The Plan to Not Plan

One of my strengths as both a teacher and a mother is my power of forethought. As a mother, my diaper bag always had snacks, plenty of diapers, spare clothes, spare clothes for the spare clothes, bags to hold the messy clothes… you name it, I had it. As a teacher, I thought through my lesson plans with painful precision. Where might the kids need help? How might they need me to modify or adapt? I thought of logistics- where might they bottle neck in the classroom when I told them to do a task, or who might get in a fight if paired together? My whole life has been a mental game of planning, thinking, and trying to figure out what the next best move was.

This way of thinking has proven to work for me. While I know this way of life isn’t for everyone, and for some just reading it might make them feel exhausted, this sense of planning has brought about a strong sense of calm for me. A well thought out plan, and a well executed plan, brings me peace.

As 2020 rolled in, it became clear this wasn’t going to be the Year of the Planners. People like me- who thrive on a well thought out plan, who have excelled in life by always being one step ahead of the next roadblock- are now finding themselves in a new reality: the unplannable. I can truly say I have never struggled more mentally than I have in the past few weeks, because for the first time I feel I don’t know how to do my job as a mother or a teacher.

In the Spring when we moved to remote learning, I tried to apply the same fortitude that I’ve used when I met other obstacles: Get ahead by being ahead. Look at my units, and plan. So I spent hours creating plans. I had lessons, Hyperdocs, videos… I was ready. But every plan I made met a new challenge- the district had a new schedule, we were changing the structure of our day, we were changing the plan… and here I was, ready…. Because isn’t a well thought out plan the best plan? Well, it wasn’t then. In fact my great plans were often just a waste of time.

Over the summer I spent a lot of time focusing on staying in the moment. I really felt minimal back to school stress because I stayed in the present moment and focused on the present day. As districts around the state changed their plans, I stayed calm. I believed it would all work out. Somehow, the Queen of the Plan was accepting that maybe the best plan was no plan. However, as all control freaks know… the plan to not plan is still a plan (did you follow that?)- and that’s not always a good idea.

As the last days of August loom, districts are rolling out their schedules. They are pushing forward with hybrid, or going remote, always with the disease as the backdrop letting us know who really calls the shots here- Covid. So I planned. I made lesson plans and documents. I spent hours diving in. And do you know what the result was? MORE angst. 

I can’t plan how this year is going to go. I can’t plan who is going to help my own children with their virtual learning while I am “live” all day with my students online. I can’t envision my life next week, and for a planner like me, that is a horrifying reality. Even trying to find childcare during a pandemic is proving to be near impossible unless you have endless funds, so the plan for this year is to survive- one day at a time.

As the child of two  recovering addicts, the phrase “one day at a time” was repeated in my home often. Yet, to a planner this phrase is completely foreign. HOW can you only focus on one day, when there are so many days to figure out? How can you only focus on today, when tomorrow will eventually come, and then you’re not ready? But did any of us see this coming- this set of tomorrow? I know I never saw my rising kindergartener starting her academic life on Zoom… that’s for sure.

For the first time I’m seeing why it might be ok to not be two weeks ahead with my lesson plans. I’m seeing why it might be ok to truly not know who is watching my kids (ok honestly, this part doesn’t feel remotely ok, but… deep breaths… deep breaths) or to be able to envision the finish line of this race. 

I have struggled the past few days and it’s not just about school- it’s about giving up the illusion of control. I can’t control this. I can’t control if I am called back to work in my classroom full time in October, or not. I can’t control if my kids’ school decides to stick with their current hybrid plan. I can’t even control what I’ll teach or how I’ll teach this year. It’s humbling to think the truth is I never really could. It was all just a little bit of luck that allowed a well-crafted plan to play out. 

So here’s to the year of no plan… for people like me, this is not comfortable. It’s downright horrifying. Perhaps releasing the pressure I self-impose upon myself to have it all figured out, to know what I’m teaching next Thursday on this Tuesday, and to release the pressure to figure this out in a world that is truly spiraling in all directions, will teach me a little more about myself than I expected. 

Perhaps I have a plan after all- the plan is to not plan. To try my hardest to stay in the present moment. To be where I currently am and focus where my feet are currently planted. Every moment that has derailed me recently has been a moment where my mind was weeks ahead of the current day. So here’s to the mental strength it will take to get the Queen of the Plan to accept that this is 2020- The year of taking it one day at a time.

Mourning What Should Have Been

Today NJ officially called it and closed the schools for the remainder of the year. While we all knew it was likely, seeing it in plain text made it a totally different reality. Today, I feel like I am in mourning.

I am mourning for my students. They are in fifth grade and have earned their end of the year celebrations. They will never get back those last precious months of recess, the last Field Day, or sadly, their graduation ceremony. They won’t get closure on their years spent in this building, forming relationships with staff and one another. I am crushed thinking of my classroom, frozen in time, with March 13 written on the board. I am sad that their last writing reports are still hung… their desks still full… their lives paused.

I am mourning for everyone at a milestone year, but most of all our seniors. To not get to graduate, some kids being the first in their families to receive such an honor, is soul crushing. For the kid who finally found a group of friends, for the kid who was finally starting for the Varsity team, for the kids who just miss normalcy.

I am mourning, so so hard, for my daughter. She is going to Kindergarten in September and I am crushed that she lost these last months of “childhood” that are gone forever once you enter “real school.” She is a light of sunshine and loved school with everything in her… to lose that… is crushing.

I am mourning for my son. He is in 2nd, so he is not missing any milestones, but he is missing LIFE. He is slowly getting depressed… and I’m not handling it well. He is a happy boy- seeing the light fade is earth shattering.

We all fight our own battles during this experience… but be kind to those of us mourning what should have been.

The Time an Internet Meme Taught My Son To Read

I don’t remember a time in my life when I wasn’t an avid reader. My fondest memories of childhood involved my town library, my mom rewarding me for good behavior in the mall with a trip to the bookstore, and reading by my pool. When I met my husband one of the things that convinced me he was “the one” was we shared this deep love for books. We have formed so many awesome memories that centered around reading- whether it was long rides to check out a cool book store, an author signing, or just hours spent reading in each other’s company.

So imagine my shock when my first born came of age where he could read… but hated it. My son, a second grader at the time I am typing this, was a lover of books as a baby. As a toddler and a preschooler, he would beg for stories. But when it came to reading to himself… no thank you. It didn’t come as easily as it did for some others, and for him, that was enough to have him completely shut down.

I tried everything I could think of. We went to the library weekly. We took him to meet Dav Pilkey (his favorite author). I got frustrated. How was it that I, a reading teacher, a person who has taught hundreds of kids to read and fostered a love of books in many children, could not get my own son to read?

I knew part of the problem was ability. Sure, he could read. He was even on grade level. But to my son, if it wasn’t easy and natural, he hated it. I also knew that the ability would never improve if he didn’t read more. Talk about a feedback loop!

So one day I was scrolling online when I came across this meme/graphic.

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I’d seen this floating around online before, but that day I was ready for it. I thought, “If I want to get this kid to read, I need to truly be in his face with my reading.” You see I have always been a reader. I’d average about 2-3 books a month, but only e-Books. When we went to the library I never checked out books for me because I got them from my eLibrary account. When I tried to encourage him to read he never saw me as a model because when I did read, it was a on a Kindle, and to him a Kindle was a toy. It didn’t matter how many times I told him I was reading on it, he still saw it as a screen.

So when January 2020 rolled around I decided we were going “all in” as a family. John and I both agreed to stop reading eBooks. We both agreed to make family trips to the library. We both agreed to read around the kids, not just at bedtime or after they’re in bed. We decided we needed to model to him what we so desperately believed- that books are worthy, books are entertaining, and reading is an amazing way to pass the time. I spent hours researching series that I knew were attainable for him but also enjoyable for him. I scoured my school library, the public library, and Amazon.

It’s now late February and I can’t even tell you the changes I’ve seen. My son, who never read for pleasure, is flying through books. He has read the whole Bad Guys series, is working his way through Big Nate and various other series. He’s immersed in the world of graphic novels (because GRAPHIC NOVELS ARE REAL BOOKS PEOPLE!!!!!) and is loving it. We have a “pile contest” going- we all take out books from the library and stack them in a “to read” pile and then move them to the “complete” pile when we are done. We see who can get the most books read in a week.

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This kid is killing it! He is reading multiple books a week- and so am I! I am now reading 2-3 novels a week and loving it! When I decided to get off my phone, put down my Kindle, and focus on books it was amazing the changes I saw. As I am typing this he just came downstairs to update me that he just finished another book and he was “beating me” this week.

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It’s simplistic. Quite frankly I think it was a combination of him being ready (his reading skills were catching up to his interests- this was a huge issue for a long time) and us committing as a family to make this work. But all I kept thinking was, “Is this really going to work? A meme? A meme I saw on Twitter? This is what I was missing this whole time?”

Some families are into baseball. Or skiing. Or theater. My husband and I were both born readers and just wanted to share that same joy with our kids, the way any other parent wants to share their passions with their children. I knew there was a good chance this wouldn’t work but I was not willing to give up.

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You see, as a fifth grade reading teacher I know some kids don’t love to read, but I have never met a kid who didn’t love to be read to. I survey my kids every year in June and without fail about 95% of them say their favorite part of my class was read alouds. That tells me every child- every single one- COULD learn to love to read. If you love being read to, it means you love stories. You just need to learn to love the process, or find ways to make the process more attainable (audio books, etc.). My son loved stories from birth. He has devoured the first three Harry Potters (through the illustrated versions with my husband reading them), has read so many versions of so many fairy tales he could probably teach a college course on fairy tales, and has sat and listened to my husband and me read him countless books. I knew it was in there. And I wasn’t willing to quit until he discovered it within himself.

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I won’t sit here and say this will work for everyone. There are real, legitimate reasons, that some kids don’t like to read. But as I always tell my students, “If you don’t like to read you just haven’t found the right book yet.” I believed it as a teacher and I now deeply believe it as a mother. All it took was being the model. Learning from a meme was never on my to-do list as a parent… but hey… sometimes the best lessons come from unexpected places.

Chicks Rule by Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen

Screenshot 2019-06-27 at 7.56.58 PM When I choose books to review, I focus on diverse book with diverse characters and story lines, but it is equally important to take note of the lack of representation of diverse authors in the publishing industry.  According to Lee and Low, in 2018 about 7% of books published were written by people of color.

Several years ago my school had the pleasure of having Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen come to our school. At the time my son was 2 so I bought her book Chicks Run Wild. It became a cult classic in our house.  I really can’t tell you how many times I’ve read it between my two children, but it’s definitely in the triple digits. I actually know large parts of it by heart! With that said, imagine my surprise when I found myself at a book festival a few weeks ago, face to face with Sudipta. Instantly I knew I needed to get her book Chicks Rule! I had no idea what it was about, but I knew as a family, we’d love it. I couldn’t have begun to imagine I’d love this book as much as I did.

As a mom of a young girl it’s important for her to be surrounded by books that show women as strong central figures. This book tells the story of a chick (which, by the way, I love the double meaning of the word and found it amusing throughout)  who can’t join a rocket club because “No Chicks Allowed” is on the door. So what does she do? She organizes her peeps (see what I did there? Ha!), focuses on everyone’s strengths, and in the end they have their own rocket launch. The book is so empowering for girls. Not to mention, I love the diversity in the illustrations. We have chicks of different colors, different cultures, different talents… it’s all around a diverse field of chicks coming together to solve a problem. What more could you ask for?

 

A Letter to My Child’s 1st Grade Teacher

Hello there,

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Today was the first day of summer break, and I decided to unpack Landon’s backpack. As I pulled out piles and piles of “stuff” I found so many treasures. There were memory books and projects that the kids worked on all year. There was all the stuff that I’d expect to see in a backpack in June. But there were also a few extras. There were pictures- lots and lots of pictures- that you took the time to develop. I know you paid for those with your own money. I know you took the time to make sure each kid got pictures to bring home.  I know that took time and organization, and for that, I thank you.

I found a letter that you wrote to Landon. It was filled with so many compliments and kind lines, and I could tell it was written specifically for Landon. With 23 kids in your class, I know how much time that took. I know you were tired in June- it’s the month that just doesn’t end for teachers- and yet you sat down and did this. I will cherish it forever.

I saw the memory book you made where each month they completed a page. I know that you had to 1) remember to do that each month, and 2) keep it organized. I know that’s not easy, and often is the type of thing that we start in September with good intentions and somewhere around November forget to keep up with. Thank you for doing it and taking the time.

Going through this backpack got me thinking just how incredibly lucky my son was to have you. It also got me thinking how many lessons I could learn from this year to apply to my own teaching. Whenever I emailed you, you responded so quickly, thoroughly, and I never felt I was annoying you. I was so thankful for that. I knew you were there for us and I could reach you, and as a mom of a young one, that meant so much.

You helped me to remember that the fun things mean so much to kids. One day the kids got to wear pajamas, watch a movie, AND have popcorn. My son acted like it was the best day of his life- way better than his two trips to Disney- and that’s because it was something you made feel like magic. It got me thinking- do I make magic for my kids? And if not, how can I? But the biggest lesson I learned this year is to always keep focus on the kids. Landon felt loved in your room. He felt safe. He felt seen.

You see, Landon can be overlooked. He won’t cause trouble. He won’t make waves. But you saw him. You saw that he was more than just a quiet kid sitting in his desk. And because you saw him, he thrived. I strive to “see” all my kids, but your gentle touch and focus on all of the kids made me remember just how important it is to see everyone. Because everyone is someone’s kids. And therefore every kid in that room is someone’s whole world.

So thank you. So much. Now go enjoy the summer, and relax. You earned it.

All our love,

The Cardoso Family

The Whole Story of Half a Girl by Veera Hiranandani

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I evaluate every book I choose to read aloud to my students by questioning if it will provide a window or mirror to my students. Will this book reflect who they are? Will it open their eyes to a life much unlike their own? I love watching my students faces as they experience characters much like themselves, but I especially enjoy watching their faces when they realize the world is a little bigger, a little more unique, and often a lot more challenging than they expected.

As an adult, the books I read for pleasure are often windows…. I see into other people’s lives, the rich, the famous, the struggling… and I imagine. However, when I was flipping through some books in my classroom and came across The Whole Story of Half a Girl I noticed  instantly that this book might reflect my own experience. In this book our main character, Sonia, is half Indian and half Jewish American. The first part of the book really explores this sense of identity and how youth often try to figure out who they are based on the roles and identities their born into.

I was born to a Jewish mother and a Catholic father. I grew up in a town with very few Jewish people and often felt very “left out” when kids spoke of their CCD experiences, Confirmations, and more. But because my dad was Catholic, I also felt “left out” at Hebrew school… I had Christmas, Easter, and a dad with a large Jesus tattoo on his arm. Needless to say I too felt like “half a girl” in these settings.

As the story goes on, Sonia’s father loses his job and struggles with depression. As a child, both of my parents battled addiction and the mental health issues that come with that disease. Growing up, I never saw my experience reflected in books. I wonder how transformative it would have been to me as a child to see a little bit of my life in Sonia’s. I may be 34 now, but I was 11 again as I read about Sonia and deeply related to her family. It makes you feel “normal” and like you’re not alone, even when your life might feel a little abnormal. That’s the power of a great book!

Sonia also experiences all of common social struggles and triumphs that our tweens face. She had to navigate social situations, friends, standing up for who she was, and being true to herself while also navigating her home life. As a teen I often felt I had two lives- school, where I could be “normal”, and home, where I had to be an adult and handle situations many kids didn’t. I really felt if Sonia was a real person, she and I could have shared stories and been friends.

I didn’t expect to find a mirror in this book when I grabbed in from my classroom library, but that’s why we as teachers need to not just have books in our classroom, but also read them. You never know what you might find… and what student you can recommend it to who might find it to be just what they needed.

Front Desk by Kelly Yang

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I read Front Desk for the first time last summer (2018) and instantly knew this book was a must read for my class. At first I thought I’d start my school year with it, but I decided to “hold it” for last. Read aloud time in my class is the most precious time of our day. I teach 5th grade, and if you came into my room during read aloud, you’d see 28 kids on the rug, stools, the bookcase (not my favorite spot!), but what you wouldn’t see is anyone off task, talking, etc. It is a sacred time and the conversations that come from our read aloud are always my reminder for why I teach. I knew that Front Desk would provoke some deep conversations and I wanted to save it for when the kids knew me, knew the culture of our room, and had the comfort that comes at the end of a year spent together.

Front Desk tells the story of Mia, a child who has immigrated from China to the US. She is going to school in California, where she and her parents also run (and live) in a motel. The book covers racism on many fronts- between different races, within the same race, between the police and races, and more. It covers economic disparities and the shame some kids face when they feel “less than” their peers. It covers family dynamics, immigration, and so many issues that you could probably spend months reading and discussing this with your class.

What I love about this book the most is that it is completely age appropriate for my students, while also forcing them to think deeper, challenge their preconceived notions, and explore the world through someone else’s eyes. It doesn’t hurt that the author, Kelly Yang, is a pretty incredible inspiration for my students with an awe-inspiring story to share. I read to them a little about her before we started reading since Mia is based on her life, and they were instantly hooked.

I’m so excited that this is the book that was selected for GRA 2019 and cannot wait to share this reading experience with my class next year as well.

How Do You Measure, Measure A Year?

If you’re reading the title to this post and singling along to “Seasons of Love”… we should be friends. When I look back on my college years I can say that Rent was a defining part of my college experience. I listened to the soundtrack, saw the play, watched the movie when it eventually came out… and hearing any song from Rent will always take me back to my years in college.

As a teacher I measure a year on a different timeline than most people. To me a year starts in September and ends in August. I look at my years in terms of school years. When I look back on all the years in my career there are different events that mark the year in my memories.

When I entered the classroom in late August of 2018 I was confident of what this year would be. This would be the year I chased my passion for diversity in children’s literature. From August through January I presented on the topic three times, added countless titles to my library, and started this blog. I had the pleasure of bringing two incredible authors into my school and felt I could see my dream coming to fruition.

And then my year changed. My father got sick and ultimately died. My dad was a big supporter and a huge part of who I was. His death rocked me and still does as it’s only been 3 months. In that time it’s not that my dream changed, it’s not that my focus changed… it’s that my priorities changed. For this period of time it was about survival and perseverance.

But time has passed and I feel more like myself. I am ready to return to sharing my passion. I’m ready to get back to reviewing books and sharing this message. When I think back to how I measure this year, it’ll be a mixed bag of emotions, but while there will always be the sadness of his passing, there is also the joy in knowing I am helping to bring voice to a topic that is so important.

My Why (In a Time of Cultural Crisis)

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I became a teacher 13 years ago, not because I had some dying desire to teach kids about conjunctions or writing essays, but because I wanted kids to feel loved and seen. I knew that I had the power to make kids feel accepted and safe, and to this day, I can proudly say that my greatest strength as a teacher is creating an environment in my classroom where diversity is not only accepted but appreciated.

My goal is simple. I want kids to know that they are loved. I want them to know that they are valuable and that they have a place in this world.  I want them to feel accepted and safe. I also want them to respect others. I want them to understand that their culture is not the only culture, and that there are many ways to celebrate holidays, pray to God, live your life, and be your true self. But how do you teach these things in a world that is ever-evolving, and not always in a positive way?

Ignorance breeds hate. People fear and hate what they do not know. We live in a political climate where it is completely acceptable to say things that were completely unacceptable just a few short years ago. This past weekend we have had more hate spread in our country than many can handle. We had 13 lives taken (11 senior citizens in Pittsburgh at a temple,  2 in Kentucky) all due to hate. Hate, brought on by ignorance, and a lack of acceptance for people not just like you.

This is why I am on a mission to push diversity in children’s literature. I can’t stop all of the evil in the world and nobody can. But we all have to use our voices, in whatever capacity we have, to spread the importance of acceptance.  It’s important that books serve as both windows and mirrors, and while mirrors are very helpful for children to see their own cultures and identities reflected to them, windows open children’s eyes to the “others.” It is essential that kids see other cultures, religions, and experiences, because we fear what we do not know.

As a teacher you get 180 days with a kid. In 180 days you can’t save the world, but you can show kids a window into cultures they may not know about. When we learn about others we often see that we are all quite similar on the inside. It is essential to share about the power of diversity. To share books that show how divisive hatred can be and to show the power of coming together.

I’m not foolish enough to thing a children’s book can prevent an act of terrorism. I am, however, a strong believer in teaching kids to love others while they are young. All kids come to us with the innate ability to believe in the power of good over evil. When we, as educators, expose them to other cultures through deliberate choices of books, news stories, and lessons, we are opening their eyes. Ignorance fuels hate. Hate fuels terrorism. And hope fuels the future. Hope fuels children. Most children believe in the power of kindness and acceptance. We, as teachers, wield the power to show kids a vision of the world that is positive and possible. We can provide kids windows into the world in a safe environment. And perhaps, when kids grow up with exposure to the unknown, they will come to see that the unknown is quite similar to their own lives… maybe then we can have a future with a little less hate, and a little more hope.

Authentic Voices Matter

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My students had the great fortune of having Gita Varadarajan come visit our school again last week. Her book, Save Me a Seat, was a large part of what pushed me to see the immense need for diversity in children’s literature. Her visit to my school last year was the turning point for me; my experience with diverse books went from awareness to advocacy. Seeing the connection she made to the students was life-changing for me and I knew I’d make it my professional mission to give kids and teachers tools to provide all children with windows and mirrors to their identity.

This time when she came to my school she spoke to my 5th graders about authenticity- the need to tell authentic stories, based on your identity, and the impact that has on the stories you create. The statistics on diversity in children’s literature are pretty dismal. While 31% of children’s literature published in 2017 features people of color, only 7% of those books are written by people of color. So who is writing these stories? And how can they authentically tell the story of a person of color? Why is there such a gap? And what does this say about the publishing industry?

Last year when Gita was at my school she ran a writing workshop with students in 4th and 5th grade. She told me to take note of the names my students chose to include in their writing. While most of my students are Indian, Asian, or African American, they often choose very “typical” American names and not names that reflect their own identity. What kids are telling us with this simple choice is that they do not feel people of their culture are characters in stories. This simple action of selecting to name a character “Bob” or “Mary” when their family is full of “Arnav” or “Sanjana” or “Tyree” means they don’t believe their story, their identity, is what stories are about.

So how do we fix this? How can we, as educators, help this? How can we help kids to tell their authentic story? Over the past year I’ve found a few strategies that have really helped.

1- Have diverse books, written by diverse authors, on display. While I have a large collection of books in my library I make sure to prominently display books that reflect my students on the end caps, at the front of baskets, etc. I don’t want these books buried in the library and missed!

2- Feature read-alouds about diverse children, in diverse countries, written by diverse authors! It’s not enough to just have them housed in the classroom- share them!

3- Use diverse names in your own writing! Anchor charts, math story problems, scenarios you write out in science labs… anywhere you are writing a name is an opportunity to “normalize” your students’ diversity. If all of our math word problems show names like “Mike” or “Kelly” why would kids feel comfortable writing one about “Palak” or “Tyshaun”? How are we, as teachers, providing kids with mirrors to their own identity?

4- Support diverse authors! Buy their books! Share THEIR stories! Follow blogs that support diversity. I cannot speak highly enough about Lee & Low Books. They are my go-to resource for diversity in children’s literature.

5- Use your authentic voice and encourage kids to do the same. I am a white woman, so I cannot write from the perspective of any other racial group. I can share authentic stories of my culture, my religious upbringing, my family dynamics, and my life experiences. Similarly, my students can share stories of their own backgrounds! Embrace and encourage them to use their strengths of their own identity to find their voice.

6- Don’t be scared. I spoke to my superintendent today about how sometimes I fear having a voice on this topic because I feel I don’t “deserve” to have a say on a topic that isn’t something I’ve personally experienced. Feeling this way is normal- but we all need to stand up for diversity and helping children to be proud of who they are. Remember, kids spend 6+ hours a day, for 13+ years of their life, in a classroom. That comes out to about 14,040 hours. That’s a LOT of time! We as educators have power to help shape lives with all of that time, but we can’t be scared. Be brave- no change will come from stagnation!