Friday, November 29, 2013

Happy Black Friday

In my second year working at my new school I am continuously struck by the differences between the families we serve. We are only two miles from my former school but the apartment complex we draw from and the neighborhoods around it are very, very different for being only two short miles apart.

One aspect that struck me on Wednesday as we were leaving for Thanksgiving break was that nobody wished me a "Happy Black Friday". At my former school this is what all the focus and excitement was about. Now? Nobody even mentioned it. Don't get me wrong, it saddened me  every time a student genuinely wished me a happy Black Friday, but I suppose after awhile I just came to expect it.

Maybe it is the difference between the amount of recent immigrants at each school. More children at my current school come from families who celebrate Thanksgiving itself as a traditional family holiday-not an adopted holiday from their new country. Or maybe it is the difference in socio-economic status- families who rely on Black Friday for their Christmas presents or just general household upgrades compared to families who see Black Friday as an adventure in bargain hunting but without the necessary need for the deals. I don't know, but it is a striking difference. 

Another difference I've noticed is in how kids talk about their weekend plans. In both schools I've worked in kindergarten classrooms that sing the same fun song on Friday mornings before the weekend:
"Hey there friends, the weekend is near, whatcha gonna do when it does get here?" 

At my former school the answers were all the same- play at the park at their apartment buildings, watch cartoons, or do nothing. Even getting them to come up with "watch tv" could be a stretch. Mostly they said, "nothing." Their parents worked weekends, they didn't have cars or bus fare so weekends looked a lot like every other day. Year after year it was the same weekend answers as we tried to make their tv watching Saturdays sound exciting.

Now I listen to kids excitedly discuss trips to the mall, the American Girl store, the library, or different small adventures. They aren't remarkable weekends, but I rarely hear anyone just say they are going to watch tv. Families are home with cars to get places. 

Other small differences stick out as well- the amount of kids with winter coats surprises me daily, the large amount of kids who bring lunch because their families have the time to pack it (or simply are not eligible for free and reduced lunch), the existence of the PTO, the large amount of parent volunteers, and the Vera Wang bags kids transport their birthday treats in to share with their class. (You know, I often use old Macy's bags...)

Both schools are Title One but the small differences like this remind me of the differences in poverty. There is being in the lower class, there is being poor, and there is a deep cultural difference of living in deep poverty. We can't talk about poverty like it is one universal term and that one solution for "poor families" will help all families. We can not assume all Title One schools are created equal or that all schools in the same general area serve similar students.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

What's the deal with Americans and the turkey?

Today the third grade teachers walked their class through a Thanksgiving literacy activity. They'd broken the book, The Night Before Thanksgiving into a reader's theater and they read it with their class. Then each child went to go illustrate their part- working on visualizing what they read and making mental images. It was an awesome lesson that was chalk-full of good literacy moments.

As I was rotating around the quiet room investigating what the students saw as their mental images I noticed one girl's drawing. She hasn't been in the country very long so her background knowledge of Thanksgiving isn't what your average American third grader's would be. She had drawn a beautiful, very detailed picture to illustrate a line about the turkey finally going in and the cousins arriving at the door.

Her picture was of a very friendly looking turkey walking straight in the front door with a line of happy cousins behind it. This image makes perfect sense if you don't have any background knowledge about Thanksgiving rituals. The line didn't say where the turkey went in. I wonder if she thinks all Americans invite a live turkey over to their house for Thanksgiving day. After all, Thanksgiving is full of pictures of happy cartoon turkeys, from the kindergarten hand print turkeys to store ads. There isn't much to imply that we don't all invite turkeys over for dinner.

Friday, November 22, 2013


Today a third grader asked me if I swallowed a baby.

This of course prompted another third grader to ask how the baby got in my stomach anyway.

I'm so glad it is Friday.


By the way- I just realized that I missed some comments from previous posts. I'm sorry! It wasn't personal- not sure how I didn't get the emails.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Giving Ourselves Permission to Make Mistakes- and learn from them

On a post I wrote recently for Reality101 on the Council for Exceptional Children's blog I talked about the pressures of getting everything done for our kids, managing the curriculum and still trying to manage behaviors. One tiny piece of the post was about giving ourselves permission to try new things and being OK when they don't work out. It was a line toward the bottom of the piece and when someone commented on it I realized how it really should be a focus for an entire post itself. As teachers we rarely give ourselves the time and space to try new things, be OK with failure, and have time to reflect on what didn't work.

When we're talking about behavior and determining the best way to teach a child how to behave throughout the school day it is essential that we give ourselves permission to try ideas and concepts that might not work. There is no silver bullet for fixing behavior. There is no equation, formula, or perfect answer that tells us how to solve a behavior problem. There is frankly, nothing but trial and error.

So many times when we're thinking of behavior plans we forget this. We want to put something in place that will work immediately and solve everything. And it's not just us. Often we may be told by a co-teacher or administrator that a behavior plan needs to be put into place to "fix" a situation. When we're asked to "fix" a situation there suddenly becomes this pressure on us to come up with the perfect behavior plan that will erase all problem behaviors and turn a child into a model student. And yet, behavior plans that fix everything don't exist.

Behavior plans don't work like that because kids don't work like that. Human beings don't work like that. Behavior plans can make things better. They can help a child monitor their own behavior, teach a child how to navigate the school day, serve as structure for the child or provide the child with breaks and incentives. But they don't fix anything. Everyone has a good day and a bad day. Behavior plans will work most days, but not others. Some behavior plans are going to make behavior worse before it gets better. Some behavior plans are going to be a disastrous failure but what we learn from that will tell us so much more about the child and the child's needs than if we had done nothing for the child at all.

This is Humpty Dumpty coming back up the wall (drawn by a first grade student with autism years ago). Talk about coming back from failure...  
We have to give ourselves permission to try things with students that may not work right away (or at all) because no matter what we'll learn from what doesn't work. We have to be willing to have the conversation about what's not working so we can try something new that will build on what was implemented originally. Most importantly, we have to build a relationship with our co-teachers and co-workers where we are comfortable having conversations about what worked and what didn't. When we're scared to fail because of what others may think of our ability to handle students we've lost our ability to make kid-focused decisions in the classroom. Somehow failure, reflection, and trying again has to become a part of school culture- or at least the culture between co-teachers.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

The Great Santa Conundrum

Being new to third grade means I'm also new to being around 8 and 9 years at Christmas time. These kids take the Santa debate to a whole new level. Sure we had some debate over the existence of Santa in first grade, but the non-believers were fewer and still wished they believed. They hadn't figured out the truth from being clever, they just had parents who told them (often because they got presents from churches or donations and their parents had to bring their kids to pick up the presents and don't have anywhere to hide them.)

In my new position where I am working with more children from middle class backgrounds I am surprised at how many of the third graders still believe in Santa. But at third grade they are starting to be their own detectives to get to the bottom of this mystery. Mid November the Santa conversations have already started. 

On Friday I noticed two children in an intense whisper debate during independent reading. When I went over I realized with horror what was happening. One savvy girl was explaining in detail her own Santa theory, while a boy listened in horror as his Christmas world was rocked. He kept questioning her with "yeah, but..." comments but she seemed to have all the answers. 

He turned and immediately started to break the news with me, not wanting to be the last one to hear the news.

At this I found myself in an internal struggle. I love Santa, I love believing in Santa, and I fully believe that kids should believe as long as possible and when they find out the truth it should come from their parents. (It should be noted that my family still does not acknowledge that he doesn't exist. My father will reply to this post by telling me he doesn't know what I'm talking about. Of course Santa exists.) 

But I'm also working very, very hard to build up trust with this student. All of my work with him so far revolves around having a trusting relationship.

So how do I handle the Santa question without him losing trust in me, but also not letting on that the girl is right. 

Since I didn't have much time to think the first words out of my mouth were "Well, that's news to me." Then I directed them to do their work and pulled the girl into the hallway for the "keep your opinions of the fat man in red to yourself". 

When I came back in the room the student was telling the classroom teacher about the news he'd just learned. There is no refocusing on school work when you first learn Santa doesn't exist. 

I'm not sure I am cut out for third grade...

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Teacher Torture Devices

Remember these?

The Silly Bandz. 

The hot teacher-torture trend a few years ago. 

They were annoying, distracting, and constantly causing in-class squabbles.
Yet they have nothing on the latest trend- The rubber band bracelets.

This new teacher torture device involves kids coming to school with a wrist full of tiny rubber bands knitted together to form a bracelet. This bracelet can easily be pulled apart so that a child suddenly has what feels like hundreds of little bands all over his desk. Of course this only happens at the exact moment you are trying to transition the class and the student suddenly finds himself in a panic because he is worried he will lose one precious tiny rubber band. Or worse, the student becomes worried that a friend will steal the bands, which of course involves lots of yelling and "hey, that's mine! Nobody touch it!" Both scenarios ultimately ends with a total class disruption and involve a very frustrated teacher.

The amount of drama behind these bands could drive a daytime soap opera. 

Saturday, November 9, 2013

What did I do for this?

I take a group of kids for lunch bunch twice a week to work on social skills. It's a weekly routine and I try to make it seem like a lot of fun. Other kids have noticed and asked if they could come too.

I managed to clear my schedule a bit so I could hold another lunch bunch that isn't focused on meeting IEP goals and could just be for those third graders who for whatever reason want to eat with a teacher. Most of the kids that ask are boys and their desire to give up a lunch with friends surprised me. Developing positive relationships with kids is important and the more adults they feel comfortable with the more they feel like they belong in school. So why not have a just because lunch bunch?

We have been talking and planning our lunch bunch for weeks. Now that it is finally here one of the boys keeps asking, "For real? What did I do?"
I was confused. The kid has asked me daily for the lunch bunch and when we had a misunderstanding about the day and time he was genuinely upset. So now he wanted to know what he did.

"I mean, did I go up a level or something" he asked. 
"A level, what do you mean" I was still confused.
"Like, in reading. I'm a level 14. Did I go up?"

I explained it was just because. It had nothing to do with hard work, it was just because he'd asked and so I listened. 

I understand how powerful incentives can be for hard work, and I love that incentives can be lunch with a teacher instead of a tangible prize. But part of my heart broke because the boy could not understand that he could have time with a teacher just because. He is a valuable part of the school, with or without moving up levels. In fact, kids might be incentivized to work hard because of our relationships with them that are developed unrelated to their performance. 

We obviously need both types of lunch bunches with kids in school. But we can't just use time with us as an incentive. We also have to be there for those "just because" times so we can develop true relationships with kids that make them feel like they belong as a part of our community.

So just how does that baby get out anyway?

As I finished up a small group math lesson in third grade one of the boys looked at me with great concern. The other boys in the group are working to find a name for my baby girl (which they are taking surprisingly seriously considering they are third grad boys). This boy however had more important things on his mind.

"Mrs Lipstick," he asked with a face full of worry, "how does the baby come out of your stomach? Does it come out your throat?"

I just looked at him. Even "go talk to your parents" didn't seem appropriate. I had a sudden fear of the baby name conversation quickly turning into a bunch of third grade boys explaining how the baby was going to come out of me. At that moment I couldn't think of anything worse. Who knows what some third graders know and what some don't. I've had first graders ask this question before but there seemed to be less risk of the conversation taking an unfortunate turn.

"Your turn to work on the computer" was all I could think of. Thankfully the computer has a much higher appeal than discussing the finer points of baby delivery. I'm not sure I am cut out for third grade.