Monday, July 2, 2012

Turn and face the strain

Where have I been?! At the beginning of the school year, I made all these resolutions -- about how I would teach, what I would teach, how the year would go. One of my resolutions was to keep up with my blog. Well, you can see how well that one went...and that might give you an idea of how the other ones went, too. A lot has changed this year...and I hate it when bloggers I read just disappear into the wilds of the Internet, so here is my update: Mr. Brave and I are expecting Baby Brave this summer, and I am taking the year off to (1) parent and (2) consider my career options. I've been teaching for five years, and I think I'm ready to move on. So if anyone knows of any job opportunities for a teacher/blogger/new mom, send them my way! And thanks for reading :)

Wednesday, September 21, 2011


There's an article in GothamSchools today about how teachers plan to use iPads in their classrooms. I too have a DOE iPad, purchased by my school during last year's "the DOE is not going to let schools carry over their extra funding" spending spree. I honestly didn't see a use for it at first and wasn't sure how I would put it to use in the classroom. But I'm a big believer in making an effort to use all the resources provided to me -- especially ones as coveted and as expensive as the iPad -- so I started to build a library of apps that slowly but surely are making my teaching more effective. There is an app called Confer that is designed for the workshop model. For each subject, I can group my students by level or arrange them into groups of my choosing (in writing, for example, whenever I do a small group for a certain strategy, I rearrange the groups in the app). Each time I meet with a student, I can list the "tag," "strength," "teaching point" and "next steps" of our conference. The best part is that the app saves everything I enter so that I can enter it again if I find myself, say, using the same teaching point over with another student. It's also really nice for small groups so I don't have to put in the same information on four different sets of conference notes. Also, I can list my students by date, so I can see who I haven't conferences with in a while. This year I even started doing my running records on the iPad, which has taken some getting used to but which is cutting down tremendously on the amount of paper and ink I use. I open the running records from the TC website in an app called iAnnotate, which allows me to type directly into the PDF file. I use an app called TeacherPal to keep track of attendance and grades; it also has features for tracking behavior and personal information (for example, I have my students' parents' e-mail addresses in there and I can quickly send an e-mail to my class list from it). Lastly, I always have this problem where I type up my plans, print them out and then promptly misplace them before a lesson. Now I just load everything into Google Documents or Dropbox and then they're always available when I need them. I don't think I'd go out and buy an iPad if it hadn't been provided for me, but I'm lucky to have one and I'm looking forward to figuring out other ways I can make it work for me!

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Rocking and rolling

One full week (plus two days) of school is in the can!  As Emeril Lagasse would say back in the '90s, "BAM!"

My students for the most part seem bright, personable, and eager to learn.  As an extraordinary bonus, there are only 21 of them (for now) -- by far the smallest class I have ever had.  Every time we line up to go someplace I experience a brief moment of panic where I think, "Where are the rest of them?!" until I realize that I do in fact have my entire class in front of me. 

I have been frank about how nervous I was starting off this school year.  I was brutally honest with myself in admitting that last year my co-teacher and I both made a lot of mistakes in the first few weeks of school that set the tone for the rest of the school year, errors that I obviously didn't want to repeat.  At my former school, first period was first period: we gave our classes about ten seconds to unpack and then it was on to the academics of the day.  My current school is more progressive in terms of the expectation that you conduct a "morning meeting" and build your classroom community, and one of the things I really wanted to nail in the first week of school was a sense of routine at the beginning and the end of the day.  As part of our morning meeting, we're checking the weather and doing a brief math activity, and we've been able to jump into shared reading right from morning meeting every day, so that has been a success. 

Another area where I can declare "so far, so good" is behavior management.  My behavior chart looks like this one (only my students have numbers on our chart so it's not instantly like, "Look at Julio always on red again"), and I built in an escape clause for those students who turn their behavior around.  At the end of the day, they use crayons to color in the day's square on the calendar; a week of greens earns a reward.   I'm trying (and this is going to make me sound like Mean Teacher again) not to be too soft, or at least not to set consequences where I don't follow through (...actually, I guess that's not really the same thing).  Our first consequence is a "friendly reminder," so instead of issuing a warning/threat like, "If this continues I will ask you to move your card," I just ask them to move their cards.  More often than not the offending behavior stops and the student is back on green by the end of the day. 

There are some teachers who warn you not to smile until December, and there are other teachers who will tell you that's baloney and you should be yourself from the beginning.  I have to confess, after my students last year openly worried about how I would fare in a classroom "by myself" because they insisted I was "too nice" (I felt like an evil dragon lady from hell, but apparently my co-teacher was the "strict one"), I'm in the first camp.  That doesn't mean I don't say funny things to my students or that I'm mean to them or that I'm unsympathetic when someone is hurt or sick or needs to use the restroom; it doesn't even mean I'm not nice.  But in the past I've let far too many behavioral issues turn into negotiations or power struggles.  As a recent article put it (I can't remember where I read this): "You're the only adult in the room. You've already won."  So I'm trying to be gentle in my reminders but firm in my expectations. And so far, knock wood, I haven't raised my voice or felt my blood pressure shooting through the roof. 

I'm not sure whether I've gotten more efficient at planning or whether it's the good fortune of having a relatively low-key class (again, so far! knock wood!), or more likely a combination of both, but during the first week of school I accomplished pretty much everything I set out to accomplish, which is both rare and awesome.  I'm fortunate enough to have tons of technology available to me (I have a SMART Board, a document camera and an iPad), which has also made the beginning of the year much smoother; no more hours spent writing up mock drafts on huge chart paper, now I can just model with the document camera.  I'm even able to do running records on the iPad, which cuts down tremendously on paper and printer ink...and considering that my toner is already low and the cartridge costs an astounding $400, is amazing.

I swore I was going to be better about blogging regularly and more thematically this year and this post is pretty much a mess, but there you have it: We all survived the first week of school.

Monday, September 5, 2011


Just trying to test out this mobile blogging app...

(1) First official day back for staff is tomorrow...good luck NYC teachers!

(2) Through Wednesday, Staples is selling packs of 8 pencils and packs of 8 erasers for one cent each. (Yes, that's one penny each.) The limit is 2 per customer, but if you show your teacher rewards card, you can buy up to 25. So that's 200 pencils for 25 cents. I'm going to try to go back tomorrow and Wednesday if I can!

Friday, September 2, 2011

Dear Me

 A few weeks ago, another NYC teacher blogger, Mr. Foteah, wrote a letter to himself on the eve of his first year teaching.  (I hope he doesn't mind me co-opting this topic here.)  I enjoy reading Mr. Foteah's blog because it's so earnest.  He comes across as incredibly passionate and dedicated, which makes me feel bad about my unkind thoughts toward the profession.  Like this one: After I read Mr. Foteah's heartfelt letter to himself, I asked myself what I would have said to myself on the eve of my first year teaching.  And as I told Mr. Brave, my letter could have been written in a single word: "Run."

Teaching will make you crazy, I would have told myself.  Some nights you will come home so exhausted that you will eat Cheez Doodles for dinner and pass out on the couch by 8:00.  You will find yourself hiding in your classroom with the lights off, alternately crying and blotching the redness out of your eyes so no one will notice you have been crying.  You will feel anger directed at copy machines, hole punchers, staplers and staple removers.  You will be called a "stuck-up bitch" by an eight-year-old.  You will want to quit.

...which is why, four years later, I'm glad I never wrote such a letter.  I've lived through a great deal of the teaching horrors I feared, and I survived. Even more miraculously, I stayed.  Because I think I can do better.  I refuse to be a cliche and tell you that it was all worth it when Michael learned to read or when Meredith thanked me for being the best teacher ever.  Of course teaching has its magical moments; I've even written about some of them in this blog.  But I would have wanted myself on the eve of my first year teaching to be clear on this: Teaching is not a movie, and being a teacher means so much more than teaching.  On any given day, you may have to carry forty notebooks up six flights of stairs (manual laborer), mediate an argument between two seven-year-olds (marriage counselor), decide on a just punishment for misbehavior (judge), console a distraught parent who can't control her child (social worker), copy two stacks of handouts (secretary), bag a lost tooth (dentist), fix a broken zipper (MacGyver),...and the list goes on.  No one teaches you those things in college when you're learning about Piaget. 

Now, I wouldn't want Mr. Foteah (or you!) to think that I'm getting all bitter and jaded, so on the eve of my fifth year teaching, I issue myself this challenge: Find the good in every day.  Last year I ended too many days feeling frustrated -- with my students, with my co-teacher, with myself -- and began too few days feeling refreshed and ready to start anew.  I once read an anecdote about all these teachers in the faculty room comparing classroom horror stories, and another teacher comes along and says, "It happened to [the kids], not to you."  Last year I too often felt selfish: What a bad day I've had, instead of realizing the kids had lived it too and it was up to me to change it for the better.  I've already set all sorts of teaching goals for myself this year: Conduct targeted small group strategy lessons in reading and writing at least three days a week, squeeze in read aloud every single day, do an end-of-the-day wrap-up meeting as often as possible, make better use of my vocabulary word wall.  Now my personal goal is to dwell on the good instead of the bad, to do my best to do better. 

There are 185 days in the school year.  That's 185 things I can teach, 185 good things that can happen for my class, 185 times we can all think, "I'm glad Miss Brave is my teacher."  Let's make it happen!

Monday, August 29, 2011

Back on the chain gang

Today was my first day back in my classroom since June, and I'll be totally honest: I was d-r-e-a-d-i-n-g it.  Which is not a good sign, because the summer should have (and usually does!) left me feeling relaxed and refreshed and ready and other pleasantly alliterative r-words to set up my classroom.  New Sharpie flip chart markers!  New table names!  New refrigerator and microwave for my classroom!  ("No matter what happens this year," I said ominously when I bought them on sale at Target, "at least I'll have snacks.") 

I must do a bad job teaching my students to respect our school supplies, or maybe $#@! just happens when you have nearly thirty 8-year-olds in a room, because I've had the misfortune of watching my supplies get destroyed so many times that it almost (almost!) sucks all the joy out of restocking my classroom with new ones.  Every year I buy those cheap plastic sharpeners from Staples on sale for fifty cents, and every year they break three days into the school year (which is likely the fault of shoddy manufacturing, not mishandling by my students), and every year I buy more, reasoning, "Hey, it's fifty cents."  If I added up all the fifty-cent sharpeners Staples has suckered me into purchasing, I could probably afford to purchase a fancy electric sharpener.  (I have one of those, too, but the noise is so ear-splitting that my #1 classroom rule this year instead of "Respect classmates, teachers, schoolwork and property" is likely to be "No one touches the sharpener."  Just kidding.  Probably.) 

Of course, it wasn't just the threat of broken school supplies that gave me pause.  Last year was a really hard year for me.  In some ways, it was my toughest year yet as a teacher because it so deeply shook my confidence in myself and my ability to teach, to work as a member of a team, to keep myself and my classroom organized, to get through to my students.  It was my first year at a new school, and I left it somehow feeling as though I hadn't represented myself the way I wanted. I wasn't happy with myself as a teacher.  I did a lot of thinking about it over the summer, because I knew that the only way to start fresh in a new school year would be -- as self-help-y as it sounds! -- to shift my perspective from excuses (I had a hard time because I didn't get along with my co-teacher, or I had a tough class) to pro-activity (next time, I can try to change...).  Otherwise I could feel myself slipping easily into the role of those stereotypical bitter old teachers everyone is always complaining about. 

When I got my teaching license in college, my professors made me write a statement of purpose defining my teaching philosophy.  I wasn't yet a teacher, so how could I know what my teaching philosophy was?  I just pulled out my fancy portfolio to look at it and it's filled with jargon-y buzzphrases like "empower my students with the ability to take charge of their own learning" and "differentiate instruction for students so that each student may have an opportunity to work at his or her instructional learning level."  It's easy to look back on those words now and laugh at myself: Oh, undergraduate Miss Brave, IF YOU ONLY KNEW.  But it's also easy to take those words in earnest.  Of course students should take charge of their own learning!  How fantastic it would be if teachers would always differentiate instruction for students so that each student may have an opportunity to work at his or her instructional learning level!  (Memo to undergraduate Miss Brave: That is a mouthful.) 

I guess my point is that the education debate sometimes feels so polarized that you're either a bitter old cow of a teacher who's just riding out the years until retirement, or you're a naive eager young teacher who's passionate about revolutionizing the teaching world.  In terms of teaching experience, I'm practically middle-aged (according to this article, almost half of NYC teachers leave the system within six years), and this year like never before I feel a strange pressure to define my teaching philosophy for real this time, not just for pretend in a college class.  And the truth is, despite what the movies would have you believe, I don't think that all it takes to help your students succeed is prove to them that you believe in them.  I think it takes more than that -- a lot more -- and my task this year is to put those puzzle pieces together, to keep all those balls in the air.  Be strict, but not mean.  Be firm, but be flexible. 

There was a really interesting article in the Times magazine recently about "decision fatigue," about how being forced to make lots of decisions -- even seemingly insignificant ones -- can sap your willpower.  Mr. Brave's first reaction when I told him about it was to comment: "That explains why you're so exhausted at the end of a day of teaching."  Then he put on his 8-year-old voice: "Miss Brave, can I go to the bathroom?  Miss Brave, can I sharpen my pencil?"  Teachers make dozens of decisions in the course of a school day.  Last year I got so bogged down in the little decisions -- am I going to let this go or am I keeping him in for recess?  Should I express my opinion or just keep my mouth shut? -- that I forgot to focus on the big ones.  Am I going to try something new or just give up?  Am I going to take charge of this class or aren't I?

So this year as I rearranged and reorganized and readied and other pleasantly alliterative r-words my classroom, I was realistic.  I didn't fantasize about how my sharpeners would stay pristine and unsullied all year.  I didn't tape up my new behavior chart without expecting it to fall down (which it did, moments later...and moments after I tacked it up again...and moments after that...until I finally tracked down my mounting tape!).  But I did get a little geeked out about my hot air balloon nameplates for the door.  And I did name my tables after important values I want my class to display this year.  (Calling the Kindness table to line up is just much cooler than calling Table 3.)  I started with the small decisions, so I could ease in to the bigger ones.  What kind of year are we going to have?  It's not entirely up to me, of course, but I need to set the tone -- and with September 8 drawing nearer, I'll have to make the decision to be ready.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Staples: Not in fact all that easy

I have a love-hate relationship with Staples.  Like many teachers (Mrs. Mimi springs to mind), I love bright shiny new school supplies.  But I sort of hate Staples, where I always wait on line for waaaaay longer than necessary and the staffers always seem to be singularly unhelpful.

Nevertheless, I've been at Staples frequently the past few days, trying to stock up on supplies while they're on sale.  Today I was trying to buy five highlighters for a dollar, except the packages I had picked up apparently didn't match the teeny picture in the circular (even though the brand and colors were the same), so the cashier sent me back to Aisle 3 and then took another customer whose e-mail address he had difficulty inputting into the system, adding another twelve years to my wait.

Just before I handed over my Teacher Rewards card, he asked me if I would like to donate $1 to buy school supplies for children who can't afford them.  I politely said, "No thank you."  For one, I have done this before in one of my many, many trips to Staples.  For two, that's pretty much what I was doing at Staples in the first place: buying school supplies for children who can't afford them.

He took my rewards card, shook his head, and said, "And you're a teacher."  So...I know I'm very sensitive and easily offended, but...I was offended.  This is where I should have exploded into a Taylor Mali-esque "What Teachers Make" moment, but what I said was: "Exactly. These are school supplies for children who can't afford them.  I spend hundreds of dollars every year on school supplies."

On the way home from Staples, I ran into a former classmate of mine and we exchanged catch-ups.  When I told him I teach third grade, he laughed and said, "That's so cute!"  Ohhhh, former classmate, you have no idea.