down to my office, and every time I saw him that day he asked me, “Are you still protecting my toy?” Every time, I explained that it was still in my cabinet, and that nobody would go in my cabinet, because everyone knows it’s mine.

“Is it locked?” he asked near the end of the day
When I told him that it wasn’t he looked at me and said, “I’m going to make you a key.”

It’s the way third graders get silent, revising playdoh builds of important, intriguing things they know and care about. Yesterday one boy worked so hard on making his cat, and said “she is important because she was my cat and now she died.” Yesterday he was so sad to squish his cat prototype back into the playdoh container.

“You’re going to make another one tomorrow!” I told him, “And you’ll remember how to do it, and it might even be better.”

He didn’t believe me.

Today, a few minutes into our playdoh revision, he said “Ms. Thought, you’re right! I do remember, and this time it is even better!”

It’s L, a first grader who I knew in remote kindergarten, who can’t seem to keep his mask over his nose for longer than a minute, but dutifully pulls it up every time he’s reminded. He’s working hard to learn his letters and sounds and last week he took me over to the word wall to point out the words he had made. “All the ones in black sharpie are mine!” he said with so much pride I almost started crying. Then he asked me if he could get the Woody toy again, to help him write his piece, “How to play with Woody from Toy Story.”

It’s fifth graders who joke with me, and get my sarcasm.

There’s the kindergartener I helped on the second day of school during the fire drill practice. He was scared, and I held his hand. Now every time I see him, he waves his hand intensely and calls “Hi! Ms. Ona!!!”

When I’m lucky, I get to see kids walk into school: Kindergarteners carrying huge backpacks, and paper trays overflowing with cafeteria breakfast, primary students waving goodbye to their siblings, fifth graders chatting with friends on the way upstairs.

I can’t tell if feeling this much heartbreak about kids that I’m lucky teachers share with me means that I’m in the right profession — or the wrong one.

A Crossing Guard’s Wave

Slice of LIfe
Part of Slice of Life by Two Writing Teachers Thanks for stopping by!

When I arrived at school today, the crossing guard waved me through the intersection and I waved. He waved back, just like he does every time I happen to see him. The crossing guard I see at the end of the day waves back too. When I see him, it’s usually between the elementary and middle school dismissals. He is sitting on his chair waiting for the next round of kids. He looks up, I wave, he waves back. I’m pretty sure these crossing guards don’t know who I am. I might wave to them with familiarity and a feeling of shared responsibility for these children on their way to school, but they have no idea that I’m a teacher. I guess crossing guards just always wave back?

Today after the intersection wave, I suddenly remembered my middle school crossing guard. My bus stop was oddly on an island in the middle of a Y in the road. This seems like a strange, maybe even dangerous place to wait for a bus, but that’s where I went each morning. I wish I remembered my crossing guard’s name. I remember shat I enjoyed seeing her at the bus stop. She was kind, I felt like she knew me. I have vague memories of her smile and her bouncy wavy hair, and did she have conversations with my mom sometimes? Did my mom walk me to the bus in middle school? Why am I so old now that middle school is a faded memory? Can I go back to middle school to assure myself that one day I will have forgotten most of that part of my life?

But today, before I grabbed my stuff and walked into school, I texted my mom to ask her if she remembered my middle school crossing guard’s name. A few minutes later I noticed her reply:

Are you kidding me?
No
I don’t
Sorry

(I mean, you think you can count on your mom in these situations. . .🤪 )

So in honor of my amazing and kind middle school crossing guard, I will continue to wave to all the crossing guards I see. I have a feeling they will wave back.

A slice of the last day of summer

Slice of LIfe
Part of Slice of Life by Two Writing Teachers Thanks for stopping by!

I fell asleep with my glasses on last night
Trying to read, I guess.

I woke before the sun and couldn’t find my glasses.
They were nowhere.
I can’t see without my glasses.
I got on the floor, aimed the light from my phone, tried to catch a glimmer of an edge or a lens-
Tried to ignore the dust under the bed.

Finally I gave up and just stayed there for a bit
On the floor, with my head on my hands.
Awhile later I got up and found them on the other edge of my bed, neatly folded, waiting.

But I had already wondered —

What does it
mean
to start the last real day of summer
blind
with your hands as pillows
on the floor
waiting in the dark?

A slice of School Shopping

Slice of LIfe
Part of Slice of Life by Two Writing Teachers Thanks for stopping by!

We went school shopping today.

When I was a student, I loved school shopping. Who am I kidding? I love school shopping and school supplies as a teacher too. Notebooks, pens, pencils, markers – all a blank slate for the year to come. Smooth, new, perfect.

Truth be told, we could probably gather enough supplies from around the house. I have a stash of new notebooks, a few places where there are dozens of pencils waiting to be sharpened. I might even have some folders somewhere. (And maybe I have some sticky notes to spare, but I don’t really want to give any of those to anybody.)

BUT…What’s the start of middle school, the start of high school, the start of college without a new notebook, a new planner, some brand new mechanical pencils, a binder, some new markers….

My boys don’t really love shopping. I found number and letter erasers to add to my make-writing supplies, L thoughtfully selected notebooks, a binder, paper, a planner, pencils, etc. for college. But, the boys? They threw a few things in the cart. I think they got some post-its and some pre-sharpened pencils. Maybe some colored pens and on-sale markers got thrown in there too.

I tried to interest them in a planner.

“There’s no way I’m going to use something like that.” My soon to be 6th-grader said.

I tried to interest them in folders.

“I just want to get out of here.” My soon to be 9th-grader said.

“Do you think you’ll want to keep your different class things in different folders?” I asked. “Or, maybe an accordion folder? See how it’s easy to slip papers in? If you get a regular 3 ring binder, it’s kind of annoying to put papers in all the time –” I said, calling on my years as a 6th grade teacher, my decades of loving school organization.

“Whatever you want. Whatever you think is best.” My 11 year old said, exasperated with my enthusiasm.

Probably when everyone gets to school they will realize the thing they need. When the time comes, we’ll figure it out. L can order what she needs while she’s away at college (SOB!) I’ll share my notebook stash, and I’ll try to find those pencils and folders for the boys. But, I am not planning on sharing my sticky notes. No thank you —

I mean, unless I can go buy myself new sticky note replacements. . .

I want to write you a poem: A slice

Slice of LIfe
Part of Slice of Life by Two Writing Teachers Thanks for stopping by!

I want to write you a poem
about how life changes
it’s dark outside before 9
It’s August
the great Sunday of the year for teachers

I want to write you a poem
so you understand what’s coming –
everyone is starting something new here
college, high school, middle school
Do you know about being left?
for minecraft
for something new
for something different
What do you know about being left?

I want to write you a poem
about Sundays
and still being here while life gets ready to change
In the pause of August-Sunday
my dog snores next to me, his head on my knee
we are in our favorite corner of the red couch
in the dark, with the sounds of laundry and bedtime




#sol21 March 2: Teach Like Your Shawl’s on Fire!

Slice of LIfe
Part of Slice of Life by Two Writing Teachers March Slice a Day Challenge! I’m slicing every day this month. Thanks for stopping by.

Teach Like Your Shawl’s on Fire

I wanted to tell you that I’ve been trying to time my math class and teach like my pants are on fire – or at least like my shawl is.

But when I went to find the picture I knew I had, of me in my new shawl from my mama, I realized how helpful that shawl really is – because I no longer have to keep warm with actual blankets.

This is probably why my mom made me my shawl.

Because it’s hard to teach with urgency, if you are wrapped in a blanket and holding a cup of tea. (Don’t worry – I put my coffee away to teach.)

I wanted to tell you about this urgency because today I was rocking it! I mean, I don’t want to brag or anything, but my times were really within 5 minutes of what my plan said. I even started explaining the breakout room directions 3 whole minutes before the 1:45 goal!

Listen. If you’ve ever taught with me or next to me or down the hall from me, you know this is a big deal.

By 2:35 (ish) I was almost ready to send the kids off to their WIN time! I had my slide projected with the assignment! I was so excited to give them the rest of the time to work: They could sign off of google meet, or stay on to work with me.

I was so proud.

I said, “Who here can help anyone who doesn’t remember how to upload to google classroom?”

I looked around at their faces in the google meet boxes. Usually hands would be up. There are a lot of helpers.

“Oh,” I said. “I think you are all frozen…?”

And then my google meet went away.

And then my internet went away.

And then one by one the rest of my family came up, down, and around to tell me that their internet was down.

H said, “We were in the middle of a very important conversation! The teacher was very passionate! His screen froze like this!” And he posed, mouth open, eyes wide, hands up in the air.

I said, “But – were you in the middle of teaching a fourth-grade math class?”

And then I tried to text a parent so they could tell the kids that my internet was off. But the text wouldn’t even go through as a text.

So I told myself that these are fourth-graders. They can handle it. And I just waited for the internet to reboot. Which it did around 3:00. I checked in the google meet, wondering if any fourth-graders would still be there. (They weren’t)

I still had my shawl on, but I should have taken the opportunity to sit with my new back massager… I can’t teach like it’s on fire, but it is heated!

I mean, a teacher should take a 15 minute break when it’s handed to her like that, right? (Next time. I’ll do that next time.)

A Slice of Leadership

Slice of LIfe

Part of Slice of Life by Two Writing Teachers

I teach math now.
I mean, it’s only day 2, but I’m totally calling myself a fourth-grade math teacher now.
And I’m totally in love with my students.
And I’m totally calling them my students – even though I only get them for 90 ish minutes a day.

These kids are all remote – and what it seems like they want most in the world in math class (aside from “no distractions” and “lots of fun and games!”) is a lot of time to talk in breakout rooms.

I happen to believe that talking in math is one of the best ways to learn math. . . and also that teaching kids how to have math conversations can be hard. Even if you aren’t remote.

So, I told the students that we would be working in groups, and that we would often need a group leader for those groups.

“Tell me” I said “if you are interested in being a leader soon, or if you’d rather wait a bit.”

I’m not saying that everyone’s answer surprised me. That wouldn’t be fair. I’m just getting to really know these kids. But, if I hadn’t asked I think I would have asked kids to be leaders who I now know aren’t interested in that yet. I’m glad I asked, because now I not only know who wants to be a leader soon, but I also got to know more about their personality because of their answers…

I mean, come on. You have to love the kids who know they’d rather wait. They said things like:

I would rather wait a little bit.
I don’t want to be a leader. For now…
Maybe I would want to wait because I’m very bad at using computers and also, I normally like following not leading
I would rather wait a bit.
Wait a bit.
Not now maybe at the end of math class so i can get to know the class better and feel more comfortable with being the leader

And you have to love the kids who know they want to be a leader now: They said enthusiastic and also well-mannered things like:
I would REALLY love to be a leader! I feel that I am most prepared when it comes to breakout rooms.
I would like to be a leader soon 🙂
I WANNA BE A LEADER RIGHT NOW!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
I’m very interested in being a group leader!
Rather be one sooner than later

And you have to love the kids who are willing to do it, but don’t want to be pushy about it:

I am interested in being a leader. When ever works fine, if other people want to go first that is perfectly fine. Whenever will work fine.
I’m ok with it but i don’t want to do it all the time.

So. I’m a math teacher now. Fourth Grade.

It’s day two, and I love these kids.

A Slice of When I grow up

Slice of LIfe

Part of Slice of Life by Two Writing Teachers

What do you want to be when you grow up?

I wanted to be an actress. 

Well, when I was young, I wanted to be a teacher.

But then I started drama class in 5th grade – and by the time I was in high school, I’m pretty sure I answered that question with “actress.” Although, once you get to high school, people mostly stop asking you, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” They start asking you, “What do you want to go to college for?” 

And I was in love with the theatre. I even spelled it theatre.

Always have, always will. 

I was a very serious theatre student. I even tried to join the choir — though I’ve never been able to carry a tune. (Yet?) 

“I need to learn to sing.” I told the choir director. And she looked at me like I had two heads, and made me sing The Star Spangled Banner while she accompanied me on the piano. 

I really can’t do that – sing to someone playing all those notes and chords. Not being able to sing was why I wanted to learn to sing. Duh.

It was embarrassing, and I remember thinking, Seriously, which of the thousand notes that she’s playing does she want me to sing? I told her I can’t sing! 

But, I was a serious theatre student, so I tried my best. For maybe one semester. And then I decided I could just be a lover of straight plays. Who needs musicals? People don’t just start singing their life, so I don’t need to sing on stage! 

(Once I did have to sing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star in a play. I remember my director trying so hard to help me. I think I caught her rolling her eyes and sighing once. But I totally get it. I mean, Twinkle Twinkle Little Star? I didn’t have the confidence to just sing Twinkle Twinkle?)

I only had one dream bigger than my dream of becoming a professional actress. I needed to go to Penn State. It wasn’t because my parents went to Penn State (They did). It wasn’t because I loved football (definitely not a football fan). It wasn’t for the parties (I’m not a big partier). But, I did grow up in State College until right before 5th grade, and I imagined that going to Penn State would be like going back home finally. I applied to the college of Education as my backup plan, and then got ready to audition for the Theatre program. Remember, I was a serious Theatre student! I sent in my video monologue, and drove to State College for my live audition.

Spoiler alert: I did NOT get into the Penn State Theatre program. Oh, I cried so much! I called them to see why, and that’s another slice entirely. But at the end of the conversation they said “Well, you were already accepted to the College of Education, so at least you have a place at Penn State!” 

Yay. So that’s what I got for having a backup plan, I guess! 

I don’t remember exactly why I wanted to be an actress. I remember enjoying it for sure. But I don’t remember why I loved it. It’s been a long time.

I do remember why I love teaching. I remember it every time I have kids in front of me, every time I plan a lesson, every time I collaborate with teachers, every time I lead Professional Development, every time I read aloud.

It’s almost like I was meant to be a teacher. It’s almost like the universe knew! That’s pretty cool.

The ironic thing is that when I’m with kids – just me and them… what I often do is… sing! I sing pop songs, I make up lyrics. I go all out. One year I had my 6th grade class pretty convinced that I was actually a famous singer, whose agent would be soooo mad if she heard I had sung in public without selling tickets. 

A while ago someone told me the world was lucky I became a teacher and didn’t become the next Julia Roberts. I think it was a backhanded compliment, but since she’s neither the next Julia Roberts nor a teacher, it just makes me smile. Especially because now whenever I want to, I like to say “Big mistake! Big! HUGE!”

There are, surprisingly, many times in life for that scene — even if I just play it in my head. 

The Teacher Across The Hall

Slice of LIfePart of Slice of Life by Two Writing Teachers

Have you ever had a teacher across the hall like Mardi?

Let me paint a scene for you. Mardi at her desk, grading papers, checking things off of her to-do list one by one. The rest of our team is there too, chatting away. Sure we’d talk about things that needed to be talked about, but then we’d stay there chatting, Mardi would chat too – but while getting work done.

“Hey!” We’d say every so often. “How is this fair? You’re getting all your work done!”

“You guys came here.” She’d shrug, smile, and check something else off of her to-do list.

Mardi used her planning period exactly the way we were supposed to use planning periods. She’d grade and plan and get kids set up for success. It was maddening really. I mean, how dare someone be so good at all the things?

One of the last years we taught together, Mardi had a planning period right while I taught Social Studies.  It was right after lunch if I am remembering correctly.

At some point, I noticed a pattern. My kids would be settling down, I’d be passing something out, or I might even be starting my lesson. That’s when I’d notice Mardi. She’d be walking around my room, holding a post-it with kids’ names on it, kids with late math work. She’d walk around, telling those kids that they needed to finish that work at the end of the day instead of going to their last choice period.  Sometimes she wasn’t quite as quiet, interrupting the start of my lesson, telling kids in no uncertain terms that they would need to get the work to her.

(Mardi always knew who owed late work, like 30 seconds after it was due. She probably knew the night before she assigned it, honestly.)

The first few times I noticed her in my Social Studies class,  I probably just ignored her and got to the business of teaching. After I noticed a pattern, I think I most likely smiled at her and raised my eyebrows. Once I realized it was happening often, I started to welcome her with open arms as soon as I saw her. “Good afternoon, Ms. McDonough!” I’d cry with glee. “Welcome!” We’d laugh, and I’d not so secretly be jealous of her organizational and time management skills. I’ve always wished I could be like that, but alas I haven’t gotten there yet.

Then one day I realized that I had a planning period while she taught Science. So I grabbed my orange megaphone and marched across the hall. Revenge!

“Alert! Alert!” I said into my megaphone as I walked into her classroom. “This is an interruption. I repeat. This is an interruption.”

I might have scared a kid or two, but Mardi paused her lesson and we both laughed. I took a blurry selfie, which I will always cherish, and I left.

What I wouldn’t give to teach across the hall from Mardi again.

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