Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Thoughts for a First Year Teacher

My baby cousin is going to be starting kindergarten this year. Teaching kindergarten that is. While I am working hard on getting over the fact that she is old enough to be a teacher, I am also getting very excited for her first year.

From what I hear her first year will be a lot like mine. Most of her students will not come from English speaking homes and most are considered disadvantaged. She will be a part of welcoming children into their school careers and setting the stage for their future.

There is so much I want to tell her.

There is no doubt in my mind that my first year teaching was the absolute hardest year of my life. The learning curve as a new teacher is more like a vertical line, where you are desperately trying to learn everything at once  so that your students get the best possible experience. The pressure you put on yourself for this is what overwhelms you with your desire to give the kids you have fallen in love with everything you have, and then even more. The first year was filled with long hours, tears, frustration and exhaustion, yet also with so much excitement and happiness. Your first class will always be special. No matter how many years I have taught nothing has changed the way I've thought about my first students who learned right along with me as we tried to figure out first grade together. Twelve years later I want to give my cousin as much advice and support as I can, despite the fact that she will be far across the country from me.

What do I wish I'd know starting my first year?

Don't assume anything. Don't assume your students know how to walk in the hallways, sit on the carpet, listen to a story, put crayons away, push in their chairs, raise their hands, or stop talking when the teacher is talking. Don't think that they will automatically know how to behave in school, or that because you are the teacher they should listen to you. Anything you want them to do, teach them to do. Then have them practice it. It takes time now but it will save you time later in the year.
Take the time in the beginning to teach everything. Teach them how you want them to hang up their book bags, how to sit on the carpet, how to raise their hands. Teach them how to walk across the room, how you want them to hold the scissors, and how to talk with each other. One year my co-teacher and I realized that our kinders did not even know how to listen to a read aloud. We had to start at the beginning and teach them how to engage with a book.
It sounds like an overwhelming list that does not even touch academics but these are the easiest lessons, and once they are in place you are free as the teacher to dive into academics without having to constantly deal with behaviors from your students.
Read The First Six Weeks of School. 

Don't take their misbehavior personally. So much of what we consider misbehavior comes from the students not knowing the expectations. If your students are like mine, this may be their first experience away from their family. It may be their first experience hearing English, their first time in an organized setting, their first time with more than three other children, their first time experiencing with the expectation that when an adult speaks (even in an language you don't understand) you are supposed to stop talking and listen. Don't let them get away with behaviors you don't want, but turn everything into a teachable moment. From the minute they enter your room start teaching them these lessons on how to be in school. They may need to be taught that they cannot stand up on the carpet during a lesson. Teach this before they have a chance to test it. Teach how to raise their hand to go to the bathroom, how to wash hands, and how to ask for help. There have been multiple years where I have needed to explicitly teach that we don't spit on the floor. In some cultures and in some houses this isn't a rule. When they don't follow your routines be firm, specific, and clear. Set the consequence. Then later reteach the expectation. Show that you believe they can follow the rules. Believe they can follow the rules. They can. And often, they want to, they just need you to show you how.

Build a class community. Teach them to care about one another. Show them that the class is not just where they come to learn as an individual, but that they are a part of a classroom family. When they feel connected with their classroom they are more likely to take risks, relax, and be open to learning. When they believe that you love them they will open their hearts to you. Teach them to listen to one another. Listen to them. Take time at recess to listen to their rambling stories about the park, the pool, or the trip to Kmart. Let them know that you think what they are saying is so important (then remember it when they tell you they have nothing to write about).

Read aloud. All the time. You cannot do too many read alouds. In my teaching career I have seen the number of read alouds go down drastically as we become more and more hyper aware of our students test scores. Yet there is always time for a read aloud. If we want children to read they need to know why we want them to read. Many of them will not be read to at home. This is their first opportunity to fall in love with literacy. Make them. Choose silly, goofy read alouds. Do the funny voices. Fall out of your chair with surprise at those silly characters. Read more thoughtful read alouds. Read in a hushed voice as the students lean in to hear you. Throughout the book stop reading and put the book on your lap. Think aloud about what you are reading. Make connections. Teach your students to make connections. Read the same books over and over again until your students can "read" them to each other. Read books before math, science, and social studies. Read books before recess. Keep a stack of great read alouds on your desk so that when you have absolutely nothing to do with them because your lessons did not go as planned you can grab a quick book. Keep a basket on the floor of books you have read aloud. Whenever you finish a book put it in the basket. Watch- the children will go to that basket before any other basket. They love to "read" the books you read to them.

Have fun. Find time to laugh with your class. Sing songs no matter how tone deaf you are. Embrace Dr. Jean. Do the Tooty-Tah. Show them that we learn in school but we also have fun. Dance. Teach them how to settle down and take deep breaths after silly games. Practice settling down. Celebrate your hard work. Teach them to kiss their brain after they have thought long and hard about something. Google Dr. Jean celebrations/cheers. Print them out and do them frequently with your class. Do them in the hallway when your class has walked silently for the first time. Do them even when the principal is watching and you are scared of looking like an idiot.

Consider your teacher language. Google Paula Denton, The Power of Our Words.
Instead of saying, "Don't run!" say, "In school we walk".
Instead of, "How many times do I have to tell you...?" try, "Remind me how to sit on your chair."

Write these phrases on an index card and tape it to your desk:  "Show me..."  "Remind me..." "In school we..." so they will become engrained in your mind. These phrases set the expectation of rules without shaming the student. They show the student you believe they can follow the rules.

Love them. Keep a journal of all the silly and wonderful things they do so that you can look at it when you've had a bad day. Remember when they are driving you crazy that they are five and six and wonderful little humans. 

My first year the best advice anyone gave me was, "Don't worry. They will learn despite you." And it's true. Although I would look at my class and cry because I thought I wasn't giving them the year they deserved, they learned anyway. I wasn't a master teacher or even an experienced teacher. I made mistakes. So many. But they made progress. Awesome progress. They learned to read, write, and love school.

It's going to be a great year!

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Torture Chambers of Noise (aka public restrooms)

Dear Lord of all things holy- what is wrong with public restroom designers? 

There was a time in my life when I thought all these automatic inventions in public restrooms were fancy and sanitary. I loved that you didn't have to touch those germy surfaces and I proudly watched my skin get blown around under the excel-dryer in awe at our clean society. 

Now I'd like to have the designers of these contraptions, the people who decided to purchase them, the workers who installed them, and the visitors using them thrown in a jail cell where they are forced to listen to loud, overwhelming bouts of noise sent at random intervals while they are peed on by a young, screaming child. This especially applies to the people who decide to use the dryer right as my sensitive two year old in potty training daughter sits on the potty. The sudden sound of a hand dryer/helicopter about to bomb our bathroom stall causes her to jump mid-stream, which in turn triggers the automatic flush, resulting in a screeching two year old holding onto the infested public toilet for dear life, and tinkling everywhere. 

There is nothing clean about those automatic gadgets. They inspire far more touching of surroundings and scaring the pee out of my daughter than they keep anyone clean. The urine soaked floor at the fancy new rest stop? Yep, that was us. Just be glad we made it to the stall.

Then there is when I am actually trying to take my turn and the auto hand dryers/death machines start. The panic causes her to race for the stall door and open it, exposing me to the general hand drying public. 

As I carry a damp, urine and tear streaked child out of the restroom, avoiding the judgemental eyes of childless twenty-somethings on their way to their relaxing beach vacay I can't help but think of the parents of my students. My daughter is sensitive to the noise, but not nearly as sensitive as students I've taught in the past with autism. I can't imagine the horror those parents go through in trying to cajole their child into the sensory hell of a public restroom. 

There is so much in our everyday life we take for granted. Things that don't over stimulate us, overwhelm us, or make meeting our daily needs a challenge. We're lucky to be neuro-typical and to be able to effortlessly use a bathroom, go to a movie theater, a grocery store, a fast food restaurant without putting our senses into chaos. 

So, from one urine splattered mother to another I give you a virtual hug. Not everyone can understand how hard it is. And don't worry- those childless twenty somethings rolling their eyes at the puddle on the floor will have their day too.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Happy Fourth!

This time of year I can't help but think of all the families I have worked with over the years- families who just came into our country looking for a better life. They left behind their families, neighbors and comfort to come to America for all it represents. In many conferences and home visits over the years I have heard stories of what it was like "back home", where they themselves didn't have the right or opportunity to go to school. Where they never felt their children were safe, where they knew their child with a disability deserved more than what their country would offer. Where they were scared of the gangs, drugs, and violence their child would be exposed to. I have heard many reasons why these families have come to America, why they are willing to live in small apartments shared with other families they don't know, why they are willing to work so hard once they are here. All reasons come down to freedom and the American dream. 

Our country will always have issues and debates, policies that anger us and politicians to begrudge. Our ability to voice our opinions on these problems, debate them and challenge them is what makes us great and guarantees our freedom. Beyond the debates is the strength of our country. Take a moment to appreciate our political differences and be thankful we can have them.

Happy Fourth of July!

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Preparing for Life's Tests?

There is a post that keeps popping up in my Facebook news feed asking me if my child is just bright or gifted. If I click on the link I'm promised to discover the truth. 

Horrified by the idea of considering any child "just bright" I clicked to find out what sort of site would be sponsoring this. The blog's name made me cringe even more- Testing Mom. The two words don't sit well together for me. Testing teacher? Yes, begrudgingly. Testing psychologist? Of course. Testing mom? Testing isn't the imagine I want my daughter to think of when she thinks of me. Caring, questioning, prompting, encouraging, teaching- all qualities that can lead to promoting her skills, but without testing.

"Preparing for all life's tests" is the tag line, and for a minute I thought, ok, life has some big tests- character building, independence pushing tests. 
I quickly discovered that's not the kind of test it is talking about. Life's tests apparently include the Woodcock Johnson and other IQ and educational performance based tests. In fact if you sign up for the site you will have access to practice questions for all sorts of tests out there. The site will prepare you to actively coach your child through diffetent assessments that can help your child get into good preschools, elementary schools and gifted programs.

I suppose I knew all along that sites and programs like this existed but in the world of teaching in a title one school I feel far removed from it. 

This site seems to sum up everything that is wrong with education. It's not about teaching children, preparing them, strengthening them or helping them become better people. It's about helping them pass arbitrary tests that sadly hold the perceived keys to a child's future. Parents do this because they don't want their child left behind or to miss out on opportunities. Somehow wanting the best has become gaming the system.

I once was giving one of these assessments when it became abundantly clear the child had been coached. That went straight into my report, making the scores unreliable because we no longer had a true picture of the child. 

Preparing your child for life's tests? Play with them. Read books. Go on a nature walk. Coach them through independently ordering at a restaurant. Cook together. Eat dinner as a family. Listen to their thoughts and concerns. Love them. Encourage hard work, determination, empathy and delayed gratification. 

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Cardboard oh cardboard

This summer is quickly becoming all about the cardboard.

After wondering what to do with my poster board after my teacher research presentation I realized it was just begging to be repurposed into a castle. 

--- --- ---
Then yesterday we walked in the door and my daughter spied a massive stack of empty boxes we have to pack up our basement to get it painted. 
"A tower!" She exclaimed, "can I knock it over?"

Although my first instinct was no I realized there really wasn't a problem knocking over empty boxes as long as she didn't hit anything. We took them down to the almost empty basement and built castles to knock over. 

I'm tempted to let her paint the boxes once we've finished unpacking them and keep them for a little while so she can construct her own giant towers. Better than store bought blocks and when she's lost interest we can send them to recycling.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014


Even though I was out of my classroom most of this year I still spent August carefully setting it up, carefully organizing it for my own needs, planning for units I knew I would do, and making use of the storage space for what I knew would work best for me.

 When I had to leave the room I left everything the same so the kids would have consistency. After a long term sub and finally a full time teacher the room ended the year by being lived in by three different teachers. Everyone had their own organizational style and three different styles gave way to a fairly disorganized room. 

I'm going back in today (the last day of school- yes, we are still in school) to help sort through things and pack up my own supplies since I won't have a classroom next year. 

On Monday I went by and packed my plastic baskets. So. Many. Baskets. As an elementary school teacher there seems to be a rule that you must own as many baskets as possible. Baskets for pencils (one for working pencils, another for broken pencils, then baskets for each table group) baskets for crayons, markers, scissors, glue, paper, 100 baskets for a well organized classroom library, baskets for where to turn work in, baskets for center supplies, for storing upcoming activities, for notes to the teacher. We are talking a lot of baskets. The money adds up. 
So I'm left with the great basket debate-without a classroom I have nowhere to keep the baskets, but if I get rid of them I will just need them again in a few years when I go back to having my own classroom. I made the mistake of getting rid of baskets when I left my room the first time- and then had to spend so much money buying them again.

The same theory for files, teacher made games and centers- I am not going to need any of these things in the near future but if I just throw them away or donate them I will find myself recreating them all again in a few years. And frankly I'd rather spend the money on buying new baskets than the time it takes to recreate center games. The hours of cutting laminent are just too painful to have to recreate. 

Maybe part of my hesitation to purge my room is my sadness for leaving the classroom. I love having my own room and I'm not ready to get rid of the supplies that represent all the fun I have teaching. The mountain of baskets is calling to me, begging to be filled with pencils and crayons once again. 

Wish me luck today as we try to sort out the room!

Monday, May 26, 2014

Pecking Away at Vocab Lessons

Little Lipstick's current favorite book is Peck Peck Peck by Lucy Cousins.
This book has, um, no real plot. It has potential. In fact on first reading you are struck by the sweet daddy woodpecker teaching his son how to peck. They have some guided practice and then the daddy releases responsibility so the son can go off independently and peck whatever he would like. The young woodpecker takes the challenge to heart, flies into a nearby house and pecks everything in sight. The washing machine, a book of Jane Erye, a tennis racket, clothing, kitchen appliances, even the toilet. 

On first reading you are sure he is in for it. At any moment this daring little bird is going to be run out of the house by the humans, growled at by a dog, or at least chased when he tries to peck a napping cat. 
*spoiler alert* no such climax takes place. Proud of his hard work the young bird returns to his nest where his father tells him how proud he is of all his pecking, kisses his head and sends him to bed.
Sweet ending but I'm personally left wondering about the poor family whose family portraits have been destroyed. And what exactly the publisher was thinking.

Then, on our 37th reading I found myself doing what I always do- thinking like a teacher. This book would be a fabulous Vocab builder, especially for your ESOL populations. Since it is really just a long list of common vocabulary with somewhat of a narrative twist it could be a very engaging book for a younger crowd that needs practice with words. 

While it doesn't include any school vocabulary it is begging for your class to write a sequel- when the little woodpecker comes to school. It would be a great way to list all the school tools in your classroom with words and pictures (also teaching concepts of print). As a class you could re-read it over and over again so your students could put the words into long term memory. It would be rote practice without it being boring practice. How engaged would a kinder class be at the idea of a bird pecking their room? It's just too silly (which means right up their alley). 
Now I want to make some lesson plans and go teach!  Ah, maternity leave- maybe I'll just cuddle Baby Lipstick instead.

Organized Chaos

A think tank focused on creative solutions for future problem solvers -tree