Saved by the Read-Aloud by Ryan M. Hanna

Nerdy Book Club

This is a simple story. A small reflection. But, it has weighed heavily on my mind and heart since the end of last school year, and what better day to share it than on Surprise Sunday?


One of the most common pieces of advice that I received from my mentors and professors when I first entered teaching was to make the time to read books aloud to my students. I am not telling the Nerdy Book Club audience anything they don’t already know when I say read-alouds benefit students in a myriad of ways, such as building students’ language and vocabulary skills, helping students gain knowledge about the world around them, and engaging students’ imaginations and creativity, just to name a few. I’ve always read to my students because I know it helps them develop a love of reading.


I made a surprising discovery this past school year…

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I just read Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking. What an amazing book! It was beautifully written and so validating!
One thing the author spoke about was how important it is to appreciate the gifts of introverts — whether in yourself or in your own children, or in your students. Introverts offer deep insights and observations about the world, and deep intimacy with a few rather than shallow connections with a multitude. She wrote about research into an introvert’s nee to recharge and find a quiet space for healing and recharging. She talked about carving out time and space for this, and how unhealthy it is for introverts not to have this kind of recharging. She talked about the importance of honoring who we are as introverts by choosing jobs in which our gifts shine, rather than trying to change ourselves to fit the picture of our extrovert-oriented world. She spoke of the danger of gearing everything toward extroversion, of missing the gifts that only introverts can bring to a classroom, a business, the world.
It strikes me how very much I am enjoying my teaching this year, and how well-suited I am for these small scale interactions. My students are learning so much from me, and I am learning so much from them, by being able to work with them one-on-one and in small groups. I am helping them reach deep to learn, and in return and reaping the harvest of emotional and intellectual connection. I have often thought of teaching as a job for party people. But there’s a place for very kind of person in teaching — it’s just a matter of finding the right setting and the right way to teach and learn that suits you.

I Can READ this!!

Jonas has been struggling to read. To read, he has to sit still, and Jonas cannot sit still. So today, as we read together, Jonas jumps up and down, his arms against the table, his legs pumping like a pogo stick. 

“Five (jump, jump) Mice (jump, jump) race (hop, slide) to the (jump, plop in the chair) place.”

In the chair, he rocks back and forth, tick-tock, the legs of the chair tapping like a ticking clock. Some days I’ve tried to get him to settle down to read. Today I don’t try. And, amazingly, he reads.

As he reads, I write down words he is figuring out, all of which end in a silent “e”.






Twenty-one new words cover a small white board when we are done with the book. He has persisted. When he is done, he grabs the book the the white board and races back to his classroom and shouts, “I read this book! I know all these words!”

Then he sits down and reads the book again. He reads it three times before he is through, all on his own. All because he can.


Beautiful Robots, Beautiful People

I just volunteered at my first robotics competition — a FIRST Robotics tournament, in fact — FIRST standing for something about science and technology.  I didn’t expect to enjoy it. In fact, I expected to really NOT enjoy it at all. I was picturing noise, tension, techy people who were so focused on technology they could not relate to people. I gritted my teeth and prepared myself for a five hour shift, doing my duty as a teacher and parent, putting in the time to support my kids. 

But what I found was — yes, noise, deafening noise — but great noise! A band of teenagers playing, of all things, Herbie Hancock’s Headhunter and other fabulous 70s funk — and playing it really well! And all the joy and ear splitting cheers of a sporting event, complete with crazy home-made mascots — devil duckies, boxy robot girls in tutus, a dancing cow — and nerdy, beautiful, kind teenagers cheering for their own team-built, frisbee-spinning robots — and everybody else’s robots besides. I found hilarious, righteous team names — The Holy Cows, We Are Robot or W.A.R. Lords, Clockwork Orange team members in orange jumpsuits, and Super Heroes complete with capes and insignia.

I found an incredible sense of wonder and optimism — the students’ wonder at what they themselves had created, and wonder — not jealousy — at the amazing creations of other teams. There was astonishment at their own problem-solving abilities — the power in being able to fix something that is broken, or figure out a solution to something troubling. Take, for example,  a team that travelled all the way from Lancaster, California. They had to get up at 3 a.m. to reach the venue. And then they discovered that the bus they hired to bring them to the tournament did not show up. No bus at 3 am might have meant no trip to the tournament. But these 20 kids in orange were problem solvers. And they had supportive parents. They called parents who rushed to the rescue in the dark of night, loaded up hand-built robots computers and kids — lots and lots of kids — and made the five hour drive. These families watched nearly 12 hours of tournament — and were all smiles when their team reached the finals. They are amazing, beautiful children, with amazing, beautiful parents and mentors.

The robots were almost as amazing as the people. There was a 6 foot robot that spit loaded frisbees clear across the room at almost 100 mph, right into a small slot. There were robots that could hook a climbing structure and lift themselves off the ground, robots zooming across the floor with remote control drivers keeping them from crashing in an arena crowded with six robots. The students who guided them worked beautifully as teams, huddled around computers, working right until they were called onto the arena to perfect software glitches, repairing hardware, and just cheering each other on. They even helped other teams succeed, carrying robots, cleaning up frisbees, offering suggestions. 

I feel lucky I volunteered at this event. Every so often you witness something in education — or in life — that makes you say, This is why I am so lucky to be alive, to be teaching, to be a parent. FIRST robotics was such an event.



One year, Narcissus was in my class, a self-identified Mean Girl. “I’m a mean girl,” he said. “I tell it like it is.”
Helping Narcissus learn compassion and how not to be the center of attention was  challenging. He was funny, and kids laughed at his antics. But they also were weary and wary. Would he turn on them next?
Instead, he turned on me.
What happened was this: One day I called Narcissus in to discuss behavior. It did not turn out the way I planned. He was a fast talker, slick as wet pavement. He said, “You should know that I’ve taken a poll, and everyone agrees that  YOU need to change YOUR behavior.” His head bobbed back and forth in that cool way kids have on T.V. when they’re being smarty with their t.v. parents. “Oh, yeah, baby.”

Then he pulled out a list, and a pile of letters. “All of these kids wrote letters.” He looked down at one. “This one says, — Oh. I can’t read that,” he smirked.”It’s private — watch your language, girl!” He shuffled papers. “This one says you’re too strict.” He dug another one out. “This one — ” he smiled to himself, looking it over, “you don’t EVEN want to know what this person says about you.”
I ignored the letters and patiently went over our class rules again, what it means to be a respectful member of our classroom community, and how he was being disrespectful with his constant talking, and ..yada yada yada. But inside I felt defeated. This savvy kid had defeated me.  Again. My mind spun out into the painful places teaching has taken me at times. “Nothing will change,” the voice told me. “You  can’t teach.” My mind went where it has often gone over the years: I shouldn’t be a teacher. I should just quit. This was too painful.

I thought about all the methods I had used to help manage his poor behavior and outbursts — the checklists I had given him that he simply would not check off when he was misbehaving. The moments stepping out of the classroom that brought only laughter and hoots from other students, and the focus of attention squarely where Narcissus wanted it to be. I really didn’t know what to do. And steely eyed as I tried to appear, I felt awful, like an awful teacher.

And then two things happened that saved my day — and saved my career:

Another teacher found one of the letters a student had written. “This is NOT acceptable,” she said. And she named the behavior: “This is bullying. He has no right to treat you this way. If he were treating a student this way, he would be suspended. And it is even worse to treat an adult with this kind of gossip and unkindness.” I was stunned. I was being bullied. It had never occurred to me. I felt embarrassed, but liberated at the same time, like a truth had been illuminated. I felt grateful that she had named the behavior.

Then the principal came in. She was stern. I was a little afraid. How had I lost such control of a situation? I was sure she would criticize me.

“You are doing everything right,” she said. “You are teaching really well. He has no right to treat you this way and he is in BIG trouble!”
I almost cried. At that moment, I realized that  never, in any teaching job since my first one 25 years ago, had I seen a principal so fully support a teacher. I felt only gratitude.

Hearing such support, I felt completely empowered to seek new solutions. I saw Narcissus’s behavior as a challenge that could be solved with support, not as a sign of my own failure. It was an amazing feeling.
So the next day, I sought the help of the Speech and Language Pathologist. I didn’t know if she’d ever had a student who was hyperverbal and manipulative, or if Speech was meant to deal with such people at all. But I described to her the situation and what I had done to help him change his behavior so it did not disrupt class. And she pointed out that everything we had done so far with him was verbal reinforcement. It gave him the attention he craved. She suggested I use a nonverbal system to help him curb his behavior, and more importantly, that all the teachers use the same system with him in a consistent way. We began the next day.

The principal also modeled how she spoke with him: “I will speak now and you are to remain silent. Then it will be your turn to speak.” and then cut off the conversation. The result was beautiful. I did not tell him what we were doing that first day. I did not remind him of his behavior. I simply watched him and conducted my class, and ignore him, and at each misbehavior,  I put a button in a jar. At the end of the day, he and I counted buttons. He had accumulated 64 buttons in one hour by getting up and walking around, calling out, interrupting other kids, throwing things in the air, and generally being disruptive in a way no other child was being in class. After we counted buttons, I asked him, in order to give him some sense of choice, how many buttons he felt he should reasonably expect to accumulate in an hour. 20, he said. The other teachers disagreed: 10, they said. the limit would be 10. After that, he would be on detention for disruptions. I also added, I know you like to get “rewarded” for good behavior. We will recognize that, too. If you do something great — not just something expected — you will get a button in another jar.
During our next class, his behavior was much better — down to 30 buttons. The next day, 27. The next 13. the next 7, and finally, one day, he had no negative buttons. Only two — in the positive jar, for sharing his wonderful writing.

Each day after that, he would come into my class to share something beautiful he had written — something positive, something life-affirming, something that showed the ways that a gregarious person can contribute to the world. Over time, he  learned to curb his behavior and act more appropriately in class. As an adult, I am sure he will look back with gratitude on this small clipping of wings, as a time when someone finally found a way to say to him, “Enough.” and helped him learn to work with others in a healthier way.

No Bad Days in the Garden

One of the things I love most about teaching in the garden is finding critters. It’s amazing what kids see with their fine eyes — the tiniest creatures! This week, while we pulled weeds, one child found a stick insect no more than a centimeter long, as thin as a few strands of hair, crawling across dirt exactly the same color as the bug. On the underside of a leaf, I found a Green Lynx spider and her hatched egg sac with tiny babies. Worms! pill bugs; tiny centipedes. The garden is a thriving place!

One Month To Learn

In one month, setting up my own classroom for the first time ever, and losing it in the end, I learned…

How to create a classroom space, finally, that works — and that not every space can work for every class.

I learned that no matter what I set up, one child and one parent will love it, and one will hate it. And if I change it to please one, another will be disappointed.

I learned how to run really good Responsive Classroom morning meetings with greetings and activities, afternoon meetings with sharing and music and appreciations, and occasional class councils to work out difficulties.

I learned how to organize a long-term project-based learning project  based around students interests.

I learned a bit about how to manage high-sensory need students and autistic students.

I learned how to run a good math group based on Cognitively Guided Instruction principles.

I learned and practiced accurately assessing reading levels and writing levels, and how to start and maintain a portfolio of work that keeps track of what students are learning.

I learned that I am a wonderful singer and guitar leader with my students, and that they can partake in my joy of music.

I learned to use music to signal transitions and to make transition requirements clear.

I learned how to collect and organize student work.

I learned how to create wall displays that are not distracting to ADD kids.

I learned how to set up a library based on the real reading levels of my students and not what I think they would be.

I learned that I can create some really good, engaging literature-based projects that grab students’ imaginations.

I learned to create a schedule that works through flexibility and consistency.

I learned to ask friends and colleagues for help, and to avoid, when possible, the influence of negative people. And when they can’t be avoided, I learned that negative people can’t destroy me.

I learned that sometimes things are not fair and there is nothing you can do about it except maintain your own integrity and wholeness and walk away.

I learned that I have a need for boundaries and that I respect my own need and the needs of others for healthy boundaries, and that I can’t thrive in a place where boundaries are unclear or unhealthily intrusive or loose.

I learned that no matter what someone says to me, I can learn from them, but I don’t have to believe that their opinions are always correct. I have learned to seek the second opinions of people I trust.

I have learned that there are people out there who want to help me learn. And those are the people I can choose to surround myself with.




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