Who Motivates Your Learning?

When I first began teaching fifth grade, there was a teacher down the hall that I just could not respect.  It had nothing to do with her knowledge of the content, it had to do with her manner of delivery.  It didn’t matter if she was talking to children or to adults.  She was abrasive and completely unaware that humiliating a person in front of a group of people made them less apt to listen to anything else she had to say.

She had a reputation for hugging and kissing your head one minute and embarrassing you for making an error the next.  Students who forgot their homework or lunch were petrified to tell her for fear of her wrath.  I remember one incident in which a student forgot to attend a meeting in her room for a club she was leading.  She made sure this student sat in the office during an all-school field day event as a consequence.  Students who were assigned to go room to room picking up the daily attendance hated having to stop at her room.  If she had it hanging on the door, all was good.  But if you had to knock at the door to ask for it, you were publicly scolded for interrupting her teaching.  Those who were afraid to knock were also admonished for just standing there.  Yep, she had a reputation.

The first year I worked in my district, I taught for a half day and serviced students with reading needs the other half.  I remember being assigned to work with a specific student in her room.  One day early in the year, the students were working on creating a presentation.  I pulled a chair up next to the student and asked how she was organizing her ideas for the presentation.  I got a piece of paper and drew some lines in preparation for discussing a framework from which she could work.  The teacher’s voice boomed loudly across the room, “Stop helping her!  She is not to have help with this!  This is her project and I do not want you doing this for her!”  And then she smiled as if she had just passed along helpful information.  The teacher could not see what I was doing with the child, nor could she hear what I was saying.  I wasn’t doing the work for the child, but she didn’t bother to find that out before yelling across the room.  The child looked at me and instantly felt sorry.  I was so humiliated, that I left the room.  This teacher never explained anything about this project to me before class.  I was there to help this child, yet the teacher did not want me to help.  What exactly did she want me to do?   I hated going in there.  I was so glad when that year was over.

As a first year teacher, I had an opportunity to watch and learn from someone with a lot more experience than me.  But her treatment of others was so jarring and humiliating, I couldn’t appreciate and now don’t remember anything about her teaching.  However, I will never forget the looks on the faces of the children she blasted for not punctuating something or not having followed one direction or another.  You know, for having made a mistake.

I think Maya Angelou said it best:

The teacher in question didn’t think it was in anyone’s best interest to worry about a person’s feelings.  She needed to speak the “truth” and if someone didn’t take that well, that was their problem.  The facts had to be put out there, and after all, she had always been direct and bold about it.  People were supposed to accept that about her.  That’s who she was.

In imagining that a few hurt feelings were insignificant (maybe even necessary in the process of learning) or that most people she had contact with didn’t complain about her manner, she deluded herself.   People didn’t confront her because they feared the treatment everyone knew to expect from her.  People didn’t confront her because they felt powerless to productively change the situation.  Instead, people talked about her behind her back.  Instead, people sought out the children in her room who were her “targets” for the year and offered them hugs and a sympathetic ear.  I, myself, went directly to the principal before my own children were in 5th grade and requested they be in anyone’s classroom but hers.  I could not imagine to what degree her unpredictable treatment of the children limited their learning.  How can learning be fun when you are “walking on eggshells” each day, or waiting for her to spot a mistake you made? I stopped taking her seriously as a professional the first time I saw her humiliate a child.  When she humiliated me as well, I began to avoid contact with her whenever possible.  How many of those children actually enjoyed coming to school each day?  I sure didn’t.

Now let’s compare her to the most inspiring teacher I’ve ever met.  This is someone who encourages collaboration, and sees himself as a participant in the learning.  In fact, he thanks the students who gather in his classroom for challenging his understandings and giving him more to think about.  He encourages his students to get together and study without him because like I said, he does not see himself as THE ONLY ONE with knowledge.  He knows that learning happens when motivated people come together to ask questions and listen to one another.  Without him there, the students learn to learn.  They learn to share their thinking, they learn to listen and they learn to ask the questions that will steer whatever inquiry they are working on.  Of course, once the students’ inquiry has run its course, they seek the teacher out and set up a meeting to share all of their new questions!

When someone makes a mistake, he thanks the student and calls it a big fat juicy mistake that will give all who are listening an opportunity to understand something better.  Following his lead, others in the class also offer thanks to the classmate whose mistake pointed to their own misunderstanding.  If someone in the class reveals in some way that they are misunderstanding something, he uses examples and offers the clarification they need to build a more reliable foundation of the topic at hand.  And he does so in a way that does no harm to the student’s willingness to learn from him.  No one leaves his classroom feeling shame or humiliation.  No one leaves feeling uncomfortable because of how another student was made to feel.

One of the hardest and yet most amazing things I’ve learned from this teacher is not to need an immediate answer to a question.  As an educator and a lifelong student, that is not something I’ve been conditioned to do.  As a teacher, I’ve spent hours and hours thinking of the questions I’ll ask and the answers I’ll hope for.  After all, haven’t we been taught that the point of asking a question is getting an answer?  I can even note that at some point in my student life, I stopped asking the kinds of questions that were too big for immediate answers.  And then I slowed down with asking questions at all.  So here I am as a classroom teacher with 2o+ years of experience finally learning that my questions can sometimes merit a celebration!  And I’m finally learning to sit with a question and a few pieces of evidence.  Just sit.  And ponder.  And maybe even forget about it for a day or three or eight.  Further evidence will undoubtedly present itself, and at that point I’ll revisit my question and contemplate whether or not the new evidence is bringing further clarity.  If it does, great!  I’ll happily share that evidence and that question with someone.  But if it doesn’t, no sweat.  I’ll keep pondering.  In this way, the learning is truly ongoing.

How can these two teachers be so different?  Easy.  One focuses on the experience of learning and honors the human beings that ask to participate.  The other shares what she knows, but does not hold herself responsible for the effects her words have on others.  She expects faults and ignores  strengths.  One attracts people who want to learn and be respected in that process.  The other has students, but they are guarded.  They admit they are wrong before they are because they anticipate being called out for it.    They rely less on their own understanding and stay dependent on the teacher.  Even if that other 5th grade teacher had been extremely innovative or the most book-smart teacher I ever met, I wouldn’t have been able to get past her disregard for the feelings of others.  I was never able to learn from her because I lost respect for her.


Connecting Us to a Place

Have you ever read Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli?  It’s an interesting book that has an interesting look at race relations in a town.  Maniac is unlike most people.  He is a loner.  Not too anxious to live anywhere for too long.  He loves to run, to hear the flap of his shoes on the pavement.  Anyway, one of my favorite chapters to use for poem writing inspiration is chapter 14.  Maniac has been living with the Beales for a little while and pauses in this chapter to share what he loves about this family.  He describes  his early morning runs and the sound of pancakes on the griddle when he returns.  He describes the singing at church and how he gets caught up in it.  In other words, he describes the meaningful moments using his senses.

Image result for Maniac Magee

After I read aloud this chapter, I give the students a sheet for brainstorming some of the smells, sounds, and events that make their own home experience special to them.  Once the students have had a chance to brainstorm some of those sights, events, sounds, and smells that feel like home, I ask them to look over their list.  Which things would they like to include in a poem that reflect what home is like for them?  Sometimes the students saw a theme in their list and sought to develop that theme in their poem.  A few this year chose to focus on their pet who waits for them at home.

Like I said, this chapter is the inspiration for the writing and the student is encouraged to take that inspiration in any direction that makes sense to them.  Some have home situations that are difficult to find comfort in.  But they each have something, pet or person, who makes them feel at home.

Here are some examples of what they wrote.

Drifting Away

Everyday I wake up to the smell of bacon.
The aroma just drags me into the kitchen.
It makes me feel excited
and ready for the day.

But after a hard day,
I go into the woods.
The woods is my happy place.
It’s where all my feelings and emotions
just drift away.

The woods is where
I drift away.
It’s my happy place.



At Home

My dog barks.  I go and pet her.
My turtle’s hungry.  I go and feed her.
When I’m at home, it’s quiet.
When I’m at school, it’s noisy.

I know I’m at home when I’m safe in bed.
I know I’m at home when I’m reading in my head.
I know I’m at home when the things I love are there.
I know I’m at home when there are knots in my hair.
I’m at home, and everything I need is there.




My dog makes me happy.
Every time I come home,
he comes and gives me kisses.

When I sit down on the couch,
he jumps on me and lays on my lap.
Then he falls asleep.

But any little knock,
my dog will go crazy!



My Christmas

Snow falls gently on the ground.
The voices of carolers walking
to my door dance in the wind.
Smells of pine and candles fill the room.

The sounds of my family’s laughter and Christmas songs
bring joy to everyone.
Gifts wrapped carefully with shiny wrapping paper
and tied off with silky ribbons
lay tucked under the tree.

My big family is all together.
It’s Christmas!




I sit and I wait.
for one special man.
So many things tempt,
but I wait.

The dripping water faucet,
the smell of dinner,
clocks ticking and
time going by,
but I wait.

I hear the garage,
and I run to the door.
It flies open,
and I know he’s home.
My father.

I’ve been waiting,
and I know he knows it, too.
I tell him about my day,
and he tells me of his.
I’m happy when he’s with me.

That’s why he’s worth the wait.




Bubba spends his time at home,
sleeping and sitting on his chair,

But when I come home,
Bubba races to the door.
I can hear his paws running across the tile.

His barking greets me.
He puts his paws on my legs
and barks with excitement.

Now everyone is happy.




The smell of my cat’s puke.
The sound of my cat
accidentally swallowing
his toy.
The sound of my sister
whining about stupid things.





The warmth of my family enjoying a
wonderful Christmas together!

When I wake up, I love to open my door and see
Christmas presents and our Christmas tree.

My dad makes amazing eggs and bacon, and
we enjoy that wonderful breakfast at our kitchen table.

I love to hear my family talking and sharing
what we got for Christmas with each other.
The “I love you” means a lot to me.

The smell of our air diffuser that sits on our little table,
and the smell of our wonderful smelling Christmas candles
make me smile.

The feel of my comfortable blanket
that sits on top of me,
and the feeling of the warm fireplace
makes me feel so snug.

The love of being with a wonderful family!



The Morning

When I wake up
I smell bacon sizzling
and bread toasting.
Breakfast is coming.

My dog will be barking to come inside.
I will doodle in my notebook.
I’m still in my cozy p-jays and under a fuzzy blanket.
My dog is curled beside me.

Time to eat breakfast!
My brother will be driving his snowmobile
on a blanket of snow glittering bright under the sun.
My mom will light my favorite candle.
I will feel the warmth of my dog.
I will enjoy this Saturday morning.




Water splashing in my fish tank
Stinky fish food

Pizza boxes everywhere
when my mom is not home

Bumpy walls help scratch my back

Apple cinnamon scent
that makes me feel at home.




Home is where my dad
makes rad brownies.

Where my family’s jokes
crack me up

Where me and my family
decorate the Christmas tree

Where the Christmas tree lights
brighten up the night
and the presents reflect all the lights

Home is where my heart is.


Is This The Right Bus?

You know how sometimes you look at a word you’ve written hundreds of times, and all of a sudden it looks totally strange?  That happened to a colleague today.  There was a math story problem that the whole class was working through.  The problem had to do with a school bus – more than one to be exact.  I don’t know what calculations were required to solve the problem, but I do know that writing the plural of bus is what stumped the teacher.  At first she wrote ‘busses’ on the board.  But then she couldn’t stop looking at it.  “That doesn’t look right,” she thought out loud.  “But yet it doesn’t look completely wrong either.”

The students (who tend to love correcting adults) shouted, “There’s only supposed to be one ‘s’ in the middle!”

As the teacher rewrote the word and changed it to ‘buses’, she agreed with the students.  “Yes, that looks right.”  But instead of turning her attention back to the math part of this, she paused and asked the following question.  “But why is it spelled with only one ‘s’?

The responses she received were similar to the responses I get when I ask a question about spelling.  The students have been taught that spelling is a reflection of pronunciation, so they don’t think of letters in a word as being there for any other reason.  For example,  when she asked why it was spelled with just one ‘s’, the students tried desperately to explain that there is a pronunciation difference between ‘busses’ and ‘buses’.  Hmmmm.

Lucky for me, I had lunch with this teacher and she shared the discussion they had.  My first reaction was that the suffixing convention tells us to double the final ‘s’ on the base and spell this plural as ‘busses.’  But we both acknowledged that we spell it as ‘buses.’  My next thought was that perhaps this was a case of American English spelling versus British English spelling.  But I wasn’t sure.  I couldn’t hide how delighted I was!  When you least expect it, an opportunity to learn something you didn’t even know you didn’t know pops up!  I love it!  I couldn’t wait to see what I could find out.  I went to my computer and searched “buses or busses?”

What I found was at Merriam-Webster.  I read that until 1961, ‘bussed’ was the preferred spelling.  So!  Both spellings have been used!  I couldn’t help but wonder what happened to cause the spelling to change.  As often happens in moments of great discovery like these, the school bell rang.  I had to go to the lunchroom to pick up students.  I would have to read the rest of the information, when I returned.  The group of students who had been in math with this teacher, would be in my room after lunch.  A perfect opportunity to discover things and build understanding together!

Once the students and I were all settled, I wrote <hopping> on the board.  I asked for the word sum.  Someone offered, “h-o-p + ing.”  Then the same person added, “but you double the <p>.”
“Why?  Why does the <p> get doubled?”
“Because there’s no <e> like there is with ‘hope’.”
To illustrate for everyone what this student was saying, I wrote the word sum for ‘hoping’ on the board as well.  We reviewed the suffixing convention that calls for the vowel suffix <ing> to replace the single final nonsyllabic <e>.  Then I directed everyone’s attention back to the word sum <hop + ing>.  “There is no single final nonsyllabic <e> on the base, and because there isn’t, we need to pay attention to what is final on this base.”  As you can see, I underlined in blue the single final consonant on the base and then I underlined the single vowel in front of that consonant.  I explained that the reason we double the <p> is because we are adding a vowel suffix to a base which ends in one final consonant and has one vowel in front of that consonant.

What happened next was kismet.  A student in the back raised her hand and asked, “What about a word like buses?”  Perfect!  They were still thinking of the conversation in their math teacher’s room.

“How do you spell that?”
“It’s spelled b-u-s-es.”
“Interesting.  Look back at ‘hopping’.  Don’t we have the same situation here?  Like we did with <hop>, we are adding a vowel suffix to <bus>, which has one final consonant and one vowel in front of that consonant.  What do you think the word sum would be for that word?”
“It would be <bus + es>.”
“If we use the same suffixing convention we used with <hop>, how should we spell the plural of ‘bus’?”
“It should be b-u-s (double the s)-es.”

I wanted to make sure everyone understood that we begin by following the reliable suffixing conventions.  When we find a word that doesn’t seem to be following those conventions, we are ready to ask why not.  I wrote the two spellings on the board and we wrote analytic word sums.  It was easy to write the one for ‘busses’ because we could explain the suffixing convention that would be applied.  When we thought about a word sum for ‘buses’ it was as if the two morphemes coming together repelled as two magnets might.  We needed to understand why the final <s> on the base did not get doubled.  It was time to show them what I found out earlier.

A quick look at Etymonline revealed that the word ‘bus’ is really not all that old.  It was first attested in 1832. It was an abbreviated form of ‘omnibus’ which was attested only three years earlier than that.  An omnibus was a four wheeled vehicle that had seats for passengers.  That’s not so different from what we think of as a bus today.  It was a vehicle for all as the Latin <omni> “all” suggests.  Below is a picture of an early horse drawn omnibus.

Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=553158

According to Merriam-Webster, by the 193o’s this word’s popularity started to bump heads so to speak with the already existing word ‘buss.’  Never heard of it?  Me neither.  It took me quite by surprise!  It is much older than ‘bus.’  According to the Oxford English Dictionary, ‘buss’ was first attested in 1567!  As a noun, a buss is a loud or vigorous kiss.  It is thought to be based on the sound that a loud or vigorous kiss might make!

As I was reading a 1996 use of this word in the OED, I realized what the problem would be for these two words.

“1996   Entertainm. Weekly 5 Apr. 96   Even after Maddie and David consummated the 1985–86 season with a passionate buss in a parking garage, viewers were not satisfied.”

In the above sentence, the singular form of buss is used, but what if more than one kiss was given in that parking garage?  The season would have been consummated with passionate busses in a parking garage!  Someone reading this would have to stop to wonder if these were passionate kisses or passionate vehicles!  It made me laugh thinking about how confusing this could be.

I altered the quote above so that it was more appropriate for my students.  I said, “Imagine how confusing it would be if I said that I saw someone give someone else two busses in the parking garage.”  It could mean someone received two kisses, or it could mean they received two vehicles!

We wrote the word sum for ‘busses’ and compared it to that of ‘kisses.’  We noted that <es> was the suffix used and why that made sense.  We laughed when thinking of what a single <s> suffix would look like when joined to this base or even how it would be pronounced.

Someone asked if perhaps the word ‘buss’ was pronounced differently than ‘bus.’  What a great question!  It was easy enough to find at the OED.  I wrote the IPA below it in the word sum.   Then I looked up ‘bus’ in the OED and found the identical IPA representation.  Cool.

So in the end, we realized that when seeing the word <busses>, a person wouldn’t know whether this was <bus (s) +es –> busses> or if it was <buss + es –> busses>.  In the end the plural forms of each look the same even if the bases aren’t the same.  Interesting stuff!  This takes me back to the Merriam-Webster article that stated that up until 1961, the preferred plural of ‘bus’ in their dictionary was ‘busses.’  After that the preferred spelling became ‘buses’ so these two words would no longer be confused.

If your students are like mine, they will enjoy the humor in the following.

Even if you love your bus, it may look weird for you to buss your bus.
You can give me a hug, but please no busses.
No busses on the bus, unless it’s a buss from your parent.


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