Saturday, December 24, 2011

I keep this moment by and by...

I have a skirt I wear every year, on Christmas Concert Day. Wool, A-line, bias-cut. Simple, almost old fashioned. It hits just below my knee. It's plaid, mostly dark green and navy blue, with a bright line of red criss-crossing over. With a ruffly white blouse and a red cardigan, it makes me feel festive without descending into the dangerous territory of Christmas sweaters.
But that is not the real reason I wear this skirt.

The plaid happens to be my family's tartan, and while we don't identify particularly strongly with my Scottish heritage (the circus folk and Swedish royalty being far more interesting), I do like having a tartan to call my own.
But that is not the reason I wear this skirt, either.

The fabric is the real deal, bought in Scotland by my Auntie Billie, sewn into a skirt for her by my grandma. And THAT is, sort of, the reason I wear this skirt.

My Auntie Billie was my dad's oldest (but not older) sister, and the mother of my favourite cousin. She was a tiny lady, with a great big laugh. I spent most of my childhood hearing how very much I looked like my Auntie Billie when she was a little girl, and the comparison delighted me. Her first career was as a hairdresser. She gave me my first haircut (and also my first perm, but I have long since forgiven her for that). My favourite photo of her shows her bent over my three-year-old head, creating tiny ringlets for my very important job as a flower girl in my other Auntie's wedding. I remember that day, sitting on the ottoman in my grandma's living room, Auntie Billie's fingers gentle in my hair, the sound of her laughing with her soon-to-be-wed younger sister. Later, at the wedding itself, I was suddenly too shy to walk down that very long aisle under the gaze of all those people. Auntie Billie, the maid of honour, came back down the aisle, and took my hand. We walked together to the front of the church.

Auntie Billie's second career, and true calling, was as a teacher. At first, she taught high school beauty culture, but it wasn't long until she found her niche with first and second graders at a high-needs school. Eventually, she became a vice-principal, helping to create an innovative year-round school program, the first of its kind in our city. She was a force to be reckoned with: passionate, articulate, stubborn, and oh-so-very funny.  You can see why comparisons to her continue to delight me.

The year I met the first group of kids to call me "teacher," Auntie Billie lost a seven-year battle with breast cancer.

I cried and grieved for her then. I knew I would miss her gentle smile, her hands reaching to hug me, the thoughtful and "just right" gifts that came at birthdays and Christmas, her genuine interest in all parts of my life, her laugh-till-you-cry stories about her students. I was old enough to know that not everyone grew up with a gaggle of aunties and uncles as loving and close as mine. I grieved for myself, yes, but also for my family as a whole: the loss of a sister, a mother, a daughter. But I didn't know yet...

I didn't know, yet, that my own career path would wind its way ever-closer to hers, and that, at every milestone, her absence would sting a little more sharply. As I started grad school, and began thinking and learning about children and families in a whole new way, I wished for her to sit next to me when I came home for holidays, and help me make practical sense of the dense research papers I was reading. When I got my first job teaching in a school (as opposed to a child development centre, rec centre, or community service agency), I wished for her to help me figure out the logistical realities of teaching two grades in one room, and the slippery alchemy of Teaching Children to Read. When I found myself at an unexpected professional crossroads, deciding between a job I didn't want, in a school community I loved; and a new, scary, dream job at a strange new school, I wished for her counsel (I took the dream job, and I'm sure Auntie Billie would approve.) Now, as I struggle every day to balance my students' day-to-day needs with the ever-increasing list of exciting-but-demanding additional responsibilities I seem to have taken on, I wish for her more than ever.  I wish for her to hold my hand as I dance this dance, and walk this path. At 22, I cried for the loss of my beloved Auntie. A dozen years later, I cry for the mentor and cheerleader I know she would have been. It continues to surprise me, this grief that gets sharper, instead of smoother, over time.

I know she is with me, and I find ways to keep her close. A photo of her with her hands tweaking my tiny ringlets sits on my desk at home. The dedication page of my Master's thesis lists her name. Nearly every day, I wear a small gold heart on a chain around my neck, a gift from her younger sister, to her, and back to me upon completion of grad school. Occasionally, I run into old friends of hers, or my dad's, and the first thing they do is gasp at how much I am like my Auntie Billie. I hear her laugh coming out of my mouth when I tell my best teaching stories. I know she is proud, and in case I ever forget it, her siblings -- my dad and my godmother -- remind me of that on a regular basis. But still, I wish she were here, and I wish that the hardest on the days I am most proud: of myself, and my students.

And so, on concert day, I wear Auntie Billie's skirt. I am not as tiny as she was, and so it has to sit high on my waist. The blouse and cardigan help cover this adjustment. As I kneel on the gym floor, helping 20 five-year-olds to remember the words and the steps, I'm pretty sure Auntie Billie is kneeling next to me. I wear her skirt, and I laugh her laugh, and I cry her tears of pride, and I hope that just maybe, when my students take my hand, they feel the love of her hands, too.

Peace on Earth.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

So you want to tweet with kindergarten...

Welcome! Please visit the updated version of this post here:

So, based on the response I have had to my recent media exposure, it seems that another how-to post is in order. Many people have asked me how to get started tweeting with young students, and honestly, the responsibility of guiding you through this is sort of daunting. To simply tell you: "Set up an account and go!" is woefully inadequate, and possibly negligent. As I have described in previous posts, my own decision to tweet with kindergarten was slow, thoughtful, deliberate. Your decision should be, too. With that said, this is my attempt to walk you through Twittergarten (as it has been coined by a reporter I know...). This process remains equally true if you are tweeting with any grade level, by the way, so don't be turned off by the frequent kinder-references. Also: I stand by my statement that this is not a how-to blog. I don't think I tweet with kindergarten any BETTER than anyone else.  This is just how I do it, and this is the only way I can, in good conscience, advise you to do it.**An opening sidebar: The process below is meant for teachers who are looking to tweet with multiple other classes, using connections they have made for themselves. If you are tweeting with just one other class, in the context of Kindergarten Around the World, I'm not sure that ALL of these steps are strictly necessary, and some of them have been done for you, by me. In fact, Kindergarten Around the World would be a great way to start tweeting with your class, and then move on to tweeting with multiple classes. End of sidebar.**

Step 1 - Get on Twitter yourself. I cannot emphasize this enough. If you are not active on Twitter yourself in a professional capacity, I'm not sure that it is responsible for you to start tweeting with your class. From perspectives both technical and ethical, I believe it is important in this situation for teachers to KNOW the medium. Create a personal account, start building a network. Start with me, @happycampergirl, if you don't have anyone else to start following. Other good choices are @hechternacht (my partner in #kinderchat crime, more on that in a  second), and other #kinderchat stars: @matt_gomez, @mr_fines, @mathmurd @tori1074, @havalah. Follow us, interact with us (we're nice, I promise), get a feeling for who is who and what is what. Follow links, read some blogs (and comment, too!), make some friends. Participate in a chat or two (the Newbie's Guide to KinderChat is here, and holds true for other chats, too). This is important for several reasons: a) you will learn HOW to interact on Twitter; b) you will develop some instincts for who your "people" are, and when something is just not right; c)people will get to know you and trust you, which you will need once you start tweeting with your class and are requesting to follow other teachers' classes. Let's put it this way: I do not accept follow requests for my class if I have never interacted with their teacher, and (to be completely honest) my class interacts more with the classes of teachers I know well.

(And, all of this aside: even if you do not want to  or cannot tweet with your class, get yourself on Twitter. It is truly the greatest, free PD you will ever find. If #kinderchat doesn't float your boat, find a chat that does. There are chats for most grades and subject areas. @cybraryman has a great guide, here.)

2 - Think through the logistics and reality of tweeting with your class: When will you do it? Do you have the technology? I honestly can't imagine tweeting with my class without having an Interactive White Board. If you don't have one, how will you facilitate students' interactions? (A good PLN can help you figure this out, by the way.) When in your day can you work it in? Twitter is only meaningful if your kids are building relationships with other kids, and that means tweeting regularly. Are you, yourself, completely sold on this medium as a meaningful tool for young children? (Obviously, I am, but you need to draw your own conclusions on this). Read some of the criticisms, here, and here, and think about them, please. 

3 - Figure out your curriculum connections. What are your goals for tweeting with your class? These will provide you a road map for how you will use twitter in your classroom. Are you focusing on geography and social studies? Literacy and literature? Second language development? Math and numeracy? Intercultural awareness and internationalism? It is okay if your answer is "all of the above!", just be sure you know where you are going.  Again, there are teachers around the world who are using Twitter for all of these things, and being active on Twitter yourself will help you find them.

4 - Talk to your administrators. I want to be clear that, while tweeting with kindergarten seems  to be considered cutting-edge, and, in some eyes, makes me some kind of rebel (if I figure out what exactly I am rebelling against, I will let you know), my boss (and her boss) has always been completely, 100% aware and supportive of what I am doing. Another good reason to be active on Twitter yourself is that it will help you build your case with your admins. Long before I wanted to tweet with my class, my boss knew about all the great ideas and support I was getting from teachers I knew through Twitter.

5 - With your boss's help, think through privacy and security questions. Will you tweet photos/video/audio that shows your students? Your classroom? Your school? How will you identify your students? Full names? First names? Initials? Can you/should you name your school and/or city?  Will your class account be private or protected (I highly recommend private to start, but I know of classes for whom a public account best meets their goals, and I know their teachers are handling safety and privacy very well.) Who will you follow? Who will be allowed to follow you? A good PLN can help you think through these things, and share samples of their own policies/consent forms (are you starting to notice a pattern, here?)

6 - Talk to your students' parents, preferably face to face. Even if your school already has a photo/video/online release policy that covers the use of Twitter (this is pretty unusual, by the way), talk to parents and get their written consent. My students' parents KNOW what we are doing, they signed written consent forms, and about 1/3 of them are following our class. Before I created my class account last year, I added twitter to my agenda for our November parent-teacher conferences. I explained it to parents, encouraged them to talk/think about it, and to follow-up with me with any questions or concerns.

7- When ALL of this is done, and (as my grad school advisor would say:) all of your ducks are in a row: create your class account. Share your screenname with your admins and your students' parents.  Use DMs (a DM is a direct, private message on Twitter) to share your class screen-name with teachers you know and trust through twitter, yourself. My class's screenname rarely appears in the public stream on Twitter, because I don't want to field follow requests from spammers or people I don't know. I share our screenname only via DM. With your students' help and input, write your twitter bio, choose an avatar, and send your first tweet. 

With that, you are off to the races. I trust that you are all competent teachers, and capable of creating your own activities, organizational systems, and management tricks (although I'm happy to share my own, if you ask.) If all of this sounds a little confusing, and you are wondering why I kept putting a "#" in front of kinderchat, and you're still not sure how a DM is different from a regular tweet, well.... I would suggest you are not ready to tweet with your class. There are lots of situations where I am completely in favour of learning alongside our students, but, given the attention span of 5-year-olds, and the (manageable, but still present) risks of a social media environment, my position here is that Twitter is not one of those. 

For perhaps the 347th time: If you want to get your class on Twitter, you need to get yourself on Twitter, first.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

From the lake, from the hills, from the sky...

I originally wrote this in May of 2009, and posted it over on my personal blog (which  is private for now, as I wrestle with losing the last shreds of my online anonymity). I'm re-posting it here, because I am proud of it, because it is true, and because, every time I have a success as a teacher,  it makes me reflect on the things that MADE me this teacher.  There is no underestimating the impact of 12 summers of camp life, and the family I found there. Because of camp, I am This Person, This Woman, This Teacher... And I am so very very grateful.

Because of Camp:

  1. My class sings Grace before lunch.
  2. and that grace thanks "the earth" instead of "The Lord."
  3. I know how to start a diesel truck.
  4. I have watched animals being born.
  5. I always know a song when one is called for
  6. and I'm not afraid to sing in public, as long as I have children singing backup.
  7. The stars at night are the most magical sight in the world.
  8. The people who know me best live 2500 km away
  9. so I know what it means to have friendships that are immune to time and distance
  10. and I know that the word family can refer to people you CHOOSE.
  11. The things I am most proud of in my life are not things at all, but young adults, scattered all over the world, doing amazing and inspirational things with their lives.
  12. I say "ten-four" at the end of phone conversations.
  13. I refer to the first day of school as "Opening Day"
  14. And to the teacher-prep time before it as "Staff Week."
  15. I actually think it is my job to clean up messes that I find, even if I didn't make them,
  16. Which means that every time there's puke on the floor of the girls' bathroom, I am the one getting the mop.
  17. I refuse to allow my students to say the words "you can't play with us."
  18. I feel a moral obligation to take children outside as often as weather permits.
  19. I organized a "puddle play" day, where my students were allowed and encouraged to play in the muck that covered our playground.
  20. I believe in teaching children actual skills, so that they can proudly complete the sentence "I am good at..."
  21. I believe that being a good friend is a skill that can be taught.
  22. Whether it's a trip, a party, or a lesson, I plan the details in advance, but am always ready to punt.
  23. I truly appreciate when food is prepared for me by someone else, and served with a smile.
  24. I know that any task is bearable if you are doing it with someone you like, and who makes you laugh.
  25. And that sometimes, doing a nasty chore with a stranger is a good way to become friends.
  26. I don't tell my boss I have a problem. I tell her when I have solved a problem.
  27. I know that the things that are the most fun make the biggest messes.
  28. And if I was involved in the fun, I should be involved in the cleanup.
  29. I remind myself every day that the children are not an interruption of my job. They ARE my job.
  30. I know that chances are that someone higher up is working harder than me, just to ensure that I get a break, and my day goes smoothly.
  31. I know that there are parts of my boss's job that I know nothing about.
  32. I do not underestimate the the threat posed by bored children.
  33. My dog of choice was a chihuahua,
  34. and I know how to remove ticks from his fur without him even noticing.
  35. John Denver makes me cry.
  36. I know that "the boom" is not a loud noise, a gris-gris is not a birdcall, and a girth extender is not... a marital aid.
  37. I know the secret meaning of "The ranch in Taylorsville."
  38. my best stories start with "Let's recap."
  39. I can sell ice to Eskimos!
  40. I get misty when someone calls me "Babe."
  41. It is extremely difficult for me to date someone if I haven't seen his resume and checked his references.
  42. I am far less likely to be a helicopter parent.
  43. I have very high standards of supervision when it comes to young children,
  44. And even higher ones when it comes to teenagers.
  45. I know that the best cure for burnout is sometimes to work harder.
  46. It takes me less than 3 minutes to fall asleep at 1:00 in the afternoon.
  47. I carry a clipboard anytime I want to exude authority.
  48. I find the humour, even in the darkest, most frustrating and painful moments of working with children.
  49. I have been given the very best gift by the very best of friends: the opportunity to love and be loved by their children.
  50. I have friendships that leave me weak with gratitude and admiration and joy, the kind of friendships that people write books about. You know who you are. I love you.

If you are someone who makes charity donations during the holiday season, please consider donating to the Coppercreek Camp Memorial Scholarship fund, which helps provide children with an amazing and magical summer camp experience.