Friday, November 30, 2007

Having a pity party

Over the Thanksgiving weekend, I outlined a rough draft of all my plans for the rest of the semester. For the first time since school started, I was ahead of the game. No more wild panicking on Sunday nights! No more cavalier dismissals of projects that could have been cool because I wouldn't have enough time to get my copies made! (I've read other teacherblogs where teachers complain about having to stand in line at the copy machine -- well, at my school, you have to get approval from an administrator before you can make copies, so you have to request all your copies at least two days ahead of time.)

Best of all, because I had oh-so-diligently done my planning already, I had a fabulous weekend planned out for myself. On Friday night, I was going to see Nicholas Kristof, my favorite New York Times columnist, lecture at the New York Public Library about conditions in Darfur. And on Saturday, I was taking a "chocolate excursion" over the Brooklyn Bridge to Jacques Torres Chocolate in DUMBO. It was so exciting! I finally had it all together!

So what happened? Why am I posting this at 7:48 am instead of organizing my stuff to lug over to my first period kindergarten?

GERMS HAPPENED. Kindergarteners happened. Kindergarteners with their snotty hands and their noses full of mucus and their cough cough coughing right into the open air. At least when you're a classroom teacher, you're dealing with only one set. But in a given week, I see, give or take, 425 students. That's 425 sets of germs, and 850 little hands poking me in the back and giving me high fives and hugs. Not to mention that I take the bus and the subway twice a day each.

When I think of all the germy germs I must touch in one day, I shudder.

So I'm taking my first sick day. The miserable virus of death didn't fell me, and neither did complete laryngitis, but now I have been waylaid by the common cold. (Except that this cold isn't so common: my nose went from zero to raw in about one hour, and then I had to deal with endless observations about it from my first graders. "Miss Brave, your nose is really red! It's running a lot! Are you sick?")

I suppose I should be thankful that I caught a cold from my students instead of, say, the virus of the second grader who threw up in the hallway yesterday morning. (I came very narrowly close to stepping in it, thanks.) But when I return to school, I'm returning armed with more hand sanitizer, Lysol wipes, and Airborne than ever before.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Thank you for riding the MTA

Like most New Yorkers, I think my commute stinks. I leave my apartment at 6:10 am, and it takes close to an hour to travel the 5 miles to my school by subway and then bus. The bus stinks infinitely more than the subway because it's always crowded with people who think it's okay to scream into their cell phones at 6:30 in the morning. And on the way home, I always, always (and I am only slightly exaggerating here) miss the bus, in that I see it whiz by as I am still high-heeling it to the stop.

Today I was standing at the stop when a "Not in Service" bus turned the corner -- but to my surprise, the driver opened the doors and beckoned me on. We recognized each other because we'd exchanged friendly greetings on the empty bus once before. "By the way," he said as I dipped my MetroCard, "are you a teacher?"

"I am!" I said, surprised. "How did you know?"

He smiled. "I just had a feeling," he said. "You have that face."

What I think he really meant was "that face of someone who probably wouldn't be getting on the bus in this neighborhood unless she taught here," but it was still a nice moment. He told me that my job requires a lot of patience. I agreed and pointed out that his does too. I told him that about my kindergarteners who are cute but wild; he told me about his old-lady passengers who curse him out and hit his bus with their canes.

Hmmm. Maybe our jobs aren't so different after all.

The wrong stuff

Samantha: "Mr. M was juggling, and all of the class was laughing!"
Alejandro: "Mr. M is so funny."
Miss Brave: "Is he funnier than Miss Brave?"
Alejandro: "Yeah! You're not funny!"

* * *

I have 18 classes to plan for, and the one that confounds me the most is my self-contained special ed kindergarten.

There are 12 students. Six of them are non-verbal, or at least not communicatively verbal (like, they'll recite the script of this morning's SpongeBob episode, but they can't tell you what they did this weekend). Three of them are still not progressing to representational drawing; give them a pencil and they'll just scribble on the paper.

Steven sprawls himself out on the carpet and rolls around; he frequently ends up crawling under the table and curling up in a ball. Antony roams around the classroom touching everything while the other students yell out, "Look at Antony! Look at Antony!" Emile and Jesus -- along with Steven and Antony -- are in their own worlds that come complete with their own sound effects: humming, tapping, scripting. And because a lot of the students mimic what they hear their teachers say, anyone who is acting out is met with a lot of stern voices from the other students -- because the ones who are verbal are very verbal and they all think they're in charge. "Antony! Zip it!" "Justine! Stop calling out!"

There are two paraprofessionals in the room, and today they both left to go change a boy's diaper, and that left me alone with the eleven kids. Remember the time I was alone in the auditorium with the 120 first graders? This was worse than that. Everyone was on their worst behavior -- including Miss Brave, who thought she was about to have a nervous breakdown.

I'm so frustrated by that class because every time I'm in there I feel like I have no idea what I'm doing. Number one, the para and I have very different styles. I can say, "Steven, sit up!" from across the room until I'm blue in the face, but the bottom line is, Steven's not going to hear me. Unfortunately, I can't be in twelve places at once, so that makes it kind of difficult to attend to everyone's needs.

Number two, does this class really need an extra period of writing on top of its regular writing period -- twice a week?! From a teacher who doesn't have a special education license? In her first year of teaching? I feel strongly that these aren't kids who are "behind," who need to have extra information poured into them so they can "catch up." These are kids who learn differently, and I freely admit that I am at a loss as how to teach them. Especially because I do only see them twice a week, and their needs are so differentiated -- Jamie can write a three-page story, complete with sentences, whereas Cody still won't even trace his name, let alone draw a picture. And even one-on-one attention isn't always what it's cracked up to be; I spent a long time sitting next to Jesus today, and I spent most of it trying to get him just to look at me. Steven stunned me by immediately getting to work drawing a full-fledged person (he used to just scribble; then all he would draw was SpongeBob and Patrick) and labeling it "me"...and then he spent the rest of the period writhing and squirming on the floor with his head in his hands, an issue I had trouble addressing because I was busy trying to make sure Antony didn't destroy the rest of the classroom.

I love those kids, I do. But I have no idea how to help them.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Gonna take on the world some day

Yesterday was the fabled Day Before a Vacation, in which teachers all over the country try to sneak fun activities past the watchful eye of the administration because they know their students will be off the wall otherwise.

My plan for the kindergarteners was to have them author a "Thanksgiving Book," for which they'd trace their hand on the cover and transform it into a turkey. But, all the kindergarten teachers got together and decided to show their kids a movie.

Have you ever taken a group of 12:1:1 self-contained kindergarteners and put them in a room with 100 other kindergarteners and expected them to sit still and focus on the finer plot points of A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving? These are kids whose verbal repertoire consists of (a) screaming or (b) echolalia. Warning, warning: MELTDOWNS WILL OCCUR.

That's how I ended up with one very heavy, squirming 5-year-old in my lap, while I rubbed his back and whispered things like, "Shhh, nice sitting" and "Look, Snoopy's making toast!" At one point, when the music started up in the movie, my little friend started patting his hands on his lap and then clapping them together: pat pat CLAP, pat pat CLAP. Hmm, I thought. That rhythm seems strangely familiar somehow. And just as it was clicking in my head, he opened his mouth and belted out:


Ohhhh yeah, my students will rock you, all right.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Breaking through

Bethany: "[My sister] Kiana said she's going to see you tomorrow."
Miss Brave: "Yes, I have Kiana's class tomorrow."
Bethany: "And she said, 'Oooh, I'm so excited!'"

Sure, I know teaching isn't about whether the kids like you...but it still gives me the warm fuzzies.

* * *

Besides three of my kindergarten classes (two of them special ed) and one of my first grade classes, I only see my classes once a week, so it can be tough to tell from week to week whether anything is getting through. During the "Connection" part of my mini lesson, when I say things like, "Last time I was here, we talked about how we need to use exclamation points at the end of our exciting sentences!", I'm often met with blank stares. Dear Miss Brave: Uh, have we met? Love, your first graders.

But lately I've noticed some small, encouraging signs. I've been telling my classes that the dot at the bottom of the exclamation point is just like a period in that it reminds us that we need to stop at the end of the sentence, but it's so excited about making the sentence into an exclamation that it's jumping up above the period because it can't sit still! (...much like the majority of my classes; today I actually uttered the phrase, "Second graders, a few of you are acting too much like exclamation points right now, jumping around, and I need you to act more like periods, who sit still and stop.") And in one of my first grades, as I modeled adding an exclamation point to the end of an exciting sentence, sweet spacey Eduardo called out, "It's jumping up because it's excited!"

In another first grade -- the ESL class of green day fame -- I worked on a story I wrote about going to see the runners at the New York City Marathon, in which I shouted, "Go, runners, go!" It's been two weeks (!) since I last saw this class, and yesterday Andy announced, "I remember the story you told us. Go, runners, go!"

And then there's Marco, a first grader who technically belongs in a 12:1:1 special ed classroom (meaning no more than twelve students with one teacher and one paraprofessional) but who, due to some !@#$-up with paperwork, is languishing in a general ed class. I say "languishing" because Marco is not unintelligent, but he is the kind of kid who appears to have a magnet on the top of his head that is attracted to another magnet hidden somewhere beneath the floorboards; he is just that incapable of sitting still in his chair without doing a face plant/body check onto the floor. In short: Marco needs a para.

I played the Noun Eater song for Marco's class on October 19. And every week since then, Marco asks, "Are we going to listen to that song? About the noun monster who eats people and places and things?"

This week I created giant wearable punctuation marks. I picked the quiet, well-behaved kids to wear the periods; the wriggly, excitable kids to wear the exclamation points (Kyle was among them, and it went blessedly well); and the curious, questioning kids to wear the question marks. (I have some extremely awesome photos of this activity that I'm not posting due to privacy concerns.) Then we practiced deciding who should stand at the end of Sentences Miss Brave Often Hears In This Class ("I need a drink of water"; "Can I have a drink of water"; "It's an emergency") and reading the sentences with the right tone in our voices. I was hoping the association would benefit them: "Remember, just like Kyle makes our class exciting, Kyle is going to make this sentence exciting!"

I guess that in the coming weeks, I'll see what's broken through.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Wanna be on top?

Thanks to my new DVR, I've been overdosing on marathons of America's Next Top Model lately, and today I had a bizarre thought: What if teaching were a reality show? And every week, teachers competed to see who could teach the most compelling, engaging, enriching lesson? And the teachers had bitchfights over things like whether to go with Teaching With Love and Logic or the assertive discipline approach? And they were coached by surprise celebrity guests like Harry Wong and Rafe Esquith? And every week someone got voted off by a panel of judges like Jonathan Kozol and Deborah Meier? And in the end the winner was crowned America's Next Top Educator and rose to fame throughout the nation?

Friday, November 16, 2007

Conversations like these are why my mini lessons take 20 minutes instead of 10

Christian: "Look at my motorcycle belt."
John: "You should get a monster car belt!"
Miss Brave, joking around: "Do you think I should get a monster car belt?"
John: "No! Because monster cars are for boys, and you're a girl!"
Miss Brave: "But I like monster cars. Girls aren't allowed to like monster cars?"
John: "What about monster trucks? Do you like monster trucks?"
Miss Brave: "Sure, I like monster trucks."
John: "But you can't drive it. Because it's too big."
Miss Brave: "Well, can you drive a monster truck?"
John: (nods)
Miss Brave: "But who's bigger? Miss Brave or John? If I'm bigger than you and I can't drive the monster truck, how can you drive the monster truck?"
John: "When I'm eleventy old, I'll be big enough for my feet to reach the pedals."

The kind of week I had

I wanted to rip off my own head, lodge it at the kids like a bowling ball, and say, "Here. I'm finished. You won."

This afternoon I came home, stunned, and ate half a bowl of tuna fish and two rainbow cookies in front of an MTV marathon of America's Next Top Model. Then I dragged myself off the couch and went out for a fast, furious run. I ran until I was warm and until I was sure that the kids weren't going to break me. I ran as if my second graders were chasing me. In a way, they were.

Friday, November 9, 2007

"That kid"

Kyle is one of the most challenging second graders I work with. He makes obnoxious clicking noises throughout my mini lessons, smirks when the class behavior stoplight changes from green to yellow, crawls under desks when he's asked to come to the meeting area, and spins around in chairs that he's expressly been forbidden to sit in when he should be working independently. And because Kyle functions at a low level academically and his personality switch is set permanently to "troublemaker," the only thing I've really gotten to know about him is that he likes to draw.

The other kids in Ms. J's class are always telling me, "Kyle is making me laugh," "Kyle is bothering me," "Kyle is taking my pencil," etc. Every week, I remind them that they are responsible for their own behavior, that no one is forcing them to misbehave, that the best thing they can do is to ignore the troublemaker and worry about themselves. And yet every week, the class seems to slowly disintegrate into chaos.

Last week, Kyle was absent, and it was like I had an entirely different class. The other challenging students in the class were remarkably focused. I don't think I had to issue one reprimand.

"Isn't it beautiful?" remarked Ms. J about Kyle's absence. "If I didn't have that kid in my class..."

She trailed off. Nearly every class has "that kid," that one student about whom you think, If I didn't have to deal with that kid, my class would be perfect!

Later that day, I was discussing with another teacher the remarkable transformation of Ms. J's class and the case of stubborn, defiant Kyle. Kyle wasn't responding to all the traditional behavior management techniques, I said. He doesn't to care about receiving praise. He revels in his role as the troublemaker. I don't know how to get through to him.

"Oh, Kyle," said the other teacher, remembering. "His first grade teacher had to testify against his father in court because he came to school with a belt mark across his face. He's probably been beaten up so many times he just doesn't care anymore."

That's when I vowed that I would stop thinking about Kyle as "that kid" -- that kid who is willfully and obstinately screwing up my vision of the perfect class -- and start thinking about him as a kid with potential.

This week, Kyle was back. During independent working time, I was surprised to see that he had completed the task I had asked him to do -- and what's more, he'd done it correctly. I hesitated over his desk, wondering how far I could push him, knowing that most of my past attempts at positive reinforcement had gone over like a lead balloon; as soon as Kyle realizes he's being praised, he usually chooses to do something defiant to end the moment and show who's boss.

"Kyle," I said in a low voice, "you did exactly what I asked, and you did a good job. And since I know what a good artist you are, I'm going to let you draw."

He stared back at me for a moment, like he couldn't believe it. "I can draw?" he repeated. "Can I use markers?" he asked eagerly.

I didn't let him use the markers. But I did call on him every single time he raised his hand, and I even dared to make a point of letting everyone know that I was calling on Kyle precisely because of the way he was sitting. And one of those times, what he raised his hand to tell me was that he had an art book at home.

Maybe this weekend, I can look into picking up some art supplies as a reward for Kyle. Maybe Kyle and I can strike a deal. Maybe Kyle will turn out to be "that kid" after all -- that kid who started out as my biggest antagonizer and ended up a success.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Let down your hair

What happens when Miss Brave has already collected everyone's papers but the teacher isn't back yet and Miss Brave has to stall:

Miss Brave: "Are there any comments?"
Yesenia: "I liked your story."
Ronnie: "Not me."
Miss Brave: "Ronnie, that was so rude. Do I come over to you when you're writing and tell you I don't like your story?"
Ronnie: "No."
(Cue other kids jumping to Miss Brave's defense)
David: "I liked your pictures!"
Eduardo: "I liked that story!"
Phillip: "I loved your story, Miss Brave!"
(Cue kids getting totally carried away with compliments)
Avery: "I love your boots!"
Yesenia: "I like your shirt!"
Boy's Voice: "I like your hair!"
(Cue moment of silence)
Avery: "Who said that?"

Alas, no one would own up to it. But somewhere in the middle of the rug in Mrs. C's first grade, there sits a boy who secretly admires my hair.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Are we grading on a curve?

Larissa: "Miss Brave! Look at my twisty ponytail!"
Miss Brave: "Oooh, I see! That's called a braid."
Larissa: "Yeah! And my ponytail is twisty!"

* * *

Well! Progress reports are out and it seems like the whole city is buzzing about them! Last week, I predicted that my school would get a B- or C+. Our actual grade: B.

I think that would hold more water for me if I actually understood how the grades were calculated. A friend of mine teaches at a school that's been designated "in need of improvement," and yet her school received an A -- and that's the story all over the city, from the Daily News to the New York Times. It's almost like the DOE calculations are designed to fly in the face of No Child Left Behind: The federal government wants improvement? How's this A grade for improvement?!

(Interestingly, both my elementary school and my high school received As. My junior high school got a C. At which of these schools would I say I was happiest? The junior high.)

Saturday, November 3, 2007

A change is gonna come

Phillip: "Miss Brave, what's your last name?"
Miss Brave: "Brave is my last name."
Alejandro: "Then what's your real name?"
Miss Brave: "Well, Brave is my real last name."
Phillip: "No, what's your first name?"
Miss Brave: "That's a secret."
Phillip: "I won't tell nobody!"

* * *

Changes are in the air. My students are starting to come to school wearing gigantic puffy jackets, staggering under the weight of their oversized hoods (small childre in rain gear are the cutest, followed closely by winter accessories). Most days I watch the sun rise from the fourth floor of our school; it won't be long before I'm watching it set there too.

Changes are in the air for Darryl: When he came to kindergarten two months ago, his round chubby face was nearly always screwed into a pout, and he threw a fit if another student so much as looked at him. Now he's landed a starring role in the stories of the other kids at his table ("This is me and Darryl at the park"; "This is me and Darryl going to Toys R Us"), and he listens, beaming, as his tablemates sing his praises as a friend.

Changes are in the air for Ms. N's ESL second grade: When I met them, I instantly dismissed them as my most challenging class, full of kids who literally did not stop talking for one instant, ever, with a handful who spent their time spinning around in circles or wandering around the room without asking to leave their seats. Then I read their writing, spoke to their teacher and realized that they're smart kids who are hungry for attention. Now I've fallen in love with them despite myself and that class is one of my favorites; more than any other, they respond to positive reinforcement, and I've never seen a group of second graders get more excited about locating all the adjectives in a story we wrote together.

Changes are in the air for Ms. L's second grade: In our last meeting, I happened to turn around just in time to see Julio carefully aiming the paper airplane he had constructed out of the paper on which he should have been writing. I snatched it out of his hand before he took flight, fixed him with a deadly glare, and asked, "Is this what you think of the work you've been doing?" My voice rose until I was addressing the whole, rowdy, misbehaving, defiant, obnoxious class: "Because when you make paper airplanes out of your work, instead of asking someone else to help you figure out what to do, you're telling me that you think that what you do is just garbage. And you're wrong. Because you can do better. You are all intelligent. But you need to show that to me. Because now, it's just garbage." I crumpled up the airplane and threw it in the trash. It was my Hilary Swank in Freedom Writers, Matthew Perry in The Ron Clark Story, Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Minds moment. Only later I realized: My voice wasn't quavering like it used to. They didn't scare me; they just pissed me off. Maybe that was a breakthrough.

Changes might be in the air for me, too, but it's more difficult to explain. Lately I've found myself imagining what I might do next year with my own class, or how I might fare at a school outside the NYC public school system. I still don't think I want to be a teacher forever; I still think it's highly likely that I don't want to be a teacher next year. But I know 100% that I don't want to be a writing cluster teacher next year...which still leaves open the possibility that I might be able to accept doing something else. Now that I've survived October, winter break seems just around the corner. And the cold, biting air never tasted so sweet.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Just that kind of day

Mario: "Miss Brave, Alejandro said I was a girl."
Miss Brave: "Mario, you need to worry about yourself now, not what other people are saying when they should be writing instead of talking anyway."
Mario: "But Alejandro said I was a girl."
Miss Brave: "Mario, I need you to think about what you should be doing right now instead of telling me this."
Mario: "But Alejandro said I was a girl."
Miss Brave: "Mario, I don't want to hear any more about what other people said. You're supposed to be writing."
Mario: "But Alejandro said -- "
Miss Brave: "Mario! You're not a girl, are you?"
Mario: ""
Miss Brave: "Then you know that what Alejandro said was silly and that he was just saying it to bother you, so I want you to ignore it!"
(Enter Miss H.)
Mario: "Miss H! Alejandro said I was a girl!"

* * *

I think anyone who's worked in an office can agree that no good can ever come of the phrase: "Didn't you get the memo?"

I learned that lesson the hard way today when my schedule was altered due to professional development sessions, but no one told me. As a result, I didn't show up for a class I was supposed to cover, and I had to face the disapproving wrath of a lady in the office who asked me, "Didn't you get the memo?"

As a matter of fact, I rarely get the memo, because my mailbox is way on the bottom and the aides seem to forget that it's there. So there I was, using my prep period to -- get ready for it -- prep, all the while unaware that what I actually should have been doing was wrangling Miss D's first graders. Not only did I end up feeling like a jerk (even though, as I never saw that particular memo before in my life, it wasn't my fault) and end up having to switch around my afternoon classes, but I could have had a last-period prep, which would have been ever so much more awesome!

One memo I did get -- on Thursday afternoon -- informed me that I have to submit grades for my students -- not my kindergarteners, which only leaves about 300 Monday.

And that's why at lunch I sent a text message to my friend that read, "This is the kind of day I'm having: Aaaauuugghhhhh!"