Moved to Tears

The first- and second-grade classes are deep into rehearsals for this year’s Christmas play, a children’s musical with a “true meaning of Christmas theme.”

unplugged ChristmasOne child commented after a rehearsal, “This is a lot like A Charlie Brown Christmas.” Thematically, yes. We don’t have Snoopy, but yes.

There are a few songs they had to learn, plus a few traditional carols. The second-graders do a version of Silent Night complete with hand motions (based on sign language; we learned it from a YouTube video) and it’s impossibly sweet.

We’ve had our funny moments, like yesterday when a first-grade boy walked up to me and confided, “I’m not sure if I’m supposed to be a shepherd or a Wise Old Man.”

But today we ran the whole show for the first time. And as the Nativity tableau was complete, the Wise Men crossed in front of the stage area. I reminded them to walk slowly and hold their hands as if they were praying. Then the first Wise Man–the rough-and-tumble football-playing boy who gets that “make me” look on his face when he’s corrected–reached the place where the manger will be.

And, unprompted, he genuflected. The other two Wise Men did the same.

I can’t even stand it. I’m not going to make it through this show without tissues, and I defy any other adult in the room to manage that feat.


Shared in the Catholic Bloggers Network Advent Link-Up!

Advent 2014: And So It Begins

To be honest, I don’t think I’d be feeling very Advent-ish at all this year if I weren’t forced to do so by my job.

But there are 18 second-graders in my foster classroom, and it’s my sworn duty to teach them all about Advent (hey, it’s actually in the curriculum! Their book has chapters for each season of the Church year.)

So before we headed off to Thanksgiving break, we made this:

Advent calendar 2014

Inside each little “door” of the calendar is an activity (fun, festive or devotional) suggested by the kids.

I also have Sarah Reinhard’s Welcome Baby Jesus book and I know how to use it. It’s perfect for this age group.

I bought a little tinsel tree at 5 Below yesterday and plan to have them make Jesse Tree ornaments to hang on it. Don’t know from a Jesse Tree? Don’t feel bad; I don’t either. I’m relying upon the extensive resources Christine at Domestic Vocation has compiled. You can even sign up for daily Jesse Tree devotionals.

Tomorrow we’re going to make little mangers out of cardboard jewelry boxes. I have a container of yellow basket filler. When the children do a good deed for someone else, they can put a “straw” in their manger.

Finally, I’m going to take the Holy Family out of the cloth manger scene (my kids’ baby toy) and let the students move them around the classroom, each day getting closer to the manger. We’ll start at my desk tomorrow.

Advent: Sublime, Ridiculous and SentimentalAround the house, it’s time to take out the manger scene and set up the empty stable. And, of course, we’ll have the Advent wreath on the dinner table.

I’m adding this post to the Catholic Bloggers Network Advent Linkup. Join in!

Grace of YES Day

grace of yes day header
Good morning, class! Today is Tuesday, November 18, 2014.

It’s Grace of YES Day.

grace of yes day classroom photo

A few weeks ago, I said “YES” to a long-term substitute-teaching assignment. I’ll be there through Christmas. I’ve gone into more detail on the subject here, but a “YES” to any teaching job is a “YES” to a gratifying, frustrating, entertaining, saddening experience. It’s not just a job; it’s a ministry.

The students and I keep their Regular Teacher in our prayers each day. She is dearly missed and we all hope she will return to good health, and her classroom, as soon as she can.

I pray for my foster-second-graders as I

  • hand out birthday pencils
  • give spelling tests
  • grade spelling tests
  • read chapters from Ramona the Pest
  • encourage reverence during Grace Before Snack
  • redirect children who use the wrong hand to salute the flag
  • line up the class for the bathroom. Again.
  • conduct science experiments involving rocks, water and flimsy plastic containers
  • enforce the “no sharing snacks” rule (we have allergies)
  • invent the “no shaking down other kids for snacks” rule
  • make sure the two Imaginary Students are not disrupting the class

This job saps my energy, creativity, and voice like no other.

And I love it. Even when I have outside lunch duty on 35-degree days and my hair is up because there’s a Head Lice Epidemic on the first floor and, well, I’m not willing to make that sacrifice for the kids…

Little Brother leaves notes on the board for my class before they arrive in the morning and visits us on his way to the nurse for his pre-snack insulin at midmorning. This “YES” has been good for him. I think he likes having me around his school. (He even hugs me in front of my class. Don’t tell him I told you this.)

It’s grace, pure and simple, that is getting me through these challenging days and weeks.

What’s your “YES” and how is grace making it possible? Share on Facebook or Twitter with the hashtag #graceofyesday

Want to learn more about the Grace of Yes? Read my review of the book here and join the discussion at!

Of Birthday Girls, Tiaras and Bookmarks

Birthdays are big deals in the primary grades (as well they should be.) Yesterday I learned just how big they can get.

A close facsimile of the Actual Plastic Tiara worn by the Birthday Girl.
A close facsimile of the Actual Plastic Tiara worn by the Birthday Girl.

The Birthday Girl sashayed into the classroom with her hair topped by a plastic tiara and a huge shopping bag in her hand. Inside the bag were 3 foil-covered pans and a stack of purple napkins and paper plates. I wished her a happy birthday (as I’d also done in the Morning Message on the blackboard) and showed her where she could put the treats until lunchtime.

The PE teacher took me aside to let me know that she’d talked to the Birthday Girl’s Mom, who’d indicated that only one of the pans of snacks was nut-safe. We do have one child with a peanut allergy in the class, though apparently it’s all right for other kids in the class to have food containing nuts. Anyway, the teacher asked me if I could serve the snacks in the classroom so we could make sure that the nut-free child got nut-free snacks. No problem; it was raining and we’d be having inside recess anyway.

When I delivered the kids to the cafeteria, one little girl asked where she should sit, because in the lineup she’d wound up across from the boy who needed to be nut-free, and she had a PBJ sandwich.

That’s when I started wondering why the Birthday Girl’s Mom hadn’t just made 3 pans of nut-safe treats, since she’d made the effort to make one.

After lunch we returned to the classroom, sang “Happy Birthday” and had the brownies on purple paper plates. The Birthday Girl then asked if she could take along a friend and start the Birthday Tour, in which the Birthday Child visits every single teacher in the school, offers a treat, and gets a little present like a sticker or a pencil.

I knew about that tradition, so I had brought along a bunch of fancy pencils and let her choose one. She wanted to begin the Birthday Tour right away, even though I told her that half the teachers were at lunch right now and wouldn’t be in their classrooms. That didn’t matter. She wasn’t going to hear about waiting. I didn’t feel like fighting this battle so I sent them on their way. Everyone else had a grand time with their usual rainy-day activities like puzzles and rainbow looms and drawing pictures and building things with the math manipulatives.

The Birthday Girl and Friend returned from the Birthday Tour 5 minutes before the end of recess. When I directed the kids to start putting away the toys and return to their seats, the two of them protested, “But we didn’t get any playtime!”

Me:  “Sorry about that. You were busy delivering the birthday treats. Playtime’s over now.”

(What was I going to do, let the two of them play while we went on and did a page in the grammar book? Seriously?)

After a little while when the Birthday Girl and Friend had finished the page we were working on but not everyone else was done, I let them finish the Tour. They returned and the afternoon went along as smoothly as any afternoon involving 18 7-year-olds and one middle-aged substitute teacher can reasonably be expected to go. As dismissal time neared, I sent groups of children to get their schoolbags and jackets and start packing up to go home.

The Birthday Girl approached me:  “You forgot to give me my Birthday Note and bookmark!”

Me:  “What note and bookmark?”

Birthday Girl:  “Regular Teacher always gives us a Birthday Note and bookmark!”

Me:  “I’m sorry. I didn’t know about Birthday Notes and I have no idea where Regular Teacher keeps the bookmarks. That’s why I brought pencils for you to choose.”

The Birthday Girl adjusted her tiara and sulked as she lined up for dismissal.

Teaching in Someone Else’s Shoes

This past week, I’ve been substituting for one of the second-grade teachers at Little Brother’s school. I’ll probably be there for the next couple of weeks, which is a little terrifying.

Substitute teaching is not just a job. It’s a ministry. And it definitely isn’t babysitting.

Substitute teachers minister to students who are used to the way their Real Teacher does things. Subs try to maintain the usual routines, learning them as they go along and finding out halfway through a task that their Real Teacher does things differently. The kids aren’t being rude or defiant–they’re looking for the comfort of the routine their teacher has so carefully established. In second grade, it’s all about routine. There’s even a procedure for sharpening pencils. I’m a big fan of procedures, but the kids know them and I don’t, so I’m at a disadvantage. This week has been Procedure Boot Camp in the second grade–for me!

Substitute teachers minister to parents who worry that without their child’s Real Teacher, the kids will fall behind or miss out on learning key concepts. We’re not doing busy work here; I’m not babysitting the kids. I am teaching them the next math chapter and helping them practice their spelling words. We worked on the Oxford comma this week (and I even taught them its official name, which was not in the book, but that’s just a bonus you get when your substitute teacher has an M.A. in English Literature.)

Substitute teachers minister to the principal, who wants to make sure that learning is happening, the children are following the routines already in place, and no one’s swinging from the light fixtures or getting hit by cars in the parking lot AKA recess playground (yes, I’ve had to prevent that last from happening.)

morning message
I love this teacher’s custom of a Morning Message. It’s a fun part of their daily routine.

Substitute teachers minister to the Real Teacher, especially when it’s a long-term situation. The sub walks that fine line of making sure the Real Teacher knows that the sub does not want to replace her, but just wants to do the best possible job as an unrehearsed understudy.

The students and I pray for their Real Teacher every day, which is a lovely perk of working at a Catholic school. It’s nice for me to be working, but I don’t want to poach her job. I know she’d rather be in her classroom with her students, and I’m trying to make it as easy for her to be away from them as I possibly can. When she comes back, I want her to just be able to step back into her usual M.O.

We’ve had our challenging moments, like today when I was frustrated because we were assigning next month’s classroom chores, and there was a dispute about whether someone could choose a job he’d already had in September, because “you can’t have the same job 2 months in a row” means, to some children, “you can’t have a job you’ve done before EVER.” I made an executive decision and shut down the dispute fast, and half the kids were not happy. Oh well.

We’ve also had our sweet moments. If someone drops a crayon box, half the class hits the deck to help pick them up–unasked. One child has measured me for a rubber-band bracelet. And yesterday when they were answering some questions from their religion book, they reached one that asked, “Who helps you learn about Jesus?” and a few of the kids asked if I would write my name on the board so they could spell it and fill it in for that answer.

I’m following someone else’s procedures and carrying out someone else’s lesson plans. I’m trying to be fair to my grade-partner teacher who is shouldering extra burdens as she helps me pick my way across an unfamiliar curriculum and grade level. I’m going home each day with tired feet and a tired voice and wearing chalk-dust smears.

I’m teaching in someone else’s shoes. They don’t quite fit me, but for the sake of the kids, the parents, the principal and the Real Teacher, I’m doing my best to make it work.


Anticipatory Joy

Every September it’s the same.

I run into moms who are either:

  • sad to see summer vacation end, or
  • sad that their child is growing up and advancing to the next grade.

They’re on Facebook and Twitter confessing their own tears as their child boards the school bus. They’re in ShopRite and Target wishing the summer would never end.

And I feel like there’s something wrong with me, because I don’t get it. On either count.

I like the beginning of a new school year:  the new pencils, new planners, new crayons and new notebooks. I like checking the school website to see who’ll be my child’s teacher this year. I like getting the email with the soccer schedule. I like seeing the bus roll up the hill toward the house on the first day.

I also like the structure that the school year provides. Summer is way too loose, too open-ended for my taste, even with soccer camp and theater camp to keep a kid busy on a regular basis.

The first day of school doesn’t make me cry for the loss of the freedom of summer OR over the fact that my kids are growing older.

Yes, I deeply miss the two who are now out of the house (one working and living on his own, and one in college). But I’m also deeply proud of them, and excited about their new adventures.

For me, September is a joyful time. It’s a time for a new start, full of possibility and potential.

While I’m not the parent dancing down the aisle in that Staples commercial, I do think this is a wonderful time.

The trick this year, for me, is to stop feeling ashamed of that back-to-school anticipation and to embrace the challenge of making this a wonderful school year all around.

Almost Summer: Small Success Thursday


Over at, they’ve titled this week’s Small Success Thursday “School’s Out!”

Not quite, here–for Little Brother. The Big Kids have been out of school for a while, but he’s boarding the school bus every morning until Tuesday of next week.


baseballI’ve been doing a lot of substitute teaching (4 school days last week alone), which is a good thing for the budget. Last week, when I was in for the same teacher most of the week, I re-created a review “baseball” game I used to use–one I learned from my mom when she was my teacher in middle school. Word got around, and another teacher who heard about the game visited me to ask if she could borrow the “equipment.” This week, she told me that she made her own “baseball” to use with her classes.


Right now I’m in the middle of a cooking frenzy as we prepare for the Big Kids’ Double Graduation Celebration and Swimming-Pool Jamboree. At last count, we’re feeding 90 people. Overnight last night, I slow-cooked pork carnitas with chipotle; right now there are meatballs in the oven and chicken for Caesar sandwiches in the slow cookers. And Big Brother offered to make the pico de gallo. I’m not turning down his offer to chop multiple pounds of tomatoes.


When my new-to-me dishwasher decided to unscrew itself from underneath the kitchen cabinet, I diagnosed the problem, located a washer in the correct size, and re-attached it all by myself.

Visit to cheer on everyone’s Small Successes! Link your own blog or add yours in the comments box.

Overheard: The Classroom Edition

I’ve been substitute teaching a lot recently, and sometimes the things the kids say are nothing short of priceless. Here are a few samples I managed to scribble down:

7th-grader, upon hearing that we’d be eating lunch in the classroom because the cafegymatorium was set up for a graduation reception:  “Can we order some ribs?”

scissorsMe: “Tie your shoes.”
3rd-grader: “They came untied yesterday.”

3rd-grader: “This is my folder. It’s blue. It’s my new favorite color.”
Me: “Blue is a great color! What was your favorite color before?”
3rd-grader: “Well, I made something with my buddy…”

Actual 1st-grader-composed spelling sentence: “If you took my pencil, I would tell on you.”

Actual 7th-grade religion test answers:

  • The religious vows:  “chastity, obedience, patience”
  • The religious vows:  “poultry” (others left blank)
  • The theological virtues: “Don’t lip, Don’t cheat, Don’t steal”

Things Teachers Say:

  • “Tie your shoes.” (100 times a day, no matter what the grade)
  • “You don’t close the window by pushing on the glass.”
  • “Stop juggling scissors.”

image credit

College Prep

There’s outrage all over the Internet right now over the cancellation of a kindergarten student performance because it would take away instructional time needed for the kids to become “college- and career-ready.”

I’d like to join my voice to the disagreement with the school administration; I’m all about encouraging students to participate in the arts. But I take issue with what a lot of people are saying:


Well, yes. Yes, they are. That’s why the arts, and recess, and physical education are so important. College is not all about performance on the SAT or ACT. It’s about using your knowledge, skills, abilities and interests to learn even more.

I had a school principal tell me once that kindergarten students are not preparing for college. That was in response to my concern that my daughter and her classmates were not being taught at all for an entire month while the kindergarten teacher was caring for a terminally-ill parent and the school failed to provide substitute teachers. Instead, whatever grownup (or, in some cases, eighth-grade girl) was available for the next half-hour would babysit the kids. They watched movies and played all day for a month.

Because the principal would not take calls from kindergarten parents and the situation was never addressed, we removed our daughter from that school. Suddenly the principal had time for a meeting with me, in the form of an exit interview. She defended her decision not to provide the class with a substitute teacher by telling me, “It’s kindergarten. It’s not like we’re getting them ready for Harvard.”

wpid-0112141301b.jpgNot surprisingly, that school only lasted two more years before closing due to lack of enrollment. Here’s what the school looked like the last time I saw it.

Schools do need to find a good balance between instructional time, play time, physical activity and the arts–on every level of education. Emphasizing one of these at the expense of the others is disastrous for the students and does no service to society.

Yes; kindergarten students are preparing for college–maybe even Harvard. They do this by learning reading-readiness skills, counting and doing simple math, looking at the clouds in the sky, drawing pictures with sidewalk chalk on the playground, practicing music for a show, and perfecting their kickball skills. It’s all important, and good teachers and principals are needed to keep it all going and support that learning. Like the building blocks the kindergartners use to make towers and castles, the skills the children practice as five-year-olds lay the foundation of the work they’ll do later.



Let me begin by saying that I don’t know how third-grade teachers do their job all day. The kids are sweet, but all day long with the same bunch of 8-year-olds who complain that their neighbor is looking at them/breathing on them/calling them names/not sitting in their proper seat/insert harmless-yet-annoying thing here–well, that can be a little relentless.

PLUS, they did not go outside at recess today, which means I had no break time.

AND their “special” was cancelled, which means I had no break time.

And I spent a chunk of the day having conversations like this:

CHILD: “Can I do this in cursive?” cursive writing

ME: “What does your teacher usually want you to do?”

OTHER CHILD WHO CAN’T MIND HER OWN BUSINESS: “She says we can do cursive or print, whichever we want.”

ME: “Just make sure it’s neat so your teacher can read it tomorrow.”

MOST OF THE CLASS: “OK.” (gets busy doing work)

CHILD WHO ASKED ORIGINAL QUESTION:  “So can I do this in cursive?”

God bless the full-time teachers of self-contained classes. They have a special kind of patience.