Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Woodworking for a 4 Year-Old

Henry has shown a real interest in woodworking lately, so I purchased a few things for him from Montessori Services. They have books with project directions, child-friendly saws/drills/hammers, and even child-sized safety glasses. I'm excited to see what the projects are like!


Join us for the First Annual Reflection & Rejuvenation Retreat in Austin, TX, July 10th to 12th!

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Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Book Recommendation: Little Bee

A Little Free Library popped up in our neighborhood, and Henry and I were very excited about stopping by. We finally did one day after school, and we each got a book. I grabbed Little Bee by Chris Cleave. 

Right before bed on Saturday night, I started reading the first chapter. 

And then I teared up. I cried because I couldn't remember the last time I held a fiction book in my hand to read it for fun. Seriously. 

I remember when Tate was born (almost two years ago now!) and I read lots and lots of fiction books in those early days of middle-of-the-night breastfeeding (on my phone, using the Kindle app). 

But I literally cannot remember the last time I held a real fiction book. 

I understand why this part of my life has been put on hold, but understanding the reasons doesn't make it any less sad. 

I started reading a lot of non-fiction books in preparation for pregnancy back in 2010. And then Henry was born in 2011 and any spare minute I had went into writing my own book. And then we moved to Austin and I started pursuing my dream and very quickly I was pregnant again and all I could do to keep my eyes open during my free time was to watch Gossip Girls. And then there was my miscarriage and my third pregnancy soon after that. And then Tate arrived and then school started. So, yeah, not a lot of time for reading fiction. 

But fiction transforms me. It illuminates the human condition and let's me work through moral and ethical dilemmas from the safety of my couch.  

And this book is no exception! 

I definitely want to get back into the habit of reading actual fiction books that you can hold in your hands. If I read on my phone, my children have no idea whether I'm on Facebook or actually reading a book. I want my kids to clearly see that I love reading and that I'm a voracious reader (and I want to make more time to actually be one!). 

I slowly feel like I am clawing my way out of the hole of early motherhood. I know it doesn't feel like a hole to everyone, but it has been an incredibly difficult time for Matt and me. Tate is almost two and I feel our life getting easier and easier. Phew!


Join us for the First Annual Reflection & Rejuvenation Retreat in Austin, TX, July 10th to 12th!

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Monday, May 18, 2015


I've been resisting ordering my groceries online. It's more expensive, and I don't like what it represents about modern life. I'd like to think that weekly trips to the grocery store are meditative and that they reconnect us with the essential parts of being human. 

But it's been a really hard year for me and my family. Matt has had to take on a ton of extra things to support me in my work. I'm trying my best to keep my stress to a minimum so that I can be a good mother, a good wife, a good friend, and a good daughter, but I'm barely keeping my promises on any of those fronts. 

And so I ordered my groceries online using Instacart. I'm a list-shopper (versus a "browse shopper") anyway, so I simply pulled up my Excel list and made our purchases. I ordered enough supplies for four meals instead of five because we have a meal left over from last week, but our total bill ended up being about $50 less than normal. I'm not sure what that's about, but I'll take it! I received free delivery because it was my first time ordering. 

Since my bill was cheaper than it normally is, I'll probably have to try this again next week. Twist my arm!


Join us for the First Annual Reflection & Rejuvenation Retreat in Austin, TX, July 10th to 12th!

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Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Workouts for the Pool

We put in our backyard pool last year in August. It doesn't have a heater, so we took the winter off. The boys (my oldest son and my husband) have been swimming nearly every day since March when the temperatures were in the 60s and 70s. Now that the temperature is in the low 80s, I, too, am swimming every day. 

I've been trying to run once on the weekends and once on the treadmill at the YMCA during the week, but I'd also like to make more of a concerted effort to exercise in the pool while I'm having out with the boys. 

Here are some resources I found:

This video includes some interesting ideas:
  • Treading water with arms while one leg is sticking out straight
  • Dolphin kick on the side of the pool
  • Otter roll
  • Pike treading water
  • Ball lever
And, the best news is that treading water is apparently similar to running six miles an hour. That's a really good workout for me!

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Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Our Newest Pet

Can you guess what it is?

We already have a bloodhound and two chickens.

So what is the logical next step?

We gave up on the goat idea because they are simply too destructive.

Someone guessed bees, which is a good guess but not accurate.

Any other guesses?

A Vietnamese pot-belly pig! His name is Danger and he's the sweetest thing. A player on Matt's soccer team is reporting for basic training and needs to get rid of him. We are currently having a trial period with him.

We're still trying to research what it would mean to have a pet pig. Any ideas?

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Monday, May 11, 2015

Movie Recommendation: Maidentrip

We watched a great documentary about a 14 year-old who sailed around the world by herself. It was a powerful reminder of what we're capable of as humans. We can identify our authentic path and pursue it with passion. 

It takes a lot of courage. And courage is something we have to build over time. It's a muscle that needs to be exercised to get stronger and stronger. 

I recently read an interesting metaphor about courage in a magazine (I was waiting for Henry to get his haircut, so I don't even remember which one it was!). A little girl had mustered the courage to be part of a performance. Afterwards, her teacher explained that she had just added a brick to her courage wall. The idea is that every time we exercise courage, we add a brick to our courage wall. So the next time we need to do something that requires courage, we can stand upon our courage wall.

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Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Why I Opt-in and Support Standardized Testing

Growing up, I always took standardized tests. Every year, our teachers would say, “Get a good night’s sleep and eat breakfast in the morning. You have a test tomorrow.” And that was it.

I happened to start my career in education right around the time when this approach to standardized testing completely shifted under the pressure of the No Child Left Behind Act.

As an educator for the past 16 years, I've seen a lot of bad things. When I taught in a Title I school in rural Louisiana where more than 90% of children lived below the federal poverty line, the principal kept a paddle on her wall and would use it to beat children. Corporal punishment was the school's main way of disciplining and guiding children, and there was no time for more proactive strategies like community and relationship building because we were supposed to be marching through the standards at a break-neck pace.

Working in schools in Houston, I saw classrooms with no books; the teachers had removed them and decided to teach reading through the use of test prep passages instead. The administration canceled science and social studies classes to do double blocks of reading and writing, since those were the only tested subjects in third grade. 

I've taught in districts that mandated benchmark testing every two weeks in four subject areas, which meant I had too little time for teaching. 

There is no doubt that No Child Left Behind has cast an ugly and dark shadow over our schools, our teachers, and our children. 

And yet still I support the use of standardized testing. 

Why is that?  

The achievement gap is real. 

No Child Left Behind mandated that every state test its children and that we break down the results by racial and socio-economic demographics. This data is incredibly helpful to us as a nation. It forces us to acknowledge that your zip code really does determine your destiny in this country.

In Austin, the city I live in, there is a very clear correlation: If you live in the more expensive parts of town, you are more likely to be white and you are more likely to have higher results on the state test. Without a standardized test, this gap would be much more difficult to see, quantify, and address.

The achievement gap is one of the most important civil rights issues of our time. We will never achieve the American promise of "liberty and justice for all" if we cannot ensure that all children develop basic mathematics and literacy skills. 

Standardized tests help us see the achievement gap in an objective, quantifiable way. They help us see which children are reading below grade level and are not acquiring the foundational math skills needed to move into more complicated math. Closing the proficiency gap is not enough to close the much larger gap, but it is start. If we "opt out" of standardized testing, we opt out of getting the kind of objective data we need to hold ourselves accountable for ensuring success for all children. 

The tests measure basic proficiency.

Of course any test will likely have one or two questions that seem silly and irrelevant or are culturally or geographically biased, but, in general, the third grade and sixth grade reading and math tests that I have worked to prepare children for over the course of the past 16 years are all things that they should be able to do. And they are all things that I would want my own children to be able to do. 

I absolutely agree that these tests measure only a small sliver of what is necessary for success in college, the 21st century work place, and life as leaders in our families and communities, but it's a start. It's a non-negotiable. You aren't going to reach your fullest potential out in the world if you can't read a piece of text and understand what it means. 

I care more about things like critical thinking, problem-solving, social and emotional intelligence, executive functioning, time management, integrity, and empathy, but I also want my students to be on par with their wealthier peers academically. Standardized tests help me keep my eye on that bar.

You do not have to resort to "drill and kill" to get good results on the state assessment.

The major problem with NCLB is not the tests themselves; it's the way districts have chosen to respond to the pressure of increasing student performance on the test. 

As an educator, I have intentionally resisted the pressure and worked to buffer my students from it. 

One year I worked at a school that started with 6th graders, the vast majority of whom lived below the federal poverty line. The school assigned me all of the most struggling readers. They put them into a single class. I had children who came in reading at a 1st grade level. Did I choose to resort to "drill and kill" to try and get them to pass the test nine months later? Absolutely not. Because that's not how children learn to read in the most efficient and effective way possible. Further, “drill and kill” does not create lifelong readers.

What did I do instead? I worked to teach them to fall in love with reading. I would give them a very brief strategy lesson, read to them, and then let them spend the bulk of their time reading books of their own choice (even comic books). I would then conference with each child to assess what strategies they were already using well and what I should teach them next.

When children fall in love with reading, they start reading all the time. They read while they wait in line, they read in the car or on the bus on the way home from school, they read under their covers at night when they are supposed to be sleeping. And the more they read, the higher their reading levels climb. 

By the end of the year, every one of those 6th graders passed the state reading assessment. Nearly all of them came from homes impacted by poverty and were almost all children of color.

Other years I worked in a public Montessori program where students self-direct their learning. For example, I had a 7 and 8 year-old decide they wanted to study the Bermuda Triangle and share their knowledge with others by making a coloring book. In the middle of the process, they decided that they wanted to sell the coloring book in order to raise money for new classroom materials. They developed their project planning skills, emotional intelligence, persuasiveness, entrepreneurial abilities, and public speaking capacity through this project—all skills they will need for success in college and the 21st century workplace.

And both of those children passed the standardized reading and math tests by the end of 3rd grade. In fact, 100% of the children in my classroom passed both state assessments, regardless of their race, their parents’ income, or the kind of trauma that was present in their home lives.

We can provide a high-quality educational experience and ensure that children do well on standardized tests. 

I was a classroom teacher for nine years and have worked hard to provide an enriching educational experience and ensure that my children pass the state test. My students have written and directed their own plays, read books they love, cooked food in class, planned their own field trips, run their own businesses, discussed issues in daily community meetings and problem-solving circles, constructed their own knowledge through the use of hands-on materials AND they have done well on standardized tests. It’s absolutely possible to do both.

First, you have to have a clear sense of what the outcomes are. What do we want children to master by the end of the year? It's not enough to read the standards; you have to really unpack them by analyzing various ways in which the standard will be tested and how children will have to transfer their learning. 

Second, you have to have a clear sense—at all times—of where every single child is in relation to the end goal. This task is difficult in classrooms of 20 or 30 children or in middle schools when you have multiple classes (I've taught both) but it's not impossible. It takes an incredible tracking system and the commitment to maintain it. 

Third, you have to let every child work at their own level. It's worth repeating: In order to help children maximize their growth, CHILDREN MUST WORK AT THEIR OWN LEVEL. If children are working on material that is too easy for them, you are holding them back from growing as much as they can and they will likely grow very bored. If children are working on material that is too hard for them, they will become frustrated and disengaged. If children work at their level, they will master concepts more quickly and make faster progress. The gaps will start to close.

And herein lies the problem. Our education system is modeled after factories with everyone doing the same thing at the same time in the same way. This model is flawed. It does not allow children to close their academic gaps efficiently or effectively. 

Fourth, teachers need time and support to come together and analyze how it's going. They need to dissect what children are and are not mastering and retaining, and they need to generate next steps. I have never worked in a school that does this well. 

Real reform is needed. We need to design schools that give children the opportunity to work at their individual levels and work on something until it is mastered (while keeping their innate curiosity and love of learning alive) and schools that support teachers to implement the continuous improvement cycle of assessing, analyzing, and acting so that they can strategically and systematically support children to close the achievement gap.

But opting out of the test isn't necessary in order to drive this kind of reform. In fact, we need the test to continue to provide objective data about how all of our children are doing—regardless of their race or class. Standardized tests help illuminate the achievement gap and push us to hold ourselves accountable for closing it. 

Individual teachers, principals, and parents have more power than they realize to opt out of "drill and kill." The test itself is not the problem, teaching to the test is.

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Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Planning a Neighborhood Movie Night

When Matt and I were dreaming and scheming about building a house, we purchased a large outdoor movie screen, so that we could invite friends over and watch movies outside. 

Now that we've lived in our house for almost two years, we should get this party started! 

Maybe once a month? In April, May, June, July, August, and September? 

We would definitely need to do it after bedtime since our boys go to bed so early. Maybe it could start at 7pm? And we could socialize for the first 30 minutes and then start the movie at 7:30pm? 

We could just open the back gate and let people enter from the side. The whole event could be outside except for if someone needs to use the restroom. We could offer popcorn and a tasty drink. What would be the best way to make popcorn outside? We could invest in a hot air popcorn maker and use an extension cord to plug it in:
  • This one use hot air and makes 10 cups in 3 minutes
  • This one uses oil and makes 24 cups in 5 minutes
  • This one use hot air and makes 18 cups in 2.5 minutes and has more than 5,000 reviews and 4.5 stars; it's only $17 and it has a little cup you can use to melt butter

We could set up the screen in a place where people could put blankets on the grass, chairs on the Bocce Ball court, or they could even float in the pool! Okay, this is starting to sound really fun. I could carry around flyers in my car, so if I spot a new neighbor, I could invite them over. 

And for the movies? Maybe we should have a theme each season? Or just pick a random movie and collect suggestions for the next one? 

If we did go with a theme for a whole season, do you have any ideas? 

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Monday, May 4, 2015

May: Reflection & Rejuvenation

April! Wow. You went fast. And you pretty much thwarted my attempts at Balance. 

But, hey, I've got one more month of school left before I can officially declare our first year complete. How amazing is that? And despite the glitches that come from starting a school from scratch, we still had 11 times as many applications as spots for the 2015-16 school year. And it's only going to get better from here.

[Thank you for letting me indulge in a little pep talk to myself. These are the kinds of thing I have to remind myself of over and over because this work is so hard and the ratio of negative to positive feedback I receive is about 25:1! A girl has to find a way to sustain her energy and perseverance through the difficulty!]

So, May, you are upon us. I think I'm going to have to aim for another month of Balance without setting any big goals for myself. I've just got to keep it together. The daily routine of getting to school by 7:15am, staying at school until 4:30pm, rushing through swimming/dinner/bath/books, putting the kids to bed at 6:30pm and then working until 10:30pm is draining. But I can do it! We've got one more month! 

I enjoyed reading this article (courtesy of my friend Maia, whom you absolutely need to know about if you are a teacher or a school leader) about how sending late night e-mails kills staff culture and productivity. It totally makes sense (and yet trying to balance motherhood with work means that I am frequently sending late-night e-mails). So I installed Boomerang within my gmail account so I can still type messages at night by schedule them to be sent during waking work hours.

And just now as I was trying to find the link to Maia's site, I got caught in a rabbit hole. There's so much interesting stuff on her website! I learned about Google Labs for the first time, which has all sorts of interesting tools, like letting me see a little version of my calendar within my e-mail inbox. 

And I learned about zero inbox management! I feel more posts forthcoming....

Anyway, this month will be about seeking balance, making it through to the end, and starting to build the kind of life we imagine. Cheers!

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