Wednesday, March 30, 2011

hair drama

A little one from Ghana with a flair for the dramatics approached me forlornly one morning a few weeks ago.
"Mrs. Lipstick" she wailed, "Why, Oh WHY does everyone here have soft hair?"

I was use to her dramatics but I wasn't expecting this. Soft hair?

"What do you mean?" I asked, "What is soft hair?"

"You know, like you and G, and Mrs. C and P and..."  she listed everyone in the class and some other teachers outside the class who were not from Africa or African American. "I want soft hair too, but I just have rough hair."

I was in a hurry to get my small group out of the room and I stumbled over the answer. Normally I try to get eye to eye with a little one and have a heart-felt talk about how we're all beautiful the way we are. Unfortunetly, in my mind, I butchered this chance. I think I something about how her hair wasn't rough and when I was a little girl I wanted hair just like hers and that it wasn't fair that my hair didn't go into braids like hers, but now that I was a grown up I knew my hair is ok just the way it was, because we are all different and that is OK.

She stared at me during this monologue and then whispered, "You want my hair?" I nodded, but I was trying to hurry up one of the kiddos I take for a small group, so I didn't elaborate. I eventually got my small group from the room and I left, sad that the conversation had happened and that I hadn't taken more time with her. This was my friend's first year in the country after spending the first memorable years of her life in Ghana, and I suspect being around so many people who were different than her was starting to get to her.

A few days later she started showing up at my desk in the morning on the way to her class. At first it was just the question, "Do you like my hair?"  or  "Do you want my hair?"

Clearly our conversation had stuck with her, but I don't think she fully believed me. She needed to come back every day just to be sure I'd meant it.

Yesterday morning I was frantically (why is it that everything I do is frantic?) setting up for an  IEP meeting when she happened to spot me. She threw herself into the room with great gusto and announced, "Mrs. Lipstick, don't you WISH you had my hair?"
Everyone else in the room was taken aback. It seemed like quite a cocky statement coming from such a little one. I could do nothing but laugh.
"YES!" I answered, especially since the braids in her hair that morning were slipped into two charming pigtails. "I LOVE your pigtails!"

"I know!" she grinned, and skipped on to class.

I love kindergarten. I love how little things we do and say, even when they do not seem right to us, somehow can calm their five year old worries.

Monday, March 28, 2011

All About...

In kindergarten we're writing All About books, which is basically how we distinguish between the narratives or story books they've been writing (I went to the park, I saw a bird, etc) and a more "teaching text" (dogs have four legs. dogs eat food. dogs can run).  Very, very simple.

A few weeks ago someone wrote an All About book about me.

"All About Mrs. Lipstick. 

Mrs. Lipstick reads with us.

Mrs. Lipstick writes with us.

Mrs. Lipstick talks to my teacher all the time."

Eeeeekkkkkk.  Nothing like a bit of honestly. Perhaps I should be more conscious of how much time the classroom teacher and I spend chatting- but really, it's all for the good of the kids, it just probably doesn't look like that from their point of view...

getting ready

One of my favorite aspects of my job is working with the preschools and families of the incoming kindergarteners. Every year in January we get a list of all the preschoolers receiving special education classes who are slated to come to our school for kindergarten the following year. We go out and observe them in their current educational environment- some at school, some at their homes, some at day care centers. We meet with their current case managers to hear about their strengths and the support they'll need to be successful in our full day program. We bring their parents into our school for a meeting with their current preschool teachers and their future kindergarten special education teacher to make sure we are all on the same page about the student's needs. It's a lot of extra work on top of my current case load, but for the most part I absolutely love working on the transition process.

It's hard not to immediately fall in love with my future kiddos when I meet them in preschool. I love going to their houses to meet them and seeing them bounce around at home, excited to tell us everything they like to do. I love going to their school and seeing them interact with their current teachers and peers, envisioning all the things we'll do when they enter kindergarten. By this time of the year I've met all of them and I'm completely committed to them for the Fall. I think about them on my way to work. I start mentally planning what we'll need to do for them those first few weeks. I start researching their conditions to be sure we'll be ready when they enter our doors.

One of the aspects I enjoy the most about the transition process, however, is meeting with their parents. For many of them it is their first window into the world of kindergarten and I love being able to give them their first impression of our school.  As we talk you can see them relaxing- their body language becoming softer as they realize we really will take good care of their child. It's so easy to forget what a difficult transition kindergarten can be for some families. We do the first day of kindergarten every year, but for the kids and their families, they only do it once. And they start getting nervous about that day, NOW.  I love hearing their questions about kindergarten- they are never the questions you'd think a parent would ask, but once they do you understand what is important to that child and the family, what's going to be the most difficult part of the transitioning process. You start to get a feel for what mother will need more support and emails in the first few weeks, who will need to come in and observe early on, or who will be relaxed and may need extra encouragement to come in and be involved.

This year we have a rather large onslaught of upcoming kinders for next year. There are so many we can barely keep them all straight, and for the next few weeks I'll be in a preschool transition meeting just about every other day. It's easy to get lost in simply trying to complete the IEPs and check the meetings of my to-do list. I've got to stay focused on those upcoming little ones and the reason why we're doing all this.

silver bullet?

My policy professor gave us an article from Education Week on Detroit's plans to hand over their 41 failing schools to charter operators. Philadelphia did this with seven schools last year and LA announced they would turn seven schools over to charter operators for the 2011-2012 school year. Detroit is just following suite in the newest trend in how big cities deal with failing schools.

The only problem is, not many of the big name charter operators want to come to Detroit. Detroit's funding is not enough to make the charter schools profitable, and there isn't a chance for extra funding from the federal government like there was in New Orleans. The president and chief executive of National Charter School Initiative is quoted as saying, "Chartering schools is not a silver bullet that can solve the long-standing governance, financial, and academic issues that districts like Detroit face." 

Others in the debate also worry that switching the schools to charter schools will not miraculously fix the failing schools as well. Currently there are 9 charter schools in Detroit and only one is considered high-performing. Gary Miron, a professor of evaluation, measurement, and research is quoted as saying, "All the independent research done on Michigan charter schools has shown they aren't as effective as traditional public schools, especially when we control for demographics."

Somehow charter schools have become equivalent to the ultimate solution in fixing failing schools. As though changing the name of a school from "public" to "charter" miraculously leads to a dramatic improvement in scores. Frequently when I talk about the think-tank people ask me if I teach at a charter-school. They seem shocked and, frankly, disappointed, when I say it's just a well-run public school. 

The charter schools know they need more money and better resources than Detroit can offer in order to be successful. They know the structure and initiative they need to build quality schools, and they do not see that happening if they take over one of Detroit's schools. 

I really believe that there is a solution that does not have to involve charter schools.  In some cases charter schools may be the perfect answer- but for 41 schools it seems that a larger problem needs to be addressed. What is causing these schools to fail?  How can that be changed?  Instead of handing over the schools to outside companies that may or may not be better, what can be done within the district to improve these schools? 

By handing their schools over to charter operators Detroit is avoiding the larger questions of how they can truly improve their schools. They are looking for an easy and financially beneficial way out of a thorny problem. If they sat and looked at how to truly improve their schools they might learn something that could impact all of their students- not just those in the 41 failing schools.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Windows into their worlds

One of my favorite times during the school day is writing workshop. I love it because it gives you a tiny window into the children's little worlds- it's a chance to see what is really important to the kids you teach and hear about what they've been doing. Many times, especially in the warmer months, we get tired of hearing the stories about going to the park or the pool- over and over and over again. Still, that's what they did over the weekend that was important to them, and it's nice to listen to them chatter on excitedly about visiting playgrounds with their parents.

Magical's stories are also a window into his world, but I find myself wishing to hear about visiting the park or Chuck-E-Cheese for Magical's sake. With his chemo treatments and the lack of family resources his world is his apartment and the hospital, and that's it. Even within his apartment his world is his couch, his tv, and his food. On Friday afternoon he excitedly told a story about his dinner one night. On the first page he drew the dinner- it was all ready for him. On the second page he drew the bathroom- before he could eat dinner he needed to go to the bathroom. On the third page he drew himself on the couch- after the bathroom he was too tired for dinner so he slept while his food waiting for him on a table by the couch. On the fourth page he drew himself eating dinner- when he woke up his food was still there so he was able to eat it after his nap.

Magical found nothing sad about this story, in fact, he was thrilled that he was able to wake up and have his dinner ready for him. I tried to get caught up in his excitement as we went over his drawings and his story. It wasn't until I left his apartment that the utter sadness of the situation hit me. To most kindergartners that would be a very uneventful story- not to mention that it wouldn't even have happened because they wouldn't be too tired after a bathroom trip to eat. To Magical, it was the most notable thing about his day.

 Yet all this means that Magical is getting better day by day. The chemo is doing what it needs to do, and one day Magical will be able to return to us. When he's back hopefully we'll have more exciting stories- typical five year old "I went to the park" stories we'll eventually get tired of hearing. I can't wait.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

do you smell that?

Mr. Lipstick and I took our last no-baby trip last week because we are expecting a new addition to our family in September.  We're thrilled, excited, and nervous all at once. But mostly, we're just really excited.

The early stages of being pregnant at school were quite the new experience. My sudden new hyper-aware-smelling super-power really became quite the tool in detecting misbehavior (or potential misbehavior). I smelled those five year old farts before any of typical fart-gigglers and was able to distract/move them away from the farter before it became a class distraction. Of course, sadly, I was moving myself away from the gas-passer as well because suddenly it was the most overpower smell in the room.

One afternoon a little girl slipped passed me with an overpowering scent of the perfume counter at Macy's- as though she'd drenched herself in five different types. Trying not to gag I pulled her aside and gave her a lecture on 1) slipping to her book bag mid-class and 2) putting on perfume.  Turns out she'd just used scented hand-sanitizer.  While she still shouldn't have gone to the book bag mid class, somehow using hand sanitizer because a friend had sneezed on her seemed less offensive. And yes, when shown the bottle it claimed to be a lightly scented strawberry antibacterial hand sanitizer.

And then there is kindergarten snack. Since I co-teach in 3 different classes that all have snack at different times of the day, there are days I have the potential for experiencing 3 different snack times in one day. In some classes I use snack as an opportunity to work with kids. I do reading groups, work on social language, or do letter ID games while the kids snack away. This ended in January. Suddenly I was finding excuses to be as far from snack as I could. "Oh, I'm just going to check on this paperwork" I found myself saying. Choosing paperwork over seeing kids?  Something was clearly out of place. But that mixed smell of bananas, fruit cups, baloney sandwiches, and Korean-brand cookies was too much. I knew something was wrong when I watched one boy's baloney slip out of his sandwich and land on the floor. He bent over and picked it up, opened his sandwich back and replaced the baloney. Ick. You have no idea what that baloney had stuck to it once it had a moment to soak up all the goodness that is hidden under a table in a kindergarten room. I watched in horror, and yet contemplated what to do. If I got near him to correct him I'd have to smell the baloney. And his friend's banana. I wasn't sure that could happen. But do I let him eat the dirt/germ/crayon-pieces covered baloney?  Finally I decided to get my partner-in-crime who was able to pry the baloney from his hands while I dashed out of the classroom.

Luckily most of this winter I've had a cold and so my smelling super powers have been thwarted. It's the days I wake up with a clear nose that I know I am in trouble...

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Slowly getting back into routines

Mr. Lipstick and I are finally settling back to normal after our last "no-baby" adventure. When we got engaged we promised each other that we would leave the country every year before we had children. So far we've been to Jamaica, Ireland, Switzerland, Peru and Dominica. Last week, when we were both on spring break from grad school we headed to Spain for one last baby-free week of exploring. And I may have turned 30 in the process. Because if you are going to turn 30 then you might as well do it in Europe. 
My amazing administration let me take a week off of work for the trip.  This was great, but it was the first time I've taken a significant amount of time off during the school year.  Normally, as a teacher, when you are away it is when everyone else is away as well.  You don't have to worry about missing important emails or meetings because you know everyone else paused for a week with you.  Needless to say, I am frantically trying to catch up on emails/meetings/scheduling/paperwork. With the end of the quarter coming up any work I do with children is tied to getting the right data and assessing them to be sure of their progress. This week is a whirlwind of data collection, meetings, paperwork, and, oh, paperwork.
Still, it's nice to be back with the kids. I just wish we could incorporate the Spanish siestas into our daily routines. I think I'd be so much more productive.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

pet peeves

As part of my job I work with a lot of substitutes. When my classroom teachers are out I still go into their classrooms to teach lessons while the substitute sits around. Most subs don't understand what co-teaching is and tend to be very confused by my presence. The fact that I'm coming into their room to teach a lesson confuses them more. This also means I spend a lot of time watching substitutes manage classrooms.  Some are awesome- this week one of my co-teachers is out and we have an amazing sub. It's a dream. But some- not so awesome. And it's from these substitutes that I'm always being reminded of my biggest pet peeves in teaching.

I think my biggest pet peeve as a teacher is the "SHHHHH" sound. There is absolutely no reason to ever use that sound when trying to get a group of kids to be quiet. Have you ever seen it work?  We use it with babies because it sounds like the mother's heart. Kinders cannot remember what their mother's heart sounded like. They're too old for that, yet we still insist on making a snake noise at them anyway.  It's habit and instinct- we do it automatically- it's what comes to us when someone is being loud before we even comprehend that we can use our words to ask someone to be quiet. I do it too. That doesn't mean it doesn't drive me crazy.

What happens when you make the "shhhh" sound to a room full of kids? They all start making it too. Loudly. Spit goes everywhere. They are in each other's faces with their fingers and their pursed lips "SHHHHHHing" their friends. And suddenly you have a room full of snakes instead of quiet kiddos ready to learn.

Quiet signals work much better- a soft chime, a hand motion, a clap rhythm, anything the class has been pretaught means "be quiet and look at me".  Sometimes even a spontaneous song signals to the class that it's time to come back together as a group and time to stop the side conversations.

Another one of my pet peeves is when substitutes, or anyone really, uses the phrase, "That might work for ____ but that's not going to work for me" or "You might get away with that with _____ but not with me" when referring to a child's behavior. It is nothing but a power trip, as though the adult is reminding themselves that they are in charge- it's simply the adult taking a deep breath to decide what to say next before redirecting the behavior. It does nothing to actually change the behavior, but to a with-it kid sends the message that the teacher talking doesn't respect the other adults in charge, and that there are mixed expectations. Our entire goal as teachers is to teach skills that will be transferred elsewhere. If we're teaching them that a certain standard is only used with one specific teacher, we're telling them that what we want them to do isn't important the rest of the time- just with us. There are so many better ways to phrase redirecting behaviors without telling the kid that their mother/grandmother/previous teacher is a weeny when it comes to managing behaviors. Even just stating "In school we walk" to explain that the behavior we want a student to see is expected all the time in this general setting.  "I'm sorry you are sad but you still need to finish your work"  or, "That isn't a choice. You need to sit with the group".  Or my personal favorite "Pencils are for writing, not for swords. Show me how to use the pencil for writing."  Because honestly, does the kid's mother really let him use the pencil as a sword at home?  Is there any reason for me to say "You might play with pencils like that at home but not on my watch?"  Seriously?  No.

It's late and I'm not thinking of my best teacher language so I know there are much better phrases out there.  How to Talk so Kids Can Learn, Choice Words, and The Power of Our Words are all awesome examples of using teaching language to empower kids.

*I may be coming down with a cold so I am probably hyper-irritable right now.  Perhaps tomorrow I wont object to these quite so much...**

relationship building

Due to frustrating internet problems at home and blogging accessed blocked at school it's been quite awhile since I've had a chance to write and have it actually upload from the computer to the internet.  We'll see if tonight is any different...  

All year I've been struggling with my relationships with one of my kiddos. He's a great kid- but one of the few kids in my teaching career that I feel like I just haven't connected with.  In the beginning of the year I was so caught up with PJ that this little one didn't get what he needed.  When I did work with him I didn't take enough time to develop a relationship- I immediately focused on setting limits. Which of course all children need, but it's hard to motivate someone to accept your limits when they don't really care about you one way or another. I didn't give him a reason to listen to me other than he'd be in trouble if he didn't. And he was always in trouble anyway, so why was I any different?

I usually pride myself on the relationships I build with children. Typically I feel like it doesn't take me long before I've found a bond with each individual child and that bond drives the rest of our working relationship. It's March and I still haven't formed a bond with this little one.  We've had our moments when we've clicked- he's been on and I've been on and the work he's produced has been great. But it never carries over to our next session. I come in the next day ready to pick up where we left off and we might as well be strangers. 

The other day at recess he found half a broken jump rope on the playground and he tried to organize kids to jump rope with him.  Since this is a huge difference from playing in the dirt by himself I came over to help. I turned one side of the rope while he turned the other and we let kids take turns jumping in the middle. He and I literally had to be a team to get that broken rope under the jumper's feet (and if you've ever turned the rope for uncoordinated kindergartners you'll know that is no easy task).  Suddenly we weren't teacher/student anymore but true partners. The next day in class he returned to his normal behaviors of avoiding me, but on the way to recess he asked if we could jump rope again. Finding that the broken jump rope was gone he spent the rest of recess trying to pick the lock on the equipment shed to get another rope. Clearly he enjoyed his jump rope experience.

A few days later I managed to secure a jump rope from the gym equipment, swearing on my life that I would take care of it and not let any kindergarten students drag it through the mud/lose it/strangle one another with it/etc. Out at recess my friend and I ended up with a long line of kindergartners taking turns to jump rope while we turned. And my friend is actually a really good turner. Because he's such a caring kid he let other kids take turns turning, but frankly, none of them lived up to his talent. At the end of recess he gave me a high five. And not the half-hearted-I'm-only-high-fiving-you-because-I-have to. And honest to goodness, I'm-excited-high-five. The next day in the classroom he was just a bit more open to working with me. It wasn't a huge change- just subtle body language that seemed to show acceptance instead of dread.

I plan to keep providing the jump rope for him at recess when I can make it out there. I hope it keeps up. I'm not expecting this to change everything, but I am willing to accept even the smallest step toward building our relationship. Every little step is an improvement we can keep building on. 

Whenever we want our jobs to be clear cut and business like we get reminded that they just can't be. I spent months in the beginning of the year trying to apply my own model and structure to this little one when I'd never taken the basic step of opening that initial relationship with him. Now, months later, I need to slowly build what I should have created in September. This has been such a good reminder of the importance of truly knowing our kids and taking the time to let them know we care. 

Thursday, March 3, 2011

drama, drama

The kindergarten class where I spend most of my time is 5 going on 15. They are obsessed with Justin Beber, Hannah Montanna, boys, dating, and anything that makes them teenage-like.  It's really pretty sad.

However, apparently in the midst of all their teenage drama no one bothered to tell them that before you can become a teenager your baby teeth will fall out.

Today wasn't even our first lost tooth, but for whatever reason this one shocked everyone. The tooth-loser was in tears and many of the other girls in the class, and some of the boys, were in a panic.
"She LOST her tooth" I overheard as I was trying to focus on my reading group.
"It just FELL OUT."
"That is SO GROSS"
"I'm going to be sick"
"Oh my God, what if that happens to me?"
Squeals, shrieks, drama.
They were even MORE horrified when I gently told them that it was normal and that yes, every one of them would be losing his/her teeth in the upcoming year. The only one not upset was a little boy who doesn't speak English. He clearly knew what was going on and tried to explain to everyone by acting out someone tying a string to his tooth and then slamming the door. He seemed annoyed that no one understood his miming and that I wasn't taking the time to explain it to them.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

It happens every year, but it still makes me smile

I'm in the midst of being in meeting after meeting these days. The last two days I barely saw children, which is always frustrating because working with the kids is clearly my favorite part of the job. The rest is just background noise.  Or I'd like it to be, but sadly, on there are some weeks that it seems to become flipped. These are not weeks when I am a happy camper.

At the end of the day during dismissal a little girl slipped her hand into mine.  "Mrs. Lipstick, are you going to another meeting?" she asked. That's when I know I've been out too much- when they assume that no matter what I'm off to another meeting.
"No," I explained, "No more meetings today."
"Oh." she looked puzzled for a minute. "Mrs. Lipstick?" she asked again after a pause, "Where do you keep your bed at school?"

I love the assumption that if I'm not going straight to another meeting then clearly I'm going to bed. At school. You know, where I live. As I explained that no, I didn't live at school but in fact had a home to go to other children overheard.  "You don't live here?" they asked, confused. "Where do teachers live?"

There is something about object permanence and teachers- little ones just assume that if we are one place when they leave and one place when they come back then we must stay in that one place all the time. I do love kindergarten.