• Recent Posts

  • Archives

  • Categories

  • Meta

Monday Morning at School

“Today we’re going to write another five-sentence paragraph,” Mrs. K* said.  Her second grade students opened their flip top desks to get pencils.  Mrs. K placed sheets of paper on her students’ desks.

“Julie is sharpening her pencil.  Bill knows to clear his desk of everything except his pencil.  Mary is ready.” 

            Children wiggled and chatted among themselves quietly.  “Who remembers the name of the first sentence of a paragraph?”  Several children shouted, “Topic!” and others echoed in sing-song chants.

            Mrs. K sat at her desk and focused a small camera on paper that projected onto a chalkboard size Smart Board.  “Let’s begin together.”  She wrote and said, “My weekend was _________.  What words could be in the blank?”  She repeated her students’ answers.  “Great. Fun. Happy. Wonderful.”  She wrote ‘great’ in her sentence and then walked around the classroom.

            “Now, we’ll use a transition word. Beth just wrote the word ‘first.’ That’s her transition word and I’ll use it too.”  Mrs. K wrote ‘First, I cooked pizza for Friday night supper.’   “I heard Tom say he didn’t do anything and his weekend was boring.  So, he can fill in the word boring in his topic sentence and what could he write for the second sentence?” 

            Tom’s classmates offered ideas. Mrs. K said, “Tom is writing that he went to bed Friday.  That’s a good detail sentence for his topic sentence.  After everyone puts a period at the end of the second sentence, let’s choose another transition word.”

            Students suggested words: then, after that, next. Mrs. K wrote ‘Then on Saturday, I went to my sons’ soccer games.’ “You write something you did Saturday.”  Again, Mrs. K walked around the classroom whispering to individual students and then she said aloud, “We’ll add one last detail sentence.  What transition words can we use?”  The students were silent.

            “How about another thing I did or finally?” She wrote a sentence and students wrote on their papers. “That’s four sentences.  We’re ready for the concluding sentence.  Is it a detail?” 

            Students responded:  some shook their heads and some shouted, “No!” Mrs. K wrote ‘As you can see my weekend was _______.’  “What’s another word for great?” Mrs. K pointed to her topic sentence and then repeated the words students suggested: fabulous, outstanding, happy. 

            Students wrote and Mrs. K walked around the classroom.  “All right. Let’s draw a picture.” Mrs. K drew a stick person on her paper; a few students laughed.  “Oh, please be kind.  I’m just learning to draw.”

            As a grandparent volunteer, I’d cut out four-inch felt squares for twenty minutes that Monday morning while Mrs. K had guided nineteen students to write paragraphs. I stood from my seat at the back of the classroom and quietly applauded.  Mrs. K grinned and nodded. 

            Mrs. K’s last directions before recess is a quote I’ve saved.  “Take a minute to put things where they belong.  Remember how good that feels?”

I’m thankful for teachers like Mrs. K. Let’s honor them with respect and appreciation.

*Names changed – just because.


It’s About Good Grammar

The textbook representative and I had talked for about ten minutes when he leaned back in his chair, crossed his arms, cocked his head, and said, “Well, I see you are a grammarian.”  

We sat at a table in my 4th grade classroom.  I was a member of the county school committee to adopt, or choose,  new English textbooks for the next seven years.  Publisher representatives had made presentations to the committee and given each of us teacher manuals and student textbooks for our grade level.  Weeks later, most requested one-on-one meetings.

Although I had ninety-nine other things I could’ve been doing instead of talking with him, I was determined to be congenial while standing my ground.   I knew he wasn’t happy that I thought students should be taught grammar and practice rules in speech and writing.   

His textbooks took the whole language approach, where students were encouraged to express themselves and not be concerned with sentence structure, spelling, or grammar.  Supposedly, students learned by reading good literature, but did not need practice grammar usagd.  Thankfully, these textbooks weren’t adopted. 

  This experience from thirty years ago came to mind when I read an article about a book entitled Rebel With a Clause in the August 14th Parade magazine in this newspaper.   The book’s author, Ellen Jovin, calls herself the roving grammarian.  She travels across the country and sets up a Grammar Table to answer questions from passersby.  Oh, that I could sit beside her!  

In the days when I was a student, we diagrammed sentences, conjugated verbs and memorized prepositions.  I had many good teachers and lived with the best.  Dad taught high school English, and thru the years he corrected my grammar errors, even days before he took his last breath. 

Dad and I talked about grammar usage and especially about three words: I, me, and myself.  Probably we teachers made students scared of using the word me, and that came from breaking the habit of using me at the beginning of a sentence.  “Me and Granny ate all the apple pie.”  

No.  “Granny and I ate all the apple pie.”   But what happens if someone gave us the apple pie?

“Jane gave Granny and me an apple pie.”   I encouraged my 4th and 6th grade students to remember this by taking out the other person’s name.  No one would say, “Jane gave I an apple pie.”   

Oftentimes, oral practice taught students that generally I is at a sentence beginning and me in the middle or near the end.   

One of Dad’s pet peeves was the incorrect use of myself, a word used for emphasis or when the person who acts is the same as the one who receives the action.  “I myself think people want to use correct grammar.”  “I cut myself with a sharp knife.”  Myself doesn’t replace I or me. 

I know I don’t always use good grammar, but I must be a grammarian, as accused by the textbook salesman. Who else would be eager to read a book about the rules of language?

Back to School

When this pandemic ends, will we do things differently?  Specifically, will we educate children differently?  School days for some teachers and students have been like never before.

            Because I wanted to understand remote learning better, I went back to Mrs. M’s virtual classroom.  Back on Zoom with 2nd grade students for a math lesson.  Mrs. M greeted students after their one-hour lunch break and then said, “To practice three-digit subtraction, we’re going to begin with Kahoot!” All nine students cheered and I frowned. What is Kahoot?

            Mrs. M launched Kahoot, an application of quiz-based games presented with cartoon drawings of kid-friendly characters.  The first problem was 133-85.  Within two minutes, the students had worked the problem in their notebooks and used Chat, a message board, to write and send their answers to Mrs. M.  Only she could see their answers. 

            “I see you dancing!  Yes, get up and move when you finish,” Mrs. M said.  “Turn down a corner on the page where you worked the problem.  Your parents will take a picture and send it to me.  I want to see what strategy you used.”  Mrs. M then asked Annie, “What strategy did you use?” 

            Annie answered, “Plain old standardized algorithm.” She explained each step as Mrs. M worked the problem for all to see.  “You can’t take 5 from 3 so make the 3 in ones a 13 and the other 3 a 2,” Annie began.  She and Mrs. M talked through the problem saying the words regroup, borrow, and rename.  Mrs. M and her students talked about other methods: draw pictures, count up, and use a number line. 

            Remember working problems with yellow chalk on a blackboard while the teacher and classmates watched?  Are there advantages to remote learning?  Mrs. M has seen quiet, shy children become braver; maybe because only the teacher could see their answers. Mrs. M can meet with a student during lunch to give extra help while other students are offline.

            There is more parent-teacher communication that is easier and immediate.  When one student was confused, Mrs. M asked that his mother to stay on-line after the Zoom meeting so together they could figure out how to help this child.  Mrs. M says she can communicate with parents daily.

            As a retired elementary teacher, I’m thankful I never had to teach remotely and I admire Mrs. M and all teachers who are.  They are working double-time, some even teaching in their classrooms and remotely. 

            Is virtual learning here to stay?  Remote learning has been an option for high school students for years, but I don’t think virtual learning is the best learning environment for young children. 

             “If I were in Charge of the World” is one of my favorite poems.  And if I were, students and parents would have the option for a do-over.  Students who are in second grade now could be in second grade when the 2021-22 school year begins, no matter where they are spending their school days this year. 

            And they would all have a teacher like Mrs. M.

Dropping into a School Classroom

The second-grade students entered their classroom quietly, one at a time.  Their teacher, Mrs. M greeted each child by name and in a happy voice said, “Good morning.”  Some children responded with a wave; some nodded; some replied with words.  Some smiled; some frowned; some appeared too sleepy at 8:15 a.m. to show expression.

            This school day began just like mornings when I greeted students as they came into my classroom at Capshaw Elementary School.  But these children didn’t walk past their teacher.  They were at their homes, and their teacher was in her school classroom, and they came together on a Zoom conference call.

            I’ve wondered about remote learning.  How does it work?  Can young children learn while at home sitting in front of a computer?  Mrs. M, my former teaching colleague, agreed that I could join her Wednesday morning class, or as she said, “Be a fly on the wall.” 

             Wednesday was the first day back to school after a four-day break so Mrs. M said, “What did you do while you weren’t in school? Type one thing in chat that you did.” Immediately my computer screen was filled with the students’ responses: played Pokeman, built a snowman, played with my dogs, played video games.  Mrs. M responded verbally to each student and then asked, “Cindy, how are the goats?”  One student raised her hand, and Mrs. M told her to unmute herself and gave her permission to talk about Princess, her cat. 

            Then Mrs. M introduced me and explained why I was there: “Just to see what we do in class.” 

            I smiled when Mrs. M told her students, “Sit up, nice and tall, and ready to learn.”  Students sat at a desk or table or on a couch or an upholstered chair. A blank paper appeared on my screen at the same time Mrs. M said, “Let’s write today’s date together.  You write on your paper as I write on mine.”  She wrote and asked students to show their papers and they held their papers so that we all saw them.

            Together Mrs. M and the students checked morning work.  They wrote and said words that have the same vowel sound as in the word globe and solved the equation 9 + _ =17. Students held up fingers to show missing numbers and they checked their work.  After checking and correcting a whole page of work, Mrs. M said, “Mark this page so parents can take a picture and send it to me.”

            For three hours, I observed much more than I can share in 500 words.  In a nutshell, I saw teaching and learning in a completely different environment and format than I used during my teaching days, and I observed the same teacher-student connections, the same instructions, the same mix of students.             During a follow-up FaceTime conversation, I asked Mrs. M what has happened during remote learning experiences that was unexpected.  Her response and some of my other observations will have to wait for another column.

School Recess is Needed Playtime

Last week I wrote about the need for children to play at home. But I’m still pondering the American Academy of Pediatrics report, ‘The Power of Play,’ because it also stresses the need for play at school. It encourages educators, pediatricians, and families to advocate for and protect unstructured playtime in preschools and schools. That’s a bandwagon I can jump on.

Elementary age school children watch the clock for recess time. When I taught 4th graders, some struggled to tell time on an analog clock, a round clock with hands that hung in every classroom. But all students knew exactly where the hour and minute hands pointed when it was time for recess and named that time as 1:40 or 20 minutes before 2. When I randomly asked how much longer until recess, students quickly counted forward, using the same skills that were so difficult during a math lesson to determine elapsed time.

Students ran to the playground. Ran. Just for fun and as if they hadn’t played on the swings and slide and merry-go-round and jungle gym the day before. And a pick-up ball game began quickly. Some children played four-square on the painted court on the blacktop. A few, especially girls, wandered off in small groups and walked and talked.

And students played in the dirt. Young children played house and pretended that large exposed tree roots created a home with rooms. Sticks became people and leaves were furniture. Those same roots were racetracks for Matchbox cars that boys brought from home.

Thinking back to the days I played on a school playground, my friends and I had an ongoing game of hopscotch. Using chalk from our classroom, we drew an eight-block court on the blacktop, pulled our best flat rocks out of our pockets, and continued the game from the day before. We also jumped rope. Does anyone else remember jump rope rhymes?   One began, “Cinderella, dressed in yellow,” and ended with all the girls counting aloud, screaming, the number of kisses Cinderella got from her fella.

During my teaching years, recess got a bad rap. The emphasis on standardized testing led some states to shorten or eliminate recess to allow more instruction time. An article defending recess in Time Magazine, October 2017, states, “There is substantial evidence that physical activity can help improve academic achievement, including grades and standardized test scores.” A 2016 study found that young boys who spent more time sitting and less time playing didn’t progress as quickly in reading and math. A 2009 study found that 8- and 9-year-old children who had at least one daily recess period of more than 15 minutes had better classroom behavior.

The Tennessee Board of Education recognizes the need for both teacher-led physical education classes and recess. Elementary students should have 130 minutes physical activity per week, including at least 15 minutes of daily recess. Putnam County teachers and administrators have assured me recess and physical education classes are part every student’s schedule.

Recess – time to exercise, to socialize, to break from work, to play. Children need it.

What’s your Advice to Graduates?

Screen Shot 2017-05-25 at 7.56.24 AMTake care of the little things, and the big things take care of themselves. That’s my advice. No matter how old the graduate. A six-year-old moving on from kindergarten or an eighteen-year-old headed to college or a university graduate ready for that first real job. Life is about little things.

            Children don’t learn to read a book. They learn the sounds of letters and how those sounds combine to make words. The words become phrases, sentences, paragraphs, and finally, a book. School assignments divided into small parts can be mastered. One problem completed begins a thirty-problem math assignment. Gathering materials for a science experiment is a small task.

In the workplace, few people begin in their ideal position. They do the mundane work so fellow employees can finish a big project. It’s documented that workers who do small things, such as get to work on time and complete tedious tasks well, have better chances for advancement.

I’m not sure when I first heard about little and big things. Maybe from Mom as she stood over me and taught me to thread her sewing machine and then sew. And finally complete a dress for the 4-H contest. Or when Dad insisted I make an outline for a fifth grade oral book report.

By my high school days taking care of little things became my motto, even though I didn’t always follow it. When I was a first year teacher, I was jerked from failing an enormous task. I was overwhelmed. Too many students, too many lessons, too many meetings and conferences, too many papers, too many bulletin boards. A wise principal handed me a tissue to wipe my tears of frustration and told me to go back to my classroom and teach math for one hour. Do one small thing.

My motto has served me well. I preached it to myself while raising children.   Swaddle tightly. Wipe up spilled milk. Wash diapers. Get them to school on time. For supper, serve two foods they’ll eat.

I preached it to my elementary students. Do daily homework. Write one paragraph. Memorize the multiples of 2, then work up thru 12s.

I’ve recited my motto to Daughter and Son and my Grands. And sometimes I get it back. Elaine, age 6, told me last week that I had to measure exactly ¾ cup water or the strawberry jam we were making wouldn’t turn out right. “It’s just a little thing, Gran.”

My maxim isn’t original. During the 19th century, Emily Dickinson wrote, “If you take care of the small things, the big things take care of themselves. You can gain more control over your life by paying closer attention to the little things.” John Wooten, who coached the UCLA basketball team to ten national championships beginning in the 1960s, said, “It’s the little details that are vital. Little things make big things happen.”

Take care of the little things. Words to live by. For people of all ages.

Screen Shot 2017-05-25 at 7.55.58 AM


Dear Parents of School Age Children

searchIt’s back to school time. During my 25 years as a teacher, I was thankful for parents who were partners. Parents who worked with me to help their children learn and be successful and happy. Now, as a retired teacher and a grandmother, I remember how those parents helped and I’m 99% sure your children’s teachers would appreciate your help in these same ways.

  1. Get children to school on time. School begins at 8:00. Those students who walk into their classrooms by 7:55 have a few minutes to greet their friends and teacher, empty their backpacks, and get ready for the day. Students who walk into the school building at 8:00 are late. Their day begins with them trying to catch up.
  2. Read and respond to communication from school. Especially school work and field trip notices. Teachers send home student work for parents to see. Take five minutes, sit with your children, and listen as they explain the math problems that were easy and the spelling words that were difficult. If you have concerns, notify the teacher, before you call the school principal or your best friend. Return field trip notices ASAP. I always felt sorry for the children who hung their heads and said, “Mom saw the note, but she didn’t sign it.”
  3. Tell teachers what’s happening at your house. Any event that changes the home routine affects children’s feelings and attitudes and they bring those to school. Did Mom start a new job and she leaves home before everyone else gets out of bed? Is Grandma coming to stay while the parents take a vacation? Did a pet – a goldfish, a dog – die? Is there going to be a new baby in the family? Send a brief email or note. Help teachers understand why students are upset or sad or excited.
  4. Let your children fail and make mistakes. Yes, fail. Not a major failure, like 3rd grade. Small failures. If children hide homework and don’t do it, let them suffer the consequences: a bad grade or missing a fun activity to complete the assignment. Let them learn how failure feels. If they forget to take lunches to school and eat a school lunch that isn’t their favorite pizza, they’ll learn to be responsible and carry their lunch bags. (Yes, I’ve taken the first forgotten lunch to school. Second time, no.)

It’s okay to not master a task immediately. Long division isn’t easy. Neither is borrowing to subtract. Nor latitude and longitude. Let children learn that it’s okay to make mistakes and to fail and try again.

Don’t we learn perseverance from failures and mistakes? Isn’t determination built on failure and eventual success?

  1. Ask questions at the end of a school day. Questions that begin with what or who. What did you learn in Math? What did you do in music or physical education class? What book or story did you hear or read? What was the best thing that happened today? What did you bring home for me to see? Who sat beside you during lunchtime?

Don’t ask, “How was your day?” You’ll hear, “Fine.” End. Of. Conversation.

6 -10.    Read. Read. Read. Read. Read. To your children and listen to them read. School work, books, poems, comics, sport pages, backs of cereal boxes. Anything. Everything. There’s no need to expound on reading. Just read.

Both you and your children’s teachers want your children to learn and be happy. May this be the best school year ever!

A School Playground

DSC01528 Her arms are like airplane wings as she walks across a log that washed to shore with the tide.  Her two friends follow her.  One small step at a time.  At the end of the log, the girls reverse order and wave their arms as an airplane caught in a windstorm.  Two boys, about their same age of 8, stand close by.  Heads together, talking.  The boys run toward the girls.  A boy pushes a girl, just enough that she loses her balance and jumps onto the sand, but not enough that she falls into the water on the other side of the log.

The game begins.   Girls chase boys.  The five children run in circles.  Laughing.  Squealing.  They run around and around until a girl grabs a boy’s arm.  The other boy stops running and laughs as the three girls hold his friend’s arms, pumping them up and down.  What now?  The girls caught him, now what?  Jump and pump and laugh until someone falls to the ground and the boy wiggles free and runs away.  Now far, just a few feet.

Run and chase.   A game that children play on school playgrounds.  No rules.  No score.  Just chase, catch, and release.  This playground is a sandy beach in Ambergris Caye, Belize, bordered by the Caribbean Sea.  There are no fences around the playground – it’s not even on the school campus.  It’s across the street from the concrete school building painted sky blueIt’s between the San Pedro Visitors’ Center and the restaurant where I’m eating lunch on the porch.

The children are students of the primary government school, grades 1-6.  The school day is 8:00 a.m. – 3:00 p.m., with a break between 11:30 and 1:00 for lunch and free time.  Children who live close walk home for lunch.  Some eat at a restaurant or buy food from a street vendor.  Some bring their lunch and eat outside.  And some, like the ones I watch, walk across the street to the beach to meet their parents, and younger siblings, at one of the five picnic tables. After the students eat, they play.

They wear school uniforms.  Navy blue long pants and white button front, short sleeve shirts with collars for the boys.  White blouses with peter pan collars under navy blue A-line jumpers for the girls.  Both boys and girls wear black slip-on shoes.  The boys wear dark socks; the girls, white anklets.

Children run along the hard packed sand on the beach and on the wooden plank piers, to the end and back.  The boys climb palm trees.  Parents, sitting in the shade at the picnic tables, call out and the children stop climbing so high and running so fast.  The older girls gather in small groups and talk.  Young children, using their hands, dig and draw pictures in the sand.  Two girls sit at a picnic table and write in a spiral notebook.  And many students, like the three girls I watched closely, walk nature-made balance beams, logs washed ashore.

As I walk down the steps from the restaurant onto the sand, children run along the water’s edge.  They laugh and squeal.  Boys chasing girls.  The girls stop, turn, and grab one boy’s arms and legs.  Four girls swing him like a hammock just inches above the sand and one step from the sea.


The Power of a New Pencil

images I’m fighting a buying impulse.  Pencils, spiral notebooks, and stickers are calling.  If I dare go to a store this week, I’ll come home with three bags full of back-to-school supplies.  I’d probably even buy plain white paper, a 500-sheet pack.  I don’t need anything for school, and my Grands already have their school things.  For most of my life, I’ve shopped for school supplies.  As a student, as a teacher, then a mother and teacher.  I like everything that says it’s time to start school.

But I didn’t always feel this way.  When I started school, I didn’t like it one bit.  Mother dressed me in my new dress and brown saddle oxfords and kissed me good-bye.  Daddy drove me to school and walked me to my first grade classroom.  I sat in my assigned desk until the teacher turned toward the chalkboard and then I bolted out the classroom’s open back door to the playground.

I had good reason not to like school.  My first grade teacher expected me to sit still and quiet on a hard wooden chair.  I’d gone to school several times with my big brother who was five years older and sat on a quilt on the floor right beside the teacher.  I’d colored pictures (probably with new crayons) and looked at books.  Our family lived in a small town where everyone knew everyone – including all the teachers.

My very first day of school, I ran across the playground, down the road, and across a few backyards to the service station that Daddy owned.  He put me in his car and drove to school.  He held my hand and shoulder tightly and guided me toward my classroom where my teacher stood, holding the door open.  I sat in my desk.  Head down and cried until the teacher said for everyone to stand and say the alphabet together before we copied the letters from a poster onto our lined paper.  Letters of the alphabet that weren’t even in the correct order.  My brother and his best friend had taught me to say the ABC’s – in reverse order.  So on that very first day of school, I stood to recite the alphabet with all my classmates and I said, “Z Y X W…” The teacher didn’t think it was funny, but my classmates laughed.

I ran out the door again.  Right into Daddy’s arms.  He held a switch he’d just cut and he took me behind a big oak tree.  Just the sight of the switch hurt me as if I’d been spanked.  Daddy told me I had to stay in my classroom and that he’d be right outside the door to hug me at 3:00.  It took about a week for me stop running and stay at school.

On the first day of school tomorrow, there might be a student or two who’d like to run out the door.  I hope these kids get the rewards for going to school that I did.  Praise, hugs, and a new pencil every Monday morning.  A yellow pencil with a smooth pink eraser.



A Teacher’s Lament


I said I wasn’t going to write about the tragedy at Newtown, Connecticut.  But now that Sandy Hook Elementary School has reopened, I hurt for the teachers who survived.

On that day in mid-December when I first heard about the senseless killings, I was stunned.  Just like when I turn off the TV or leave the room when a news story is about an abused child, I had to walk away.  I listened to the news periodically throughout the day and stayed busy.  I knew it would be a day, like 9/11, that I’d remember where I was and what I was doing.

A week or so later, a friend said, “Newtown must have hit you doubly hard since you were a teacher.”  We had talked about the children who wouldn’t open Christmas presents.  And we wondered how their parents and grandparents would make it through the holidays.  We ached for those who’d loss a child, whether student or teacher, on December 14th.  But my friend had the insight to allow me to bring other memories and grief to the surface.

I remember when my school first practiced lock-downs.  Fire drills and tornado drills were routine.  Lock downs weren’t.  Lock the classroom door.  Herd my students into a corner.  Pull down the shades over the windows.  If there’s time, cover the twelve-inch square window on the door.  And keep everyone in that one corner, along the same wall as the door, where someone couldn’t look through the small window and see us.  It was never said aloud – a corner where a bullet shot through the door wouldn’t hit anyone.  I huddled my 24 fourth graders into that corner and they learned the term ‘packed like sardines.’  The girls giggled and scratched each other’s noses.  The boys wiggled.  We learned the secret knock on the door that signaled ‘all clear’ and that it was okay to open the door and carry on with learning about electrical circuits.

Even after four years of retirement, I still miss visiting with teacher friends.  Laughing during a hurried lunch.  Hearing about a son’s baseball game.  A daughter’s gymnastics meet.  The funny things a grandchild said.

I can’t imagine the pain that the Sandy Hook teachers are feeling as they stand before their students.  They survived a school shooting and lost friends.  During my teaching days, our faculty lost two teachers.  Tammy to cancer.  Marcia in a car wreck.  Two young friends who should have had many more years to read aloud their favorite books to children.  Teachers who left their mark on students and fellow teachers.

Our faculty mourned together.  Questions swirled through my head and heart.  Where’s my friend who wanted to borrow the foldout book about the human skeleton to read to her class?  Where’s my friend who was planning her daughter’s wedding?

I can’t imagine the questions that haunt the teachers at Sandy Hook School as they carry on, teaching young children.  I can’t imagine the horror of a school shooting.  I ache for those teachers.