Wednesday, September 30, 2009

pure happiness

we are sitting side by side on the couch, shoulders and elbows touching as we lean over the book. we're taking turns reading- me, the hard words like 'would' and 'could', big sister the easy words like 'sam i am' and 'not eat them with a mouse', little sister the repetitive words 'i could not, would not in a house'.

we examine the pictures, search for the mouse, giggle over silly sam, and awe over little sister's ability to predict that sam WILL eat the green eggs and ham.

the conference is over and mom looks at us, sighing, letting me know it is time to go. the girls stand up silently as well, hugging the dr. suess books to their chests as though they are cuddling with a teddy bear. i find myself wanting to do the same, but i can't- i'm the adult.

goodbye! thank you for having us! we say, and my partner-in-crime and i head out the door of the apartment. the girls quietly wave behind us- shy waves compared to the excited shouts when we first entered their house. now we've seen their baby pictures hanging on the wall, the framed certificates from school- perfect attendance awards, 'pledge of allegiance' award, completing head-start awards, proudly displaying their accomplishments. we've seen the family photo featuring family members they no longer live with. we watched big brother literally climb up the wall to impress us.

they are a family we have known for years- girls i have been teaching one after another for three years straight now. girls we've spent sleepless nights wondering if they were going to be ok, girls we've bought christmas presents for under the secret name of 'santa'.

for a few moments we were bound together as readers in a way only true readers can be- cuddled over a book, whispering, and giggling, the rhyming words dancing between us to entwine the story around us.

it was magic. i am so grateful for that moment.

i got back into my car in new, renewed spirits.

this job isn't about the list of possible budget cuts sent to us today by the superintendent. it's not about the report cards and progress reports we're all desperately finishing up. it's not about the brilliant, perfect lessons. it's not about immaculate classrooms, expert teaching strategies, making ayp, or how much we can teach in a few weeks. it's not about us. it's about the children. it's about giving them the gift of reading, the gift of loving reading, the gift that knowing they are important, special people who belong here in this world.

the sisters may not remember our shared reading experience in a year, but it is a moment i will carry with me for a long time- the reaffirmation that i really do have the best job in the world.

it's here

It crept in during the night last Thursday, slowly whispering that my days were numbered. I ignored it, shook it off as though it was all in my imagination. Surely, I was only hallucinating the stuffy nose and the sore throat.

Yet my attempts at not giving it the attention it desires is only encouraging it. It is creating a monster- the kind of monster that isn't big enough to cause you to stay home from school, but instead is even worse. The kind that forces you to go to school unable to breath, grumpy from lack of sleep, feeling like you are a version of Darth Vader coming to haunt your students. And of course, in this case, you tend to act like one, with limited patience, no time to listen to readers working out new words, no time to encourage the higher level thinking you normally adore. You find yourself snapping "did I ask for an explanation?" or, "The word is apple. Check the picture" as though you are working with adults and not six year olds.

But it is the first of the year- either a credit to an immune system built strong from years of five and six year old runny noses, sneezes, and nose picking, or a credit to the fact that none of my special friends this year practice such habits.

Either way, it is here, and as I grumble to myself about getting ready for work I find myself remembering The Sneeze last week during independent reading delivered by a five year old friend. The Sneeze that covered my face and arm. His goofy grin afterward as his elbow snuck up to his mouth- the act of "catching the sneeze" all too late- he and I both knew it was meaningless.

The Darth Vader in me is not sure it will be a good idea to read with him today.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

apples, executive function, patterns of thinking, and 19 kindergarteners

Today my partner-in-crime and I bravely put on our bright red field trip shirts, gathered 19 five year olds onto a bus, and headed off to the apple orchard...

We are currently exhausted.

But considering that this was the last field trip we went on, I'd say that we have nothing to complain about. It was a dream in more ways than one. Our children spontaneously thanked the bus driver, gasped in pure excitement at the stalks of corn growing in a small garden, listened attentively, showed just the right amount of enthusiasm for lessons, cleaned up not only their trash but trash that had been left by a group before us without being asked, and happily returned back to school to attend to more lessons on apples.

Pure bliss.

Since on this field trip I was not dealing with run away children I had time to think about how we'd use the lessons of the field trip once we returned to our daily routines. I heard us using the Patterns of Thinking questions as we discussed apples with our field trip guides and I realized how perfectly apples and an apple orchard lends itself to the Patterns of Thinking. Just the nature of how many parts of apples children can identify, as well as how easy it is to see that apples are a part of a tree, makes them the perfect starting place for a part/whole lesson.

When we returned to our classroom my fabulous partner-in-crime and I whipped out the think blocks to discuss discussed the parts of apple and what an apple is a part of. After using the plastic blocks we transitioned to creating our own large class apple where we could label the parts. Notice the brown circle at the bottom of the apple. I have no idea what to call that, but after careful investigation during our think-blocks lesson on parts the children all identified that as a part of the apple. This flowed perfectly into a literacy activity as we labeled the parts of the apple together, (noting, of course, that so many begin with the letter s, just like the names of friends in our class. I love that in kindergarten the letter s can be so exciting.) AND we got to write the word RED, which we know how to spell from our red song. Of course, the minute I asked a child to write the word red the rest of the class burst into song, complete with hand motions. I love this class.

Tomorrow we'll create a bigger poster of an apple orchard to visually show what apples are a part of. From there we will move on to the relationship between apples and apple cider (we made apple cider today), as well as the relationship between the apple and the tree. This will lead us into a discussion of how a seed turns into a fruit (or at least, I hope it will). My hope is that we will make a large mural for the hallway that will incorporate all of these elements. Once the mural is built we can ask the children to take perspectives of the apple orchard from the perspective of the farmer, a worm, or from the apple itself. I love the idea of starting with the think-blocks and moving toward adding the literacy piece.

All of the excitement about using the patterns of thinking to discuss our apple field trip lead me down yet another path. I'm working on using the house keeping center to teach social skills. After reading this post by kiri yesterday I started doing a lot more thinking about executive function and self-regulation. I want to alter my house keeping project a bit. An article from NPR the post links to states, "(play) actually helped build a critical cognitive skill called executive function. Executive function has a number of elements such as working memory and cognitive flexibility... the most important is self-regulation".

Another post will come along one of these days as I sort this all out in my mind, but for now our next dramatic play center will be going to an apple orchard. We'll follow the same model of reading a story first, selecting roles to play (a part of planning), playing, and then de-briefing on how it went. Not only will we be working on our social skills, but the children will be interacting with the patterns of thinking through play, which I hope will help them grow to look at the world using the patterns of thinking. It also will hopefully tie right in with our goals in writing workshop to tell stories in sequential order.

I have a million ideas floating around in my mind right now, and very little brain power left to put together logical sentences so I fear none of this made any sense. I suppose summing it up would be:

field trip = good,

field trip = chance to use patterns of thinking= good literacy opportunity= good dramatic play opportunity to solidify the thinking/literacy/self-regulation.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

writing everywhere

listening to all the writers at the national book festival yesterday i found myself thinking back on my first year teaching. i'd never heard of writing workshop, lucy calkins, or reggie routman in undergrad so when the idea of writing with first graders every day was presented to me i embraced it as though it was gold. we had frequent writing celebrations, spent time studying our favorite authors, and most importantly, wrote every single day.

one day the guidance counselor came in to talk to my class about a problem the school was having. i wasn't teaching at the think tank yet, but at a school just down the road. some students were spending their lunch hours covering the boys bathroom with graffiti, and the principal wanted to get to the bottom of it fast. the guidance counselor came around to give every class lessons about respecting school property.

she opened the lesson by asking my class why they thought anyone would write on the bathroom walls.

one of my little ones blurted out "because they came in late and missed writing workshop that day!"

the guidance counselor stared at my friend and then at me.

yeah, we really like writing workshop here. was all i could mumble being a first year teacher and all.

i love that:

1) he clearly thought writing was so important it must happen, even if it was on the bathroom stall.

2) the reason the child needed to write was because he came to school late. clearly writing workshop was happening in his room every day, because we all write every day.

3) the writer was not an angry student, but just a writer needing a place to compose.

if i taught them nothing else, at least they knew writing workshop was important.

looking back i really hope i did a quick lesson on how we always, always write on paper and never on the bathroom stall.

oops. that's what first years are for, right?

Saturday, September 26, 2009

tragedy of the books

what to do? every since i first saw the schedule for the national book festival, maybe a month ago, i knew there was going to be a problem. a big, big problem.

mo willems and azar nafisi were speaking at the same time.

i know, you're horrified for me as well.

for over a month i've pondered this dilemma, wondering who i should see.

the national book festival is like christmas to me. i mean, i think we should have parties celebrating the night before. 'book fest-eve' celebrations. i love this day.

and here, on this beautiful, celebrated day, were two of the authors, two of my favorite authors, speaking at the same time.

i kept thinking the schedule would change. maybe they'd move one of them to later or earlier in the day. they'd have to, right? this couldn't be how the story would end, me having to choose.

but they didn't, and this morning i was facing the choice: mo or azar. silly children's books, or inspiring grown up literature?

i've heard both of them at previous book festivals so i couldn't pick one on account of having heard one before.

azar nafisi is one of the most inspiring speakers i've ever heard. i could read passages from reading lolita in tehran over and over again. she brings nabokov's quote "readers are born free" to life.

i subscribe to mo willem's blog. i have knuffle bunny memorized. seriously. i could probably act it out for you if you would really like me to. i read the pigeon books weekly if not more. i am still trying to convince mr. lipstick that we need to have a dining room like mo's (which is painted with chalkboard paint so they can have family drawing nights)

who would win out? the grown-up, thoughtful, literary side? or my love of kid-lit and my strong desire to hear mo read one of his books out loud?

what was a teacher to do?

at 2:50 i still did not have an answer to this and their 3 o'clock talks were about to start.

and then... i realized the fiction and fantasy tent was really, really far away. it was raining. and crowded. and i was two steps away from the children's tent.

i am a lazy woman, but a lazy woman who heard two children's stories read aloud and one acted out by the real life trixie.

lazy, but happy

18 things i learned today at the national book festival

1) judy blume is 70.

2) i want to look like judy blume when i am 70.

3) as a tween judy blume did all of the exercises margret does in are you there god, it's me, margret. apparently they worked. is it too late to start them at 28?

4) fudge's character was developed after blume's son, who took his dinner on the floor under the table like fudge. she reports he is now a well adjusted adult who eats at the table.

5) when asked how teachers could inspire their students to read, judy blume spoke of the accelerated reader program with the same passion educators use to speak about the evils of no child left behind.

6) judy blume still remembers in vivid detail a time she was laughed at in first grade for reading the wrong word out loud. the memories our children make in our classes stay with them forever. no pressure.

7) trixie, mo willem's daughter, is just as adorable in real life as she is in the books.

8) hearing mo willems read an elephant and piggie book is one of the best life experiences ever.

9) i heart mo and the fact he believes children's books are meant to be shouted, devoured, and acted out.

10) i heart mo and the fact he explained to his young crowd before taking questions, "a question is something you do not know the answer to. 'i have a pony' is not a question. you know that already". not only am i stealing that to use with first graders, but i can think of people in college seminars who could have used that advice.

11) mo's response to "i want to be a writer someday" from young children. "no, you already are a writer. you want to be published. the only difference between you and me is that i have to give 15% to some guy named shelley".

12) sharon creech's new book, the unfinished angel, is based on a short story her two year old granddaughter told her years ago that went, "once upon a time in spain there was an angel. and the angel was me." (or something like that)

13) the angel's strange syntax with the english language is from creech's own mixed up language confusion when she was living in switzerland for a year and was bouncing between speaking english and italian. i love that she allowed her real-life mixed up english to be portrayed in her book. it makes me think of our little english language learners who also write "the car red" in their stories.

14) lois lowery didn't realize that people would read the giver and assume jonas died. (a whole post is coming on this later at some point...) she had to write the next two novels just to show that he lived.

15) lois lowery is a very patient person because when someone asked "do you wish you lived in the giver?" she did not slap them across the face. the rest of us in the audience all gasped at this sad, literal reader who must be spending his entire life missing the broader themes in books.

16) after spending time with 4 year olds jon scieszka (author of the true story of the three little pigs) compared 4 year olds with alzheimer's patients on acid because everything they see is new, and they are very, very excited about it. he, incidentally, said he does not ever want to teach pre-k.

17) a gray, rainy day does not dampen the washington area's spirits when it comes to coming out and celebrating books.

18) i have the best husband in the world as he patiently spent the afternoon with me at my favorite dc event when his beloved braves were beating the pants off the nationals across town.

*sigh* i love reading. i love books. i love being around other readers just as excited as i am about books.

in a few days you can stream all of the authors' talks on the library of congress webpage. i highly recommend sharing mo's thoughts on writing with your class, and letting them experience an elephant and piggie book read the way it is intended to be read. listen to judy blume to see the passion behind her accelerated reader beliefs (who knew!) and her perfect response to the question on race. listen to sharon creech read aloud in the voice of the snarky unfinished angel.

happy reading!

Friday, September 25, 2009

meet my story teller

i have two friends i have worked with for three years now. they both needed an extra year at kindergarten and are now in first grade. i love that i've gotten to get to know them so well over three years and have really been able to watch their developmental changes as they grow from being boys with no school experience to serious little learners.

one of these boys is my story teller. for three years now he has made appearances on this blog, always the little one behind the scenes, telling us like it is. he is the most genuine child i've ever met. he will never be able to play poker because every thought he has is shown on his face or comes out his mouth.

he is the one who told me every morning that he he had been abducted by aliens during the night in kindergarten round 1. in year 2 of kindergarten he gave me a detailed description of his dad's experience with beer as he and i walked down the hallway. he told the bus driver on our field trip that she made a mistake, but then said she did a nice job driving the bus the rest of the time. he wrote a letter to president obama the day after the inauguration just to tell him he saw him on tv and thought he was nice.

he is the little one who pulled a high reader up to my desk in kindergarten, and asked, "how come he can read?" with such deep concern, as though i had given his friend the gift of reading but not my story teller.

this year, as we got into reading groups he exclaimed over every page, "hey, this isn't so bad! hey! i can read!" as he worked his way through the simple text on each page.

he told a story this year to the class about going to the dentist and the class was far more engaged listening to him than they ever are listening to us. he told every gruesome detail, leaning forward in his chair at the scary parts and speaking in hushed tones:
"and then, they put the metal piece waaayyy back in my mouth" (children gasp)
"and there was blood!" (more gasping as every child in the class threw their hand over their mouth.

two days ago he told a story about crashing his toy car into a tree. again we were mesmerized by this simple story and truly felt his pain as he ended with "it was horrible!"

he is always the first one to compliment a friend or a teacher. "wow" he'll say to a friend during writing workshop when he glances over at someone else's work, "i like your s. i wish i could make my s's like that"

i wish i'd been writing down everything he's said this year because every day there is a new thoughtful question, honest response, or careful observation. these usually are blurted out at inappropriate times, but are so full of genuine concern or thought that we can never be mad at him.

yesterday i was doing a book introduction to his reading group. the book was about a naughty kitten and as i showed the first page and told the group it was about a cat he gasped.

"oh, mrs. lipstick, i don't like cats!" he exclaimed with deep concern.

"oh, ok" i said, trying to go on with my book introduction.

"cats," he explained, "are NOT good listeners."

no, no, my friend, they are not. let's go back to the book, shall we?

"cats, " he went on, "are NOT good at listening, but dogs, dogs are good listeners."

the other members of the reading group nodded in agreement, each reflecting on their own memories of those bad listener cats.

sometimes i think life would be better if i just let the story teller deliver the lessons.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

they say i'm special

in grad school everyone is very big on "person first language". this means exactly what it says. when you're speaking or writing you always put the person first. as in saying, "jose, a child with special needs" instead of, "special education student jose". or instead of "learning disabled kids" you'd say, "kids with learning disabilities"

sometimes i like to really get fancy. instead of saying "autistic jose" or "jose is a student with autism" i like to say, 'jose is a student eligible for special education services under the eligibility category of autism'. which basically means: a committee decided that jose could maybe have autism so that's why he gets special services. nothing in that sentence actually admits to the fact that jose has autism. because maybe he doesn't. maybe the committee was wrong. so we have to think of jose as the person, not the diagnosis.

today after presenting at an after school workshop for parents i looked down at my name tag and read, "mrs. lipstick, special education teacher"

which kind of sounds like i am a special education student allowed to play teacher through an inclusion program. sometimes i feel like this, but i'm not sure if i want others thinking of me like this.

that got me to thinking about all those meetings where we have to introduce ourselves and i say, "mrs. lipstick, special ed". as though i am telling the world, "hi, i'm special. that's all you need to know".

it is my title: "special ed" or even "sped" for short. and whenever we hear sped we think about the short bus. i wonder if it's getting to me. somewhere in my psyche i'm starting to identify myself in general as special ed. everywhere i go i hear, "oh, that's mrs. lipstick, she's special ed." and people smile with that "oh my" smile. i know what their thinking.

but what else could i say?

mrs. lipstick, educator of young minds who benefit from special services?

creative problem solver for specialized instruction?

writer of social stories, creator of behavior plans, faciliator of ieps?

master of repeated, redefined, restated instruction?

my friends in the business world get to negotiate their titles. i think it's my turn.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

i heart my job

after yesterday i was wondering if i really shouldn't just run for the hills and find another job where i wouldn't have my intelligence insulted every time i turned around.

then, today, i remembered why i heart my job.

~~ ~~ ~~ ~~

overheard being yelled down the hallway:

"i'm not in first grade! i'm a gingergartner".

i mean, if there are gingerbread men and gingerbread boys, why can't they be gingergartners? perhaps this is why my running friends from years past thought it was perfectly fine to sprint out of their classrooms. they were just following their destiny... "run, run, as fast as you can, you can't catch me, i'm the gingergartner man!"

~~ ~~ ~~ ~~ ~~
mrs. lipstick, do we have school tomorrow?

yes i reply, wishing the answer was no, immediately dreaming about a weekend of sleep.

yeeesssss, my friend replies, oblivious to my personal longings, i love school. psstt.... whispers to the child next to him. we have school tomorrow.

the child promptly replies, yes! and does a little fist pump as though this was the best news he had heard all day.

~~ ~~ ~~ ~~
teach me some more words, mrs. lipstick. i want to be a smarter man. a first grade boy said to me with true confidence.

~~ ~~ ~~ ~~
so smart, i said to one of my first grade girls during a writing conference, kiss your brain.

yeah, the little one agreed nonchalantly. i'm a rock star.

so can't argue with that.

Monday, September 21, 2009

things to not say in a professional development meeting

1) i hope you really enjoyed playing that game
(you know, the one intended for five year olds. it was fabulous- really challenging for me in my late 20s)

2)we'll give you the gift of silence while you read this
(if you want us to read something, give it to us before the meeting. if you do give us something to read and want us to be quiet- just expect that we will be quiet. don't tell us to be quiet by "giving us the gift of silence". or just say "please be quiet".)

3) show me you used your listening ears by telling me what your partner said
i. am. not. five.

4) please throw this bean bag around the circle so we can get to know each other.

5) turn to your talking partner and tell them your favorite kind of salsa.
i. am. a. professional. with professional things to do at work that do not involve salsa.

6) we'll be coming around to take pictures of you in your classrooms playing these games. if they are really good we'll put them up on the blackboard site for all your friends to see!
ie: we will be checking up on you. and we think that using a camera will motivate you, like it motivates first graders.

7) stand up. hand up. pair up.
yes, this is a fabulous strategy in the classroom. i LOVE it. but now that we've seen it modeled at every workshop, please don't model it anymore. i don't need to high five anyone else today.

8) did anyone have a connection with this?
grown up language, anyone? how about: what does this mean to you? or even better- in your professional opinion how did you interpret this text?

9) we're going to jigsaw this article.
really? you think we're too stupid to actually read an entire article? or too lazy to read it ahead of time? because, i personally like reading entire articles and i bet my co-workers do too.

10) praise your neighbor and then thank them.
i know my manners, and i know how to teach my children their manners. you do not need to teach me this- please teach me how to be a better math/reading/writing teacher. that's why i'm here.

*long, long sigh*

send your own pet-peeves from common professional development comments my way. i'm thinking of putting together a bingo board so we can have something to do during the condescending lectures.

**i have good friends that lead these discussions, and there are people i really respect who lead these discussions, and i hope they are not going to take this personally. i know that this is what is considered a "good professional development meeting" and i know the presenters are expected to do these kinds of things. i'm not frustrated with the presenters- more with the people who believe this is the best way to teach teachers and then tell the presenters they must run it like this. the presenters have so much knowledge about one subject- share your knowledge with us without trying to "trick" us into learning it. trust me, we want to be better math teachers. we'll eat up what you're giving us.**

birthday blues

today at a math training we were asked to think of a list of facts we want our children to just know- or have at automaticity (i know i spelled that wrong, but spell check isn't helping). we listed things like numbers 1-20, their names, their last names, their lunch pin numbers, and their birthdays.

the idea that there are children who don't know their birthdays is always shocking, but sadly, there are a surprising amount of children each year who come to school on their birthday and have no idea it is different than any other day. they literally do not know when or even what their birthday is.

this is sad on so many levels, but the more i thought about it the sadder it made me. children learn so many basic concepts we take for granted just by going through the experience of a birthday.

birthdays teach children:
-they are important. one day a year is theirs to celebrate, feel special, valued and loved in their families.
-adding- each year they add one to their previous age. it's their most intimate experience with number concepts.
-the name of at least one month, which means they understand what a month is. they begin to understand how we measure time.
-for children whose birthday falls in the teens or twenties, it is an introduction to what numbers look like after 9 when we go to two digit numbers.
-a sense of time. children who know their birthday is coming learn to wait- how to anticipate something- how to count down until that day.
-the concept of a year. you have to wait a full year until your next birthday, which introduces the idea of measuring time in months and in years.
-they are growing, and changing. the concept of that the passage of time brings change. once they understand it happens to them they will be able to generalize this fact to the world around them- flowers, trees, animals, and all of the life cycles we are surrounded by.

it is so sad to me whenever we, as teachers, tell a child it is their birthday. five year olds should be unable to sit still on their birthdays. they should be jumping beans driving us all crazy with their energy and excitement. their friends should constantly be telling us, "my birthday is when the snow comes", or, "my birthday was at the pool in july." i shouldn't have to say "happy birthday" to a little one and have them look at me confused, like, what's that? or, that's something that other children have- not me.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

baby talk

in the second chapter of whatever it takes, paul tough looks at the history of the debate over poverty, both in the political world and through research. he discusses research i've heard before, and maybe even have written about here before, but every time i read something like it i'm filled with the desire to run out and just talk to babies.

in the 1980s researchers hart and riley looked into the reasons behind the achievement gap between children from poverty and children from the middle class. they found that on iq tests children's iqs were strongly correlated to their vocabulary. the iq among children from families of professionals was an average of 117, and the iq of children from parents on welfare was an average of 79. hart and riley investigated the reason behind this gap at such an early age. they found that this discrepancy came from the language the children heard at home.

"in professional homes, parents directed an average of 487 'utterances'- anything from a one-word command to a full soliloquy- to their child each hour. in welfare homes, the children heard 178 utterances per hour. by age three, hart and riley concluded, welfare children would have haerd 10 million words addressed to them, on average, and professional children would have heard more than 30 million."

they then looked into the kind of words children heard.

"by the age of three, the average professional child would hear 500,000 encouragements and 80,000 discouragements. for the welfare children, the ratio was reversed: they would hear, on average, about 80,000 encouragements and 200,000 discouragements."

the thing is, this isn't labeling parents from welfare families as "bad" because they don't talk to their children. if no one talked to you as a young child, and you haven't observed anyone talking to their children, there is no reason to think this would be important, or even realize it is what some parents do with their children. we follow the models before us. it's also a matter of time- families i work with are working 3 jobs. they want to do the best for their children, but they literally do not see their children enough to have long conversations with them.

in the book, geoffrey canada starts "baby college" for parents of young children and expecting parents. he teaches them the importance of using language with their children. canada found that it was only a matter of getting the information out there. it wasn't necessarily a cultural issue- once parents had the information they put it to use.

we have this information. we know what works. we know talking to our children, and talking to them early works. by the time they come into a kindergarten class the language difference is already there. and language is what we use to navigate the world. it's what we use to reason our way through- decide why we can drop blocks and they'll land in a certain way, etc.

i've heard before that when you're upset you should think in a different language because it will calm your thought process since you simply don't have as many words to think with, you literally can't think as much. if our children don't have the words to think with in any language- what does that mean for their ability to problem solve and rationalize their world?

Saturday, September 19, 2009

whatever it takes

i'm becoming consumed with the book whatever it takes by paul tough, about geoffrey cananda's baby college, harlem children's zone, and the promise academy. this afternoon i keep thinking 'one more chapter and then i'll go be productive' but so far... productivity is losing.

i highly recommend it not only for its fascinating story, but its discussion of the history of the debate over poverty, and the process canada went through step by step to build his successful program.

it is the kind of book that makes me want to run out the door and just teach someone.

i have a feeling i'll be composing many blogposts about it over the next few weeks as i process everything i'm reading. i'll give you fair warning now :)

first grade demands

in first grade my fabulous co-teacher and i begrudgingly began to have snack between reading and writing workshop in the afternoons. our kiddos each lunch at 10:40 and we start reading workshop at 11:30 and work hard on reading and writing until 2. which you think would be enough time for them to live without food, but this turned out not to be true.

we learned this the first week of school when one little one held up his banana and announced he was hungry.
"great!" she said, "you can eat that when you get home!"

this turned out to be too long to wait because at the end of the day there was a banana peel in the trash can. my friend had snuck a banana. somehow he'd gotten an entire banana out of his book bag, eaten the entire banana, and then left behind the remains. (one would ask, if you bother to sneak a banana, wouldn't you bother to hide the evidence?)

we decided, if the poor guy was desperate enough to sneak a banana (i mean, it wasn't cheetos) he must really have been hungry, and so we implemented a short snack time.

so, we use this 5-7 minutes to do a read-aloud. we finished gooney bird greene early this week but hadn't found another book to read yet. for two days one girl read to the class, and yesterday we were just going to let them chat because, well, it was friday and we were tired.

as we chatted in the front of the room about their horrid behavior that day and what we wanted to do next in writing, we heard

"excuse me! isn't anybody going to read a story around here?"

it was, of course, the banana friend.

rude, and breaking class rules, but how do you not love the fact the kid was demanding a book?

we quickly found something to read and all was right with the world.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

budget cuts hit everyone

during kindergarten reading workshop i looked up to see a little one tapping one finger against his palm. after a bit he'd hold his palm up against his ear for a moment, sigh, bring his palm down, and tap his fingers again.

i had to know.

friend, what are you doing?

calling the police. he stated, without bothering to glance up as though it was obvious, and continued his pattern of tap, tap, tap, hold up to ear, sigh, tap, tap, tap.

oh.... why?

because she (he pointed to the little girl beside him who was on-task reading a big book) isn't my friend anymore.

what are the police going to do? i asked, hoping to lead the conversation into a 'what is a better way to tell your friend that she hurt your feelings' discussion.

well, nothing 'cause they're not answering.

even in the imaginary world of a five year old the police budget has been cut so much that they can't answer the imaginary phone to take care of friendship problems.

it's a tough life.

public service annoucement from first grade

a very concerned little boy eyed me suspiciously during writing workshop yesterday. finally he pointed to my finger nails, (the finger nails i was thinking were looking so nice because they actually hadn't broken like they usually do) and he said,

you know, mrs. lipstick, it doesn't hurt when you cut your finger nails.

to me: beautiful finger nails allowed to grow beyond the tips of my fingers in a shapely fashion.

to him: another person, who, like him, was scared to cut finger nails in fear that it would hurt. he was giving me his public service announcement.

i went home and cut them. i'm sure, today, he will smile inwardly with pride at the fact he helped me not be afraid.

to me, i see two hands who can't afford a manicure but could really use one.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

bright pink temptation

this is for you mrs. lipstick! she exclaimed, wide-eyed with a huge smile as she thrusts a pink flower into my hand in the morning before school started.

for me! thank you! i answered, knowing she hadn't picked it for me, but the sight of me impulsively prompted her to hand over one of the bunch of tiny pink flowers she was clutching in her hand.

the tiny pink, well-groomed flowers that clearly were not growing by the side of the road as weeds. pink flowers that had clearly been planted, watered, and nurtured by a gardener.

wow! are these from your garden? i asked.

yeeesss, she replied but her crinkled nose and eyes on the ground gave away her secret.

are they from someone else's garden? i asked again.

her eyes found their way back to me. yes! she exclaimed, and before i could say anything about not picking other people's flowers she skipped off to hand out another lovely pink flower to the next teacher wandering by.

hopefully she picked them from a large well-stocked garden where the mass of flowers she so carefully plucked from the ground will not be missed by their original owners.

Monday, September 14, 2009

curriculum based measurement

my grad school program was huge on curriculum based measurement (CBM). the idea behind it is what we see in math mad-minute worksheets we all did growing up. you take a small task like multiplication tables, word wall words, or vocabulary words and give a quick one minute assessment every day to see where your class is on their knowledge and fluency of these items. the assessment cannot be identical day to day, but should show the exact same content knowledge with the exact same number of problems, just in different order (to prevent memorizing the order instead of the content).

as a child i HATED mad-minutes. i remember shoving books off my desk in second grade as i stared at my math test through my tears. in third grade i remember always having the lowest number every time my class did mad minutes. i could do the math quickly if the timer wasn't there, but the minute the teacher handed out the worksheet and announced it was timed my brain froze. it is possibly my worst memory in school.

my mother, who teaches second grade, says she uses my experience with the timer anxiety to teach her second graders about how to recognize test anxiety and practice calming down during mad minutes. they talk about it before they take their mad minutes, and then review the self-calming strategies they used once the mad minutes are over. this is brilliant, in this age of testing, and i wish someone had taught me those skills in second grade. perhaps i would not have been in trouble for throwing a book on the floor mid-mad minute.

so, last year when my grad school classes kept pushing CBM i was skeptical. i refused to think it could work. i rolled my eyes. i argued.

and then i tried it.

last year it was wildy successful with the kiddos i used it with. it made me wonder why i wasn't doing more of it.

the best part of it is that it is individualized for each kid. one child is working on letter sounds, another on word wall words, another on numbers, another on putting the letters of the child's name in order. it takes 2 minutes with each child. 30 seconds to get the kid to come over to you, thirty seconds to a minute to run through the task, 30 seconds to praise them and tell them and send them back to their seats. they love the one on one time they get with me and i love the fact that it immedietly documents everything i need from them. it charts their progress and daily informs me of where they are and where we need to go next.

for the children, as i wrote about in the post linked above, they realize they have control over their learning. the children pride themselves on improving and sometimes want to take it again if they missed some they know they can get right. it also gives our children that repitition children with learning disabilities need.

writing this i feel as though i was brain washed by grad school, and that i've become my evil private school teachers who always made us do tasks like this. it doesn't sound very child friendly (except when you realize it is based on the child's individual needs). it doesn't sound like it is improving their social skills (but it is only 2 minutes, and it is giving them confidence). it doesn't seem very learner-friendly with all the skill and drill aspect (but to practice their skills we play games and bring the material to their level).

last year i focused on getting my kindergarten students to learn their 25 high frequency words cold. this always seemed boring and tedious to me in the past. but now that i get to sit down and read with them as first graders i'm amazed at how much these high frequency words are becoming anchors in their reading. they know those words without blinking, which increases their fluency and frees them up to decode other words. they're successfully reading their guided reading books.

i feel like i've discovered the holy grail in these quick and dirty daily assessments. something about me hates that i love it so much, and something about me loves it too much to care.

teaching blues

today between my duty, meetings, paperwork responsibilities, and more meetings i think i saw maybe three children. saw as in looked at them. not interacted with them in any meaningful way. you'd have no idea that i worked at a school if you were following me around today. you'd even wonder if any of the important things i was doing was going to benefit kids sometime in the future.

i left today feeling disheartened and frustrated. maybe this job isn't for me, i found myself thinking. i'm certainly not feeling good at it today- in fact, i'm feeling pretty lousy at my job today. nothing is adding up right. anxiety is building up over what seems like silly things. debates in meetings over minuscule details. do i chime in because i have an opinion, or do i stay quiet, because it's such a small detail that staying quiet will end the conversation faster? do i staple the papers here, or here? what font should the files be labeled in?

i found myself day dreaming about other jobs i could do. reminding myself to get to work on applying for phd programs. wondering if i was ready to go back to being a classroom teacher.

but even classroom teachers have grouchy days.

i feel disheartened today because paperwork is not what i am good at. when i decided to take this job i told myself i would make paperwork something i was good at. i've been out to prove for 2 years that paperwork is something i am good at. but today, after printing, copying, stapling, and sorting 50 copies of ieps, i've decided, if i'm not always good at paperwork *take a deep breath* i'm going to let that BE OK. we don't have to be good at everything. meetings are not something i am good at. i hate them, in fact. and, for today, i am going to tell myself, that IS OK. i don't have to be good at meetings to have a good life.

i don't have to find a new job after one bad day.

tomorrow i can work with kids. i will schedule an iep- and i enjoy ieps because we focus on the strengths and needs of one kid instead of details that i'm not sure will make an impact in the future. tomorrow i will teach a writing lesson, work with first graders on listening to the beginning sounds in words, play games with their high frequency words, and help kindergartners learn to write their name. i will learn a new skill tomorrow when i'm trying to give a normed educational assessment for the first time. i will meet with the aids to go over the best way they can help our kiddos succeed.

tomorrow will be great. i will not worry about what i am good at, or not good at. i will not worry about what other people think i am good at, or not good at. tomorrow i will remember why i love my job.

today though, i'm going to eat ice cream.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

the kind of nightmare

friday night i dreamed that the bathrooms in our school were all out of order and the school system announced that they didn't have the money to fix them so they put porta-potties in where the bathrooms use to be.
besides the fact that it smelled horrible in our classrooms, the actual nightmare part of the dream was that none of the kindergartners wanted to use the porta-potties (would you?)

in my dream i was dealing with wet pants after wet pants as it became socially acceptable in the class to pee in your pants instead of using the porta-potties. the urine flowed and there was nothing my partner in crime and i could do about it.

the worst part, other than the children peeing all over themselves, was that the nurse was really angry with us for the large amount of pee.

it was awful.

where did it come from? budget cuts? an underlying fear of children who wet their pants? i don't even have anyone (knock on wood) that is having a chronic problem with pant wetting this year.

Friday, September 11, 2009

guided play

this year i'm trying something new at the house keeping/dramatic play station. based off of a study i read last year out of the university of virginia, i'm trying to use house keeping to teach social skills like self-advocacy, how to have a conversation, and turn taking. so far i'm loving the outcomes (although at times i have to admit i'm a bit tired of sipping my imaginary tea)

the study's goals were to teach children verbal skills during play as a way to prompt children from disadvantaged homes to use their oral language when problem solving instead of using violence. based on my own observations i have noticed that children who were not as exposed to as much language before entering school are more likely to be physically aggressive when interacting with other children. so, i figured they were on to something and thought i would test it out. my partner in crime graciously agreed to let me take over her house keeping center once again.

based on the structure the study suggested i first sit down with a group of children and read them a story about children at a restaurant (i took pictures of children last year acting out the parts). it's a fairly painfully boring story but in the story the children learn the vocabulary for what we are playing (in this case customer, waiter, menu, chef, etc) and they are given examples of how to interact. the characters in the story use one another's names when they talk to them, say please and thank you, and answer each other's questions.

once we've read the story we assign parts and then review the goal for the day. the first day i tell them they are going to talk to one another during play and ask each other questions. the second day i say their goal will be to use one another's names during play, and the third day the goal is to use their manners like please and thank you when they are interacting. i work with the same group of children 3 days in a row.

we read the story at the before play everyday, and to be honest, the children are modeling the characters in the book and saying please and thank you before we even get to day 3.

i let them play together and am there to coach them through the play by prompting them to use one another's names, look at each other in the eyes, etc. and to praise them when i notice they are achieving the goal. i try to scaffold my own intervention as well- i interact more on the first day, and then slowly back off letting it become more of their own free play.

when it is over we clean up together and then sit down and share what they did well. i try to think of something each child did that fit into the goals of our social skills.

what i've noticed so far is that the kids are doing a great job interacting. some of the children who tend to show us parallel play during other unstructured times are interacting spontaneously with the others after hearing the social story.

i've also noticed that it is great for prompting shy children to work on their self-advocacy skills, which is something i wasn't expecting. it's a perfect safe place to practice these skills though because the needs are pretend but the children still have to practice speaking up.

this week i had one little girl who just couldn't get into it. she stood and giggled the entire time and was over taken with the oddness of the whole thing. she's a very bright little child and i think she may just be beyond imaginary play (as sad as that is. i mean, i'm 28 and i'm not beyond imaginary play). instead she and i worked on making a sign for our restaurant as well as a menu. having the menu she wrote herself gave her a more natural 'in' into the game.

another aspect i stumbled into but didn't expect was that i have table clothes for them to choose from. after they've made their choice i ask them to work together to put it on the table, and then during clean up, i showed them how to fold it using two people. it's a great chance for them to practice working together and communicating with one another during a simple, non-threatening task.

after all the kids have rotated through with their groups i'm going to turn it into a vet's office and start the process over with another story and another set of skills to practice.

think blocks come through every time

so, where is it ok to touch your friends in school? on the shoulder? ok! on the head? ok! on the bottom? NOT OK. in the private area? NOT OK!

asides from the awkwardness of trying to draw the pictures on the little blocks, i think the lesson went pretty well. now, let's just see if my friend can remember the distinction.


now that i am no longer a classroom teacher i do not get to use my viola swamp voice of death nearly as much as i use to. with the exception of when last year's kindergarten class rolled down the hill during a fire drill (yes, rolled down the hill during a fire drill- every time i write it down it helps me to deal with the fact that it actually happened), it's a rare occurrence that i have to pull it out.

yesterday as i sat at my desk doing paperwork i could hear the substitute teacher across the hall trying to get my first grade class to line up for lunch. it wasn't going well. the incredible classroom teacher has these little ones wrapped around her finger and all she has to do is say, "oh friends, this is so sad" and they jump into shape for her. it's magic.

clearly that was not working with the substitute.

when it didn't seem to be getting any better i decided to intervene. as i walked across the hall i could feel myself turning into james marshall's book- the footsteps in the hall, the door knob turns... their faces of horror when they realize i'd caught them running all over the poor substitute in my viola swamp voice of death.

unless they were in the kindergarten class for the famous fire drill incident they had no idea i could do that.

i've learned that the viola swamp voice of death is most effective when you use the element of surprise. once they're standing there, mouths open, trying to get in line as fast as possible, quivering because they have no idea what is coming next if you are using the swamp voice, you turn immediately back into miss nelson. "oh look at carlos with his eyes to the front! wow. and annie- she's got her hands behind her back" sweetly labeling their behavior and further encouraging them to show what is expected of them.

and then, for the little one who thinks that the miss nelson voice means that you don't really mean business- you pull out viola one last time- "johnny, get in line NOW" just to show them that unlike miss nelson, you do not need to do a superman change in the bathroom- your viola swamp personality does not require a costume.

as the substitute eyed me with trepidation and stayed on the other side of the room from me the rest of the day i worried i'd snapped too much at my little friends. or perhaps, she, like any normal, non-teacher, would assume that what she just witnessed showed a dangerous split personality and decided it best to not get to close.

who knows. maybe teaching turns us all into schizophrenics with our constant battle between miss nelson and the swamp. perhaps mr. marshall was really a psychologist who appreciated this duality and wanted us to come to turns with our inner swamp.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

the sky is still there

today, despite a weekend full of trepidation and talking heads predicting that the sky was falling president obama talked to our students.


-the sky did not fall
-the world is not over
-the entire class did not jump up and shout "i want socialized medicine and i want it now!"

there were:

-gasps that the president used the word stupid
-questions about 'how come he's president and God's not president?'
-excited "that's me!" whispers every time he said the word 'kindergarten'
-questions of 'why does he want to talk to us? we already know how to work hard!'
-a few bored (but surprisingly well behaved) kindergartners and first graders

most importantly, when it was over there were:

-children explaining that president obama said they could be a liar, a fire fighter, a teacher, or anything they wanted, as long as they worked hard and didn't give up on themselves.

if a first grader could tell me that at the end of the speech i think it was a success.

oh yeah- and he asked them to WASH THEIR HANDS. i love him. i'm getting a big picture of him with a speech bubble over his head that says, "wash your hands!"
because if there is anyone who can get kindergartners to wash their hands it will be him. if only he'd added 'and don't pick your nose'.

maybe i'll just tell them he said that and they missed it...

Monday, September 7, 2009

sy-la-la-bles or: regional teaching

my husband and i just returned from a short but wonderful trip to charleston, wva where my grandparents and many cousins live. as we sat behind home plate at the west virginia power minor league baseball stadium and i listened to the voices around me, i realized where my speech problems stem from. my father was right. my mother and her west virginia accent ruined us. but what can you do? perhaps the real problem is that it's taken me 28 years to realize that i have these problems.

you see, this week i was sitting on the carpet in splatypus' kindergarten classroom helping with a syllable center. the children would hold up a name, say it aloud, we'd clap out the syllables, and then put sort it depending on if it 1, 2, 3, or 4 syllables.

as we clapped out the name ashley i heard my fabulous co-teacher snort in disgust.

um, she said, trying not to be rude. ashley has 2 syllables mrs. lipstick. not three.

what? no- it has 3! and with the five year olds watching i clapped out ash-a-ly.

um, no. she said, in her upstate new york way and clapped it out correctly. ash-ley.

i wanted to die. how could i not even complete a kindergarten center? am kindergarten failure. they should revoke my recently earned masters degree.

but sitting behind home plate at the west virginia power game i realized where my odd manner of speech comes from. here, i am not the only one adding on odd syllables in places even my southern husband finds odd. we listened to the hecklers and worked together to decode exactly what they were shouting to the team. it was like a brain teaser where the words are there, they've just added extra sounds. so ha! there are parts of the country where ashley is ashaley, where monster is mounster, crayon is crown, and pink is peank.

then again, when i was student teaching in rural virginia my first graders turned my one syllable last name (in the days before i was lipstick) into two syllables. i was shocked when i moved away from there and could no longer use the phrase:
when two vowels go awalkin' the first one does the talkin'

i said it once and had my first graders rolling on the floor. but somehow adding the full ing sound to the end of that just doesn't do it justice. the same happened when i said to my class, "tomorrow ya'll will have homework".

what did you call us? a little girl from india asked in horror.

perhaps this is why our teaching certificates are given by the state and not the federal government. once we learn to teach phonics in one local dialect we could completely confuse children in another, ruining their chances at reading all together.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

fat and smelly teacher

there are a million positive aspects of home visits. i'm loving almost every minute of them, and am learning so much about my little ones and their families. so far i have two downsides:

1) taking off my shoes. after a long day of teaching in cute flats my feet leave something to be desired. so every time we walk into someone's house and i realize it is culturally appropriate to take my shoes off my stomach drops. i'm imagining the conference interrupted by a "what's that smell?" from my kid. or worse, their parent. i spent the whole time thinking about my feet.

2) eating. don't get me wrong- i LOVE eating. and i love eating ethnic food. i'm not a picky eater, and i'll try almost anything. but at the moment, because i love eating so much, i'm trying to keep track of my calories. of course, when food is set in front of you and you are directed to "eat all of it, please we made it special for you", or you are handed a glass of liquid and are told this is the student's favorite juice from japan- you have no choice- you dig in. "mmmmm, delicious. what is this?" you ask, only to be given the name in the native language. which is great and exciting except that i have no idea how many calories i am consuming from being polite. stealing a glance at the wrapper doesn't help because it's all in a different language. (and ultimately this means i don't know if it means i have enough calories left to have a glass of wine at the end of the day- which is the biggest problem) i have no idea what i drank a few hours ago.

of course everything else about home visits has been wonderful, and really, it is so sweet when families offer food that i can't complain at all. it's totally worth the extra calories, even when fabulous friend pushed corn puffs into the top of the corn muffins her sister had given us. there is nothing like a five year old tea-party.

but really, if these are my two biggest complains- it just goes to show that i really do have the best job in the world.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009


i wrote this post this summer when we first got the email that we did not make AYP but i didn't publish it. i'm not sure why not. maybe i wasn't ready to deal with the frustration. but yesterday we had what is becoming our annual "why we didn't make ayp" staff meeting. it's hard to give up what would otherwise be a productive 40 minutes to sit and be reminded of the ins and outs of a law that doesn't make much sense. my awesome co-teacher (i can say that now that we're working together again!!) blogged about it twice, and i think she explains the law perfectly the first time, and i really appreciate the sense of humor in her second post.

the thing is, for awhile i think nclb had some good side effects. in some areas it pushed more money into schools. it asked school districts to make sure they gave schools like mine the materials they needed to be successful, giving us a voice over the schools with active parents. in some ways it really changed our instruction for the best. but i feel like we've hit the tipping point, where we are no longer making good changes. we've done amazing things with limited resources. we've had huge gains. and i hope they will continue. but i fear that the scales have tipped- as we get closer to 2014 we can no longer afford to just improve our scores with better teaching- we're going to have to spend more time with the law, figuring out how to make it work for us. and spend even more time on testing than we did before. are we going to change our teaching so we can work with the odd intricacies nclb measures us for?

** ** **

We just found out that we once again did not make AYP. It's heartbreaking- all the blood, sweat and tears we poured into last year. And yet I don't think any of us are surprised. The closer we get to 2014 and the closer we get to the magical 100% pass rate, the harder it will be. We're not making the same group of children smarter every year- we're trying to make each group smarter than the group that came before them. In a school like mine where we get an influx of different children every year depending on world events, that's a hard challenge to obtain. This year, for whatever reason, it seemed we had a large group of children from Ethiopia. As a nearby county changed their laws about illegal immigrants we also gained many, many children from them.
We grew at an alarming rate (we gained almost 150 children last year), and yet in many, many ways we did "make them smarter than the years before them". We missed AYP in one subject area, by a small number of students who are counted in 4 or 5 different categories (but isn't that always the story?) So much of our instruction worked. Our interventions, our before school and after school remediation. Our professional development where we looked at how to make ourselves better teachers, how to watch how individual children learn so we can know how to best meet their needs- it all worked.
But we'll still be on the list of failing schools.

** ** **

you there, go to the end of the line, you goose.

today fabulous friend walked into our room, took a look at the jobs chart and let out a loud whine, "but i don't wanna be a goose!"

we looked at each other confused- whose talking about a goose? and then realized that she meant she didn't want the job of being last in line.

somehow she thought that we've been making one kid a day stand at the end of the line to be the goose- which, to a 5 year old, must sound a lot like having the teacher decide to have the whole class call one student a mean name. this seems even meaner if english is your second language and you associate goose and chicken as the same animal.

no wonder nobody wants to be the caboose this year.

perhaps we need to take some time explaining what a caboose is on a train.

of course, trains themselves do not use caboose anymore. hmmmm.