Star Wars, The Cool Kids, & Ridicule

I’m a huge Star Wars nerd, and I’m proud of that. I think I was in 2nd grade when A New Hope was released, and it absolutely captivated me. I have so much nostalgia for those movies, and I don’t care if other people think I’m weird for liking them so much. Yes, I have an R2-D2 USB charger in my car, and I nearly lost my mind the other day when my Waze navigation app asked if I would like to have C3PO’s voice deliver my driving instruction. Umm… YES!

Of course I have friends who don’t “get” my love of all things Star Wars. Most of them chuckle at my excitement… some of them politely rib me about it… some come right out and say, “I don’t understand how you can get so into these sci fi/fantasy movies.”

And that’s okay. I’m almost 47 years old, and I’m at that wonderful place in my life where I don’t always care so much about what other people think of me. It’s taken a long time to get to that place, even though I still struggle in some areas.

I started thinking this morning about how people sometimes make fun of others simply for the things they LIKE… or are really passionate about. A friend and I were chatting yesterday about how mainstream Comic Con has become. Conventions like that used to be fodder for a lot of jokes. People dressing up like the characters in comics, science fiction, or fantasy? What nerds, right? Now we know that cosplaying is an art form, and I’m increasingly in awe of the incredible attention to detail in so many of those costumes!

A couple weeks ago, a “news” channel, which shall remain unnamed (and not linked, because I don’t think they deserve more attention or traffic to their website), spent time making fun of people who like Star Wars. One of the commentators went on and on about how ridiculous these people are, and that she is too cool and “attractive” (yes, she actually used that term) to be into Star Wars. She presented herself as one of the Cool Kids, and liking something she thinks is stupid is unthinkable.

So, ridicule is important enough to air these days? (Again, I consider the source, but still…)

As always, my teacher hat pops on, and I think about the students in my classroom, in our school… and kids all around us. What does it say to THEM when they hear someone ridicule another person or group of people simply for what they LIKE?

When I was a shy, little girl, I was VERY aware of what the people around me thought. In 5th grade, I was really excited to wear my brand new Peanuts socks to school. Every character was on those socks, and I thought they were really cute. I wore a dress that day, and proudly pulled up those socks to my knees, so that you couldn’t miss seeing Charlie Brown and company.

When I got to school, some of my friends looked at my socks and then walked away. Later, I overheard them whispering to each other, “Can you believe she likes Peanuts?” “That’s so stupid.” “I hate Charlie Brown and Snoopy.”


CC licensed photo by Matt Grimm

I was crushed. I kept trying to hide my legs under the table so no one would see them. I thought about taking them off and putting them in my backpack, but I lived in Omaha, Nebraska… and it was a chilly day. I excused myself to the restroom and tried turning them inside out, but you could still see exactly what they were. I stayed in the restroom and cried for a while, because I didn’t know what to do.

[Photo Credit: by Matt Grimm]

That was one example… but I know most of us have have multiple examples of situations like that. As I got older, I started hiding the things I REALLY liked from my friends. I was a closet nerd. Most of the kids in my class loved Star Wars, so I didn’t have to hide that. Luckily, it was cool to like Star Wars in the late 70s and early 80s. But my tastes in music, certain books, TV shows, toys I played with… much of that was hidden from the kids at school. I stopped sharing the things I was really passionate about and pretended to like the things that the other kids liked. Sad, but pretty typical, right?

When I became a music teacher, I often invited the kids to bring in music they wanted to share with their class. I didn’t realize that asking 7-12 grade kids to do this could open up a lot of pain for some kids. As they brought in their cassette tapes and CDs, I asked them to play a song for the class and then explain what they liked about the music, lyrics, etc. We had to go beyond just saying, “It’s cool,” to discussing the music a little more deeply. I asked the rest of the class to also ask questions or provide comments about the music…  Which instruments do you hear?What do you hear in the bass line? How does any of this make the song unique? etc.

A lot of the kids brought in heavy metal (to this day, I think I know all the lyrics to “Enter Sandman by heart.), rap, and a lot of country. Often, I would hear comments about how stupid someone was for liking a particular song… and that took me right back to the days of being ridiculed for liking something that others did not. I couldn’t let it go.

I asked the kids, “Do we all have to like the same things? Is one type of music better or cooler than another type? Or is it just different?” We started discussions that, at first, weren’t very productive. But as we started to analyze the music more deeply, the kids started to notice some common elements, patterns, and other factors that helped them move forward in their thinking. I kept reminding them how boring it would be if we all liked exactly the same things. Some of the kids started listening to music they would never have dreamed they’d like. For those kids whose tastes were completely different than their peers, I started to see some relief, and eventually, more confidence about those tastes.

Inevitably, the kids started asking me about my tastes in music… and other things as well. I shared the things I liked. When they laughed at some of the songs, movies, TV shows, and books I brought up, I stopped and just looked at them. And waited. And waited… until one of the students stood up for me. That was HUGE! By modeling for them that it was okay to like different things, and that it was actually cool to be an outlier with your tastes, some of them were able to step up and advocate for me, and eventually their peers. When kids begin to act as leaders in your school and start to show acceptance of diverse tastes, the rest of the kids take notice.

Fast-forward to the present in my teaching with 5, 6, and 7 year olds, I’m seeing the same things. They all tend to want conformity, and they’re sometimes afraid to share the things they really love that are different. We spend a LOT of time really working out those issues and sharing that we SHOULD all like different things. We are better together, because we have diverse tastes.

Now… back to the recent Star Wars ridicule. Or whatever it is that someone is really passionate about. If you’re an educator (or parent, or someone who has influence with children), how are you modeling acceptance? How are you showing children that we should celebrate our differences? That it’s okay to like something that isn’t mainstream or popular?

It’s difficult enough for kids, especially when peer pressure is so great an influence in their lives… if the adults are acting like Regina George from Mean Girls and dictating our tastes and opinions, how are the kids supposed to deal with that on their level?

One of the parents from my school told me earlier this year that she could hear “my voice” in her son’s conversations at home. At first, I was flattered… and then I started thinking even more about how great my influence is on these children… and what a heavy responsibility that is. If I were to make fun of a movie I didn’t like, for example, what would that do to a child in my class who liked that movie? What impression does that leave with that child?

I can’t just leave that in the classroom. I see it among the adults in my network, on Facebook (which is its own evil monster sometimes), and in conversations with acquaintances. Yes, snark is often funny, but I wonder how we could learn to appreciate our different tastes more… or maybe just let it go. If you don’t “get” why everyone is losing their minds over Star Wars right now (or whatever the new thing will be after the Star Wars mania dies down), that’s okay. Maybe just keep that to yourself. We won’t tell the other Cool Kids.

You don’t make your flame any greater by extinguishing that of another.

Trust, Compassion, and Love

Think about this:

Why do we cheer on Katniss Everdeen and company in the Hunger Games? Katniss sees a wrong and wants to fix it. The authority (the Capitol) abuses its power. When a person in one of the districts breaks the rules or speaks out against the Capitol, they’re physically and publicly punished. Katniss doesn’t trust the Capitol, and she leads a revolution… and we cheer.

When our STUDENTS communicate to us something they see as a wrong, do we applaud them for speaking up? Or do we try to shut them down and force compliance? When they break our rules, do we sit down and talk with them? Or do we punish? How often is that punishment public and/or physical?


What if…

  • we showed kids that we trust them?
  • we stopped requiring absolute compliance with no questioning? (because we wouldn’t want that requested of us, right?)
  • we looked at their acts of defiance as courage to stand up and advocate for themselves?
  • we taught them how to respect others by showing them respect first?
  • we looked at “discipline problem children” as who they really are? Human beings who need our care, trust, compassion, love… and no labels. They are children. Period.


I’ve been thinking a lot about the video* I watched where a young girl was thrown around her classroom while still in her chair… because she didn’t put her phone away. People commented that it wouldn’t have happened if she would have just done what she was told. Comply with my rules, or we will physically cause you harm? In my eyes, the ONLY justification in putting hands on a child is if he (or she) is endangering himself or others… and then only to restrain.

Reading more about her story is heartbreaking. What if an adult in that school had taken the time to simply stop and TALK with her? I’m betting we wouldn’t have seen a video of her being thrown around the room.

It’s extremely obvious that we do not trust kids… and that the depth of our fear OF those children (yes, children) goes so far that we allow them to be hurt by us. We allow them to be treated as LESS than. Less than human. And when you account for the suspension/expulsion rates broken down by race, you see an even more sinister story. We don’t trust kids, especially children of color.

I say “WE,” because each of us is complicit in allowing to this happen over and over again when we don’t stand up to make it end NOW.

I’ve come a long way from my first few years of teaching. Those years when I required absolute compliance. Those years when I didn’t listen to a “sob story,” because I didn’t trust the kids to do what they were “supposed” to do. Those years when a lot of my students hated me and didn’t trust me at all. I didn’t trust them. I didn’t respect them. As their teacher, I was supposed to anticipate that these students would try to get the better of me… would try to be lazy… would try to do anything but what they were supposed to be doing… if I didn’t have the upper hand.

Now, I look back on some of those kids I had… the really defiant ones… and I know they were hurting. I know they needed me to teach them that life was more than what we learning in the classroom… that someone could care about why they were upset. That sometimes an adult who will just LISTEN is more important than following the rules every step of the way. And I wasn’t that teacher.

I’ve read and heard a lot of comments about how “kids are so disrespectful nowadays,” and how they need to be taught respect properly. (Read here: we need to teach them to fear us). Any time I’ve ever heard someone use the phrase, “they need to be taught to respect me,” it always comes across as derisive. Full of contempt. As a child, why would I ever want to respect someone who wants me to fear them?

How can we teach kids to respect us if we don’t respect them?

How can we teach kids to trust us if we don’t trust them?

I am the adult in the classroom. THE ADULT. I need to ensure the safety of my students… yes. But they are in my care, and I take that very seriously. My second priority as a teacher is to help these children love to learn. My first priority is to make sure they know they are cared for. They are trusted. And yes, they are loved. When they make mistakes… and they WILL… I need to be the adult who can think past the mistake. I need to be the adult who sees the child in front of me. The child waiting to see how I will react.

I didn’t do that when I first became a teacher, and that still haunts me. I will not make that same mistake again.




*I didn’t link to the video. There are too many of these types of videos. This is a crisis, and we have to step up. Do better.

Start With The Kids

School started for us at Anastasis Academy last Wednesday. We’ve had three days with our classes so far, and I’m so excited about all the possibilities in store for our students.

My students on the playground (c) Michelle K. Baldwin 2015

My students on the playground
(c) Michelle K. Baldwin 2015

I have nine kids in my class this year, four of whom were with me last year, too. They range in age from 5 to 7, and watching every little aspect of the school day through their eyes is an incredible experience already.

I should back up a bit and explain that we have meetings with each child individually before the first day of school. We call these meetings “Learning Profiles.” We ask the kids about themselves, their favorite movies, what they like most about school, their best vacation ever, etc.

One of the questions we ask is, “If you could change anything about yourself, what would you change?” Every single one of my littles replied with either “Nothing!” or “I don’t know… probably nothing.” (Wouldn’t it be awesome to go back in time to that place when we really liked exactly who we were?)

I always enjoy these learning profiles so very much. The kids make me smile, laugh, and sometimes even cry. Most importantly, I get to know quite a bit about these little friends before they join the rest of their classmates for their first day.

Before school even starts, we spend time getting to know each child… even those we’ve had in class before. We start with the kids.

Not the curriculum. (We don’t have boxed curriculum at Anastasis, but even the thoughts about what we want to do with our students come later… after we actually know something about the kids in our care.)

Not the rules.

Not the routine of each day.

Not which gimmick or trendy education panacea will be best for our students and help raise their test scores.

We start by having conversations with every single kid and really listening to them. And these kids have a lot to tell us about what they want to learn about, how they like to learn (spoiler alert: none of them likes to sit still all day!), etc.

Our school’s founder, Kelly Tenkely, often talks about how she started our school with specific kids in mind. That these are “kids with names.” That kids are more than test scores. That children are NOT data points.

As a teacher, I think very intentionally about every single child in my classroom… and I start truly considering what each of them needs.

Many of you reading this post know I’m a connected educator. I believe very strongly in connecting my kids with other classrooms, educators, and experts around the world to learn from them and share what we’re learning with them. I love bringing other connected friends into my classroom, either in person or virtually, to expand our learning beyond our classroom walls.

But I don’t start with those connections.

At Anastasis, we like to get our kids out of the classroom to other learning experiences – museums, performances, and service learning opportunities –  just to name a few.

But we don’t start there.

We start with the kids. If any one of us thinks we know what’s best for these children BEFORE we get to know them, we are doing a huge disservice to those in our care.

My advice to you as you continue with your newly started school year or before those kids walk into your classroom for the first time in 2015-16:

  • Forget the gimmicks. These are not the things that are going to help your students learn.
  • Forget the outside connections for a while.
  • Take the time to get to know your students. (I know that many of you are in situations where you have two or three times as many kids in your classes as I do. I also know that you’re not able to have Learning Profile meetings before school like we do.But that doesn’t mean you can’t get to know your kids before everything else grabs your focus.)
  • Take the time to ask them about themselves.
  • Give them a reason to open up to you, and then keep that privilege sacred. When a child trusts you enough to share something personal, show her that you value her and what she has shared.
  • Ignore the advice from your undergraduate training that told you to hide your “humanness” and to be the “firm, but fair” teacher. Instead, show the kids you really care about them (not just their learning).

THIS is where you start when you want to improve a child’s education. It always starts with the kids.


Dreams Fulfilled

As the school year came to a close for us this past May, I realized that I had just finished my 20th year in education: six years in 7-12 vocal music, eight years as a technology professional development coordinator, two years in elementary general music, and the last four as a teacher at Anastasis Academy.

At each stage in my education career, I have loved working with my students, both children and adults. But somehow, I always felt something was missing. I didn’t always like that students were required to learn a certain way or a pre-defined set of skills and concepts… and that I was required to teach in a certain way. It didn’t seem like real learning to me.

A good friend of mine, Sharon Comisar-Langdon (who just retired after 34 years!) visited Colorado a while back. It was great to catch up with Sharon and her husband, Randy. I found myself going on and on and on about how much I loved Anastasis and the incredible opportunities we have for our students. At one point, Sharon remarked, “Michelle, what you’re doing at this school is what we ALL went into education to do.”

That statement has stuck with me since that time, and she was right. I have never been happier as a teacher than I am now – watching our students at Anastasis grow in their confidence, ask amazingly deep questions, and become excited about learning! This is a place where students LOVE school. This is a place where teachers love school!

I watched a lot of my teacher friends post countdowns to summer break on Facebook and other social media sites a few months back, and I realized at the time, I had no idea how many days we had left. As much as I enjoy sleeping in occasionally during the summer, I’m not excited for summer break anymore. I miss my students! I miss the joy of learning I am so privileged to witness in those children every single day.

I didn’t mean this to sound like a commercial for our school, but more a testament to what happens when you stick your neck out and do something DIFFERENT. Anastasis is different.

To Kelly Tenkely (who is actually celebrating a birthday today), I express my profound gratitude. Thank you for thinking, “why not me? Why shouldn’t I just start my own school?” Thanks for writing a blog post that started Anastasis. Thank you for making a place where people WANT to be – what I have always loved about teaching and learning happens because of your dreams and drive to make them happen.

This also makes me wonder… why don’t more of us do this? Why don’t we stand up to the lawmakers, those who make and enforce policy, and demand what’s best for kids? Why do we insist on “fixing a broken system” with more of the same things that make kids unhappy? Learning should be an experience that is enjoyable, challenging, and based on the needs of each child. I don’t see that happening in most places.

My friend, George Couros, often asks, “Would you want to be a kid in your classroom?” I can truly answer an enthusiastic YES to that question now… and I wish my own children could have experienced learning in this school as well.

As a child, I knew that I wanted to become a teacher, because I love learning… and I wanted to share that love and joy with others. As much as I enjoyed my previous experiences, there was always something missing. Teaching at Anastasis is not just a job. Now I am able to share my passion about learning with our students. As Sharon noted, I get to do what I always dreamed about doing. The smiles on their faces, the realization you see in their eyes when they learn something on their own terms, the pride they feel when they see their progress, and the joy they experience because they know they’re in a place that honors them as unique individuals – THAT is what I wanted to be able to experience when I dreamt about going into teaching. Dreams fulfilled.

Yes, Motivation DOES Matter

I teach in a school where I get to see children excited about learning. Every. Single. Day.

Is it always perfect? Of course not.

Do the kids sometimes get frustrated when they’re challenged with something difficult? Absolutely… but (stealing Tom Hank’s line again from A League Of Their Own) the “hard is what makes it great.”

When a child learns something new and rises up from a challenge, they find so much about what’s inside themselves. (We all know this. Should know this.) As a teacher, there’s nothing like seeing the satisfaction and joy on a child’s face when he/she has accomplished something that initially seemed too difficult. I love seeing how motivated my students are about what they want to learn.

Important to note… we don’t do traditional testing. (or grades, or homework, or grade levels, etc.)

This morning, my friend John Spencer shared an article and asked for thoughts: Does Student Motivation Even Matter? 

The article goes on to note that students actually perform better on tests when they are not motivated… as if this information should tell us something valuable. Students who are motivated to learn do not perform on tests as well as their peers who aren’t motivated.

Does student motivation even matter? Seriously

Do you care if kids care about what they’re learning? (Not what the curriculum tells them to care about, but what THEY actually care about.) Do you care if they are bored out of their minds? Do you care if they wake up in the morning and groan about going to school?

Do you care that they forget most of what they have memorized for a test after the test is over?

Do you care that we are producing automatons who have learned more about being compliant and filling in bubbles than about thinking deeply?

Do you care if these CHILDREN are basically little hamsters hopping onto their wheel to perfunctorily execute the “same old, same old” day in and day out?

I care, and I’m horrified. Have WE become those hamsters spinning the wheels in our own lives so much so that we don’t care if we suffer others to the same fate?

The homework battle, the incessant testing… these kids are becoming drones, and does anyone even care?

I don’t want that for MY life. Why would I even think that this would be ok for a CHILD?

Children should be running. Playing. Discovering. Examining. Creating. Singing. Dancing. Making mistakes with the freedom to learn from them… and that won’t go on a record to haunt them from one level to the next.

And for the record, when I write “children,” that doesn’t mean only primary aged kids. Have you talked with a high school kid recently? Some are so serious and stressed out all the time. Why do we do this to them?

As for me, I don’t want the kind of life where I am not learning something new and exciting every single day. I don’t want drudgery. In my current position as a teacher at Anastasis Academy, I’m extremely fortunate in what I get to do. I LOVE going to work every single day. I don’t wake up dreading the routine, because it’s different every day.*

That is what I want for my students… and for all children. I want them to find something that makes them happy. I want them to find and enjoy their calling. Not their job. Not their “have to.” Not their hamster wheel.

Too many kids associate “learning” with “painful,” something they must suffer through. Why have we reinforced this? Why have we allowed people who don’t have an inkling of what true accountability means to define it for us? For our children?

I want all kids to be able to experience learning the way that my students do. I want kids to care so much about the things they learn, that they begin to think deeply and ask questions.  I want all kids to be excited about learning something new and to know that school is a place where that can happen.

So, yes. Motivation DOES matter… but not if you think learning is something you could even begin to measure with a test.



*A lot of people will argue with me and say that my traditional schooling is what led me to the opportunity of finding my calling. Not true. I was one of those really fortunate kids in school, because I have a freakish memory. School was incredibly easy for me. I was able to learn beyond what was expected of me, because of my freaky memory. While other kids were forced to practice and drill facts over and over again, I was allowed to hang out in the library and read whatever I wanted. I was allowed to create art work for my school. I was allowed to spend time in the music departments learning more about music. As for my work as an educator… I had a lot of UN-learning to do to get to where I am now. An upcoming blog post will delve into this more. 

It’s All About Context – Part Two

This is part two of a post I wrote about the importance of context in learning.

Last month, my 5 and 6 year old students listened to and discussed “The Dream Keeper,” by Langston Hughes. I wrote it for them on the white board, and we left it up to display for the whole month. We talked about who Langston Hughes was, who might be the voice in this poem, what our dreams are, what our heart melodies sound like to us, and why “the Dream Keeper” would wrap dreams up for someone, “away from the too-rough fingers of the world.” Their responses were typical for 5 and 6 year old children.

One day, we drew what our dreams and heart melodies looked like for us. Each student imported a photo of the drawing into our Explain Everything app, and then recorded an explanation of what his drawing was about. On the next slide in the app, each boy typed the full poem and then recorded himself reading it – this activity was their decision. They wanted to have a typed version of the poem somewhere in this project file.

Somewhere along the way, the boys memorized the poem… completely unbeknownst to me. I only discovered this fact when we went to visit our “grand-friends” to make Valentine’s crafts with them right before Valentine’s Day. I mentioned something about our heart melodies, and the boys started reciting the poem. My jaw dropped! We never practiced memorizing the poem. We never practiced reading it aloud together, and they’re all at different stages in their reading. There are quite a few words in this poem that are challenging for many of them!

Why, then, did they memorize this poem? It was meaningful to them. They had some context of what the words meant, why someone might want to protect the dreams of another person, and how the world isn’t always kind. Every single one of them found some connection to this poem and their own dreams and heart melodies. Even now, a month later, they want to talk about that poem.

Did they learn about Langston Hughes and the Harlem Renaissance? A little. Do they know the connection to Hughes’ Dream Variations poetry and the structure of blues music? Not really, although they did notice it “sounded like a song.” Someday when they’re a little older and come across this poem again, they will already have a foundation to build upon. They have SOME context – in this case, an emotional connection – now for some very complex ideas.

Can you imagine what they’ll be able to do with this poem when they’re older?

I can’t always guarantee that each of my students will have an instant connection to what they’re learning. What I CAN do is help provide some context for each student… and that will look different for each and every one of them.

Most importantly, I think, is to remind ourselves (often) that memorization is NOT the most essential aspect of learning. A small step, yes; but as I mentioned in the previous post, a small child can memorize their ABCs. That doesn’t mean they can read or even tell you what sounds each letters make.

I always get a lot of pushback when I bring this up, but I’ll debate this with anyone. Yes, some foundational facts must be memorized in order to move forward with more advanced concepts, but memorization cannot be our only emphasis in learning.

So… in your school, where does most of your students’ time fall? Creating? Discussing? Evaluating?

Or is their time mostly spent on recalling information that someone has told them is important?

We emphasize to our students that which is most valuable by what we spend time doing with them.

It’s All About Context

Apologies to Meghan Trainor and her 2014 earworm… but it really is all about context

Have you ever heard a parent or teacher say something to the effect, “My child/student has regressed in the last 6 months. She knew this stuff last year! She passed tests and everything.”

Learning is fluid. Period. Brains are remarkable and in constant states of learning, unlearning, and relearning.  (Research in neuroplasticity is fascinating, and if you have any contact with kids, I hope you are reading about it.)

But here’s the deal: if your child has truly LEARNED something, she most likely won’t forget it or regress. While there are exceptions, most kids do not forget things they have truly learned.

What is more likely the case is that something was introduced without context. Kids- and adults- forget things they have committed to short-term memory that do not connect to something meaningful and relevant in their lives.

(OR… the context was only briefly visited because there wasn’t enough time to develop a real connection. Mile-wide curriculum that’s about an inch deep doesn’t leave a lot of room or time for context. But I digress…)

I’m on a math kick, so let’s use this as an example.

Young children who learn to count to ten do not actually understand counting. They’re simply mimicking a verbal pattern they memorized. Put 4 objects in front of a child who has just learned to count to 10, and he’ll point to each object, multiple times, and count to 10, not 4. This is a developmental issue, because the child does not connect the numbers he learned to say versus the number of objects in front of him.

If you put 3+2=5 in front of a child, she might memorize it easily, but if you give her the same number of objects to count, can she separate it into a group of 3 and a group of 2?

Children do not have context for numbers in print UNLESS they have something concrete in front of them. Even still, they need more exposure and experience with the concrete long before they begin to comprehend the abstract (number sentences in print).

I feel the same way about teaching music. Children should be singing songs and playing instruments long before they ever learn musical notation. You can memorize where the notes go on a staff and which note’s duration is a “ta” or a “ti-ti,” but if you have not had extensive experience with playing and singing those notes, you have no context for the notation. Some really brilliant man named Karl Orff believed this, too. (My fellow music teachers are laughing at me right now, because Orff is a really big deal).

Think about this: small children learn the alphabet song long before they’re able to make sense of the letters in the alphabet. You can recite the alphabet but not know which letters make which sounds. And you most definitely cannot read simply by reciting the alphabet.

I can sing hundreds of songs in various languages –  Italian, Portuguese, German, etc. – but I did not LEARN these languages. I memorized them and how to pronounce words in these languages. There’s no context there, other than what’s in the songs.

Those in real estate have their mantra, “Location, location, location.”

Educators should add to their repertoire, “Context, context, context.” Context helps kids make connections and move to deeper understanding, even if that deeper understanding happens down the road.

A recent example…

My 5 and 6 year old students have been using base ten blocks to help them think about adding and subtracting larger numbers. They know that, to subtract 35 from 50, they will have to swap out a ten for 10 ones. If I gave them 50-35 and taught them to “borrow,” some of them would remember HOW to do this, but they would not understand WHY. Most of them would not understand how to borrow and would become easily frustrated. Developmentally, they’re not in this place yet, but when working with the base ten blocks… every single one of them knows he has to swap a ten for 10 ones. There’s context there.

When I asked them to help me cover a wall with some paper, we learned that we had to measure the wall first. Our tape measure wasn’t long enough to measure the entire wall, so we measured in two steps. The tape measure ends at 120 inches. The second measurement was 58 inches.

I asked them to add 120 and 58. Blank stares. (Of course)

When I asked them what 120 would look like in base ten blocks (without actually using the blocks), they were able to tell me it was one blue (100) and 2 greens (10). I asked them to pretend the blue one was put off to the side for now. “You have two greens and 58. What does that mean?” They counted 58… 68… 78.

The said, “The answer is 78!” When I reminded them we still had a blue one off to the side, they were able to quickly say, “it’s 178!”

They did all of this in their heads without actually handling the base ten blocks. Because of our previous work with the blocks, they now have context about place value and adding larger numbers. Are they consistently able to do this? No. Not yet, and I want to really emphasize yet. They are 5 / 6 year old kids! But if they are able to get context in everything we’re doing – math and all the other things we learn every day – think about where they can go!

I could share so many more examples, but this post would never end. I will share a “part two” soon, because I have another wonderful example of poetry and context with my students.

A Math Tale – How I Know They Are Learning

Backstory to this post:

Teaching in an inquiry-based school, we don’t isolate “subjects” as most traditional schools do.  The beauty of this model is that kids really get to make connections. Science doesn’t just happen at a certain time of day, and it usually involves many other content areas as well. I love when my students are able to connect on their own that music is science is math is history is communication… and so on.

Although we don’t teach subjects in isolation all day, we do spend some time looking at content areas on their own for supporting understanding.

Math is a great example of one “subject” in our school that receives some supplemental time. It still looks different, though, because we meet each child where he/she is and help to move more deeply into understanding.

(I started to type “move forward,” but that’s not necessarily what happens, nor should it.)


The FOCUS of this post:

The problem with math in so many traditional schools is that there is a push to move kids along, rather than guide them into understanding. If you memorize facts easily, you’re going to do well in math early on. The problem with how math is often taught – and how most people think it should be taught – is that we focus so much on the “abstract” — the written facts. My friend Rafranz Davis says, “experiencing math starts with the ‘why,’ not the ‘how.'” I love this! Multiplication tables and formulas, for example, are the how, not the why.

Because so many of us, educators and non-educators alike, were taught with a focus on the math facts, we tend to forget that the conceptual understanding — the “concrete” and “representational” aspects of numbers — is entirely more important than what we memorize. A lot of students who do well in elementary or primary math classes find themselves struggling in pre-algebra or other math classes that require an understanding of what those facts mean, how numbers are related, the underlying patterns in those facts, and how it all connects. <— The WHY

Flash cards, worksheets, and apps that only focus on drilling facts are not what our kids need. They do not show us what our children have learned and understand about math.

BUT… this is where so much time, effort, and concerns lie. If students do not have their multiplication tables memorized by 3rd or 4th grade, they’re labeled as behind their peers. As a teacher, this frustrates me immeasurably. Yes, we want kids to be fluent in their facts, but the problem is when we assign a date and time to when they must have these facts memorized.

You might have a child who memorizes easily, but doesn’t truly understand what the fact means. I once had a student who knew that 5×3=15, but did not know that 5 groups of 3 items was the meaning behind it. Another one of my students understood that multiplication was grouping, but she could not recall fluently each fact if put on the spot.

Teaching a K/1 class for the first time has reinforced my philosophy of how I teach math- they WHY comes before the HOW. An example from today sealed the deal:

I have four students, all boys, in my class. (I know. Yes, I typed “four.”)

Every one of these boys, ages 5 and 6, is in a different place in his understanding of addition and subtraction facts. Some can skip count by 7s. Some are still struggling with addition and subtraction facts up to 10.

Today, we did some problem-solving with an activity I found on Addition Boomerang. (Watch the video – it explains how the boomerangs work. Definitely worth the 5 minutes.)

I started with all 4 of the kids together and demonstrated how the boomerangs work. We started with one boomerang with a +1 to reach the target of 10. Then we changed it to +2 to the target of 10. The boys were seeing this as an easy activity, and liked the idea of going around the boomerang circle.

Next, I changed it to two boomerangs: +3 and +4 with the same target of 10. I asked them to find every combination, both successful and “fails.”

This is what we produced together:



After we discussed other combinations, they determined that they had found all the successful combinations. Anything else we we might try would result in similar fails. This discussion was incredible, because some of them still don’t always remember the commutative property of addition. We often have to review that if 3+4=7, then 4+3 also equals 7. Epiphany moment!

After our discussion, I paired them up and gave them their own boomerangs to solve. One group had to get to the target of 20 with +4 and +5. The other group needed to get to 12 with +2 and +3.



Here’s the beauty of what I witnessed today. One of my boys who is very fluent in addition facts well past 10 struggled with this activity at first. He didn’t understand what we were trying to do. After working with his partner, he exclaimed, “Oh! I get it!” Exuberant smiles followed. Those facts he memorized are beginning to come to life for him.

Another one of my boys who is not fluent in addition facts to 10 whizzed through this activity. He was counting so quickly, his partner had to ask him to slow down so he could figure it out as well. I can still ask him, “what is 4+5?” and it will take him as long as it takes to put up 4 fingers followed by 5 fingers. But when I asked him which combinations would work in his boomerang, he amazed me at how quickly he could come up with different combinations, AS WELL AS explain WHY. This is a kid who would fail a standardized fill-in-the-blank or multiple choice math test on addition facts to 10. Give him a method in which to find a pattern or solve a puzzle, and he is able to show exactly what he understands.

When parents have come to me over the years with concerns- or outright nervousness- about where their kids are in math, I have tried to reassure them that a) kids don’t learn at the same pace, b) knowing facts is NOT understanding mathematics, and c) kids need a variety of activities that help them explore the relationship of numbers in meaningful and relevant ways.

Drilling facts, and even emphasizing facts over understanding of the concrete and representational aspects of what numbers and operators mean does a lot of damage to how kids view “math.”

So here’s my advice:

  1. Take a deep breath. Your child’s math progress does not reflect poorly on you as a parent. I promise.
  2. If you have taken your child to a math tutoring business*, remember that it is a business. They will find something (anything!) wrong with your child’s progress to sell you their services.
  3. If you really want to help your child understand the relationship of numbers, find activities that involve, but do not focus on math. Baking, building, measuring, counting, budgeting for groceries– all of these are great ways to involve your child in something that requires some skills and concepts without it being the only focus. Math facts, by themselves, can be tedious and tiresome for a lot of kids (especially for those who have been told they are “behind”).
  4. One of my students can count by 7s because he is a huge football fan. Ask him how many points have been scored with 6 touchdowns… he knows the answer. And he is SIX. Football matters to him, so groups of 7s and 3s are meaningful to him, too. What matters to your child? Build on that.
  5. Puzzles and patterns are fabulous ways to help kids make sense of numbers. If your child loves patterns, but hates “math,” there is a disconnect here. Find puzzles that your child might enjoy and do them together. Be patient, and don’t feed answers.
  6. Do a little research on Concrete-Representational-Abstract instruction (CRA). This has been my underlying philosophy of how I help kids learn concepts in math (and music, for that matter), and I’ve seen kids’ understanding improve significantly. This method connects the HOW with the WHY.
  7. If you’re teaching math, where is your emphasis? I know many of you have pacing guides, material/textbooks to cover, and even scripts you are required to follow… but are you helping your students understand? If yes, please add some of your resources or suggestions in the comments. (Thanks!)


I’m fortunate to teach at a school** where we MAKE time for kids to explore and have those epiphany moments, whether it’s in their mathematic abilities, reading, asking questions, creating, building, or discovering their passions. (It’s a pretty awesome place to be a kid AND an adult who gets to witness it all.)

Above all else, I want to do what’s right for each of the children in my care every day. There’s a reason “Drill and Kill” became a thing in describing math practice activities. I don’t have any place for that when I want to help children understand.

(+10,000 points to you if you read all the way to the end. TL:DR is not in my vocabulary.)


*”math tutoring business” in this sense refers to corporate and for-profit businesses, not individuals.

**Shameless plug: if you want to witness in person what we do in our school, please join us at next month!

I’m Bad At…

When I first started teaching over 20 years ago, I remember asking little kids questions like, “Who is a great singer?” Every single one of them raised their hands. For every grade level “older” I asked the same question, fewer and fewer kids raised their hands. The same pattern emerged if I asked them if they were good artists, good basketball players, good dancers, etc.

As we get older, we start to compare ourselves more with the people around us, and that’s a very human thing to do. Eventually, we start understanding what it means to be a good _______, because we have more experience from which to make those comparisons.

Sadly, the trend I’m seeing in the last decade or so is that I see fewer hands raised when I ask those questions of little kids now. When I returned to the elementary music classroom in 2009, I actually had kindergarten students tell me they were bad singers. WHAT!? How does a 5 year old kid think he’s a bad singer?

When I started at Anastasis in 2011, I remember an 8 year old who told me she couldn’t draw at all. When I asked her if there was something wrong with her hand that made it impossible to draw, she laughed a little but then remarked that she just wasn’t good at drawing. We talked about how we’re all still learning and that practice is important, but underneath it all, I wanted to cry listening to this child’s defeatist attitude at 8 years old.

Where is this coming from?

While I’d like to blame Malcolm Gladwell and his pseudoscientific (and factually incorrect) 10,000 hours claim, I can’t. It’s not Gladwell.

It’s all of us.

I stopped to think about the number of times I’ve apologized to my students or my own children before doing something that I wasn’t really great at doing. There are too many examples.

cc licensed photo by anna gutermuth

cc licensed photo by anna gutermuth*

Whenever I’ve gone up to the chalkboard or whiteboard to draw a diagram or an image, I have apologized to my class before: “Sorry, I’m not a great artist, so this won’t be that good.”

I’ve just set them and myself up for judgment about what is good, and I’ve also given them an example of an adult who is so insecure about drawing that she has to apologize before she even starts.

Additionally, I’ve put a poor value on something that might be better than what my students might have drawn. If I say “this is bad,” then what does that mean to a kid who might not have drawn as well as I did?

“Wow, Mrs. B must think my drawings are REALLY bad then.”

I’ve stopped doing that.

And now I think about all the images and statements we unknowingly pass along to kids:

  • I’m bad at math.
  • Ugh. I hate my body. I’m going on a diet!
  • Karaoke? No way! I can’t carry a tune in a box!
  • I wish I could play tennis as well as Serena Williams, but I can’t… so I don’t even try.

I’m sure there are many more we could add to this list.

I’ve had a lot of time to reflect about certain things in the last week, and I’ve come to some very sad conclusions:

  1. My fear prevents me from doing things that I would probably really enjoy.
  2. If I’m not good at something, I don’t do it.

I love to sing and I was a voice major. I love singing karaoke with my friends, because it’s fun… not because I want to show off. However, it’s also a comfort zone. I’m not afraid to get on a stage and sing, because I’ve been doing that almost my entire life.

It really bothers me when I hear people say that they can’t sing. Of course they CAN, they just don’t think they’re any good at it. So, I encourage them… karaoke isn’t about who is the best singer; it’s about having a good time and enjoying yourself.**

I’m such a hypocrite.

My husband wants us to play tennis. I really, really suck at tennis. REALLY. So, I’ve been balking at the idea. When I finally told him that I’m afraid to play because I don’t know how, he just said, “So what. Let’s just go have fun.”

Permission to not be an expert and to just have fun. 

That’s incredibly freeing.

Hmmm… giving kids permission to try, not be perfect, and just have fun with it. I SAY that to kids all the time.

But I don’t DO it.

We all need to be better models for our kids, and DOING is more important then SAYING. We know that.

Time to walk the talk.

Time to stop saying, “I’m bad at...” and start saying, “I can’t wait to try (or practice)… and just have fun!

This doesn’t mean we should take away anything from people who are truly gifted in specific areas or erase competition from everything. Competition has its place, although I’ve written about its overemphasis, too. There is a need for expertise and talent to be recognized. However, there’s also a need for encouragement to SIMPLY TRY, and then practice to improve if it’s something you’re interested in improving.


  1. What things have YOU said, “I’m bad at…” to other people or kids?
  2. What steps can you take to eliminate that negative self-talk, whether you’ve been saying it aloud or just in your head?
  3. What would you like to try, but your fear has been holding you back from doing so?
  4. What can you do to start trying?
  5. How will you change your approach with children?


I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section. I know I’m not alone in feeling this way.


*photo credit: CC licensed photo by anna gutermuth, “124/365

**While I know karaoke might be a bad example (lots of “not great” singers get up to sing, usually after some form of liquid courage), singing is a great example. Singing is very personal, and I notice that, in the US especially, very few people in the crowd ever sing the national anthem at sporting events anymore. There’s always some professional at the microphone, and everyone else just listens. In Canada, I’ve noticed more people tend to sing along with their anthem. When I went to a Denver vs Australian Army rugby game a few summers ago, the Australians in the crowd were singing along, quite vigorously, with their anthem. So, is this just an American thing? Are we more insecure in the things we’re not great at than other nationalities? Maybe the Star-Spangled Banner is a bad example, because it truly is one of the most difficult songs to sing, but I still think there’s something about insecurity here that prevents people from singing.


Summer Learning

As an educator, I’ve heard people discuss the “summer learning loss” since my first ed methods courses. For that matter, I remember adults talking about it when I was a kid, too. As a kid, I couldn’t figure out what they meant, because I learned all summer long… it just looked different than what it looked like in school.

If we look at learning as facts to be retained indefinitely, then summer learning loss is a concern.

However, if we realize that learning is fluid, that we often temporarily forget concepts, skills, and procedures when we don’t use them regularly, then summer learning loss shouldn’t be a huge concern. When we assume kids should all learn certain concepts by a certain age and then retain them forever, we do a disservice to those children – and it also means we don’t really understand LEARNING.

(How many of you remember every theorem you ever learned AND can use them right this minute with no review? How many of you took a second language and can still speak fluently if you rarely or never used that language again after you graduated?)

I’m worried about some of the articles and posts I’ve read recently about what kids need to be learning over the summer. Many of these posts contain lists that stress more drill including math facts and reading strategies, such as practicing affixes, etc.

“Hey, kids! Let’s have some fun today! We’re going to practice AFFIXES!” [cue kids cheering]

(I wish someone would hurry up and create that sarcasm font we’re all needing.)

Yes, let’s just make summer about killing the joy of learning, just like we have to do during the school year. (I use the word “we” here as a generality. I don’t think all of us have to do that during the school year, and I know for certain that our school, Anastasis Academy, is about bringing back the joy in learning. But that’s not the focus of this post.)

What if, during the summer, kids had the option to learn in a manner that is natural for them?

cc licensed photo by Lotus Carroll

cc licensed photo by Lotus Carroll*

  • running
  • riding bikes
  • swimming
  • playing in the yard or park, running through sprinklers or around the fire hydrant
  • pretending (we spent more time as kids playing Charlie’s Angels than anything else over the summer)
  • neighborhood/street games with no adult intervention

Those 6 things help kids learn a MULTITUDE of important skills, including setting boundaries or rules for games, problem-solving, and being creative just to name a few. The physical activity alone is enough to warrant hours and hours allotted each day for these physical activities. Kids should NOT be sitting around all day, and most especially not during the summer! Sitting has shown to be incredibly harmful to our bodies.

For shorter periods of time during the day, kids should be allowed quiet time to read. The most important part of silent reading time is that the kids have choice to read what they want.

As an adult, when I walk into a bookstore or a library, I feel like a kid in a candy store. That’s because I LOVE TO READ. I love to read, because I had a LOT of choice as a kid. We went to the library often every summer.  My mom didn’t force me to choose books that were at my lexile level, nor did she tell me I shouldn’t choose a book because it was too easy for me. It was always MY choice.

Over the last few years, I’ve noticed some of my students love to read fiction. Some love to read non-fiction. Some love to read magazines about animals. Some adore comic books. Some kids will read the boxes of anything in the room, if they’re allowed. (I remember reading every cereal box we had on the table at breakfast!)

If we want kids to read (and write) better, we need them to be reading MORE. Kids will read more when they’re interested in what they’re reading. The more choice we provide, the more likely they will want to read something different AND will eventually trust us when we do recommend something specific. Summer reading should be an extension of just that… allowing kids to choose what they want to read.

As for math facts and problem-solving skills, of course those things are going to fade over the summer. These are conceptual facts, not just something we memorize and ultimately understand. Kids need practice, but they need practice in context. Flash cards might help SOME kids memorize these facts, but why not provide something real for kids to do?

What if, instead of carving out an hour a day for drill practice, we asked kids to build something that required measuring, adding, subtracting, multiplying, or dividing? What if we baked or cooked together with kids? What if we gave them a box of craft materials or recyclables that are just going to be thrown out and asked them to invent something? What if we asked them to create a work of art, compose a song, or write and perform a play? All of these activities involve math concepts, among many others, even if those are not directly articulated to the kids.

Now stop and think about all the kids who may not have (safe) access to a library, a yard with grass or trees, or other neighborhood areas that are conducive to the type of play I mentioned above. Should they be limited to “drill and kill” activities? The majority of “summer learning loss” articles I’ve read say that children living in poverty need MORE drill and practice in academic-specific skills (usually math and reading/writing) over the summer. I disagree.

“Welcome to summer, James. You are already behind in school due to factors that are beyond your control, so let’s just make your summer seem like you’re in a prison, too. We’ll start by practicing your multiplication tables for the first hour, and then I’m going to ask you to read something you have absolutely no interest in for the next hour. After that, even though you’re probably already feeling like a zombie in the first 2 hours, we’ll continue to have you suffer through more drill and kill activities for the rest of the day. You’ll be SO ready for school in the fall!”

Again, I disagree whole-heartedly and believe that all children need safe and convenient access to play and pretend opportunities, with physical activity options and music and art. How do we ensure this happens for ALL kids?

KIDS NEED TO PLAY.** Period. They need to be silly, laugh, pretend, and they need to MOVE. When we dismiss the benefits of play for children, we do more damage to their eventual “academic” learning than we realize.

Alfie Kohn has already written more about this than I can even begin to attempt, but here’s a great example of his opinion on summer learning loss: Lowering the Temperature on Claims of “Summer Learning Loss.”

As a parent, I understand the worry that your child might be falling behind in school. Since my children have grown into adults, however, I regret that I worried too much about their academic progress when they were younger. I didn’t worry enough about their happiness, their physical activity, and their growth as complete individuals who would become happy and successful adults.

What do you REALLY want for kids?


*photo credit: CC licensed photo by Lotus Carroll, “Summer Essentials: Sprinkler Karate

**Articles on benefits of play