Saturday, November 28, 2009

coming off the island

The other day one of our awesome guidance counselors posted on facebook that she felt she was expected to fix the kids sent to her. The tone of her post was so down, frustrated, and helpless. It killed me because it meant that even here at the Think Tank we don't always collaborate to the best of our ability.

As I read Solving Thorny Behavior Problems I'm thinking a lot about collaboration. Crowe writes numerous times about the importance of getting an outside perspective to help you understand the full nature of the problem. I think we all know that's important, but sometimes it's a hard thing to do.

The Think-Tank always has a lot going on. We're always learning new methods of teaching, we're piloting a new report card for the county, we're bursting at the seams with new students registering every day. Trailers line the field behind our school. There is always someone reading a new theory and wanting to try it- someone discovering something new they can do with technology- someone trying to develop a new classroom initiative. It's what I love about my school. We're always looking beyond ourselves to find answers. We never assume we have all the answers.

Except when we do.

Sometimes I think in all the push of new initiatives we lose the attitude that we're collaborating together for the students and we begin to think we're on islands alone, trying to show everyone else that we're awesome teachers too. There are days it's hard to work at a place where everyone is always moving really fast. Nobody wants to be lost in the shuffle. Nobody wants to be seen as the weak-link surrounded by powerful others.

Fortunately I don't think this shift in thought from collaboration to island-teaching happens very often. There are too many chances for collaboration at my school- too many teachers involved with each child to let anyone be an island for long. But the days when you feel like an island- it's a lonely place to be. I know other schools, that don't push collaboration as hard, have a lot more islands. A lot more lonely, discouraged teachers.

It's a mix between feeling there is no support for you and feeling that even though there is support you shouldn't need it- you should be able to fix it yourself. I love that Solving Thorny Behavior Problems really pushes the importance of another perspective. It really addresses the fact that we need another view point- despite all the thought we've poured into a student's problems, someone else can say just the right thing to give us another idea- another perspective to really help the student. Asking for help- getting another opinion- coming off the island- doesn't mean you're not a great teacher. It doesn't mean you're giving up- it doesn't mean you've failed. It means you're a wise, thoughtful teacher who wants every interaction with students to be meaningful.

When we're island teachers and we finally feel we're maxed out we push the child/problem/issue to someone else to fix on their own. We don't search out another opinion to make our own work stronger- we seek out another person to take the problem off our hands.

For the most part this isn't my school. Most days we're always asking someone else to come in, take a look, give an opinion, listen to our thoughts and offer suggestions. Most days nobody worries being perceived as a bad teacher for asking for advice. People frequently come to me for advice or another perspective on a kiddo in their room. I try to do what I can, listen to what they see, look for what I see, and frequently ask for yet another opinion to weigh in. The more heads working for the child- the more likely we'll get a full 360 picture of the child's needs. Success comes from collaboration.

Everyone, at some point in time has their island moments. Whether it is because we want to feel we can solve the problems on our own, whether or not we feel we need to prove something, we don't want to add to someone else's busy plate, or if we're just discouraged and overwhelmed. We all do it. Taking time to look outside ourselves, whether for managing a specific child's behavior, thinking about a lesson, or collaborating on a new initiative will only make us better teachers, and will make our kiddos more successful.

What I could have done- and where I can get answers from

Now that I finally have a few days off to catch my breath I've had time to dive into my other new Responsive Classroom book, Solving Thorny Behavior Problems: How Teachers and Students Can Work Together by Caltha Crowe. I received this book the same day I got Energizers! As you can see from above, Energizers has been well-loved and well-sticky-noted by me and my partner-in-crime. Our kinders have become quite the energetic singing troupe.

Solving Thorny Behavior Problems is one of those books I feel like I just can't read fast enough. Each page delivers information I realize I desperately want to apply in the classroom as soon as possible- ideas I really could have used last week if only I'd read it sooner. It discusses real behavior problems (throwing, spitting, disrespect to the teacher, biting- the problems that we really struggle with) and how to use what you know about education theory, child development, the child himself, and your own teacher observations in order to handle these problems- all giving you examples of RC language to use when talking with the child.

I'm eating it up.

In a way the book mirrors exactly what we do when we are writing IEP goals- taking in the big picture and looking at how to narrow it down to smaller steps in order to help the child be successful. It encourages you to develop measurable, observable replacement behaviors with the child in order to make the child successful (I'm inserting the sped language into the RC themes).

It gives examples of children's books to use in role plays, how to foster roll plays, encourage sincere apologies, all while giving you examples of real behavior problems. The type of behavior problems that just reading about make your heart rate go up because you know exactly when that has happened to you. You know how angry that behavior makes you- and how frustrating it is when you don't know what to do about it.

I really could have used this book on Wednesday. My first graders had a sub in the room, the schedule was changed for the early release, and the kids were just a little antsy with excitement and upcoming holiday (For a few of them it was literally their first Thanksgiving- their first year in our country).

An aid had come to get me because a few of my children with special needs had asked her to go get me- they wanted to have guided reading and they wanted it now. It was during my lunch break, but I'd finished lunch and I'm a sucker for any child who demands to read. We'd settled in with our new reading books when an ear-piercing scream came from the back of the classroom. The type of scream that makes you assume that someone has a gun or some one's security is being threatened. The classroom fell silent and I looked up from my group to observe one of my friends with special needs with her head down on the table, hair covering her face, shoulders shaking from silent sobs. Another girl stood over her, whispering into her ear. While it didn't look threatening, something had to be very wrong to cause that sort of primal scream.

I hauled both girls out into the hallway, along with another one who has standing nearby apparently encouraging the whisperer.

Apparently, the girl standing over the other one had been whispering in her ear "everyone hates you, nobody likes you, nobody wants to be your friend" over and over again.

I lost it. I absolutely lost it. All RC language/theories/philosophy went out the window. How dare you hurt another student's feelings like that?

The crier and I went on a long walk to calm her (and me) down and when we returned I had a meeting with the girls responsible for the bully-like treatment.

Can you tell from my description that I'm taking sides? I know I am. I know I wasn't thinking clearly when I disciplined the girls. I was too angry for that.

I did my own in-the-moment version of a teacher/student behavior conference, but looking back in no way was it successful. Perhaps that is ok. I was too angry at the time to make anything meaningful. Perhaps what I should have done was to honestly say, "I am too upset to talk about this right now. Let's talk on Monday and see how we can make sure this never happens again"

And perhaps the girls and I should meet on Monday, now that I'm working my way through my new RC book. Now that I have time to plan the student/teacher conference, I have time to try to determine why these little girls are so determined to be mean to the other girls in the class. Try to see beyond my own anger at their behavior and understand why they ganged up on my little one. I know both girls who were a part of the 'bullying' are going through pretty intense issues at home. Issues that involve spending significant parts of their time after school in the hospital visiting families. Issues that must be making them feel insecure and unsure of life itself right now.

Perhaps Monday I need to work on using a matter-of-fact tone as the book suggests instead of my pure-anger Viola Swamp voice I used Wednesday. Monday I'll be specific, direct, and use language like "I've noticed that you..." and "I'm wondering if it is because..."

On Wednesday, in the midst of my anger, we brainstormed what they could do when things were going on in the classroom they were not a part of and we made each of them a sign that said, "I will be the boss of myself" with a picture of them doing their work and minding their own business. Even though we talked about exactly what that would look like (walking away when someone is bothering you, staying in your seat even when you want to know if someone else is doing the wrong thing) I'm not exactly sure that will work. The anger and frustration that was a part of our conference on Wednesday in no way empowered those girls to be good bosses of themselves. Instead the outcomes of the conference will serve as a reminder of what they did wrong instead of what they can do right.

I have 2 more days to reflect on how I can empower these girls to be successful with their social behaviors instead of shaming them. Because shaming them will only keep it out of my eye-sight- it will happen on the playground, on the bus, in the park on Saturdays when I'm not around to see it. Empowering them will give them successful strategies to use every day in social situations.

I have a lot to think about. A lot of my own frustration to get over. 150 pages left to read. Back to reading... Wish me luck and lots of ideas

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

I do love Thanksgiving

Every year around Thanksgiving I start to think it's time to go back to the classroom. I start getting nostalgic for the days of having my own room, planning my own lessons, and creating my own units. The thing is, I LOVE teaching about Thanksgiving. It's such a great narrative story- one the kids at my school can especially connect to, and over the years I've discovered how to pack many different parts of the curriculum into studying about the pilgrims. Last year I tried to do my whole Thanksgiving unit in just one day for one of my classes and it just didn't work.

This year I wasn't going to get to teach any type of social studies/Thanksgiving themed lessons at all until Splattypus asked me to take over her butter-making workshop since she was going out of town today. (We'd done it together two years ago)

I love making butter with elementary school classes. I've done it every year I've taught and have to admit I think it may be the coolest thing ever. Watching 5 year olds faces express utter shock and amazement when the liquid milk turns into butter- listening to them gasp with delight as they eat the delicious cream they just spent 15 minutes shaking furiously while practicing some rote counting skills.

I taught 4 different kindergarten classes how to make butter today. But every time it was the same-

Where do you think butter comes from?

The store!



The roots!


Under the ground!


Guess what- lean in closely, I say in a hushed voice, and I'll tell you the secret of where butter comes from.

They all lean in, hanging on every word.

Butter comes from milk and that comes from cows!

Gasps of amazement and awe follow.

And we are going to make butter today! I announce in an excited whisper, as though I am delivering an important secret.

Spontaneous applause.

How do I not love my job?

How do you check for normal?

I'm beginning to notice a pattern with our incoming kindergartners. Every year they register for school with papers from their doctors telling us that everything is ok. These papers go into their files to sit in the office and nobody really thinks to look at them again- until we start to have concerns. Once you get to know a child- and sometimes it can happen within the first day- sometimes you start to see that something isn't quite right. Maybe it's their lack of eye contact. Maybe it's that they refuse to speak. Maybe it's their gross motor skills. Regardless- we, as kindergarten teachers, start to get concerned. We give them the benefit of the doubt for a couple weeks, but as time goes on, when we realize it wasn't just a shy child, we call the parent in. The parent usually ends up confirming our suspicions. Yes, they have concerns about their child. Yes, their child has never used oral language to communicate. Yes, their child is very different from the siblings in the family. Yes, the mother asked the doctor and the doctor said everything was normal, not to worry.

The doctor said everything was normal? We smile to ourselves, knowing that sometimes parents don't always hear what the doctors say. It's a lot to take in, sometimes there is a language barrier, the child is probably pulling out all the cotton balls and tongue depressors stored in the office and making a mess-but regardless of whatever chaos happening in the office, surely the doctor did not say that a 5 year old child who has not yet begun to speak is developing within the normal limits.

So we go to their file to check what this doctor actually said. And most of the time, most of the time, the parent is right. The doctors say that everything is normal.

I'm going to start making a list of these doctors, rent myself a child, go to the doctor and see if the doctors actually look at the children- talk to them, listen to the parents, and watch the children. We're starting to suspect these forms can be mail ordered, or at least bought on the black market and no doctor is involved.

There are a million reasons a person may perceive a child with gross developmental delays as normal, except that- they are doctors. They are suppose to be the parent's first line of defense. How many times do you hear "consult your peditrician?" And when the parent brings their concerns to the doctor to say "I'm really worried because my child is showing extreme delays in all of his/her developmental mile stones" the doctor is suppose to know that not speaking, or even trying to imitate sounds, is a huge red flag.

The worst thing is, there are programs in place to prevent this. All the doctor has to do is call Child Find. Or give the parent the number of Child Find and tell them to call themselves. Under IDEA children are eligible for special services at the age of 2 through Child Find. CF will do all the work- the doctor isn't involved after making that initial recommendation.

The children I've seen come to us with these concerns have made tremendous progress in their first year in school. They are not on the level with their peers, but every day we take baby steps at learning skills to be successful in the world. I can't help but think- where would they be if they'd be in a special education preschool starting at the age of 2? Or even if they worked with a special education teacher in their home once a week? If their language skills were being addressed at the age of 3 instead of at 5 when they are suppose to be learning to read?

The doctors may be too busy to listen to parents. Too busy to take the time to look at the children, speak to them, make eye contact, watch them. But they are putting these children years behind in life. And how long would it take to actually listen to the parent's concerns? The parent is voicing them anyway- saying, "My child doesn't speak." I'm sure the doctor gives an answer anyway- why not make it a truthful one instead of a stock "your child is fine".

Of all the things these children are up against- not enough healthy food, living in apartments with multiple families, speaking a different language, having parents working multiple jobs- they don't need to be fighting against their doctors as well.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

is it thanksgiving break yet?

As I was walking by the clinic today I heard my smart cookie call out, "HEY! Mrs. Lipstick! Guess why I'm here?"

"Why?" was out of my mouth before I had a chance to consider the invitation I had just given her. Asking a child to share why they are in the clinic is opening a box of information you may never be able to close. You'd think after 7 years of teaching I would have learned better.

"Diarrhea!" she proudly exclaimed. "I had it last night too. And guess what? When I had it last night-"

I stopped her, well aware that the other friends in the clinic, not to mention the teachers and secretaries in the office were about to learn the intricate details of her previous evening.

"Stop- Smart Cookie- is this really something you want to share with me? Is this really something you want me to know? Or is this something you should keep to your-" but I couldn't finish

and I wont share the details with you because, well, if I ask myself the same question I asked her, the answer is no. Nobody needs to know that.

I'm just glad I'd already eaten my lunch for the day.

One more day before Thanksgiving break. It can't come fast enough.

Monday, November 23, 2009

hearing thank you

This afternoon my partner in crime and I stayed after school to watch the kids in after-school-care put on a play. One of our former students invited us to the performance weeks ago. She'd started talking about the play in August, and comes to see us every morning and every afternoon to chat about the play. And so, even though it was held 45 minutes after our contract hours were up, and even though she didn't have a speaking role, we knew we had to stay to cheer her on.

This year, as a big first grader she stops in frequently to fill us in on all the aspects in her life. She's currently having a rough go of it in school and so we've been encouraging her to check in with us and let us know how she's doing with her behavior chart every day and tell us about the good choices she's making. It's one of those things that takes 2 minutes every morning and afternoon- not a conscious decision that we decided to make- her stopping in and "chatting" just happened naturally, and if it works for her, then why stop it?

This afternoon her mother found us after the performance, and, waiting until she had both of us- me and my partner-in-crime, told us she just wanted to thank us for spending the extra time with her daughter. She said she knew it wasn't our responsibility but that she really appreciated the time and concern we gave her little one.

It's funny- I never expect to hear thank you in this job. I don't think many people become a teacher to be appreciated. It seems so rare to hear a genuine thank you from parents. We stared at her, shocked, not knowing what to do with her words- we stuttered, declared how much we love her daughter and how 'of course! it's nothing'.

And so, even after a painful day full of co-worker drama I left work on a high note, looking forward to the next day. Those two meaningful words will get me through what's left of this crazy week.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

dirty b****

I sat down to have a writing conference with one of my lovely little ones. She was very engaged in her story- which seemed to be all on one topic. She was using word-wall words and was working hard at recording the sounds she hears in the words. All of these are things we want her to be doing when she writes. I was thrilled to see so much great work.

"Wow" I said, "Look at all the great sounds you've heard in your writing today! Tell me what you're writing about!"

"My dirty b****" she shouted. "See? This is my dirty b****. We're dancing. But then my dirty b**** turns off the music and I say, "HUH? Dirty B****"

I glance around, hoping none of the other children are overhearing this.

"What?" I ask again, because she does have a tremendous amount of difficulty with her speech.

"YOU KNOW" she said, exasperated that she'd have to explain this to me, "A dirty b****" and pointed to her picture of a jelly fish.

jelly fish.

so, so much better than dirty b****

Wednesday, November 18, 2009


A few days ago we had a parent teacher conference with the mother of one of our sweet boys. He's one of those little children who may not know the most information in the class, but always works hard, loves learning, tries his best, gets along with his peers, and looks at you with big eyes that just say "I'm so glad I'm here- what can you teach me?" One of those little boys you love teaching.

It was an average parent-teacher conference- through the translator we listened to his mother's work schedule, how she only gets time to spend with him from 9-10, she knows it's late but he stays up to read books with her- and when she doesn't read his library books to him he gets upset. Her love for him came through as she quietly talked about what they do together.

She is a junior in high school.

When I was a junior in high school I was worried about getting into college, whether or not I was ready for the week's cross country race, my friends, boys, and who was taking who to homecoming. And a few years later in college I was still only worried about my college classes, cross country, and frat parties. And I thought my life was busy, crazy, stressful. I thought life was tough, thought I was the busiest person on earth, and that the world revolved around me. I imagine most juniors in high school, and most college students, feel the same way.

I cannot imagine taking care of a kindergartner, worrying about getting to parent-teacher conferences, of thinking about taking care of another person. Getting myself ready for school while getting my child ready at the same time. I would not have known the right questions to ask teachers, would not have known what was important, how to tell what is important, and how manage time to make sure my child.

I sat and listened to her talk about her little family. The love between her and her son is clearly very strong. She's passed on a love of reading to her son. She's showing her son how important learning is as he watches her do her homework, go off to school everyday, and get him ready for school. So much good is happening in that house- good I'm not sure I could have produced in eleventh grade.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

It's the end of the world...

Our school's Thanksgiving luncheon was today. Our parents are invited to come join us, the cafeteria makes special turkey, stuffing, and serves pumpkin flavored ice cream. The after school program decorates the tables and the whole lunch period turns into one large day of happy chaos (or unhappy chaos if you are 5, dislike change, turkey, and ice cream that tastes like pumpkins). I sat myself down between a few of my friends and proceeded to nibble on my fake turkey.

My story teller took one look at me and launched into one of his monologues. It took me a few minutes to figure out what he was talking about since I was carefully investigating my "green beans" and deciding whether or not I was going to set a good example and eat them, or just jump straight to the pumpkin pie.

"God's having the end of the world! 'Cause people are bad. Like they say bad words. So the world is going to be over. There are these satellites in the sky and they show us that the world is ending. ENDING. because some people are bad. You shouldn't be bad. You should be good. So the world wont end. Mmmmm... this turkey is good. I love this turkey! This is my best day. Ever. Where's your camera, Mrs. Lipstick, you should take a picture of me so I can remember this forever. Oh look, a pictuer of a turkey. That's cute. But why does the turkey have to be killed? At my house for Thanksgiving we pray before we eat our dead turkey. Everyone should pray. If we pray maybe the world wont end. Why will the world end, Mrs. Lipstick?"

As I tried to stutter out some sort of a response his Muslim friend, who'd been listening carefully the whole time decided to chime in.

"Now you listen to me, Mrs. Lipstick" he started (I'm working on teaching him to take turns with his friends when he wants to talk). "We pray at my house too. We pray all the time. Do you pray? Does everyone pray?"

I could feel the visiting mothers at the table listening in, waiting to see if I would explain the end of the world, or at least answer talk about prayer. But before I could find the words to give some sort of answer someone leaned over and asked,

"ew. Are you going to eat those green beans Mrs. Lipstick?"

Praise God. Subject changed.

"No. No I am not."

We may have different religions but we can all agree on what to do with the cafeteria's green beans.

better late than never

I sat with my smart cookie this afternoon, watching her write her name perfectly across the top of her paper. She put her pencil down and smiled, sweetly.

"I made my g's just like you taught me in first grade- the tail hangs below the line"

This story would be wonderful if she was still in first grade. Or in second grade. But she's in 4th. And she certainly showed no signs that she'd actually learned how to drop her gs below the line in 1st grade. Or any time I've seen her write her name since then.

But, it's good to know that although it didn't sink in when I was her teacher, (no matter how many times we worked on it), she did learn it eventually. It's all about the end product, right?

Monday, November 16, 2009

Responsive Classroom blog

I do love RC and so was thrilled to learn they have a new blog. So glad to see them adding to the edu-blog conversations! Their posts range from recommendations for implementing RC, lessons, and broader topic discussions- with a whole list of resources on the side.

breaking it down with patterns of thinking

I work everyday with a few of my students to help them with skills to bring them up to grade level. Depending on each child's need we work on writing their name, identifying their letters, sorting letters by whether they have sticks, curves, or both sticks and curves, or practicing their word wall words.

As I work with one of my little girls I realize just how far a road we have to go before we're up to grade level. She's a sweet, happy little one who tries her heart out, but everyday, despite how hard she works, I realize that we're going to have to take yet another step backwards, break the task down just a little bit more, make it a little easier for her to grasp.

We started with identifying the letters in her name. After a few days of realizing that this wasn't going to come without some significant interventions I took the letters individually. Then I realized that even that wasn't enough so we went backwards further. We worked on sorting letters by their shapes to draw her attention to the different letter shapes. A step back further, we only sorted the difference in shapes between c and e. We've walked the hallways looking for every E or C we could find to add to our sort. We've sorted E and C magnetic letters, paper letters, and her own written letters. Today I was left wondering how we could go back further. She still isn't retaining the information- still could be shown a letter in her name and will say c or e for every letter.

So, after much time spent scratching my head I grabbed my thinkblocks and we labeled one E and one NOT E. We went through my large bag of magnetic letters sorting E/Not E- discussing each letter, deciding which was which. We'll do it again tomorrow and slowly add other letters using the same pattern- T/NOT T.

What I love about the patterns of thinking is that it gives me a structure to use when I'm trying to figure out how to break down tasks for my learners with special needs. For the rest of us making the distinction between E/Not E is pretty basic- and something our minds do automatically. So automatically that when we're looking at how to help a child access the curriculum we may overlook such a basic step. But her little brain clearly isn't picking up the distinction between E and not E. Her brain is going to need to learn to make that distinction automatically. The goal, of course, is that she will soon generalize that each letter is its own distinct being.

Many children learn these skills when they are much, much younger as they learn to sort items in their environment. Some children, like my little one, need extra help in making these distinctions.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

gods, God, and crayons

We seem to be having a slight problem in my first grade class. The children, all sweet, wonderful, caring students, seem to be very, very religious. This isn't the problem, but of course they all have different religions, and they all like to talk about them.
The devil has come up when discussing thunder storms and just because. Debates over whose name is actually in the Bible have occurred. Of course, just like with all religions- that are different, but not actually all that different- many of them share common theories and ethics despite their belief in different gods. As Thanksgiving comes up and we get ready to teach about why the pilgrims came to the new world religion only promises to become a more prevalent conversation piece.

The religion major in me loves this. My senior thesis was on how Indian 6th and 7th grade text books discuss the history of Hindus and Muslims relations. The interpretation of different religions and how they interact fascinates me (clearly, if I chose to spend a year writing about it). Of course, like the Indian textbooks I studied in my thesis, we are suppose to be a completely secular school- where gods or God remains on the outside. (Then again, in Virginia we have to hang signs in our schools that read "In God we trust" but that's another story for another day.) So, talking about religion in our first grade classroom when we are really trying to learn how to read seems like a great way to get every parent in the class angry with us.

My first year teaching I had children from just about every religion out there. I had a little girl from North Carolina whose mother had just remarried a man from India, so had just converted to Islam. I had a Muslim from India, a Hindu from India, a Christin from India, Catholics from South America, a boy from Argentina who claimed he was Jewish, and a Southern Baptist. If we'd been in a bar it would have been a bad joke.

Religion came up frequently because being six they don't discriminate between what's a school topic and a not school topic. The division of church and state means nothing to them. They were encouraged to ask questions about why it rained, why the e is silent at the end of some words, and how we add, so why couldn't they ask questions about gods? It felt wrong to say, "we can't talk about that." so instead I listened. We talked about how we can listen to one another even if we don't agree, that we can all be friends even though we have different religions, and how cool it is that we can learn about one another's religions since we're friends.

As they asked questions and listened to one another's question our classroom community grew stronger. Sure, there was the day that my newly converted Muslim slammed her hand down on the table and claimed that Halloween was dirty, Jesus was dirty, and boys were dirty. The Catholic boy sitting beside her just about had a heart attack that she'd called Jesus dirty. But again, a conversation about how we are all different- just like we all have different ways to learn, we all have different beliefs and that is OK. So maybe we wont say Jesus is dirty in school, and saying boys are dirty may hurt someone's feelings.

There was the argument that broke out between the Indian Christian and the Hindu. "But why just love Jesus?" the Hindu asked, "Why are you ignoring all the other gods, like Krishna and Vishnu?"
"I don't just love Jesus" he explained, "I love 3 gods- the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. and Jesus"

or the day I was having such a terrible hair day that one little boy shouted out, "How are you even going to find a husband if your hair looks like that?"
"It's easy!" a boy from India announced, "Just ask your parents!"

Of course I didn't stop and explain religion to any of them. I didn't say, "Actually, friend, those 4 you just listed, they are all one God"
I didn't explain to the Muslim girl that in her religion Jesus is a prophet just like Allah so therefore isn't dirty. We focused on respecting each other even though we were different. And of course, a lot of, "Wow- you learned that at church/mosque/temple? I'm not sure about that- Ask your parents" but, really, encouraging children to talk to their parents- that's not a bad thing either.

This year's religious discussions make me a little more nervous because there is such a stronger presence of Christians than Muslims or Hindus. The religion major in me likes all religions to be represented so we can have a real discussion on comparative religions. Of course, the want-to-be lawyer in me knows exactly where religion belongs- outside the school doors. And the teacher in me sees the teachable-moment of teaching respect for differences, which really is the largest life skill anyone can learn to be successful in this world.

What are your suggestions? Keep religion out of the public school classroom? Tell them to talk to their parents? How can we have a responsive classroom class meeting about why we don't talk about religion in school?

Saturday, November 14, 2009

everything i need to know i learned in kindergarten

I have the bad habit of taking on the characteristics of the children I teach each year. Since I teach kindergartners and first graders with special needs this isn't something I brag about.

About 5 years ago I had a little girl who snorted whenever she was mad. After months of watching her huff, puff, and snort around the classroom, throw her body dramatically onto chairs, cross her arms and huff I must have picked up on it because whenever I was upset I had to fight the instinct to snort. In fact, sometimes, with my beloved husband (he wasn't my husband then- but he still married me, which says something) I wouldn't hold back on the snorting and huffing- it would come out in wordless frustration as I pouted like a small child until his laughing snapped me out of it.

One year I realized I'd started beginning every sentence with "even" like my English language learners. (As in, "Even I want to go to the store today!") I was aware my whole class began every sentence with "even" but as I was trying to break them of the habit apparently I started doing it myself when I was really tired, or trying to make an important point. ("Even I told you teachers should be given more respect!" right. )

Today we were at the mall- a horrible experience I dread with a passion. Not that I don't like shopping, I just don't really like doing it at the mall. So I was already not a happy camper, but then I had to go to the bathroom. No big deal, right. But the bathroom we found was closed for cleaning. So we trekked across the mall to the other bathroom. Also closed for cleaning. But I really had to go and really did not want to deal with all the crowds standing between me whatever bathroom was open. So, I pretended I couldn't read, marched into the bathroom (I mean, I can technically still use the bathroom when it's being cleaned, right?) where I was quickly stopped by a bathroom attendant. Without thinking (I'm not proud of this) I:

1) pretended I didn't speak English- "que? que?" I asked as she tried to tell me to leave.
2) crossed my legs, stuck my lip out, bent down and acted like it was an emergency. Yes- as a grown woman I apparently did the pee-pee dance.

SO not proud of myself.

Anyone who works with five and six year olds knows that kids are incredible actors when it comes to the bathroom. You say, "nope, no bathroom now, wait a few minutes" and they automatically cross their legs, scrunch their faces up, hop up and down, and say, "but it's an emergency" in their most pathetic voices. New teachers all fall for this once or twice before they wise up and realize that just because their students can't read doesn't mean they can't fake a good emergency.

The woman cleaning the bathroom clearly was not a new teacher. "Sorry" she said, pointed to the door, and went back to mopping.

I walked out, ashamed of myself and my pathetic 5 year old attempt to get my way. Maybe I need to hang around adults more often so I learn better coping skills.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

impulse control

Early this morning (after I was already running behind but before I stood under a waterspout and was drenched by cold rain water) one of my third grade readers handed me a silver gift bag with a soft smile, "I have something for you" she said.

Inside sat a box of cordial cherries.

I was surprised- there was no need to give me a gift- no occasion. We just started reading club so it's not a thank you present. It's not a "nice to meet you" present since we read together when she was in first grade two years ago. She is the one who gave me large chocolate lips on valentines day because she thought my name was Mrs. Lipstick. Perhaps she thinks of me and thinks chocolates. But on days like today I know not to look a gift horse in the mouth.

Did she somehow know that today I woke up on the wrong side of the bed, feeling the world was against me, and that my day would only continue to get worse and worse? Did she know that I have a secret passion for dollar store cordial cherries? That at different times during the day when I was feeling behind, flustered, sick, or lost I would need to grab a bite of chocolate-covered-syrup in order to clear my mind?

So now, 10 and a half hours after I arrived at school this morning, I nibble, one by one, realizing a large portion of them are gone, and that I have a stomachache. Perhaps when the kindergartners practice their impulse control I should be right there with them...

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

the teacher i wasn't

the teacher i was today was not patient, kind, or nurturing.
the teacher i was today did not give specific praise,
did not celebrate wrong answers because they showed smart thinking,
did not listen to explanations.

the teacher i was today did not take time to explain
did not say,
"what can you do to solve that problem yourself?",
did not break down tasks into smaller pieces to make children successful.

the teacher i was today bit her lip during guided reading
because three readers sat, staring at a word
without trying anything.

the teacher i wasn't would have said,
"what can you do to figure out that word?"
the teacher i was sighed,
"i told you that word during the book introduction!
can't you remember?"
"no- stop sounding out words- is that going to help you? no! look at the picture".

the teacher i wasn't would have said,
"wow, great job listening to those sounds.
but that's still not helping- what else can you do?"

the teacher i wasn't would have knelt down
eye to eye with a wiggly friend
to give a quiet but firm reminder that we don't talk during the fire drill.

the teacher i was snapped her fingers
and pointed at a spot away from the group.
"i said no talking" the teacher i was sighed,
rudely, showing no respect for the child.
the teacher i wasn't wouldn't have cared
that other teachers may see this rude little boy
and judge
- the teacher i wasn't would have modeled the right thing to do,
praised him for doing part of it right,
and firmly, but respectfully insisted that he show us how to do it.

i hope the teacher i wasn't will come back tomorrow.
the one i love- the one who gets results-
who sees small steps to take to help reach children-
who has patience for struggling readers.

i hope the teacher i was will go to bed early,
relax, read a book, and slowly turn back into the teacher i wasn't.
because this job is too hard
to be the teacher i was.

Monday, November 9, 2009

strength & patience

There was no reason for me to be in a hurry- but I was. Writing workshop was over and I was trying to hustle and bustle the group I was working with into cleaning up fast- get to the carpet quickly- because that's what we do in kindergarten- move as a group from one activity to another. I reached out to put her papers into her folder when I heard her small voice,
"Please, Mrs. Lipstick, let me do it myself"

Using the limited muscle movement in her hands and arms she set about putting her writing workshop papers into her folder. Opening her folder and slowly trying to slide the paper inside the flap- by herself. An act her friends had all done quickly, without giving it a second thought, and then flew to the carpet to hear the next part of the lesson.

"Just let me know when you need help" I whispered. It would be so, so much faster if I did it for her. Scooped up the papers, gone on with the lesson. In fact, I almost had done it before she could ask to do it herself. If I hadn't heard her soft voice we'd be on the carpet now.

But she worked at the paper, pushing it this way and that, using both hands when she could. When she finally realized she needed help she asked, but gave me a specific direction, "I need help holding up the flap". So I held the flap up as she slowly, carefully slid the papers in.

Right when I thought she was done she wasn't- they weren't in all the way (so few of our kindergartners even wait for their papers to be in all the way...) but she knew she could do it- she would make them perfect. Slowly, slowly she slid the papers to the right and the left- making sure they went down into the folder straight as soldiers- not one corner out of place.

Her eyes met mine and we grinned- knowing what a large accomplishment it was.

I could have been in a hurry- could have done it myself. Could have ended writing workshop and moved on. We'd have been on the carpet faster- her with one less accomplishment for the day, me without having a strong reminder of the importance of listening and watching each individual child in order to meet their needs.

I have never seen such a strong kindergartner.
I have never watched someone so determined to accomplish something so difficult for them when an easier option is available.
If only I had that sort of strength- if we all did? What could we accomplish?

Saturday, November 7, 2009

it's not fair

During our fall fun day adventures at the nearby park we let the children have a few minutes of unstructured fun. There are two different playgrounds at the park, which is just about as exciting as you can get when you are 5. Some of the teachers started pushing the leaves into big piles so the children could run and jump in them. If you live in an apartment building, or even in a town home community, you don't often get the chance to dive into big piles of leaves. The children's squeals of delight made shivering in the chilly weather worth it.

While I watched the leaf-pile excitement a few little boys came running over to me. "We want to show you something!" they giggled. And led me over to the second, smaller of the two playgrounds. Where someone, a high schooler perhaps, had taken the time to draw very detailed pictures of male genitalia. pictures plural. And had written all sorts of lovely sayings across the playground. Words that made me thankful that our five year olds can't read yet.

When I first started working at the think tank I was horrified by the state of this park. It's not on school grounds but is a quick walk in the woods between us and the high school. Broken glass littered the ground amongst the leaves, the trees were spray painted with the marks of gangs, and the play equipment itself was covered in different tags. I have pictures of our children sliding down the slide past the horrible gang warnings scrawled below their beautiful smiles.

But a few years later it was cleaned up. A member of our school board got involved, cut down trees to make the park more visible to the police driving by, put in new playground equipment, cleaned up the broken glass, blacked out the gang tags on the trees, and made the park a lovely place to be again.

It's taken two years but the park is returning back to what it was.

Sadly, as I looked at the five year olds giggling over the awful drawings I realized that this probably wasn't the first time they'd seen them. This is their neighborhood. Their parents bring them here to play. This is what they have. Most of them are probably use to this. After seeing this, will their parents bring them back? Is it too far, too much of an unsafe hassle? Will they stay inside with Nintendo and tv instead?

It's not fair to them. It's not fair because in the grand scheme of things, it's just not that big a deal. It's not fair that their famlies have more important things to worry about than the unsafe neighborhood playgrounds. That these pictures are the least of their worries.

**A quick email to my fabulous principal and one of our awesome secretaries was immediately followed by calls to the park authority, who promised to come out soon. If only we could scrub their little lives clean of all these pictures- all these adult words scrawled across their childhoods.

Friday, November 6, 2009

freeze like an ice cube!

Today we spent an hour and a half outside at a nearby park off of school grounds. It's fabulous because although it's a very short walk from school the whole walk is through the woods- which creates an immediate imaginative walk for five year olds.

"There's a crocodile!" they yelled, excitedly pointing at what could have been a small creek during a heavy rain storm.

Our fall adventures were fabulous, but cold. Really cold. After watching my little ones' teeth chatter together as they ran around I suggested that I take a small group of cold children back to school. (If a five year old asks to go inside while playing on an exciting new playground you know they are seriously cold.)

"Little one is freezing!" I said, "Let's go!"

"I'm freezing!" Little one agreed, "Let's go!"

As we walked back to school we kept chatting about how cold we were, but how we could really tell Little One was freezing. One of my little ones full of spunk kept asking, "But why is Little One freezing?" I thought she meant, 'how is she colder than the rest of us?'

Then she stopped walking, grabbed Little One, held her still and said, "Stop! I want to see you freezing!"

Which was when I realized she may be confused about what freezing means.

"Little One is just really, really cold," I started to explain. "Sometimes we say we're freezing when we're really, really cold. It just means we're super-cold- we're not actually freezing."

"Oh" my curious friend sighed, disappointed. "You mean she's not about to freeze like an ice cube?"

Sometimes I forget that my children just learning English may not get all the ins and outs of the language. I can only imagine what she was envisioning in her head- Poor Little One, slowly turning into a frozen-solid five year old right there in the forest.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

el diablo and the davel

My storyteller marched into my room this afternoon on his way to the bus. No hello, hi, or how are you doing?

"Do you know el diablo?" he blurted out.

"I don't know him...." I said slowly, wondering where this was going. "But I know who he is."

"He's so bad. He's evil. He made monsters, and witches, and goblins, and death, and black things like black cats, and monsters, and horrible things. He's horrible and awful. He lives down below, down there. And he's so bad. He's evil. He's the davel. The DAVEL. And if you kiss his wife he'll kill you and drink your blood. Your blood."

I couldn't help myself. "Whose his wife?" I asked.

There was a long pause. A confused, yet irritated look. I was interfering with his drama.

"You know, the davel wife. But he's SO evil. And he made Halloween. So that's why you can't eat candy on Halloween. You have to go to church instead."

Oh. ok.

it's not important

As my before-school reading program started last week I was working hard to send as many notes and reminders home as possible so my struggling readers would be motivated to set their alarms for an hour earlier and get themselves to school. I'd see the children in the halls and give them high-fives "yes! see you tomorrow! Can't WAIT!" with way more enthusiasm than I actually had for getting to school early myself. And since their parents are the ones in charge of making sure they actually walk in our doors early I sent home note after note to their parents.

One little boy came and found me on Tuesday morning, ready to read.

"I'm so sorry!" I had to tell him and watch his crestfallen face back away from me, "It doesn't start until tomorrow. Wednesdays and Thursdays."

The next morning he didn't show up.

Once I'd dismissed everyone to their regular classrooms I went searching for him, wondering what had happened. I ran into his little sister instead.

"Where was your brother this morning?" I teased her. "He needs to come see me early!"

She shook her head slowly, "My mom said it wasn't important."

My mom said it wasn't important.

You might as well have slapped me across the face.

Reading. Isn't. Important.

I plotted ways I could badger the parents into thinking otherwise. Call home (but I don't speak Spanish) Pick him up myself? Buy him his own alarm clock?

I didn't do anything about it on Wednesday so when Thursday morning rolled around I was shocked to see him stroll confidently into the room- one of the first students there. He read with so much enthusiasm he excited the others.

And yesterday- he was waiting in the school's lobby much earlier than I expected him (or wanted him- I was still getting materials together). He came in with a huge smile, pulled out the book we'd read the day before and proudly told me he'd read it over and over and over and over again to anyone who would listen. "Can I have another one?" he asked.

Despite being told it's not important he's getting to school early, ready and eager to do extra work. I love the students I teach. Love them.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

reading love

I just started teaching in a before-school reading remediation program for third graders. (I did the same thing last year but in math)

On the first day I gave the children a reading survey to fill out so I can see where their attitudes are toward reading. I'm use to working with first graders who, for the most part, love reading even if it is a struggle. I was nervous that working with third graders- kids who have been struggling for 3-4 years now, would prove to be more challenging because of their attitudes.

The first question I asked was, "When I hear the words independent reading I think..."

These are some of their responses:

Yes! because I get to be interested.

I think Yes

I think happy because at Independent you get to read your own book!

Yes because I to get to my book.

Yes! I was waiting to read.

It was great to see that even though they are struggling in reading and may be far behind their peers, they still have a love of reading. They understand why we read- they enjoy reading. Those attitudes will make my job far easier (and a lot more fun!)

Monday, November 2, 2009

i thought i worked with kids...

For the last 5 years I've had a book club on Friday mornings for my former students. Some years we've read chapter books, other years we've done author studies, read great children's books, written and illustrated stories together, or simply used the time to chat about books. Nothing is more divine that spending a few moments with my former students, listening to them chat about how their lives are going, what they're learning, and how they're doing in school. It's such a great reminder of how much children grow and change- eventually they do learn to stop picking their noses. Or at least, they learn to not do it in public.

It's also good for them. I'm a firm believer in the fact that children are the most successful in school if they feel the school is invested in them. This happens when adults in the building, not just their current teachers, but other adults, greet them by name, ask them how they are doing, and take genuine interest in who they are. So my book club lets my former students have a chance to catch up. They may no longer need me- they may feel confident on their own, but if they feel like hanging out with their former teacher, if they need a reminder that they are important, they can come hang out on Friday mornings.

Except that this year we've met 3 times.

3 times.

We're suppose to be reading Because of Winn Dixie. But the book is sitting behind my desk with the bookmark in the same place week after week.


Meetings, meeting, meetings keep getting scheduled during my book club slot.

But it's not just Friday mornings. My calendar is full of meetings. Meetings that give me more paperwork to do when I'm not in the meetings. If my desk wasn't in a kindergarten classroom I'm not sure I'd know I worked with kids.

I miss them. I miss the runny noses. I miss the untied shoes. I miss read alouds. Teaching lessons. Listening to beginning readers. Singing silly songs. I'm ready to work with children again.

Tomorrow is a teacher workday. Maybe, if I get all of my paperwork done, maybe I can teach the children on Wednesday. Fingers crossed.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

celebrity meeting

When I first heard that the science goddess was coming to our area I could barely believe it.

And she wanted to have brunch. With us.

Would she really come out of my computer and appear as a real-live person? Her well written, thoughtful posts have kept me going for years now. To meet the real-live goddess? How can it be? What would I wear? Where would we go? Would I manage to sound intelligent, or just stumble over words while talking about myself too much? (pretty sure I did some stumbling, but, what can you do?)

Jenny, the goddess and I had a delightful brunch. I returned on such a high. When I first discovered that teacher-bloggers existed I was inspired to know there were so many thoughtful educators all over the country I could draw strength from.

But to sit on a rainy Sunday morning discussing the field of education with two of my favorite bloggers?


Thank you both!