Don’t Take My Word For It…

I’ve been so so so so so fortunate to have the opportunity to write books with some amazing thinkers: Christine Hertz, Alison Porcelli, Cheryl Tyler, and Marjorie Martinelli. One of my favorite parts of writing is the research, and the way it can both answer questions and force you to ask more questions.

If I had one hope for the teaching world, it is that we maintain our curiosity about kids and teaching. I just watched Smokey Daniels lead these incredible mini-inquiries at a workshop at the Reading for The Love of It Conference, and it got me thinking, our best teaching also comes from these mini inquiries born of passions. So, in a an effort to help all educators find their curiosity, I am linking to a bunch of articles and posts that have provoked me over the past few years. Happy reading!

Jo Boaler’s amazing website: Brain science, articles for parents, videos, free resources- its a veritable playground. I am maybe obsessed with the belief/brain article.

Reading Readiness Has to Do with the Body: If there is one thing that has stopped me in my tracks lately, it is this article. It has pushed me on my latest  question which is, should we be waiting to teach formalized reading (while still doing lots of read alouds, writing, shared reading, play) I mean like guided reading in leveled books, until kids express a genuine interest? I could write a 700 page book on the pros/cons of that idea and it just needs more thinking and personal play around it.

This Peter Gray article on Risky Play: Boy oh boy. As some of you know, I have a book coming out on play in about 6 weeks, but articles like this still push my thinking about how I look at play- ESPECIALLY the kind that makes adults the most uncomfortable.

Read Alouds with Diverse Characters help Build Empathy: There is a similar article that talks about Harry Potter, but it really pushes me to explore my read alouds. The implicit messages in books, especially in the background and in the pictures, are not something I always deeply look at, but I am trying to now.

How Books Influence our Actions: This sort of goes in a text set with the above one, but the idea that we act like characters we read about makes perfect sense when you pair it with the idea that our brains can experience story as reality.

The Importance of Giving Kids Time to Reflect: This got me thinking: don’t spend so much time reteaching, spend more time reflecting. Less is more!!!!

Why Are We Rewarding With Stickers Anyway? This study talks about how children are more motivated by knowledge than stickers. So you know…. save some money to spend on important stuff- like books and blocks.

Our Talks leads to children’s Self-Talk, it MATTERS: I mean, this whole thing is super fascinating to me- how our internal thinking develops. And the fact we can watch it developing in real time in our kids. I mean, whoa

Make Sure Your Teaching Has PURPOSE! But how do we do this all the time? Thats the mini inquiry I have on this topic.

Okay, I am off to get ready to present today. I hope that some of these articles are new to you and you find something in them that fires your brain up. Do as Smokey did- invite a few colleagues to think with you- ask some questions, investigate more, inquire, PLAY, stay curious. Every single teaching decision I am proud of started first as a question/uncertainty. Share your questions and favorite links in the comments!!!

If You Aren’t Making it Better, You Might Be Making it Worse

This is going to be a rather short post, but I have been thinking something in the document Play For a Change which mentions two views of children- one where we are waiting for them to be adults, and one where they are fully functioning and valuable members of society already. I think I used to think the former (you are learning to be a well balanced happy adult), until I realized that I am still learning to be a well balanced happy adult (and to be fair I know plenty of adults who are less balanced and unhappier than children I know).

Simultaneously, I have been annoyed at the once a year charity blitz that I see in December, all of a sudden the homeless need coats? They didn’t need coats in November? They won’t need more coats in January? And I am so guilty of this, off I go writing checks at the end of the year, and somehow that is enough?

And then, I saw an episode of Chopped with chefs who work in soup kitchens, and one of the contestants said something along the lines of “Cooking is my passion, and I want to use my passion to help others.”

Kids are fully functioning members of society+service and care for others should be a habit not an annual tradition+ we should use our passions to serve= WHY AREN’T WE ACTIVELY TEACHING HOW TO USE OUR PASSIONS TO MAKE THE WORLD BETTER RIGHT NOW IN REAL TIME?

Hence, giving projects were born. My kindergarten team mobilized and we contacted area charities that serve homeless animals, sick children and adults, the elderly, the homeless, and UNICEF. Each teacher took a charity close to their heart, and kids from all classes signed up for one of the charities based on their passion. Every Friday we meet for an hour or so and do work. For UNICEF, kids are making bracelets and notecards to sell for a fundraiser. We are making toys for animals in shelters, we are collecting and sorting donations for several organizations that provide for the homeless, we are making things like mobiles and sun catchers to hang in the children’s wing of a hospital. We are cleaning up trash on the streets around our school.

You know what else we are doing? Authentic reading and writing. We had to read the directions to make the dog toys, we had to read the list of things the homeless need, we read all the things our money could do for UNICEF. We wrote letters to tell others what we were collecting, we wrote to-do lists for getting our toys made, we made signs, we wrote cards. We do math! Counting and organizing, sorting and grouping. And most importantly, we talk. We talk about why charities exist in the first place. We talk about how and why animals might end up in shelters. We talk about how we are trying to make it better now, but one day we might be able to fix the whole problem.

When Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” she didn’t specify an age.

I know there are schools that make this a focus, and I know that there are teachers that make this a focus, but why can’t we just make this a focus for everyone everywhere. My kids are still going to learn to read and write, but more importantly, they are going to build a habit of care and giving.

I am horrified by our country right now. Trump, really? The fact that a  racist and misogynistic man can garner any support means we are doing it all wrong. Teachers helped make the people that want to vote for Trump. Live like your classroom is the world, make it better. Good enough isn’t good enough anymore.

Please, share how you are changing the world, one classroom at a time in the comments below.

Let’s Debate: Homework!

When I first started teaching, I used to revel in making homework packets. It felt like I was being a Real Teacher. Fill in the missing vowels! Match the rhyming pictures! Sight word word search! Both fun and practical!

Then I would spend an insane amount of time looking at said homework packets, not planning, not studying authentic work, not reflecting on student learning and actions throughout the day, but studying those (fun! practical!) word searches to make sure all the sight words were found.

I noticed three things:

  1. Some of the work was clearly done by parents, as in, BY parents, as in, that is the handwriting of a thirty year old.
  2. Some of the work was not done
  3. Some of the work was done incorrectly

So, I started wondering a few things, mainly what was the point? You’d be right in judging the quality of the homework I assigned- it stunk.

So I tried assigning better, more authentic homework: read for 30 minutes, do this math sheet  that reinforces what we learned, practice your sight words.

And then I had nieces.

And I saw members of my family stressing over getting homework done, I saw a 5 year old squirming through her math sheet looking longingly out the door, and I heard the arguments and bribes to “just get this done” and I thought, again “what is the point?”

First: What is homework?

I think we should start with what I am viewing homework as: anything required of children outside of the school day: worksheets, required reading, dioramas of the first Thanksgiving, flashcards, whatever.

Start by asking yourself, what do I think is the point of this?

I think there are a few common arguments for homework, and my hope here isn’t to decide for you, so I am providing all the links I can so that you can decide for yourself. I am taking two big points to heart: anecdotes are not the same as data, and find the truth in the opposing side. My hope is that it feels honest and balanced and fair:

Argument: Homework is essential to success in school:

I think we can all call up anecdotes for and against this argument. So rather than engage in a pointless debate, lets call up the wisest of the wise when it comes to educational research- John Hattie. According to  his research:

“Homework in primary school has an effect of zero”

Follow this link to hear the rest:

Let’s consider that for a moment: homework in grades K-5 has no discernible impact on how children do in school. Now, if you go on to the link, John Hattie does not then conclude that all homework should be put in a rocket and sent to space. He thinks it can be made better. I don’t disagree, I just think time is a precious commodity in teaching and would rather we all spent our time on something more meaningful that does have a greater impact on our students: building relationships, developing our own professional learning, reflecting on and studying student work to be more responsive.

And research does say that ill-conceived homework actually DOES impact learning… negatively, that is. In fact, take Robert Marzano and Deborah Pickering words on it:

” Thus, simply assigning homework may not produce the desired effect—in fact, ill-structured homework might even have a negative effect on student achievement. “


If you follow this link, you will find it presents a fairly balanced case for and against homework (with research!) but you’ll find some of the same information: it doesn’t have all that much of an impact in primary grades and it is worse to have bad homework than no homework at all.

My conclusion is much like that of doctors: do no harm. Unless I (and you) are going to commit the time to creating meaningful and powerful homework and ONLY meaningful and powerful homework, and then take the time to provide thoughtful, provocative feedback, your children are better off with no homework. And by the way, that thoughtful and meaningful homework still doesn’t have all that much impact- so you know- there’s that.

Argument: Okay, even if homework doesn’t really have much impact on academic success in primary grades, it still helps children become responsible/develop good study habits/ prepare for the future


I mean, does it?

Does homework really prepare children for their future more than a chance to play? And before we get into an argument of “its not either/or” The truth is it is for some kids. They sit in school for 6 hours, and then they go to an after care until someone gets off work, and when they finally get home they have homework to do and then bed. What if they didn’t have that an hour of homework? Could they enjoy quality time with their families? Could they read what they want when they want? Could they play? Could they get bored and then invent something to overcome the boredom? Every single one of those things has value. We have our kiddos for 6 hours, if we can’t teach what we need to teach them in that time, we need to reflect on our own practice.

Matt Glover, in The Teacher You Want to Be, has an amazing essay called “Reconsidering Readiness”. He write in it: “Teaching aimed several steps ahead of students with idea of giving them a jumpstart into what comes next will not provide them with what they need- and may in fact hinder their growth and development.”

Does a five year old really need to develop study skills? And in claiming they do, does that not hinder their development of empathy and agency that is gained in play and pleasure? Does a 6 year old? Does an 8 year old?

I’ve realized that for a long time I viewed being 5 as preparation for being 6, and being 6 is preparation for being 7, and so on and so forth, and now I realize that being five is only that, we don’t help children “get ahead” by taking away their childhood.

Argument: But I have to give homework, “they” say so

“They” is everyone’s favorite boogeyman. “They” is the new ghost story. “They” is a weak excuse for not standing for what you believe to be right. I am not saying that administrators, superintendents, etc do not have policies around homework. But those people have names, and because they have names, you can find them and start a dialogue around meaningless and harmful homework practice.

If you can name someone who is making homework policy that is meaningless and therefore harmful (see above article) you  have an ethical responsibility to hunt that person down and start a discussion.

If you can only say “they”, then either find out who “they” might be, or realize it is actually your own choice and own it. I don’t have a research article for this fact, only that change never comes from complaining about people that don’t exist.

Argument: Parents expect homework

Parents used to expect corporal punishment. Times change. We help change them.

So in conclusion:

  • Homework has very little impact in the primary grades
  • “Busy work” homework can have a negative impact on schooling
  • Time spent doing homework is time away from being a kid and doing totally healthy and helpful “kid-like” things
  • Time spent creating and reflecting on homework as a primary teacher is time away from creating high quality classroom instruction

Truth talk: Time is limited, ours and kids. Why waste it on something that doesn’t make that much of a difference any way?

And now the moment of truth. Do I give homework? Nope. Every year I set parents up with information about what will help their child become the best five year old they can be (or 6, 7, 8, year old): Schedule play dates, try to eat dinner together when you can, tell or read stories together. If parents ask for ways to support their child, and I agree that the child could benefit from additional support, I offer games and authentic activities they can engage in with their child with the caveat that it should be fun and done together.

My friend and all around smart person Shawna Coppola is also writing about this on her blog We hope that you will join us in the conversation.

Happy New Year!



Everyday Miracles

I was biking home from work today when I passed a group of tourists on the Queensboro bridge. I cross the Queensboro bridge twice a day, which means this year alone I have crossed it 110 times. Usually I zone a bit, consider what I should make for dinner, reflect on the day, curse the incline, feel morally superior to the drivers, and before I know it, it is long behind me.

The tourists were pointing and taking a pictures of something behind me and I thought, “Is something on fire? Was there an accident?” Because why on earth would this group of 4 people, clutching a New York guidebook, be stopped on this blustery, trafficky bridge? I turned as I rode to look, and what did I see?


Well, to clarify, nothing that I have not seen at least 110 times. A view of the city over the river, a fading sun glancing off glass, all framed by the beams of the bridge. It wasn’t until I saw the tourist reaction that I realized the miracle of this thing that I have come to regard as commonplace. And then it struck me, I need to become a tourist in my own life.

Everyday miracles can just become everyday, and nowhere is this more true than in the classroom. Just because I have seen dozens of children learn to zip their coats, does not mean that I shouldn’t feel THIS child’s excitement at doing it for the first time today. Nor, should the many many holiday breaks I have lived through mean I can’t feel the near hysterical anticipation that a child feels because this is her FIFTH Christmas EVER. I think the key to staying vibrant and connected to children is to never stop realizing that you are tourists in their life. To that end, nor should we cease to become tourists in our own.

I am not the first to suggest that wonder is a critical aspect of instruction, there are many many people who write wisely about wonder, curiosity, and joy: Georgia Heard, Kristin Ziemke, Steph Harvey, everything Reggio ever, and I urge you to chase down their work and read it.

I also urge you to go read this post on gratitude, and how talking about the good parts of your day can change your mind, and your life

Since reading this post, we close out our classroom day with a gratitude circle, but even so I missed the big idea: the best thing is not synonymous with the biggest thing- sometimes it is watching a child learn to zip, loving the lunch you packed for school, or remembering that you love the place where you live.

The best thing that happened to me today was realizing all the little things I had forgotten could be best things.

Happy Holidays!

We Are More Than Our Labels

 “A sacred picture of Saint Anthony alone is one vertical, unwavering band of light. If a cockroach were near him, or a cocktail waitress, the picture would be two such bands of light. Our awareness is all that is alive and maybe sacred in any of us.”

Kurt Vonnegut- Breakfast of Champions

I have been thinking.

I have been thinking about many things, but one of the things I have been thinking about the most is how little we know about anyone, while thinking all the while we know so much.

.We make assumptions.

We make labels.

When I was in school, I spent a surprising amount of time in detentions of one sort or another. Lunch detention, after school detention, “sit out in the hall and wait until I invite you back in” detentions.

I remember being shocked when a teacher made an off-hand comment to me that I was “always trying to get attention.” I was shocked, because I was trying to get attention! But why was no one paying attention to why?

When I was a child and a teenager, I was falling apart. I had a complicated home life, (And as any adult child of a complicated home life knows, I still have many complications with that part of my home life). More than attention, I realize now, I wanted help. I was lost and I wanted to be found. I wanted to know I mattered to people, that I was not a terrible person, that I was worth being cared for, and that I had a safe space to land. But what I found was that people just thought I wanted attention. How could I know to ask for what I needed since I didn’t know existed?

John Hattie, in his book Visible Learning and The Science of How We Learn, found that one adult in a child’s life can make a long term and lasting impact in that child’s self image and success. Sometimes a child has none. We can be the one. But only if we listen and stop assuming.

Sometimes teachers use words like: lazy, attention seeking, trouble maker, or bully, but to be the adult that makes a difference, those labels must fall away. All actions come with a message and we must see past those actions to find the child and the needs and desires within.

The Kurt Vonnegut quote above is one of my favorites for the idea that in each of us is a single unwavering band of light. It does not matter where we come from, what we have, what we want, we are worthy simply because we are.

This is our only job as teachers and as people, to see, truly see, the single, unwavering band of light in each of person in front of us. To look beyond labels and frustrations, to stop assuming and start asking, “What do you need? How can I help?”

John Hattie also found that it is our ability to empathize, to really feel the souls of the children in front of us, that makes us powerful educators. Some tips to help each of us do that:

  • Stop using labels when you talk about children, instead describe actions (don’t use the word bully, instead say, “she hits when she gets frustrated with how the game is going”)
  • Every action has a purpose, so ask, “what is the child trying to accomplish? How does this action serve this child?”
  • Use your empathy, the next time you see a child wiggle on the rug, or struggle through a math problem, visualize yourself in a similar situation and use that to help the child work through it- don’t diminish the child’s experience, accept it as their experience and help by sharing your own successful ways to cope

We are human beings, flawed and imperfect, but it is what allows us to have humanity. Be kind to yourself so you can be kind to children, accept that you are a work in progress so that you anticipate the same of your students, and see the unwavering light in your children, so they seek to see the same in others.

(Also, I know I am not the first to have these thoughts on this topic- look to Peter Johnston, Margie Carter, Deb Curtis, Vivian Paley, and others to think more deeply and powerfully about kids and our language and mindsets)

We Are All Managing The Best We Can

(Alternate Title: Life After Clip Charts)

It’s day 700  7 of kindergarten. Some things are going great, some things are not, but EVERYTHING is going exactly how it is supposed to go on day 7 of school.

There is lots of running, and just as much playing.

There are daredevils standing on chairs to get their block buildings just an eensy bit higher, and there is fingerprint in places no fingers could possibly reach.

There is laughing, and there is crying, there are moments of chaos, and there are moments of calm.

This is what it feels like to become a community. My co-teacher and I are taking a wait and see approach to what we need to teach when it comes to living together. And this is what we have done so far:

What We Saw:

On the first few days we saw a lot of head shaking or refusal when it came to new things- it makes sense given that EVERYTHING IS NEW- but we wanted to set a tone of bravery.

What We Did:

So, first things first, we read the Piggie and Elephant book “Elephants Can Dance” by Mo Willems and learned the word optimism- which we define as saying “I can try!” (For more, see my latest with Christine Hertz A Mindset For Learning) We told stories of our own moments of optimism and then made a chart matching one of the most told stories about monkey bars. Then throughout the day, we put an optimism crown on any child we heard utter “I can try…:
IMG_7532What’s Next?

Keep it alive! We have lots of optimistic crowns to keep handing out, and we are telling and retelling stories about being optimistic. It’s looking like we might need to introduce flexible next, and that will be the next item on the chart!

What We Saw:

Whoo boy! We say lots of finger pointing and declaring of “You!!!” as in “You took my block!” “You took my crayon!” “You took my spot!” “You pushed me!” etc, etc ad infinitum. My co-teacher looked at me, and was just like: “Time to teach I statements!”

What We Did: 

We nestled the I statement in the context of our problem solving routine, and we made it manipulative so kids interact thoughtfully with the concept of problem solving. We made a visual of the “You” situation that was happening and X’d it out, and this is our alternate. We have 2 feelings: mad and sad and 2 solutions: say sorry and take space. At the bottom are white index cards that can be used when we encounter a new feeling or invent a new solution. It felt important that it be interactive because then kids have a tool to think about their problem  in more detail- so its more than going through the motions.


We even added some: “I am a problem solver” stickers at the bottom to encourage kids to wander over there. “Come for the sticker, stay for the problem solving.” That’s our motto.

What’s Next:

We are teaching into shades of feeling and ways to calm yourself down. Mad comes into different sizes, and you have to be on the lighter side to actually talk through problems. Stay posted for that!

What We Saw:

So the number one problem at the problem solving center? Issues around sharing!!! How often do we ask kids to share, without actually breaking it down? (All the time, is the answer, at least for me)

What We Did:

We had a whole class conversation that started with, “Guys, oh my gosh, we’ve been hearing lots of friend feel upset because some one isn’t sharing with them! So we figured, we better find out exactly how to share so we can teach each other!”

All the suggestions came from the kids, and we tried to build down what they said into easier to replicate language: you go, I go, make more (like make another pretend phone out of paper or blocks) and use it together. The hot ticket item is an old desktop keyboard which is what we practiced with, and what is in the picture.

IMG_7531What’s Next?

The hand drawn pictures are getting replaced by photographs, and there is room for more sharing photographs. We will have to wait and see, it helped a lot today for kids to have a space to choose sharing options and certainly decreased the amount we had to support the action of sharing.

What We Saw: 

We have kids with different levels of language in our classroom, and so there was some confusion about what certain children wanted, especially around the idea of “stop”. We wanted to help the kids who feel like they have to use their body (to hit, for example) when the words don’t come fast enough.

What We Did:

We taught a “safe body” way to say stop (2 hands out, serious face) and also mentioned that people in the world use pictures to know “stop”. We then practiced using safe body stop, the word stop, or touching the sign for “stop”


What’s Next?

Once the offending action is stopped, we have seen that kids can gather their language together to say what they need. We will keep practicing understanding the different ways different people communicate in our community, and also teach that you should ask, “What do you need?”

Each of these ideas is a thread we are going to follow in our classroom. Things will get added, refined, and elaborated until we have a community that functions like one we seek to see in the real world. Children that respect each others differences, listen to what one another need, and work to share and care for each other, will be the kind of adults that do the same. What more could we want?


An Amazing Day of Learning

Christine Hertz and I just had the privilege of participating in an online day of (free!!!) learning with The Educator Collaborative. This event brought some of the best ed thinkers out there to our own homes, and the best news- its all archived! I loved Kristin Ziemke’s, Lisa Eickholdt ‘s , Shawna Coppola’s and Dana Stachowiak’s sessions for primary. You can read our intro below, and follow the link to our session (that link can also link you to everyone else!):

“Why are we here?

We are here because we think the world can be a better, more just place, and we think you are here because you believe the same thing. Sometimes, we feel can powerless in the overwhelming face of mandates, benchmarks, and injustice and fear that permeates not just the world of education, but also the world at large.

But here is the secret, we are not powerless, we are powerful because we are teachers.

The revolution will not be televised, the revolution for change will happen in our classrooms:



and the day after that

until one day a boy can make a clock, and just be a boy making a clock.

This closing workshop is our call to arms, our rally cry that we make better classrooms today so we can make a better world tomorrow.

Stop and think, reflect: if the rules in your classroom became the rules of the world, would you want to live there? Would it be world of engaged active citizenship or unquestioning compliance to an authority?

If the community in your classroom, in your school, were to become the world around you, what do you see? What is the world we would inhabit?

Would it be a place where mistakes, though sometimes painful, are the birthplace of innovation? Or would it be a place where anything less than perfection is shameful?

We make a better tomorrow by how we teach and live today.

We don’t just seek to create a mindset for learning, we aim create a mindset for change and hope and equality.

We embrace curiosity and challenge, we support community, we believe in our children and the possibility that they can be better people than we ever hoped to be, and we do it in our classrooms every single day, even when we have lost our patience and our sanity.

We keep our hope and our joy, and our vision for children dear to our hearts. We do not start the change by accepting the status quo, we ignite it through our unwavering belief in how things could one day be….”

Watch the rest here:

And read how to make a better world in our book: A Mindset for Learning

A Day in the Life…

I have been thinking about the comments and the thoughts that have popped up around my last post on clip charts, and I started wondering how to better explain how building up community looks different than clip charts or other public behavior systems.

The clearest way seems, to me, is to take a day in the life of my classroom and try to break down in a meta type way and so thats what I will try, but first a lot of thoughts:

The Context: I am a kindergarten teacher, and I usually teach between 24- 26 kiddos. This year I am co-teaching the integrated classroom, which means there are two of us (thus far this is heaven) and forty percent of our students (10 kiddos) have an IEP.

We started on September 9, so we have been in school all of 3 days.

My co-teacher and I have established a basic philosophy in our classroom: we watch and talk to kids, we debrief to try and understand what the child knows about the world at large, and then we teach. To that end, the first days of school have been pretty much like free range farming- essentially, go and live, we’ll meet you where you are.

Don’t we start with assessment? This IS assessment. Before we starting micro-analyzing letter-sound correspondence, we need to know the child. It maybe be that you know 3 letters, but that you also know the entire 2015 New York Yankees and their batting averages. Why does that matter? The better question is why don’t more people think it matters? We don’t just show up to places with a sliver of our person, we show up with our whole body and our whole mind. Maybe that munchkin is going to get some more letter sounds if we match it to the New York Yankee roster names, then to weird impersonal items like “R is for rat” why not, “R is for Rodriguez”.

Anyway, I digress, so community building… So its day 1 of school and we are playing, and here is the thing it is more or less harmonious. How could this be? We didn’t even establish rules and a clip chart!! (sarcasm) It can be because for the most part, if we plan our day around the fact we are teaching children, then we don’t have to regulate constantly because their natural state is being nourished. I think we run into problems when we try to dam the raging dynamic river of childhood and make it the more steady stream of adulthood. So we make everything playful, alternate between structured and unstructured tasks, and take a moment for big, free movement every chance we get.

Now, its kindergarten, so you know, contextually, these guys have been alive, ehh four, maybe five years? And like, for a lot of that they were just being carted around on someone’s hip, being handed things to chew on or eat, so this whole idea of being in school is going to feel new. I like to call myself a new teacher and its been 15 years, so I am going to concede that 4 years, or even 10 years, is not a lot of time on this planet. We anticipate it will not always go smoothly.

So then we go outside to play, and we haven’t laid down any rules yet. We don’t intercept if kids are playing roughly and everyone is smiling (which they are) (also- studies show that rough housing is a form of social bonding- google Play for a Change for more) But then, predictably, one of the children stops smiling and starts getting angry.

I head over, and I just ask in a curious tone: “What’s happening here?” I have worked hard on letting go of my omniscience and never jump to a conclusion if I can help it. The story is fairly typical:

Child A: “He pushed me!”

Child B: “He pushed me first!”

Child A: “Nah-Uh!!!!”

Me: Hmmmm

So listen, I could say, “No pushing!!!!!!!!!! Say sorry and sit down!!!!!!” But I won’t, not if I believe children are constantly trying to do their best. So instead I say, “It looks like you guys were playing a game where pushing was part of the game? Is that true?”

Child A and B nod.

So then I say, “What made this push feel different?”

Child B: “He pushed me too hard!!!!”

Me: Ohhhh! So it wasn’t the push that made you mad, but it was that it felt too hard?

Child B: nods

Child A: “I didn’t mean it!!!”

Me: “So what you are saying is that it was an accident? Like you thought you were still playing?”

Child A: “Yes!”

Child B: “I didn’t know!!!”

Me: “Ahh, so it sounds like (child B) you felt like it was an on-purpose shove, and you got mad your friend treated you that way, and (child a) you thought you were just playing, and got confused when your friend shoved you?”

Child A and B nod.

Me, “Hmm, so maybe it will help to say “stop” next time? Or say “that was too hard!” so we can fix it before friends get mad? Do either of you feel like you need a ‘sorry’ to get back to playing?” They look at each other and both shake heads “no” and start playing, but I stop them and say, “Wait lets just practice once!”

So then we act that out, child A shoves, B says “That was too hard!” Child A says, “okay” Then I say, “Whoo. This is some good thinking for our community- can you teach us all that later?”

So they do, we sit in a circle, and then they act it out and my co-teacher and I rename that big idea- “Ah, so sometimes when we are playing someone does something that makes us mad or sad, but they maybe don’t know that!!! We need to tell them with our words so they have a chance to fix it with us! Can you try that today? Will you tell us when it happens?”

So then all day long we snap pictures of kids using words, we get dozens. Now we can use those photos and add some speech bubbles in- things like “stop” or “that hurt my feelings” and then add the responses, “sorry” or “what do you need?” and then we can hang those up as models for how we talk to each other in our community. We start from the assumption that most children want to play and be with each other, kids tend to love other kids, and so we are helping them play and be with each other in better, more empathic ways.

Does this solve every problem? No, of course not, its not my first time at the rodeo, but the key is, we are going to wait to see how the next problem unfolds, and then, we are going to think about why it happened and how that impacts the child and the community, and then we will figure out a way to make it better for the child and/or the community.

I am also not saying that what I just did can’t be improved, of course it can! It’s just, I used to think that kids knew better and chose not to do better, but now I know that is some crazy backward thinking. Kids are doing the very best they can every single day, and what looks like misbehavior, might still be the child doing the best they can to deal with something outside their zone of proximal development and things like:  sitting still, sharing a special toy, or playing with larger groups are not simple, and do in fact have a zone pf proximal development. And if a child knows better, and is choosing not to do better for herself or her community, I remember my own experience of acting out because I felt embarrassed and ashamed, and so we don’t punish, we listen, we ask questions, we set doable goals. We make change one day at a time.

Share your stories of community building in the comments- we grow better by learning together.

Some Thoughts on Clip Charts

Have you ever been publicly shamed?

I have.

It stinks.

It was in first grade. Our desks were arranged in a U shape, one next to the other, and we were supposed to be silently reading.

“Who is your best friend?” whispered Kerry Latzah (name changed to protect the innocent) who sitting next to me.

I started to answer, but before I could finish the teacher swooped down upon me and the public shaming began. Listen, I was six, so don’t quote me on historical accuracy here, but there are two things I remember very well:

  1. My only thought was, “But she asked me a question, what was I supposed to do?”
  2. My desk was pulled out of  the U into its own satellite island because I could not be trusted not to talk.

Here is what I else I remember, this is around the time I started hating school. And I hated it for a long time.

As an adult, I think there must have been much more to the story, either I was constantly talking and I don’t remember it, or the teacher was having a really hard year, but the personal experience remains- I felt unwelcome, I felt incapable, and I felt embarrassed. I did not work harder to earn back her trust and my way back into the U of community. I worked harder and harder to fight the teacher and what she wanted, it all seemed so unfair. There was Kerry, right in the U, here was me, back corner, by myself. Not to mention, all I wanted to do was answer a question, what kind of person just stares straight ahead and ignores a question? Where in humankind is that the way we want people to interact?

When I started teaching, I learned all about this color system, you moved a child’s card from green to yellow to red with each infraction. The idea is that a child has a visual cue to see that they have broken a rule or something to that effect. I tried it, and soon after, a child whose card had been moved to red, walked over to the chart and systematically ripped it to shreds. The hatred directed at the chart gave me serious pause as to what it was actually doing.

How was it any different than making one child sit outside the U shape that contained the whole class?

How is it any different than posting teacher rankings?

I have come to learn, under the tutelage and mentorship of many great teachers that teaching is not about control and compliance, not if we see our classrooms as a microcosm of the world. What are we doing making our classrooms versions of a police state? Teaching is about mentoring children into a larger community. They may know how their family unit runs, but now its learning how to interact with people that are different than us and many many more of them then they have ever seen before. It is our job to aide children in understanding how the world works, not punish them for not having that information. Shame doesn’t work, it breeds embarrassment and resentment. It hurts a child in ways they don’t forget, and it keeps us, the teachers, from helping shape a better world than the one we have today.

I think all teachers, at their core, want to do right by their kiddos.

I also think teaching is hard, and I will be the first to admit that there are days when I feel like I cannot find one more ounce of patience.

Yet it is our duty and responsibility to not just do what the people around us do, or what we were taught, if there is a chance we can do something better for kids. So if you use a color change chart, its not enough to suggest you stop, what’s more critical is figuring out what to do instead.

  1. See your role differently, you don’t enforce, you instruct. View all behavior as a child’s best attempt to exist in the world (see more on that mind shift here:
  2. Have reasonable expectations. Expect young children to want to play rough, expect everyone to talk, expect sharing to be difficult. That doesn’t mean you won’t have conversations about it, but be reasonable!  Don’t make rules that forbid children from being children. “Sit still on the rug” is an impossible task for a small child, “listen the best you can” is achievable goal. I don’t know who decided listening and moving were incompatible but that person is nuts.
  3. See everything as an opportunity to learn. It is a slower and longer process to talk to kids about why they did what they did, and what might work better, but its better than just flipping a color. One action (talking and teaching) tries to help the child be a better community member, the other (flipping a card) is a penalty with very little chance to learn. Not to mention, we are not omniscient, sometimes we are wrong when we assume a child is acting in a way that goes against expectation. Trust that your children are trying to do right, and make all decisions from that viewpoint
  4. Have class conversations constantly, role play solving problems, reflect on actions and how they went, make being a better human part of your curriculum.
  5. READ BOOKS ABOUT THIS! Get smarter to teach better!
    1. The Whole Brain Child 9
    2. A Mindset for Learning (
    3. The Explosive Child (


This is a much bigger conversation. Its just I got a new student, he is 4. He went to a school with a color change chart and ended up on yellow or red every single day. He told his mom that he thinks he is “bad”, but really, he is four. That’s true for all our kids- they are four, they are six, they ten. They are growing, they are changing, they deserve opportunities to be treated the way that we want to be treated.  See your classroom as the world to come, choose kindness, choose optimism, choose better for kids.

What’s The Deal with Willpower?

There are many things you may know about me already: I teach kindergarten, I have a dog, I consult in schools, I write books.

There are also many things you may not know about me: I love romance novels, I am very stubborn, and when school is in session I spend most of September looking like (and acting like) a reanimated zombie. Come to think of it, that reanimated zombie situation doesn’t wrap up come October, I just start wearing make-up. There is no tired like back to school tired, and I would argue that feeling lasts pretty much until school is over, and I started wondering why.

In my reading, I came across some interesting information about willpower, primarily that it is finite. (for the studies read here: When you burn out of willpower, you burn out, period, it’s gone. You can cram some sugar to boost you up, but ultimately, its taking a break from having to will yourself to do something that helps you reboot and do the next thing. Teaching is an exercise in willpower. For me, it takes willpower to get up, to pack lunch, to ride on the subway- and thats before I even make it to school! From there it takes willpower to be “on”, be my best self, be calm and gentle always, and patiently explain why school is a “pants on” kind of place to a determined pants-less four year old. This isn’t to say I don’t love my job, I do, I love it to pieces, but the point I am trying to make is that sometimes we don’t talk about how all a teacher needs sometimes is a moment to simply reboot.  And when we get that reboot, we come back into our children as a better humans and teachers.

But beyond that, if school requires the willpower of adults, what about for kids? John Hattie talks about an empathy gap between teachers and students, meaning that we, as teachers, don’t really remember what it means to be a child in school. The more we can really feel what it is to be 5, or 6, or 1o again, the better we help our children. So what is the experience for a child in school? Sadly, it is often the experience of drawing on willpower to get through things they’d rather not be doing. Could you imagine being asked to stay still when all your body wants is to move? How hard that must be? Or to feel starving and have to get through 30 more minutes of math? What about wanting to read that Star Wars book you can see from your seat, but aren’t allowed to get because its not at your reading level?

Most children are required to have 1,000,000 times the willpower of adults* (*rounded to nearest million). We think we have it hard? Think about how hard your hardest day is, and for some kids, that is school every day. We need to stop making school work for our adult agendas, and transform it to reflect and support children’s needs. Finland does, every 45 minutes, there is 15 minutes of unstructured time at recess. They find that children are more focused, more successful, and happier, (read more here:

Some of the children we teach drain their willpower tanks before they even enter school, and then are greeted with a list of things they must do, when what they really need is some unstructured time to refill their tanks. Why do we take the things away kids need(recess, play time, unstructured time) to do all the things that we want (work, more work, even more work)? Think about how much more refreshed you, as a teacher, are when you come back from just a few minutes of time to yourself, we need to apply that basic logic to our classrooms.

Now, listen, I want to apply for a job in Finland too, but that is not going to help the children in our classrooms today, so what can we do? A few things in the short term, and in the long term lots of continued conversations about what is right for kids.

Things to try now:

  • Build more open-ended time into your day, even if its just 5-10 minutes every hour or so. It can be a casual chat time, time to move, or if you can, a quick burst outside. The next fifty minutes will be better for it.
  • Allow for opportunities for play. If you can, build in a daily choice time, if you can’t, think creatively and flexibly on how art, legos, blocks, and fantasy play could be incorporated into your curriculum
  • NEVER take away times to play. Find another way to help children learn self-control and finish work, but when we remove a child’s opportunity to refuel, build social competence, and frankly, be a child, we are denying children a basic right.
  • If your kids look like they need a break, give them a break, pushing through on a empty tank has never resulted in great work (see: my entire college career)
  • Look critically at how much choice you give children, and see if there are ways to open it up: time in the classroom library with no restrictions, choosing seats for writing and reading, letting some kids draw or build, while others listen to a read aloud
  • Make a “break room” in your classroom that children can use as needed. Put a bean bag in a corner, add some books and paper to draw and let kids use it when they need it.

And for the long run, lets all get smarter about kids-

  • Rae Pica ( is a great resource
  • A Moving Child is a Learning Child (available here: reframed my view of movement in the classroom
  • My latest book (available here: helps teachers think about how mindset impacts learning and joy in the classroom
  • Play by Stuart Brown (available here: will help you understand how play is fundamental to being human

I hope this helps you, and your kids make the most of this year. Happy beginning of the school year everyone!