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.

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

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!

 

I’m Not “Just” A Teacher

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(Pictured: Monica Goncalves- Union County TOTY 2017, Maire Cervenak- NJ DOE, Mandy Manning, 2018 National Teacher of the Year, and Me!)

Today I had the immense pleasure of spending time with incredible educators at the NJCTY Fall Leadership Conference. As the 2015 Middlesex County Teacher of the Year I have increased my Professional Learning Network to include so many amazing educators from across the state and beyond. This network has afforded me the opportunity to view myself as a leader in education and to imagine having a reach that goes beyond the four walls of my classroom. A few times a year I get to spend time with these incredible people and each time I leave an event I am reinvigorated.

Since my year serving as the County Teacher I’ve watched many of my peers leave the classroom. I’ve watched them enter administration, jobs at the DOE, working for companies as presenters, etc. Each time someone else left the classroom I felt a slight panic. I felt like I was being “left behind.” I felt like if I didn’t push myself to find what was “next” for me I’d be wasting this experience. I felt like I needed to do more because people expected me to do more. I felt like being “just” a teacher was not enough.

You see, in all other careers when you are high-achieving you get a promotion. In education all moves are lateral moves unless you leave the classroom to go into a different role. I quietly watched as each person left their room and I wondered, “What about me? What should I do next?” It was a quiet panic because I didn’t have something I wanted to do next…. I wanted to teach. But was that enough?

I applied for a job I thought I really wanted. When I didn’t get it I began to doubt if I was good enough. I began to wonder if there was a “next” for me. At the urging of many well-meaning educators I applied to graduate school to get my administration degree. I got in, I paid my deposit, I enrolled… and then, a few weeks before classes were to begin,  I deferred my enrollment. You see, at this point in my career, I don’t want to leave the classroom. I don’t want to do anything other than what I’m currently doing. I’m young and my career ahead of me is long, so I reserve the right to change my mind at some time, but for now I am CHOOSING to be “just” a teacher.

There is a push for teacher leadership. To allow educators to stay in the classroom but have a bigger voice. This is what speaks to my soul. I look at Pernille Ripp, who has a hugely transformative role in education and is arguably a “household name” in the world of reading instruction, but she’s still in her classroom. I look at Colby Sharp, who is pushing us to think about reading and book access for kids, and he is still in his classroom. And I think… maybe I can find a way to lead… but not leave.

You see, as a parent, when I think of my child’s teachers, they are not “just” a teacher. They are the person I am trusting to form my child’s educational journey. They are a name we say daily in our homes, a person we discuss at dinner. They are the person he respects more than me most of the time. They are rock stars… they are not “just” a teacher.

The need for leadership, to have a voice, to be heard, has been sparked and cannot be dimmed. My experiences as a County Teacher of the Year and the ongoing role that it plays in my life has lit a fire that cannot go out. I will never look at education as just what happens in my classroom, but always as a part of a larger picture. I will continue to push myself to achieve more, to increase my voice and my reach, but I will never be “just” a teacher. I am a teacher. I am a teacher leader. I am someone who believes that people who choose to stay in the classroom have something to bring to the table. I do not believe that the only way to be heard is to leave. I refuse to believe that I am “less than” because I do not have ambitions beyond a classroom. I believe that strong passionate teachers are the backbone of this society, and because of that, I am NOT “just” a teacher.

Fostering Lasting Relationships

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I consider myself to be one very lucky teacher. Every year I get a new crew of kids and I think I’ll never love them the way I loved my previous class, and every year I learn that (much like being a mother) your heart can expand to fit more and more kids within it.  I love my students, I call them my kids, and my kids they will always be.

Those two girls were both former first graders of mine and both have kept in contact with me since they were in my class. These pictures represent times that these girls wanted to include me in their lives outside the classroom long after they were in my class; as a speaker at her Bharatanatyam Arangetram, and visiting another while she worked. Both events made me so proud of how these two have grown, evolved, and changed since they were in my class.

Over the years I’ve been lucky to have many relationships last long beyond their tenure in my classroom. On the first day of school this year I had emails from 12 former students, ranging from high school seniors to sixth graders I had last year. When I think about what makes these relationships last, what makes these kids still see our classroom as a place they can call home, I think it’s a combination of a few things… all of which are so small, but add up to a lasting impact.

1- “Relationships First” is not just a cute phrase or hashtag on Twitter. It’s the driving force behind my teaching. There are definitely teachers out there who are more talented than I in the craft of teaching, who have better anchor charts and flipcharts, better lessons and assignments, but I know my kids always know that to me they are #1.

2- I show that I’m human. I admit my faults and my wrongs, I apologize if I overreact, I check back in if I think I hurt a kid’s feelings, and I write private notes to kids who maybe need to know that I’m here. I share stories about my kids and my husband, I show videos of my kids and their silly antics, I read books that were my actual physical books when I was a child and share the pages that made me swoon. I tell them about my dreams and fears and I model my beliefs every day.

3- I respond. If a child reaches out to me in email, I respond immediately. If they write me a note, I write back. If they draw me a picture, I hang it up. I’m also human and sometimes I forget. Then see #2- I say I’m sorry and fix my errors.

4- I use humor. Everyone is different, but my kids get to know me and my humor. I can be silly and dramatic, I overemphasize and act out my feelings, and we all laugh… every day. Kids like to laugh. I like to laugh. It works!

5- I like them. I have never met a kid I don’t like. The most challenging kids I’ve ever had are the kids who carve their way into my soul. They keep me up at night years later wondering where they are and how they’re doing. That doesn’t mean I don’t struggle, that there aren’t kids who bring me to my personal brink, but when that happens I step back, often turn to humor, and also give space. A whisper of “I care about you and know you are better than this behavior. Let’s take a breather and come back when you’re ready” can solve more problems than I can count. Even with the toughest kids.

There is no magic formula that leads to lasting relationships, but if at the base of all of your interactions is a belief in mutual respect you will be golden. Respect kids time, respect kids space, respect kids lives. They don’t all come to us with Brady Bunch parents, three well-balanced meals, and a fully stocked library in their homes. Some of them come to us from chaos and school is their safety. Some of them come to us having it all but still need just a little bit more. You don’t have to be a superhero to create lasting bonds- you just have to care. Every day. No matter what. Kids can tell, and kids deserve it.