Saturday, December 29, 2007

There's a hand, my trusty friend

When the fiddle had stopped singing Laura called out softly, "What are days of auld lang syne, Pa?"

"They are the days of a long time ago, Laura," Pa said. "Go to sleep, now."

But Laura lay awake a little while, listening to Pa's fiddle playing softly and to the lonely sound of the wind in the Big Woods. She looked at Pa sitting on the bench by the hearth, the firelight gleaming on the honey-brown fiddle. She looked at Ma, gently rocking and knitting.

She thought to herself, "This is now."

She was glad that the cozy house, and Pa and Ma and the firelight and the music, were now. They could not be forgotten, she thought, because now is now. It can never be a long time ago.

My new year's resolutions as an educator are these:

1) to respect my students' tender minds, their easily wounded hearts, their efforts and their challenges;

2) to challenge myself to think beyond, to get creative, to stoke the fires that will burn tiny fires under the butts of each and every one of my 400+ students;

3) to reflect constructively on my teaching successes and failures and accept them gracefully as learning experiences;

4) to breathe deeply, speak smoothly, and enjoy the ride.

Happy 2008, everyone!

Friday, December 21, 2007

So nobody's going to call me "Miss Brave" for a whole week?


(And I've been waiting four long months to say that!)

I don't know if it's just the joy of the holidays, or if the fact that I got to sit in on a reading professional development session that opened my mind up to new possibilities (oh, how I miss teaching reading!), but for the first time so far this year I had a new, irrational thought that was terrifying and exciting all at the same time:

Maybe I'm not done here yet.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Miss Brave is it

The awesome Ms. Frizzle has tagged me to do a meme; I have to "share 7 random and/or weird things about yourself." Here goes nothing:

1. I love candy. (Except for anything that is malted!) I have been known to spend inordinate amounts of money at those sweet shops where you can buy bulk candy (and I feel a little guilty when I see little kids with their parents, who are limiting the amount they can buy while I go hog wild on the gummi sour octopi).

2. I thought "shut up" was a swear word until, like, the fourth grade. I was always really scandalized when I heard kids say it in the hallways because I'd think, "Ooooh, they're gonna be in trouble!" Little did I know I'd grow up to teach first graders whom I see walking home from school with fathers who liberally pepper their speech with far more profane language.

3. Once upon a time, I made it a point to know all the words to REM's "It's the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)" and Billy Joel's "We Didn't Start the Fire"...because I guess there's something about songwriters who try to cram all the words they can into a 4-minute song that tickled my fancy?

4. In a diner, I invariably order one of three things: challah French toast, grilled cheese, or a mushroom and American cheese omelet.

5. I own a toothbrush that plays the theme song to Rocky.

6. I once ran a marathon, and it changed my life. It's still my greatest accomplishment, and if I could, I would tell that fact to everyone I meet. I am already committed to running the 2008 New York City Marathon, and if I stay in teaching, I'm going to find some way to involve my students in my training.

7. I read the Sunday New York Times sections in the following order: Real Estate, Business, Sports, Main, Metro, Travel, Book Review, Arts & Leisure, Week in Review, Styles, City and Magazine. If I can manage to finish the entire Sunday Times on Sunday itself, I consider the weekend a great success. (This past weekend, what with the sinus infection debacle, not only did I not even start the Sunday paper, I hadn't even started reading last Sunday's paper.)

OK, I know that I am supposed to tag seven other people to do this, but I am so not cool or worthy enough to tag seven other educaters, plus it is already 9:51 pm and that is the latest I have managed to stay awake in about a week. So if you're reading this, consider yourself tagged!

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Punctuation takes a vacation

From September until now, my second graders and I have been all about punctuation. Sentences begin with capital letters. Regular sentences end with periods. Strong feeling sentences end with exclamation points. Questions end with question marks. That sort of thing.

We have worn giant question marks. We have held up stop signs to signify that periods encourage us to STOP at the end of sentences. We have shouted out sentences in our best exclamation point voices. We have stood up to pretend that we are capital letters and sat back down to pretend that we are lowercase letters. We have corrected texts that were missing punctuation. We have changed lowercase letters to capital letters and added periods where they were missing.

Much of the time, my second graders groaned when I cheerfully started off my mini lesson by saying, "Today I want to talk to you about how good writers always use periods at the end of their sentences," because that was the sort of thing they claimed to know already, Miss Brave.

Well, I've been reading their Flat Stanley letters, which is the first lengthy piece of writing they've done for me in quite some time, and I am chagrined to report that a great many of them failed to use any punctuation whatsoever. Their letters look like telegrams without the "STOP" parts: "I am 7 years old I am in second grade my favorite color is blue what is your favorite color". And those of them that did use punctuation often used it incorrectly: "how are you! I love my Playstation? what is it like in california!"

I'm hoping to remedy this with the Flat Stanley Editing Checklist, which asks: "Did I begin each sentence with a capital letter? Did I use periods at the end of sentences? Did I use question marks at the end of questions?"

For now, I can only say: what am I going to do with them oy?.

When is the worst cold ever not a cold?

When it's a sinus infection!

Do you think I can use my Teacher's Choice money to pay for all the medication I've been forced to take since starting this job?

Friday, December 14, 2007

When first graders attack

I've written about Marco before, in passing. He's a first grader whose IEP (that's Individualized Education Program, for special education students) says he belongs in a 12:1:1 self-contained classroom, except that right now he is in a general ed classroom with 22 other students and no para because of some mix-up with paperwork and the excuse that there's not enough space (:::coughillegalcough:::).

Today Marco's class had a substitute teacher, so they were already primed to be a little off. After my mini lesson, another teacher pulled Marco and a few other students out of the room for a strategy lesson. Everything was going remarkably smoothly -- the class was less than five minutes away from a green day and stickers -- when Marco came back into the room and decided that Elliot (who, by the way, is an enormous pain in the behind) had stolen his pencil, the one he had been given by his teacher Ms. S. Unfortunately, aside from the fact that it had a green eraser, the pencil was nothing special, and it was impossible for me to determine who the pencil actually "belonged" to. On the one hand, I wouldn't put it past Elliot to snatch a pencil off another child's desk. On the other hand, a bunch of other kids stuck up for Elliot (which is rare), and pencils are usually considered communal property.

Marco started to throw a tantrum, which is nothing new. He stood there with his hands screwed up into fists at his sides, opened his mouth, and bawled. "I want my pencil back! Ms. S gave it to me! I want that pencil! I want that pencil!"

The other kids were surprisingly kind about it. "Here's another pencil, take this one." "Look! You can have this green eraser!" "Marco, I'll sharpen it for you." But Marco was insistent: Elliot had his pencil, and he was going to get it back.

That's when he attacked. Full-on ATTACKED; he launched himself at Elliot and started to wrestle him with his whole body. I had to pull him off and restrain his arms while I sent Elliot to the other side of the room. Tears and snot were streaming down his face. "I want that pencil! Ms. S gave me that pencil, it's mine, it's mine, I want it!"

I loosened my hold on his arms and started rubbing them. "You have to calm down," I said. "You need to take a breath. Take another breath. I'm going to help you, but I can't help you unless you can calm down."

Later on I wondered: Should I have called for the guidance counselor? Should I have opened the classroom door and called for help from the teachers I knew were sitting out in the hallway? And then I thought: THIS IS THE WRONG CLASS FOR MARCO. In my special ed kindergarten, there are twelve students, one teacher, and three paras. In my CTT kindergarten, there are 21 students, two teachers, and one para. Not only is Marco not in a self-contained class like he should be, not only is he not even in a CTT class, not only is he in a general ed class with a para, but his teacher doesn't even have special education training or experience.

I need to think about what I could have done differently, and what I should do differently next time it happens. Because as long as Marco continues to be denied the services he needs, it will happen again.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Miss Brave got run over by a student

Marion: "Miss Brave, today you look like a ballerina."

* * *

I have so many priceless stories to share that I'm just going to make a list!

1. The Flat Stanley Project is going amazingly well. For those of you unfamiliar, Flat Stanley is a book about a boy who is flattened by a bulletin board and gets to have all kinds of flat adventures; for example, his parents mail him to California in an envelope. Ages ago, some genius of a teacher dreamed up the "Flat Stanley Project," in which kids create their own Flat Stanleys (or flat selves, as the case may be) and mail them around the world. There's a picture of Clint Eastwood holding Flat Stanley on the Oscar red carpet and pictures of Flat Stanley's visit to the White House (notice that Flat Stanley and President Bush share remarkably similar vacant expressions!).

Anyway, my second graders have finished creating their own "flat selves" and are composing letters to Miss Brave's friends around the world, who have promised to take our flat selves on an adventure in their city and write back. I accidentally asked the copy aides in my school to give me 5-page booklets, and some of my students -- in one class period -- filled up all five pages! (One of them, bless her heart, wrote volumes, but spectacularly failed to use any punctuation whatsoever. Sigh.) This is definitely the most enthused they've been about anything I've done with them, and it's great. I've already arranged to borrow another cluster teacher's bulletin board space for the month of February so that when our flat selves come back to us, they can go on display! (Their letters are too cute. One of Miss Brave's friends works in a zoo, and so someone wrote: "Please take my flat self to the zoo and let it see the monkeys.") Planned header for the bulletin board: Life in the Flat Lane. Meet the newest students at our school: The flat second grade!

2. In my special ed kindergarten, there's really only one student who's capable of producing a focused 3-page narrative on the same level as the rest of the kindergarteners. (We won't even get into the fact that we're now expecting kindergarteners to produce a focused 3-page narrative in the first place.) The other day, as usual, he came bouncing up to me: "Miss Brave! I want to tell you my story!"

OK, Jamie, I said; go right ahead. And so he did. Page 1: "First the taxi came to take me and Mommy and Grandma to the airport." Great! Page 2: "Then we were waiting on line to get on the plane." Wonderful! Page 3: "Last the police came to take my daddy to jail."

Er. What? Hmm. Could you maybe...repeat that last part again?

"He's in trouble," he elaborated, drawing out the second syllable the way only a little kid can when they're describing someone else's misdeed. "He did something bad."

Hmm. Hmmm. "Well, is Daddy home now?" asked the para. Jamie said he was. So...OK then?

3. Here's a scenario that happens constantly in my kindergarten classes, and it's why I love the littlest kids the most: I walk into the room. Before I can even give directions, Gloria's hand is up. "Miss Brave! Miss Brave!" I know I shouldn't call on her and open the floodgates, but she seems so urgent, so frankly desperate to tell me something, that I do."You're beautiful," she blurts out.

"Thank you," I say, flattered. Of course, the other kids aren't stupid; if Gloria tells me I'm beautiful, they'll up the ante and tell me that they love my shoes, my hair, my markers, they love everything about me!

"You are all beautiful too, and I love you all too," I told them, "but now it's time to talk about writing."

4. Just when you thought Darryl couldn't get any cuter, he swings for the fences! First of all, he started off the day by saying to me, "Yesterday we was laughing!" Clearly he enjoyed our impromptu giggle-fest as much as I did. Then I encouraged him to add sentences to his story, which he did with great enthusiasm. "Darryl," I said, "do you know what this means?"

"What?" he asked, unnerved.

"It means you're a real writer!"

He looked nonplussed. "I am?"

"Yes! Look at what you're doing! You're working on adding sentences to your story, and that's what real writers do!"

I could actually see the realization dawning on his face. "I'm a real writer," he repeated, clearly warming to the idea. "I'm a real writer! Mrs. C, I'm a real writer! Ms. M, I'm a real writer!" (Possibly I would have melted into a puddle of goo right then and there if not for the fact that at least three tantrums followed this announcement.)

5. My third graders decided to amuse themselves on line by singing "Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer." Then Joshua added this priceless and bizarre coda: "My grandma got a tattoo on her booty!" It was the emphatic pronouncement of the word booty that nudged it right over the edge, and I couldn't help it: I laughed. "What did he say? What did he say?" the other kids clamored eagerly. I had to recover my stern face and announce that we weren't going to repeat it, because it wasn't polite, and Joshua's face assembled itself into an expression of remorse as he clarified, "She doesn't really have one, I was just saying it."

Externally, I said, "There is a time and a place to say those kinds of things, and now is neither the time nor the place." Internally, I said: "HAHAHA!" The day after that, Joshua revealed that he has a 13-year-old girlfriend ("I try not to think about it," his teacher said), and the day after that, he pulled a "Talk to the hand 'cause you ain't got a man!"

6. In my ESL first grade, there was a new student who speaks very little English. When it was time to pack up, some of the kids were yelling at him: "Go! Pack up!" Which, naturally, was not very effective. Phillip, who's always literally falling all over himself to be a good helper, leapt to his feet: "I will show him what to do!" And he did, quite beautifully. The new student made his way over to the door, where I heard a loud gasp from Jesus. And once again, against my better judgment, I called out: "What's the problem?"

Most of the time, my kids are really not potty mouths. They're always telling me that so-and-so said a bad word, which more often than not turns out to be "stupid." Which is why I was sort of scandalized when Jesus called out, quite clearly -- with the hallway full of kids lined up for dismissal and my whole class sitting there on the rug: "He said SHIT!"

I actually, literally, clapped my hand over my mouth. "Well, you don't repeat it!" I exclaimed.

7. Mark is a first-grader I haven't written about before now because there's no way to accurately capture the sheer WHIRLWIND OF MADNESS that is his behavior (and most of the time, after I deal with him, I'd rather not even try). Well, today he did something that sums it up: While my back was turned for two seconds, he took a scissors and cut a chunk right out of the front of his bowl haircut. (Then he denied doing it, but (a) there was hair on the table and (b) there was a chunk cut out of the front of his hair!)

So...I took all the scissors off the table. I banished him to a different spot in the room. I carefully crafted a note to his mother. And then I crossed my fingers that the wheels that are in motion to get Mark tested for special services turn a little bit faster, please.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Party like a kindergarten star

Miss Brave: "What would we like to ask Miss G to do with our Flat Stanleys when she gets them in the mail?"
George: "Can we ask her if she'll go see a PG-13 movie with them?"

* * *

I'm starting to have a problem with some of my kindergarteners.

They're too cute.

I know this doesn't seem like cause for concern. But lately, I'm distracted by their cuteness. Their cuteness gets in the way of my teaching.

This morning, I was attempting to have a writing conference with Darryl. Darryl, you'll remember, is the kid who once cried when I walked into his classroom, and then blossomed into a plucky little boy who's still prone to throwing temper tantrums every five minutes or so but who has shown tremendous improvement since the beginning of the year. Today, Darryl was so pleased with his writing that he was giggling happily to himself as he added to his story.

"It was snowing!" he exclaimed, pointing to a few wobbly scribbles on the paper. "And then I made a snowman!"

"You made a snowman?" I clarified with some skepticism, trying to remember if enough snow had fallen for Darryl to be telling the truth.

"I made five snowmen!" he embellished, scribbling with a flourish. He laughed delightedly. "Look! Five snowmen!"

I couldn't take it anymore. "Oh, Darryl," I said. "Darryl, Darryl, Darryl. You are so cute."

He laughed. I laughed. Then he asked, with a slightly worried tone to his voice, "Is that a good word, what you just said?"

It was too much. "Oh, yes," I answered. "It means you are very good-looking and wonderful."

He smiled, adorably, and then got back to work. I moved on to Maria. On the first day of class, Maria wouldn't even sit up, and all she drew was scribbles. So on Wednesday, when I saw her laboring to add a full sentence to the bottom of her already-labeled picture, I was hugely impressed. I had already lavished praise on her, but today I wanted to see if she remembered what her story was about. She was bent over the page, carefully creating some random pen marks on her completed drawing, when I interrupted and asked her to read it to me.

She read the first page. She read the second page. Then we got to the last page and ooops! It was blank. The story wasn't finished.

For a moment Maria stared at the blank page. Then her eyes goggled out in such a comic expression of surprise that I don't think I'll forget it for the rest of my life.

I decided to move on. But just as I was making my way over to another table, I heard a very small voice singing: "Party like a rock star, party like a rock star..."

I stopped in my tracks. "Who's singing? Joshua, is that you?"

Joshua gazed up at me. He nodded. I could see the gap from his two missing front teeth. The commotion had attracted the attention of the paras in the room.

"Sing it for Ms. M and Mrs. C," I demanded. So Joshua wriggled a little bit, thrust his crayon into the air and sang: "Party like a rock star, party like a rock star..."

That was it. It was Friday. And it was time to party like a rock star...kindergarten style.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

And the Oscar goes to...kindergarten!

Scene: Kindergarten
Characters: Miss Brave and Darryl

(Enter Darryl, pouting and looking miserable.)
Darryl: "Alejandro called me Darryl Banana!"
(Enter Alejandro, looking quite pleased with himself while Darryl is about to have a meltdown. Evidently, this is a serious insult. The gauntlet is thrown! Miss Brave tries very hard not to smile.)
Miss Brave: "You know what, Darryl, sometimes friends call each other silly names because they like each other and they want to say something funny, not because they're trying to be mean. Sometimes my daddy calls me silly names, too, and he's not trying to make fun of me."
(Darryl considers Miss Brave's speech for approximately one millisecond, then becomes distracted by the brilliance of his writing.)
Darryl: "Oooooh, look at this! Look at this!"
(A Darryl-prompted misdirection! Miss Brave is relieved. Crisis averted!)

* * *

I still have a cold (actually, since all of my 400+ students appear to have colds as well, I'm pretty sure I'm going to have a cold for the rest of my life), so my head is all congested. As a consequence, I feel like I can't hear myself clearly, so I tend to talk louder in all of my classes. To over-compensate for feeling tired and run-down, I produce a slightly manic kind of energy when I'm in front of my students.

So this morning (perhaps determined to prove that Miss Brave is, in fact, as funny as Mr. M), I put on the performance of a lifetime in my kindergarten classes. I was attempting to demonstrate that writers can include speech bubbles in their pictures to show that people are talking. Acting on a key piece of advice from my friend's mother -- a special education teacher -- I snuck some hand puppets out of the library (the librarian was away at a conference. Shhhh!) and prepared to break a leg.

My "story" went like this: Page 1 -- "First we put on our hats and mittens." Page 2 -- "Then we walked over the Brooklyn Bridge." Page 3 -- "Last we found the subway."

Ho-hum. But then it was showtime! Watch as Miss Brave dazzles you with delightful dialogue! I picked up a hand puppet with long brown braids, slapped on a Post-It labeled "me," and read: "First we put on our hats and mittens." (Miss Brave affects funny, un-Miss Brave-like high-pitched voice and shakes hand puppet so her braids wiggle.) "I said, 'It is soooo cold out!'" (Cue kindergarten laughter.)

Then I recruited audience members to participate in the drama. My young thespians, armed with Post-It-noted hand puppets of their own, were eager to play the parts of my friends, and in no time I had them reciting their lines with great gusto. Quickly we dispatched with my original story and replaced it, via the transforming power of hand puppets and speech bubbles, with a script to rival the great works of Shakespeare: "First we put on our hats and mittens. I said, 'It is soooo cold out!' Then we walked across the Brooklyn Bridge. Frank said, 'Wow!' Last we found the subway. Melissa said, 'It's right there!'" Writers' strike, eat your heart out.

When the curtains fell, the question for the director was not "Can I go to the bathroom?" but instead "Can we play again?" So for an encore, we speech bubbled The Rainbow Fish by imagining what the fish might be saying to each other. Who needs Marcus Pfister when you have kindergarteners: "Can I have one of your scales? NO!"

Alas, Miss Brave's First Law of School dictates that a class will behave perfectly during either the mini lesson or independent practice, but almost never both on the same day. So when I sent my miniature actors' guild back to their seats, armed with the power to add dialogue to their stories, they drew on each other's papers, sharpened their pencils (which were, overwhelmingly, already sharp) without permission and (my personal favorite) wasted time by measuring their pencils next to each other to determine whose was the tallest (with my older classes, I have tried explaining that the more writing you do, the shorter your pencil will be, and therefore the most prolific writers will have shorter pencils, but this Miss Brave logic is clearly too circular for them).

Alicia got up to sharpen her pencil after explicitly being told not to and then shamelessly tried to pin the blame on poor, defenseless Romeo. (I have to say, I kind of love it when they blatantly lie to my face and I can see right through it. I know that being five times their age and in possession of a master's degree pretty much overqualifies me for the job of kindergarten lie detector, but it still makes me feel a tiny bit powerful.) Oh, and Mario of "Alejandro said I was a girl" fame -- who is a perfect example of a kid who can exhaust your patience with naughty behavior but be so adorable and charming and clever that you can't help but love him to pieces anyway -- spent the whole period persisting in trying to explain to me how someone else at his table had attempted to defame him (I believe the offending word this time was "pig," but I have a hunch that this was a misunderstanding resulting from a matching game that I eventually took away from them).

By the time I got to 50 minutes, I had a splitting headache, and because last night was the first night of Hanukkah and I'm sure no one at my school knows that except me and the one other Jewish teacher, I decided to throw caution to the wind and read my third graders Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins, one of my favorite books. To my great surprise, they seemed familiar with the dreidel song, if not quite the exact nature of Hanukkah ("It's like the same as Christmas, only it's not Christmas"), so I promised them that tomorrow, since we usually play math games on Thursdays, I would teach them how to play dreidel (dividing the pot in half is so a mathematical concept). And that's how I ended up going to three different stores after school in the snow trying to track down a dreidel, dashing in vain down aisles filled with candy canes and mistletoe while the speakers blared Christmas carols.

Miss Brave, desperately: "Do you have any Hanukkah stuff? Any Hanukkah stuff at all?"
Rite-Aid dude, blankly: "No, sorry, we didn't get that in this year."


Monday, December 3, 2007

Elementary school germs are the most toxic

After feeling better on Saturday, I completely relapsed yesterday into the raging sore throat/fever/aches combo of which my body seems to be so fond. (When I get sick, I really go for it with gusto -- no such thing as a small case of the sniffles for Miss Brave!) Last night, between bouts of fitful sleep, I kept dreaming that I was on America's Next Top Model. Coincidence? I think not. Teaching, like modeling, is a profession you can't fake. There's no such thing as laying low in your cubicle and halfheartedly shuffling papers until you feel better.

Three weeks until winter break -- bring on the Purell!