Tuesday, May 31, 2011

outside of the public schools...

This weekend Mr. Lipstick and I had friends from out of town visit. One is an English professor at a school in New England.  As he talked about his love of teaching his freshmen he mentioned how those in his department have seen the writing skills of the incoming freshmen go down hill despite the fact that college admissions is becoming more rigorous. He talked about how colleges across the country are being forced to increase their freshmen composition classes and change their syllabuses in non-composition classes in order to teach incoming freshmen how to write. Not to mention the lack of critical-thinking skills incoming freshmen bring with them.

What do the professors blame? No Child Left Behind. They noticed the decrease in skills after the law was in place for a few years.

How can a law that was meant to improve our academic rigor actually be decreasing it?  Have we really managed to create a system that is leaving high school students less prepared for college than before?

(don't answer those questions- I know the answer to them and it only makes me sad.)

Thursday, May 26, 2011

heart break

During our end of year reading assessment we ask each kid who they read with at home and what they like better- reading to someone or listening to someone read them a story.

Today the little boy I was reading with replied he likes to read to someone. That seems like a pretty typical kindergarten response- they like using their new reading skills.

When I asked why he liked to read to someone he answered very honestly,

"Well, my mom can't read so when I read to her I can teach her how to read"


A kinder friend came up to me today and gave me a very tight squeeze.

"OH, gentle hugs!" I responded, rubbing my large baby belly.

"But I just want the baby to pop out!" she protested.

I took a moment of silence to gather myself. Apparently my friend was under the belief that if she squeezed me hard enough she could cause the baby to come popping out. Like I'm a bag of chips kids just have to pop open to get to the good stuff.

And not only did she believe this could happen, she acted on it, thinking she could make it come true.

"The baby wont come out until you are in first grade" I explained.


I backed away.  No more hugs from her for awhile.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

the day the magical reading fairy visits...

All year Pixie's been reading books with one line of text on each page that stick to a pattern. Books like, "Look at the tiger. Look at the elephant. Look at the monkey. Look at me."
For beginning readers there is a lot to work on in these texts, but for the most part they can read them without actually knowing the words. Once they get the pattern down it's no problem. Really what we're teaching that early is that print contains a message, we read books from left to right, each word on the page corresponds to one word said out loud, and if you don't know what a word is you can check the picture. The basic building blocks of literacy.
Of course in whole group lessons we're adding high frequency words to the word wall, reading big books with more text, writing stories together through interactive writing, learning chunks like 'at', 'an', 'it' and 'ing' and directly teaching reading strategies. Still, Pixie's been plugging away on those simple texts.

The other day she was mid-book when she gasped. "OH MY GOD!" she exclaimed, "LOOK!  This book has the word LOOK!!  JUST LIKE ON THE WORD WALL." 
I nodded. I did not point out that she'd been reading books with 'look' in them all year, or that the 3 pages she'd just read in the book also had the word look.
"MRS. LIPSTICK," she gasped again, "AND HERE'S THE WORD 'AT'" pointing to another word wall word. "They are the SAME as the word wall!"
Light switch on.
As soon as she finished her book she wanted to run around the classroom and show all of her friends that the word 'look' didn't just belong in the word wall, but was also in her book. Today she repeated the performance. Excited again that 'look' on the word wall was the same as 'look' in her book.

This is why I love my job. After months and months of laying down the basic building blocks of literacy, months and months of carefully planned guided reading lessons to help her be secure in those early literacy stages, the light suddenly flipped on. Things are starting to come together. You can practically see the gears turning. And on top of it all, I get to watch her be ridiculously excited about it.
I love teaching kids to read.

um, I hate to point it out, but in case you haven't noticed, you're getting large...

For the first time in weeks I ran into my bff from two years ago.  (If you're new to this blog I recommend clicking on the bff label and reading up on my former student with autism. I miss him so much. What a great kid.)

He's doing really well in third grade. I happened to walk past him while he was working one on one with his current special ed teacher.

"Hi Mrs. Lipstick" he said and looked back down at his work like the diligent student he is. Then slowly he picked his head back up as he took in the new, pregnant me.
He opened his mouth to say something and then closed it. Finally he got out, "Mrs. Lipstick, are you feeling different?"

Frankly, "are you feeling different" is far more polite than what some grownups say. However, not knowing that I was pregnant I wonder what he was thinking. Was he worried that I would say "Funny you should ask, you know my stomach kind of hurts" and he would have to be the one to inform me that my stomach had suddenly swollen and that I should get that looked into asap.

Two years later I still wish I knew what was going on inside his head...

Saturday, May 14, 2011

watch where you sit...

This week I spent the majority of my time testing my kinders, pulling each child into the hallway for 2-3 minutes to conduct one of the 11 tasks included in our end of year assessments. I don't think of the experience as overly stressful for the kids (for me, on the other hand, who has to read the stupid story about a cat over and over again, well, that's another story). For the kids I try to keep it upbeat, high fives the whole time, moving quickly through each task so they don't even know they are being tested.

I called one little girl into the hallway to do a task she'd done quite well on in the beginning of the year. She came out smiling, and completed the task correctly although she looked distracted and distant the entire time. I wondered what was wrong but was so into testing I went ahead and called the next kiddo.

My next testing subject sat down in his chair and immediately gave me a look of confusion mixed with fear. He began squirming in his seat, looking extremely uncomfortable. He has trouble staying focused and I thought he was just trying to avoid the task. Halfway through the test (which he wasn't doing well on) the aid came running out of the room. She yanked my testing victim out of the seat to reveal a puddle. A puddle that did not belong to the current tester, but belonged to the friend before him. My poor friend had been sitting there in someone else's pee trying desperately to concentrate on the task at hand, trying not to complain to me that he was sitting in something wet.

And the poor pee-er? Her life is topsy turvy with drama day in and day out. We never know (and neither does she) if and when her father will be deported, if and when the family will move into another neighbor's house, which parent will be responsible for the children that night, or where she will sleep. The stress in her life is far greater than a simple 8 question task. Did she not know she needed to use the bathroom?  Was she scared to ask? Do these kids secretly know how important these little tasks are despite how much we try to make it seem like they are fun and exciting?  Scared to ask to go to the bathroom and scared to tell me they are sitting in something wet...  what have I done to these kids?

Friday, May 13, 2011


Magical came to visit the classroom today. It was the first time the class had seen him since he left us in the beginning of December when he was diagnosed with cancer. Partner-in-crime has done an amazing job of sending the message to the class that he is still a big part of the class and they frequently ask about him and what to know how he is doing. We tried to prep them yesterday for the visit, warning them that he would look different and asking them to do what is so hard for any five year- keep their shock and thoughts about how he looks to themselves. We practiced saying the phrase, "looking good!" if we feel like we need to comment on how he has changed. Still. Partner-in-crime and I were a bit worried about how it would go. Magical was excited to come visit, but if anyone made him feel bad it might make him hesitant to come back to school in the fall.

We were at a meeting when he arrived so by the time we made it to the classroom he was already sitting in his old seat eating snack with the class like he belonged there. He was beaming with happiness as his friends bounced around him, asking him questions and showing off new additions to the classroom. He remembered all our rules and may have been the only one who froze with the quiet signal when he heard the bell. He went straight back to his old seat on the rug and giggled through singing silly songs and reading Gerald and Piggy books. It was so, so good to have him back, if only for an hour. We have been going to his house for about an hour a day for home-bound instruction. We have watched him have a long, hard winter. It was amazing to watch him happily interacting with friends again in age appropriate ways. No five year old should have to suffer like he has.

Of course, leave it to Pixie to give the defining moment of the visit. She popped over to him, touched his arm and looked in his eyes. "Magical," she said in her most serious voice, "you fight those bad germs. Fight them!" Magical just grinned. It's what he's been doing all along.

If only we could all move to Australia...

Spring fever has unmistakably hit the think tank. There is not a child inside who does not seem to be infected by the wiggles. Even the shiest rule followers seem to be forgetting themselves and are being caught calling out in class or even, gasp, skipping down the hallway. It has been a long week.

Pixie was holding it together fairly well for herself, all things considering, until yesterday. When presented with a guided reading book about a frog playing in the mud she lost it. "I don't want to read that book!" she declared, slamming the book on the table. "I won't read it! This is a terrible, horrible day!" (we recently read Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.) She managed to read all but one page when she became overcome with emotion again. Her eyes filled with tears and her lower lip wobbled as she again announced how much she hated the book, how much she hated school, what a horrible day it was, and how she wished she had missed the bus. I ignored most of this and in the end she read the last page with long, dramatic sighs. She finished just in time to head to lunch with her class where she announced on the way that she was moving to Australia.

Thirty minutes before the day ended the office called to ask if we could send Pixie down for an early dismissal. The minute she heard this she wailed, "but I don't want to go home! I'll miss all the fun, I hate missing all the fun!" It took me twenty minutes to get her to walk down the hallway to the office. I am sure anyone that passed us thought I was forcing her to march to her one death.

That afternoon I went to see Magical. Our hour of work wrapped up and when I told him I had to leave he looked hurt. "But I still need you!" he announced. Then catching himself he quickly changed his tune. "you have to go now," he said, "I am very busy. I have a very busy schedule this afternoon. I have to shower and eat dinner and watch tv and cuddle with my mom and talk to my brother and play on the iPad and go to sleep. I do not have time for you."

In the upper grades I think spring fever shows up in the way of general misbehavior. In kindergarten it comes out through a lack of all logic and reasoning. Which may be why I love my job so much.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

things we say

When dealing with complainers I tend to try to pull little phrases out to acknowledge that I hear the complainer, but deflecting any action on my part. Sayings like, "Wow, you must have been brave", or "It's ok that your pants are covered in mud! That's how we know you're a kid! Kids are suppose to have fun and get dirty outside."  It's enough to confuse them and let them know that they are not going to get anywhere with sympathy from me.

Yesterday I was trying to run a reading group when a little boy kept trying to show me his scrapes from the day before. He'd been climbing a tree and had really scraped himself up and was suddenly overcome with the amount of scrapes on his hand right when he was suppose to be listening to my book introduction. The "wow, brave you" comment didn't work and I was a bit frustrated. The next thing I knew I heard myself saying, "AWESOME! Really?  Those scrapes are from climbing a tree? So COOL."

There was nothing he could say to that. He quickly became quiet and read his book.  Now I'm just worried about angry letters from parents complaining that their children went out to climb trees and get scraped up because their teacher told them that was the cool thing to do.

It could have been worse. I could have told his blood shot eyes from playing video games all night was cool. At least I was encouraging an outdoor activity. Still, something seems wrong about telling a kid that their scrapes are "cool".

kick kick

One of my little ones hugged me yesterday and then loudly announced to the class that she heard the baby kick. This is not true. The baby did not kick when she hugged me. I don't think she heard anything. But after her announcement, now all the little girls are convinced that if they keep their hands on my belly they will feel (or hear?) a kick. None of them believe the "baby's sleeping" story anymore since I'd just given it to the little one who claimed the kick.

I've never been so close to outright calling a child a liar in my life. I can't walk through the classroom without a little hand reaching up and grabbing my belly.

Signs of Spring

The birds are chirping, the flowers are blooming, the trees have filled out with bright green leaves, and the kindergarten/first grade hallway looks like this:
Note the small desks/tables outside of each classroom so that we can pull children for one on one testing.

It must be May.

The testing window opens in May and so it's time to start pulling our children aside one by one to assess how far they've come this year. In kindergarten for reading alone we pull each child aside 12 individual times to assess how they've come with their concepts of print, their letter knowledge, their phonemic awareness, and  their ability to read. It's lovely, lovely fun as you can only imagine.

Since we use the same scoring sheet throughout the year for each child you get to see the progress they've made. To be honest, I completely forgot how low the little ones were when they came in. The majority of the kiddos in one of my classes knew almost no letters of the alphabet, and in fact, when asked to identify a letter, even a letter in their name, responded with "8", "29" or, "Hey, it looks like sponge bob!"

As I'm giving the spring version of the assessment and trying not to grind my teeth as a child confuses the lowercase f and t (arggghhhhhh..... ) I find myself glancing at the fall version of the test. Suddenly knowing all the letters but confusing b, d, p, and f and t doesn't seem like that bit a deal. In the fall they could not identify the first letter in their name, and in fact, had never recognized that those squiggly things on paper had names.

Of course, I'd prefer that they'd gone from not knowing anything to knowing all of their letters and letter sounds perfectly, so there is still a bit of sadness and teeth grinding when I realize we're not quite there yet. But that frustration is more with myself and what I've taught than with the child. When I realize how far the child came from September to May I'm suddenly filled with pride at how the little one changed from a timid, unsure 5 year old into a scholarly letter-identifying 6 year old. They did it. They worked hard in kindergarten.

In fact, so far I've only give 3 tasks of the 11 they took in September. But in those 3 tasks most of them have already out scored what they got in September when they were given the full 11 tasks.

In the same class the majority of our friends were unable to rhyme at all in September. Most of them got none of the rhyming questions correct. Yesterday when I gave the rhyming test they didn't even let me finish the question before they identified the rhyming words.

It's still not perfect. Like I said before, I wish they were doing better. There is still the feeling of sadness and frustration that I've missed teaching them important pieces- like the difference between t and f. That they should be even further along than they are and really that's my fault as their teacher. But it's nice to mix high expectations with the reality of how far they've come.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Hello baby

Last week I explained the reason for my growing belly to one of my kindergarten classes. No one had asked about it yet, but I figured that for my ego a preemptive strike was necessary. They are thrilled, fascinated, and a bit confused on timelines.

I told them on Thursday and on Friday they all asked me if I remembered I was having a baby, or if I'd had the baby the night before. It's funny how many of them were worried that I may have forgotten the baby... some seemed truly concerned. I liked the shy little boy who whispered, "hey, don't forget your baby" as he came into the classroom in the morning, and the one with limited English who drew me a picture of me and the baby, brought it to me and repeatedly pointed to my belly and then back to the picture as though he was explaining to me what was going on inside me. His mother had a baby earlier this year so I suppose he felt that he was sharing some expert advice with me.

Today though the kids hit a whole new level. After not seeing me for the whole weekend they were thrilled to see my belly Monday morning. Not me, my belly. They each asked to hug my baby, or didn't ask and just patted my belly, said hello baby, and talked directly into my stomach. One little boy nestled his face against my belly to get closer to the baby. I suppose I should get use to having people address the baby and not me when I enter a room, I just expected it would start once the baby was actually out of my belly.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

"I love you, but I can't talk to you right now"

My first year teaching a little friend made me a "puppet" at the art center during free choice time. He'd used a purple foam flower, attached a close pin to the bottom, and drew two eyes with angry eyebrows and an angry mouth. He said it was me when I used my mad face.

It was my first year and I'd taken a lot to get to the point where my mad face was extremely effective, so I attached the puppet to my badge. The class loved it. Instead of me having to use my actual mad face at them I could just flash the puppet. They'd immediately know I was giving them the evil eye (even those who had difficulty reading my actual facial cues knew it meant they were on thin ice) and would stop their behavior.

The next year I overheard one of the most amazing teachers in my building say she writes the phrase "I love you but I can't talk to you right now" on her writing workshop conference hat so that children knew not to bother her when she was conferencing. I kept playing that phrase over and over in my mind. I love it- it acknowledges the person and that you still care about the person, but also sets a limit.

I told my class that my angry purple flower meant just that "I love you, but I can't talk to you right now."  Just like the year before I wore it all the time, not just during conferencing. It was relatively small and just lived on my ID badge but was easy to flash when a child came to interrupt me when I was chatting with another teacher, another student, or just trying to organize myself for the next lesson. I did not have to turn and make eye contact with the child, I simply just picked up the flower and held it up so they could see it.
"Oh yeah," many of them would say, "You love me but you can't talk to me right now" and they'd go back to work.
For whatever reason they loved the saying too. I loved that they repeated it to themselves "You love me but you can't talk to me right now" as though they were reassuring themselves that I did in fact love them.

For me it worked better than a designated hat for writing or reading workshop because I was able to acknowledge their presence with an action (holding up the flower) without making eye contact. When I used a hat for reading/writing workshop I'd find myself stopping and talking to the child to remind them what the hat meant. Tapping the hat didn't get their attention, while holding up the purple flower did. Plus the purple flower was around all day so they saw it all the time and were less likely to forget what it meant.

I also paired it with a "notes for Ms. L" box so they could go and leave me a note about what they needed. For first graders I wanted them to write anyway, so writing their notes to me was meaningful writing. They had even more incentive really listen to the sounds in those words because they knew I'd be reading them when they were not around to translate for me. By the middle of the year most of them were leaving notes without me having to give them the "I love you" reminder.

Now that I work in 3 different classrooms it's hard to do something that consistently. I don't have the luxury of having those moments of whole group lessons where I explain procedures. And since I'm not in their rooms all the time it's not as consistent. As the kinders are getting more and more bouncy with spring fever- and more likely to leave their seats to "need to tell me something so, so, so important" I need to find a way to make it work... my end of year survival may depend on it.