Finding Their Genius

When I finished my student teaching in Lexington, my cooperating teacher, Len Swanton,  gave me a wonderful book, Starting from Scratch:   One Classroom Builds Its Own Curriculum by Steven Levy.     Since 1998, this book has served as like a bible to me.  I have used parts of it, adapted parts of it, and retread parts of it for the past 15 years.   Levy describes this as “How can I create an environment that allows every child to express and develop his or her true genius, the essence of who he or she really is?”  Levy goes on to explain that “genius” does not mean that every child is a genius, but rather “that everyone has a particular character or essential spirit.”  Like Levy, I try to build my learning colony to enable every child to “manifest the genius that he or she brought to the classroom.”

So, over the course of the first part of this school year, I have been watching the children.  We have now been in school for 30 days, and for many of those 30 days, I have focused on  finding the  “genius” in each student as well as for the entire class.  What makes them tick? What excites them?   How do they like to learn best?    What makes them  squeal in delight?  What are their strengths?  What are their weaknesses?  How can I set up our learning environment to make it one that the children will take risks. will love learning, and will own their learning?

Water Filters

Water Filters

Together, our Learning Colony has really melded together to define what makes us tick as learners.  Our first science unit on Water Filters shed a lot of light onto this Learning Colony’s genius.  They loved the building of the water filters, they loved testing and improving the water filters, they loved applying “QCE” to this process, and they loved using technology to create iMovies, Pic Collages, and Explain Everythings about their water filters.  I loved hearing the squeals from the children as their dirty water came out clear after passing through the water filters.  I loved witnessing the incredible

Notebook with Filter Design

Notebook with Filter Design

conversations between group mates, and I loved how engaged the students were in their learning.

We then ventured onto Big Maps.  Again, the ability to design the maps on their own was another “genius” point.  This moved onto designing a village on the banks of the

1013 Village

1013 Village

Assabet in 1013.  I was impressed with the amount of detail, the amount of thinking, and the amount of creativity displayed in their maps.  I am looking forward to going outside and building some of our village attributes.

Our second science unit, Rocks and Minerals has provided similar enthusiasm for learning.  I showed the students the skills that they were suppose to master during this unit.  We then brainstormed investigations

Some of our Tools

Some of our Tools

that would help students meet the standards while at the same time, would incorporate their genius points.  Students were introduced to certain “tools” such as hand microscopes, rulers, magnifying lens, and pan balances.  Instead of copying the worksheet found in the curriculum notebook,  students created their own attributes while looking at the rocks and mineral specimens.  Again, the

Rock Investigation Details

Rock Investigation Details

engagement in the room was wonderful.  The amount of detail in notebooks was great.

Another “genius” point has been collaboration and creativity.  During band on Thursday, I asked a student who was not in band to show the remaining students in the room how to do Scratch.  I know a few basics, but this student took about 13 students and in a 45 minute period, had them creating wonderful creations on Scratch.  She remarked about their ability to just play around and find out some neat things.  Finally, our last day before the three day weekend allowed

Collaboration During Scratch

Collaboration During Scratch

students to employ both collaboration and creativity.  This particular group has loved learning and using iMovie on the iPads.  I have a group of boys who have made movies during sleep overs and then have asked to give up their recess to make movies.  So, on Friday, as we headed out to our morning recess, they once again asked to be able to take an iPad out to recess.  Two other groups also asked to do the same activity.  It occurred to me after witnessing enthusiasm for about 15 minutes that perhaps I was going to switch up my writing lesson to something a little different.  I called all 23 students over and gave them a challenge:  In 15 minutes, they needed to all shoot video footage.  Then they would have another 15 minutes to edit their movie before showing it to the entire class.  Off they ran to plan out their movies, and shoot many versions of the trailer “Super Kids”.  Each group put their own spin on their movies. Before showing them to the entire class, I asked what skills did we use in producing these.  Their answers surprised me, “team work, collaboration, time management, creativity” were some of the skills that the class came up with about our little film challenge.  These were all what I would call “Applied Open Circle Skills” and the class did them well.

So, here is what the students and myself have discovered to be genius points for this year’s class:


Engineer:  Build, Test





It promises to be an exciting year!


Curve Ball Central

When you keep getting thrown curve balls, you need to keep hitting!  Over the past month, I have had numerous curve balls thrown at me personally as well as professionally.   I have thrown some of my own curve balls at my new students as well.  I think while curve balls are difficult at times, it teaches you to problem solve, persevere, and practice the skills that you may have been taught through out the years.

photo 08Curve Ball #1:  In August, I decided to get away for a few days and head to the ocean in Gloucester.  Driving on the highway is not my cup of tea, so I was stepping out side of my comfort zone.  During this past year, I bought myself a Mini Cooper convertible, who I called “Gigi”.  Since the weather was glorious, Gigi also went to Gloucester.  After a few days of sand, beautiful sunrises and sunsets, and some beautiful walks along the rocky coastline, I was headed back to Concord.  I was about 25 minutes into my ride down Route 128, at the spot where Route 95 merges into Route 128 and Route 1 exits the highway.  I was in the right lane of Route 128, and there was the passing lane to my left.  There were also two lanes entering and exiting the highway to my right.  I noticed a truck with a tarp over its flat bed.  “Look at that jalopy,” I thought to myself as I started to come up on it.  Right then, a piece of plywood flew out of the back of the truck.  I knew it was heading right towards me and that there was no way for me to avoid it.  If I stopped in my lane, I would be rear-ended and probably killed.  I couldn’t go to the left as it was heavily traveled.  I thought to myself, “What would Mr. Raeke do?”  Mr. Raeke was my Driver’s Ed teacher in high school.   During driving lessons, he would often put a notebook in front of our face and say “Your hood just opened up, what would you do?”  What could I do to minimize the impact to the car?  In a split second, I decided to hit it on the right side of my car, swerve as much as I could in my lane, and hope it worked.  I hit the plywood, swerved to the left and waited to see if I blew out a tire.  Gigi handled beautifully.  My tires were fine.  I started shaking uncontrollably and knew I couldn’t pull over as I probably wouldn’t be able to ever keep driving.  So, I pulled the lessons that I had heard Kathy Bowen teach to many of my classes during Open Circle — positive self talk.  “You can do this, you can do this…” I kept repeating to myself as I kept on driving down Route 128.  A bit of problem solving along with practice helped me hit that curve ball instead of being hit by the ball.  And Gigi only suffered minimal damage to her front spoiler.

Curve Ball 2:   As mentioned in previous blogs, I am training to walk a marathon, which will happen on October 6th.  On the Sunday of Labor Day Weekend,  I set out for a 20 miler, which would really give me a good idea of my fitness level.  The weather was a little iffy, but I set off around 6:40 a.m. with hopes that the Weather Channel would be correct and that the sun would come out before long.  At around the four mile mark, which was almost to Monument Street on the Reformatory Trail, I felt a sharp pain in my thigh.  Looking at my thigh, I saw a welt forming and I knew I had been stung by something.  I still had 16 miles to go.  While I have never had an adverse reaction to a sting, I was a little nervous as it hurt a lot and it was in a spot where my shorts ended, so it was getting irritated.  I didn’t have an allergy pill on me, so I decided to “phone a friend” and ask her to go to the house, pick up an allergy pill, and find me on the road.  So, Johanna showed up around mile 6, gave me the allergy pill, put some anti-biotic cream, and set me back on the road.  At around the 7.5 mile mark, I heard thunder rumbling in the distance.  It was dark to the south, and if you know me at all, you know I am not a fan of thunderstorms.  I was wondering if I should just call this a day and not keep going.  I was by the track, so I thought I would walk around that for a while.  While on the track, my friend called me to report a severe thunderstorm warning.  I assured her, I would stay on the track until it passed.  Seven miles later on the track, the sky looked a little better, so I headed off back onto the road.  At around the Old North Bridge (or mile 16), it started raining gently.  Two miles later on Lexington Road, the skies opened up.  There was no thunder, but it was torrential rain.  By the time I got to the Battle Road trail at mile 18.5, it seemed to be even raining harder.  I kept on going.  Teams of cross country runners sploshed past me.  The path had turned into a river.  It was exhilarating.  I felt like the runner of my past and felt really strong despite all the difficulties I had encountered during this particular walk.  This curve ball required me to problem solve and persevere through some incredible trying experiences.

Creating our Class Promises

Creating our Class Promises

Curve Ball #3:  This curve ball was administered by me to my new students.  When I was teaching my old 5th graders last year about colonies, I decided it would be a good idea to try to have the students experience what it must have been like setting up a new colony.    So, this year, I did not set up my classroom at all.  In fact, I had Mario push all the furniture into one corner of the room.  I put into my welcome letter that they would be setting up the Erickson Learning Colony, but didn’t put any specifics.  I told the parents the room would be set up a little differently than what they probably expected.  So, on the day of the Open House, I heard many different reactions.  “Whoa…”  “Boy you have some work to do,” and “Interesting” were a few of the comments.  On the first day of school, the students started the day off by sitting on the rug on the floor drawing their idea of an ideal classroom.  We brainstormed different ideas about what the room needed.  And then we separated into groups and set off to work.  I was pleased to see how well they were handling this rather large challenge for the first day of school.  By the end of the day, the class was set up, and coincidentally much like I would have set it up.  But the difference was that the students took the curve ball and hit it, and owned the learning on this one.

Curve Ball 4/5:  At the beginning of our first full week of school, I knew we would have a fire drill, mandated by  the State.   And sure enough, at about 11:12 a.m. on Monday morning, on our way from gym to our classroom, the alarm went off.  What made this was a curve ball for both me and the students was that I had never experienced a fire drill when I wasn’t in a classroom.  With 24 students, our line is quite long, and I am never at the beginning, but usually towards the end.  So, I was just in the hallway near the stairs when the alarm sounded.  I called to my class to come to me so that we could go out a different exit.  When we got outside, I noticed that my usual long line did not look so long.  Six students were missing.  However, Mrs. Swain, quickly brought them over to me and we stood quietly until it was time to go back inside.  This little curve ball gave me a good teaching opportunity to discuss this scenario, which was new to us all.  If you look at curveballs as a learning experience, it is certainly good to get one every once in awhile.  But in this case, awhile didn’t last very long.

On the next day, I was excited to take my class out to the river for their first trip.  Trips to the river are always very calming for both me and the students, and I was looking forward to our trip.  Before heading out, I quickly checked the weather radar and it appeared that a line of rain was heading our way.  What made this unusual for me was that for the first time in years, I had no other adult with me on this trip.  So, we headed outside and just as we got outside the side door, I felt rain drops.  I asked the students to turn around and go back in.  They wanted to still go, claiming they wanted an adventure.  I was pleased by their sense of adventure and figured out why not, if we get a little wet, it is no big deal.

The river before things got ugly!

The river before things got ugly!

When we got down to the banks, I asked the students to spread out and find their “place”.  I quickly scampered down the bank to the water to do the temperature before it really started pouring.  I had time to snap a picture before one of my students came yelling up the path that another student had been stung.  So equally quickly, I called all the students to come to me again and then assessed my student.  She had certainly been stung and was being very composed considering how much it must have hurt.  We quickly got to the school, when another student felt like they had also been stung.  I sent these students with another one up to the nurse, and I went and found Mrs. Richards, who was in the middle of her lunch.  I told her about the situation.  Two more students came up to me, feeling they had also been stung, and I sent them up to the nurse.  Just then, one boy started swatting at a hornet that had hitchhiked its way up with us.  The hornet flew from his hair, to my jacket, to a girl’s hair.  I took a field journal, swatted it out, and it flew up to a light.  I took this opportunity to lead the class up another stairwell, away from the hornet.

We arrived back down and I asked them to write a small moment about the situation.  It took a little while to settle them back down.  Things were quiet when all of the sudden, several students jumped up and declared there was a bee on another student in the room. Three-quarters of the class ran out screaming into the hallway.  I quickly asked for one of the remaining students to get an adult from the next room.  I grabbed the boy who had the hornet on him, unzipped his sweatshirt, threw it to the floor and stomped on the hornet.  I put the body into a baggie and went out to find my class.  They were still all in a dither and myself and Ms. Hobbie-Welch, tried to quiet them down.  We decided to check out their hair and shake out their clothing to make sure there were no more surprise attackers.

By after lunch, all was much calmer.  In seven years of taking students to the river, I had never experienced anyone getting stung.  One child had been stung 10 times, and three others were also stung.  This was quite a curve ball and on Wednesday, we talked about what went well about this scenario and what could we have done better.  Many of the students realized that they should not have gone into total panic.  This curve ball provided another great learning experience about how to better handle an unexpected situation.  I know that once the exterminator comes, I will have to get them back outside once again.  But I’m hopeful that we won’t have another curve ball thrown at us and if we do, that we are better able to swing at it.

Curve balls:  a great opportunity to practice, problem solve, and persevere.  May next week be calmer!



Ice Cubes, Leeches, and A Long Bike Ride: A Lesson in Stepping Outside Your Comfort Zone and Failing

Dear New Students:

Ice cubes, leeches, and a long bike ride.  An interesting combination of items, but how do they all meet together?  Why would I be writing a post about these three items?  Because, this year, I am going to ask you to do a few things differently:  I am going to ask you to step outside your comfort zone and not be afraid to fail.

ice cubesLast week, I conducted a workshop called Full STEAM Ahead for 15 K-5 teachers.  It was an awesome experience because I had the opportunity to work with some former colleagues that work at the Science Discovery Museum.  On the second day of the workshop, we were working on an activity called “ice balloons”.  These are just awesome materials and the teachers were very involved.  We were working on developing investigable and non-investigable questions and then the teachers needed to design an investigation based on one of their questions.  There was one group that really talked through their plans.  It all sounded really well thought out.  However, when they started their investigation, their materials were not correct and their experiment failed.  However, they were wonderful learners and they already had started analyzing their mistakes and were discussing what they would do differently.  They perhaps learned more than groups that had a successful outcome.  So, yes, you can fail and learn even more in your failure than if it went smoothly.  Don’t be afraid of failure, embrace the experience and see what you can learn from it.

This Monday, I was invited to go along on a Bridle Shiner survey.  Bridle Shiners are a threatened fish that is found in Vine Brook in Bedford.  It’s an interesting location, located right behind a cluster of office buildings and restaurants, and right off Route 3.  I was told to wear light pants and old sneakers/hiking boots.  It was a gorgeous day, so I was excited to learn about these fish.  There was a nice group of people gathered, ranging from a student in his last year of college to a Boston Globe reporter.  I looked at the brook while waiting for the others, and it didn’t seem overly deep.  After everyone was ready, we headed off towards the source of the brook, through some woods, and over a large pile of brush.  As we headed to the bank of the river, I started to wonder how deep this water was going to be.  I was stupidly carrying my phone and didn’t want it to get soaked.  As I scooted down the bank into the brook, I was initially surprised at the coolness of the beautiful green-blue water.  It felt refreshingly soothing and calming.  I am not someone who loves the water, so I was a little worried about the depth of the brook and I didn’t want to wreck my phone.  But, I cautiously felt around the bottom of the brook as I slowly stepped towards the middle of the brook.  It was beautiful.  There was a lot of plant life as well as a lot of different fish.  We collected about five different types of fish while we were out there.  The fish were beautiful and peaceful to observe.  We also found crayfish and dragon-fly nymphs there.  After about 40 minutes in the water, we climbed out onto the bank again.  Bryan Windmiller yelled out to us, “Check your ankles.”  “Check our ankles?” I thought to myself.  I thought he was referring to ticks since we had traipsed through some brush.  But it was not ticks he was referring to.  It was leeches.

Remains from the leech encounter

Remains from the leech encounter

“You really should tuck your socks into your pants before heading into the water,” Bryan told us.  A little late for that piece of advice at that point.  My pant legs were filled with water when I pulled it up and lo and behold, there was a leech on my left ankle.  Quickly, I pulled off the gelatinous mass off of me.  I was slightly grossed out at that point, but just dealt with it.  When I got back to my car, I pulled the pants off (I had shorts on underneath) and low and behold, two more leeches.  And these ones were not as easy to remove. I was really grossed out at this point as one had caused my leg to bleed and he wasn’t letting go very easy.  So, I found a paper towel in the car and struggled a bit to get the leeches off.  Initially I thought, this would be the first and last time that I participated in the Bridle Shiner survey.  But after thinking about it, getting into the deeper water was outside my comfort zone and picking up leeches was certainly out of my comfort zone.  However, the upside was that this was a new and informative experience and that experiences that outside your comfort zone help you grow.  So, I would do it again, but making sure that I tucked my socks into my pants to prevent those pesky leeches from invading again.

Finally on this gorgeous Monday, I ended my day by meeting a friend for dinner.  This friend was actually a girl I use to coach in track and field.  “Murph” was someone that was one of the hardest workers on the team.  Life was not always the easiest for her, but she never gave up.  She is doing an Ironman Triathlon this coming weekend and I am just so proud of her.  She has been training and one of her stories really hit home.  She decided to sign up for a 148 mile bike ride to help her get ready for the 112 mile ride that she will have to do in the triathlon.  She was riding along at about the 75 mile point when she sensed a car right behind her.  The car right behind her was the car that rode behind the last place biker.  She was in last place.  But instead of throwing in the towel, she decided to make the most of her new support crew and learn about biking from them.  She took the lemons and made lemonade.  One of the support team was a champion triathlete.  Stephanie learned as much as she could from this woman.  She really wanted to get to 100 miles of this race, and she did.  Coincidentally, she is also a teacher, and she was telling her class about the experience.  One student said that she failed.  But she didn’t look at it at all that way.  As she said to me, “experience is your best teacher.”  She learned a lot from that experience and it translated into her becoming a better biker.

So, being last isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  Failing isn’t a bad thing when you learn  about how to do something differently the next time.  And, to also grow as a learner, you sometimes need to step out of your comfort zone even if it means picking off a few leeches.  Life is full of experiences both good, bad, or ugly.  Just keep in mind as Stephanie said to me, “experience is your best teacher.”  Learn from it.  Embrace it.  Enjoy it.

See you soon!


Just Keep Swimming, Just Keep Walking, Just Keep Moving

Over the past few years, things from time to time have been tricky.  A motto that I have chosen in times of difficulty or controversy is to just keep on remembering what my purpose is and just keep on doing that.  It has been a difficult few years in school.  However, my focus stayed on one thing (or 22 to 23 things depending on the year):  my students.  They are my main focus and why I arrive at school every morning at 6:40 a.m. and why I work often to 10 at night.  I love to teach and it is with that purpose that I just keep on teaching.  I have refused to get involved in the controversies because I wanted to keep my focus on what matters the most to me:  the students.  So, if you are a new parent in my room, please know that my purpose is to make sure that your child has the best possible year.  I want them to own the learning, I want them to be excited by learning, and I want them to know that they are my number one focus.

After the end of the school year, I was discussing this with one of my friends on the staff.  She labeled the strategy, that she also used, as the “Just Keep Swimming” strategy.  I was unfamiliar with this line that came from the movie

“Finding Nemo”.  She suggested that I look it up and see that part of the movie.  And sure enough, on You Tube, I found the clip.  At about the 20th second, Dory says to Nemo, “when life gets you down, you know what you need to keep on doing?  Just keep swimming, just keep swimming.”  I thought this was an awesome clip and thought this was exactly the mantra that we had both been following,  “When life gets you down, just keep swimming”, however in our case, it was just keep teaching.

Over this past year, I made a decision to train for a marathon.  When I was younger, I was a competitive runner, but after four surgeries on my shins, I needed to give it up.  However, one of my strategies over the past year was “quarter to four, out the door,” where I would leave school and take a walk.  This strategy was awesome for several reasons:  it gave me a good chance to reflect on the classroom or life, and two, it got me back in shape.  So, while I couldn’t run any longer, I could walk.  And after I did a half marathon last November, I decided why not train for a marathon?  So, on my 53rd birthday, I signed up to do the Maine Marathon on October 6th.  I selected that marathon because it seemed really walker friendly and was advertised as being relatively flat to downhill.

But as life often goes, things can change quickly and unexpectedly.  Some bridge on the course was closed, so they needed to reroute the course, which resulted in it now being called a moderately hilly course.  I could


forget it, but instead, I have added more hills to my training routes and kept on walking.  When thrown a curve ball, you need to adjust your strategy and keep on moving towards your goal or purpose.

So, imagine to my surprise one morning when I was on a 12 mile walk.  I went out early because this was during the really hot stretch of weather.  Part of the walk involved Great Meadows.  As I turned the corner and headed down the path between the two impoundments, I noticed lots of objects on the path.  Upon getting closer, I noticed these objects were Canada Geese.  Lots of Canada Geese.  I started walking towards them, yelling out “Move goose, move goose!”  That didn’t really work. I wondered to myself, should I turn around and go back the other way?  But I really didn’t want to do that.  So, I get on going straight.   Luckily the first bunch was just two geese so I could easily go around them.  But then right ahead of me was the next pack of geese.  This time there were about 25 geese.  Some were nesting, there were several new babies, and then there were the guard geese.  Again, I started yelling out for them to move, which again had no effect.  I noticed a bunch of birders out on the board walk and I yelled out to them, do you know how to get these geese to move?  And one of the birders replied, “You just keep walking.”  So, walk I did.  The geese were hissing at me as I passed.  I know geese can bite (hence the verb “goosed”)  So, I quickly walked through, talking to the geese that I wasn’t going to hurt them.  I managed to get through the 25 geese pack uneventfully and then happened upon the next group.  Again, I chose to just keep walking.  I liked the birders’ advice, it was just like the “Just Keep Swimming” line.

Geese at Great Meadows

Geese at Great Meadows

So, this past Sunday, I headed out on a 16 mile walk.  Again the walk took me through Great Meadows.  And again, there were the geese.  “Just keep walking, just keep walking,” rang through my head as I traversed around the obstacles in my walk.  But I had my goal, my purpose, and kept on walking.  I talked to them as I had several weeks back and this time there was no hissing involved.  Perhaps I was more confident heading into this week’s encounter with water fowl.   Perhaps I knew it was an obstacle and if I focused on the task on hand, I knew I could make it around them successfully.  Whatever the case, I kept on moving and had an awesome 16 mile walk.

My other big thing that I have accomplished this summer was applying to a Doctorate program.  I have long been thinking about this for me as a learner, and I found what I think is the perfect program for me.  When one of my teacher friends found out about this, she sent me a lovely message that contained a passage from a newsletter that she had received from Shady Hill.  It said “”There is no room for complacency in our view of the school’s future. Shady Hill has been a pioneer, but pioneers have a tendency to become settlers, letting a new wave of pioneers roll over them to an even more promising future. To maintain vitality will require new vision and new methods.”  She likened my applying to this program as my new adventure and that I was a pioneer that kept on moving, that I wasn’t content to “settle.”   This was the utmost compliment and showed that she gets me as someone who wants to keep on moving, keep on walking, keep on swimming, and just keep on moving.

So, it is August 1st, and the new school year is now not that far away.  I will keep on moving, keep on walking, keep on swimming, keep on my path.

June: A Blur (in many ways!)

The month of June is like the confluence:  the joining of two or more bodies of water.  But instead of bodies of water, in my case, it is the joining of two or more bodies of students.  And in the event of this particular month, it was the coming together of multiple bodies of students.

First up, was the 22 lively students that I had in front of me every day from 8:50 a.m. to 3:15 p.m.  Fifth grade can be a time of great angst and this spring was no exception.  The transition to middle school, where for some, Thoreau had been their only academic home for the past six years, can be a frightening one.  Just when they have figured out my expectations, their classmates’ personalities, and things like where the bathrooms are located, they are now facing a switch to a new school, where they now face the prospect of not having a “friend” with them (new middle school strategy) to having multiple teachers and multiple locations during the school day.  No longer will just one teacher be running after them for missing work, there will be multiple teachers with different demands on them.  No longer will there be a tubby to place their belongings, they will face the prospect of moving every 48 minutes and with that move will be their possessions that have to also travel with them.  With more blossoming of those lovely hormones, personalities that were sweet for most of the year, became pretty sour in the last weeks of school.  It was a time that sometimes it was a struggle to get through the day with all of the chatting, which is a hallmark of middle school behavior.

But amongst the angst, was some great learning going on.  How many times can I express that Robotics is the best thing that I teach?  In case you haven’t heard me say that before, I will say it again, “Robotics is the best thing that I teach.”  Robotics pulls in the best of learning.  It blends creativity, critical thinking skills, problem-solving, and collaborative work in with whatever curriculum that I decide to mix it with.  This year’s theme was Lewis and Clark.  Students needed to research the obstacles that Lewis and Clark faced and design a robot that would overcome these obstacles.  As one student noted “This is Lewis and Clark meeting the 21st century.”   Almost immediately after introducing the project, a lot of the angst disappeared.  Students who had a not so positive attitude about robotics at the beginning were asking to stay in for recess to do some programming.  Students whose expertise was more in the hands-on area of building robots, became the “go-to” students.  Students challenged themselves to accomplish some tricky maneuvers that I personally thought couldn’t be done.  Students stuck with difficult challenges.  They didn’t throw the towel in when something didn’t work as they wanted it to.  By the morning of our demonstration on the second to last day of school, the students were ready.  They were dressed for success and calmly got up in front of a room of their parents and other guests to present their robot.  The name of this project was “The Journey  Project” and it was a fitting name for the journey that many of them had taken throughout the school year as learners.  I am very proud of where they traveled through the year to become better writers, better readers, better mathematicians, better scientists, and better social scientists.  But most of all, they had become better people.  I am M.A.D. will go down as the hallmark of this year’s group.

Second group of students up:  the graduating class of 2013.  For the past five years, the Thoreau School faculty has hosted the graduating seniors.  Most have gone onto Concord-Carlisle High School, but others have moved, and others have gone onto private schools in the area.  It is always fun to see what your old 4th or 5th graders have turned into as young adults and what the next chapter of their life holds for them.  For me, I had this group as 4th graders when we had just moved into swing space at the old Alcott School.  By the end of the year, I had only ended up with 15 of them.  While 15 is the typical number of students at a private school, it is a little small at the public school level.  And this 15 could be a little on the difficult side.  So, I was eagerly awaiting  their arrival in the Thoreau School Library to see how they have morphed into young adults.  Right before the end of the day, one of my current students, whose brother was among those graduating seniors, mentioned that his family would be hosting a student who attended Thoreau but had moved in 4th grade.  That student was one that I had, Nick, and he had moved in the middle of the school year to Colorado.  I think I had originally heard a bit about him, but had heard nothing for years.  Max told me he was coming for the graduation and I was disappointed that he wouldn’t be here for the reunion of Thoreau Alum.

When this group of students arrive though, they are no longer the 4th graders they were when I had them.  A few looked identical to back in 4th grade but were taller and resembled an adult version of their 4th grade self.  However, most of them needed a name tag because they were really morphed.  One handsome young man walked over to me and said “Mrs. Erickson?”  On his name tag was “Nick”.  It was my old Nick.  I had misunderstood Max, he was there for the graduation, but also for the rest of senior week.  It had been 8 years since I had last seen or heard of Nick.  And there he was standing in front of me, reaching into his backpack and pulling out a scrapbook.  He went on to tell me that this scrapbook, which the class had made for him when he moved, meant the world to him.  It kept him up during some really down moments.  I have to be honest, I didn’t remember doing this.  A seemingly simple measure, have the students write him a note, and put it together in a scrapbook, had meant the world to this student.  The fact that he dragged it across the country to show me, meant the world to me.  No matter how tough the day, the month, the year had been, disappeared in this realization that as teachers, we have an incredible impact on a child’s life.  I am a teacher.  That’s what I do and that’s what I love doing.  The difference this made in Nick’s life made a profound impact on my life.  This made my day, my week, my month, and my year.

Group Three:  From time to time, there is a group of students that stay connected to me.  The first group just finished their sophomore year in college.  The next group, was my “replacement” group for that group of girls and they just finished their freshman year in high school.  These five girls were really tight as 4th graders when I had them as students.  In 5th grade, they use to come see me on occasion for lunch. In 6th grade, when the group was split into two different schools, they started to drift apart a bit, but would still come by after school for “tea”.  I could always count on Rose baking something pretty sophisticated for her age, and I could also count on the gang of them being pretty silly.  Sometimes almost too silly!  But year after year in middle school, some of them still wanted to come by.  I would enjoy hearing their stories about this student and that student, about their Bat Mitzvahs and siblings, and about their summer plans.  Slowly, there were growing up and the silliness started to subside.  So, Larissa had written to me in the spring and asked about getting together in June.  Rose, who had moved onto a private school, would be out of school early and could come during the second week of June.  So we selected a date and got it on the calendar.  They arrived after school.  A few of them tower over their former teacher now, but otherwise, they all are the same kind and neat kids they were when I had them in 4th grade.  Both Rose and Katherine backed something for this “tea”.  It was great catching up with them.  What I always admired about this group was that they are happy in their own skin.  They are who they want to be.  Five years later, they all have very different interests.  It was great hearing about their activities and their summer plans.  They are morphing into young adults and I am really looking forward to following them on their path.  I left that tea happy to see them and pleased at where they are in the world.  I am sure I will write more about them in the years ahead.

Group Four:  Past students who are now in middle school:  This year, I duplicated Karen Hoyt’s having former students who are in 6th grade, come back and speak to my current students about middle school.  I admit, I only originally invited four 6th graders and two 8th graders.  The two 8th graders were two of my finest male students and I thought they could offer a “big middle school picture” to the 5th graders.  When I had these two boys as 4th graders, I knew they would grow up to be fine leaders, and I have been correct on that assumption.  Their two sisters, who I had for 2 years, were also going to come, along with another girl who was going to ask two boys.  However, Karen asks back her entire former class and when word got out, suddenly, I had e-mails from other students asking if they could come.  At this point, it was easier to say yes than no, and that proved to be a good decision.  They were to meet us at 2:30 in the auditorium where we were doing robotics.  Thunder rumbled overhead as the middle schoolers filed in, completely drenched.  And it was quite a line up of students!  There was one that I was worried about, but have seen several times publicizing his own lawn business, which is an awesome thing!  They spoke extremely respectfully to my current students. answering their questions honestly and humorously.  After 35 minutes, we needed to end, but I was very proud of this bunch of students.  I look forward to “tracking” them in the future as I know they will be doing great things.

Group Five:  SuAsCo River Schools Network:  After about five years of brainstorming on how to make this happen, on Monday, June 10th, after school, about 10 of my current students welcomed about 13 students from Lowell to officially kick off the SuAsCo River Schools Network.    A total of 23 students, ranging from 5th graders to college students got together to discuss the importance of studying and preserving our rivers.  As one student from Lowell said, “I like studying about rivers because it shows us how we are all connected.”  Watching the students analyze water samples from around the watershed to exploring the Thoreau School River Trail was an awesome moment to showing how students from different areas and backgrounds could be connected over a common thing:  in this case, the rivers.  I look forward to growing this program over the next year.

And finally Group Six:  I don’t really know this group of students.  Currently, they only exist as names on my class list for the upcoming school year.  We start receiving this list early in June and it is tweaked until we receive our “final” (in that students always move in during the summer) list on the last day of school.  It can be a confusing time, looking at the future, while dealing with the present, and having the past all involved at the same time.  Yet, I find myself already thinking about the possibilities for the next year.  How will I do things differently with this group?  What are they like as learners?  What inspires them?  What will they grab onto?  Those questions will continue to be asked up to day 180  of the 2013- 2014 school year.

A blur.  A confluence of students past, present, and future.  Students who are MAD.  Students who have morphed into wonderful young adults.  Students who want to help the environment.  Students on a list.   A blur.

The Joy of Teaching

These days when I venture out into and around Concord, I am asked a lot about school.  However, these questions are not about the topic that I focus my energy on:  teaching.  As I have written many times before, teaching is an incredibly hard job.  If I had stayed with my government job, I would be able to retire in two years.  With teaching, I probably won’t make the 30 years needed to recoup a lot of my pension.  But while I really liked my old career, I love my new career.  My students, while at times demanding and complex, offer me what the other job didn’t:  joy.

Joy can be described as:  the emotion of great delight or happiness caused by something exceptionally good or satisfying; keen pleasure; elation.

Over the past month, best described as “March Madness” at its best, moments of joy constantly surround me during the day.  I want to share some of these joyful moments that give the madness meaning.

Mrs. Brewer Style:  Several weeks back, we were outside at recess on a pretty chilly Thursday.  Several of the girls were complaining about the bitterly cold wind when Mrs. Brewer suggested to them that they dance.  So, they danced.  I marveled in Mrs. Brewer’s ease at just bogeying around with these girls.  Watching them, I remembered that Mrs. Brewer would be celebrating a milestone birthday that weekend.  On our way in the door, I mentioned to the trio of dancing girls that perhaps they could write a song to “Gangham Style” for Mrs. Brewer.  The trio were our Thoreau “newbies” and they were thrilled to be tasked with this job.  So, off to work they set.  They collaborated with our music teacher Mrs. Swain, and by the end of recess, they had a first draft in hand.  I needed to get a “dress rehearsal” in with the kids, so I sent Mrs. Brewer to copy many MCAS packets so that we could escape to the auditorium to try it.  It was an awesome dress rehearsal and to further throw Mrs. Brewer off, after leaving the auditorium, I did a “walk around” the school, saying the students needed to practice walking in a straight line.  When she caught up with us, I pretended to be mad at the students and told her that they were misbehaving.  The next day, on the snow storm day, we had planned that the kids would ask what would be the Friday video and could they watch Gangham style.  They were appropriately pesty and we all kept straight faces throughout the day.  During social studies, the students were suppose to be comparing Jamestown and St. Augustine.  They kept pestering me about the video.  Finally, I “relented” and said they could watch the video, if they went back to work afterwards.  They promised they would and I brought up the soundtrack to Gangham style.  One of my newbies jumped up onto the table and shouted “Brewer Style” and joy spread across Mrs. Brewer’s face.  Before long, the majority of the class was dancing on the tables.  We were all dancing and it was joy at its best.  When we finished, we went dancing through the office, down the halls, up the stairs, and into Mrs. Dillon’s class.  I can’t remember a happier time, a more joyful time.

Sketch Up and Turtle Art:  As I have also blogged about before, I firmly believe that students need to own the learning. Currently, I am taking an online course at MIT called Learning Creative Learning.  I learned about a program called “Turtle Art”.  I was excited to have the students try this out since it combined Logopaths and Scratch.  So, one Monday morning, when the other students were at instruments, we held a “PT” (Playtime).  My attempt at Turtle Art yielded a little flag, but before long, students were creating incredible graphic designs.  Watching the atmosphere of children calling each other over to look at what they were doing was awesome.  They were learning from one another, they were trying new skills and they were having fun. They were happy and engaged.  It was another instances of joy during learning.  About a week later, I was trying to extend our Lime Moving project by making it a “STEAM” lesson and I was discussing what each letter represented.  The “A” is for art.  We discussed how art could be integrated into this project, when one boy raised his hand and mentioned “Sketch Up”  I remembered hearing about this program at BLC and thought it sounded rather cool.  So, I mentioned it to Ms. Howard, who did a little research and then told me it was okay for the students to try this.  Several days later, I needed to attend a meeting.  I told the students they should work on their STEAM project.  When I returned an hour later, two students excitedly ran over to me, beckoning me to come over to their computer.  Seems like while I was gone, some of the students started playing with Sketch Up.  It was amazing to see the 3-D designs that they had created.  Again, there were no directions or expert in the classroom.  They used each other once again to learn and share.  Students who typically aren’t in the spotlight, were leading the way.  For this teacher, there is no greater joy to see engaged students who own their learning, who  are willing to take charge, and who are gleeful about what they have created.

Brackets:  Another joyful moment during our own March Madness Month actually involved NCAA Division 1 Women’s Basketball team brackets.  Yes, we are doing brackets.  A few people have walked in during this activity and have asked “You are doing brackets?”  Yes, we are.  It’s been great, because it has been a great extension of our fractions, decimals, and percent learning.  I have broken the class into four groups that represent the four divisions.  They were initially tasked with determining the fraction that represented the total wins over the losses and wins, then figuring out the decimal that represents the winning percentage and round it to the nearest thousandth, and finally, coming up with the actual winning percent of each team.  We decided to study theoretical probability and select teams on their winning percentage to see how this would come out against the experimental probability.  Lots of great math involved, real life connections, collaboration, and awesome predicting going on. (we are not doing badly with the theoretical slant)  When I watch how engaged each group is, it once again brings a smile to my face, reminding me why I teach.

Cemeteries, Swamps, and MAD COW:  I have wanted to get my class to a cemetery over the past two years.  Sounds a little strange, but ever since Dr. Klar dragged my grad class to a cemetery, I have been fixated with the type of learning that can occur here.  Several times back in my teaching career, I’ve done a project called “Talking Tombstones”.  It was an awesome learning experience and I’ve really wanted to go back.  But due to a change in field trip policy, this was no longer possible.  I so believe in the value of community based field experiences.  I’ve resorted to my weekend mini-trips to fill this void.  But this year, I was fortunate to meet up with Michael Goodwin of CCHS who is running a really cool new program called Rivers and Revolutions.  Since a large part of their learning is experiential, we have been able to go out with his students through their stewardship programs.  So, this past Wednesday, we headed to Sleepy Hollow Cemetery on a beautiful spring day.   The activities were pretty engaging to the students.  While I went from station to station, I spotted Moore’s Swamp below.  Moore’s Swamp is the big project that we have been working on for about four months.  I scoped it out and asked the CCHS students if I could have about 15 minutes to bring the students down there to check out some of the things that they had written about.  So, we descended down a steep hill into the low part of the cemetery that is basically even with the swamp.  Much to all of our amazement, we found the culvert blocked — with piles of sandbags.  Quickly, I texted Bryan Windmiller with the students’ questions.  While we were examining the area, we were lucky to be able to spy ten Blue Heron, and two different types of woodpeckers.  Again, watching the students ask great questions while at the same time, exhibiting elation over seeing the birds was priceless.  This 15 minutes of examining this part of the cemetery and swamp again provided us all with a deeper understanding of the area.  It provided us with a good perspective of the issues about Moore’s Swamp.  It provided us with some great information that we would need a mere 48 hours later.

On Friday morning, I heard from Bryan that the DPW was not going to change its position about draining the Swamp (see my post on January 2nd).  When I mentioned this to the children after lunch and that we would need to come up with a plan on Monday for the Wednesday meeting, they swung into action.  They asked me to let them work on it right there and then.  One child said that “originally this was just a learning experience, but now it is personal.”  So, I let them work.  Grabbing their Mac Book Airs, the groups gathered and started compiling their position points to present at the meeting scheduled for next Wednesday.  Everyone was on task, everyone was writing their positions to present.  They were so engaged they even forgot about the extra recess that I offered them earlier in the day.  We did select a Friday afternoon video, the Duck Song and went “waddling” off to the buses.  Another joyful day.  Another day of inspired students.  Another day of students owning their learning.  So, if folks want to ask me about teaching, I am more than willing to share these moments of joy with them.

Team, Seniors, and Bonuses

March 1, 2013

It’s been awhile since I’ve had the chance to sit down and write a post.  So, enjoy these three “blogsays.”



Before vacation, I was struck by a picture of the Boston Red Sox surrounding their new coach.  It was a great team short – they were focuses and acting as one.  New coaching staff, a lot of new players, and a new start.  Kind of like it is in September when we start school.  I have (for the most part unless I am looping) a brand new bunch of players.  I’ve written about these players again and again.  But what I want to talk about today is the incredible group of coaches that I have working with me this year.  My coaches are great to bounce ideas off of, discuss different issues that are going on in the classroom, laugh with, and  cry with.  We are in sync and are all totally committed to our students.  I have lots of different people that I coordinate with over a given day:  Social Worker, Psychologist, ELL teacher, SPED teacher, SPED tutors, Speech and Language Pathologists, Math Specialists, Language Arts Specialists.  All of these folks are the utmost professionals, who always are there for me to discuss any issue that I have in the classroom.  I enjoy working with them, collaborating with them to support my players.  But this year, I also have two additional breathes of fresh air as part of my team:  Pat and Mike.  It is a true joy to work with these two on a daily basis.  Pat is a seasoned professional, who loves to dance and has great thoughts on how to get the best out of students.  She cares about kids and it shows.  She will go to any end to find what makes a child tick.  Mike is a young teacher, has the right stuff to be an outstanding educator.  He is calm under pressure, and like Pat, he will do whatever is necessary to make a child tick.  During a really sad section of Wonder, a book that I was reading out loud to the kids, I broke down in tears when it discussed the family’s having to put their dog to sleep.  He grabbed the book and kept going.  His empathy towards me and the situation was incredible.  Both Pat and Mike are incredible educators that I am indeed privileged to work with this year.  They create a lot of joy in the classroom and I can’t think of two better people to share these 180 days of learning.


Grand CompanionsDuring the First Lego League last fall, the students needed to research issues that Senior Citizens face.  We traveled to Concord Park , a retirement community near the West Concord Train Station.  Two of the students developed an idea called “Grand Companions”.  They envisioned visiting Concord Park on a regular basis and doing activities with the seniors.  December came and went, as did January, and then came February.  My point person went to work and we arranged to visit them today after school.  The students came up with the idea of World War II.  They selected Number the Stars for a book, decided to create paper airplanes with a kit that I received at Christmas, and set out looking for a recipe that would involved Denmark (the setting for Number the Stars).  So after a very long and draining week, we set off to Concord Park after school with nine students.  Arriving there was just what just what the doctor ordered for me.  The students set into motion and soon the Seniors were flying airplanes throughout the long room, helping them cut cookies, and reading out loud with one another.  At the end of our visit, I said we would be back at the end of the month.  One of the students said “That’s too long!”  The students were a breath of fresh air to this group.  It was an awesome end to the week, yet an awesome beginning to a wonderful relationship.

Mrs. Erickson at the river

Mrs. Erickson at the river


My older son just graduated from college last spring and has been working in a large law firm in Boston.  Over break, he was talking about the bonus that he would be eligible for in March.  Not bad for working nine months!  We had a series of discussions about bonuses and my chosen profession:  teaching and the bonuses I receive.

My bonuses don’t come as an extra check for a job well done.  It doesn’t come in terms of promotions.  No, my bonuses are much different, but as my son said, much more gratifying.  My bonuses consist of :

  • Sketches drawn of me at the River.
  • Paper plates with “Best Teacher Ever” written on them
  • Ceramic sayings, river pillows and scarfs, and paintings made by my students
  • And essays written for other purposes.

This essay, written by a student, was very meaningful to me.  They had to write about a time someone gave them advice.  This student automatically thought of me and a piece of advice that I gave to “Be Yourself.”  I was deeply touched that this piece of advice was so meaningful to him.

So, I won’t receive any extra bonus checks or promotions.  But these types of “bonuses” is what touches my heart in so many ways.  Teaching is an incredibly demanding but incredibly satisfying job all in one.