Thursday, January 31, 2008

The UFT just called to remind me to support Hillary Clinton in the presidential primary. Thanks for the tip, UFT, but I'm still voting for Obama.

Loathsome things

I have this insanely bad habit of picking at my cuticles. Since it's winter and my hands are dry, they tend to get cracked and bleed. So lately I've been wearing a lot of Band-Aids. And I swear, it is all these kids want to talk about. After my mini lesson, I always (naively) ask if there are any questions, and there always are, but they are always about my Band-Aid. Maybe more of my stories should involve medical trauma, and then I could hold their attention.

For four of my classes, I have an ESL support teacher in the room. I run the show, and she assists. Occasionally, she pulls a small group and does a lesson of her own, which is fine by me. But now all of our ELLs have to start prepping for the exam in April. Each ESL class is divided into three groups, and the ESL teachers have started pulling the groups during my class. As one of the ESL teachers put it: "Miss Brave, I have to pull groups, and you're not going to like how I do it."

She's right; I don't. Because here's how it goes: I start the mini lesson with the whole class. Enter ESL teacher, who calls eight or so names. Much ruckus ensues as those eight kids climb over other kids, argue about whose name was actually called, and root around for pencils. Right around the time the mini lesson is ending, those eight kids get sent back to me with no concept of what's been going on on my side of the classroom, and off go eight more kids who won't get a chance to practice the skill they've just been taught. Meanwhile I have a tough time letting the kids go off and work independently, because there's still group work going on in the room, and everyone is interrupted by yet another group being called. (Technically the groups are A, B and C. This past week the ESL teacher in my first grade room spent a good few minutes futilely shouting for Group A. I was like, "Um, they're six years old and they don't speak English. You may need to call them by their actual names.")

Did I mention this is going on until April?

This process also makes me feel like my period is just a dumping ground, as if the kids don't really need to know what I'm teaching them, they just need test prep. If the test prep is so critical, and the only time to do it is during my class, why not train me to teach it too and then we can split the class half and half instead of this rotating mess?

In equally irritating news, the powers that be added on a fifth grade class to my roster, bringing my grand total up to 19 classes. I'll see the fifth grade once a week during the last period of the day (or as I like to call it, the witching hour). The breakdown looks like this:

5 kindergartens (2 ESL, 1 12:1:1 self-contained, 1 CTT)
5 first grades (2 ESL)
6 second grades (2 ESL, 1 CTT)
1 third grade
1 fourth grade (12:1:1 self-contained)
1 fifth grade

In conclusion: Bleh!

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Flat as a pancake

A few weeks ago in one of my favorite second grade classes (i.e., one of only two classes I see before lunch, when the kids go absolutely gonzo and it is virtually impossible to regain control), a little girl named Queenie ran up to me and threw her arms around me.

"Hi," I said.

"Hi," she answered fondly. Then she took an abrupt step backward and blurted out, "But did our letters come back yet?"

Ah, the letters, the Flat Stanley letters! Despite the fact that I spent five weeks hammering in the notion that I was really going to mail their letters to real people who would take real photos and really mail them back, some of my students are just beginning to cotton on. Queenie, however, has been on board from the very beginning; not only does she quiz me about whether or not the letters have come back every time I see her, but she has since made me promise that I won't open the envelope until I'm in front of the whole class.

Now, Queenie is your basic dream student -- back straight, hands folded, eyes up front, hard worker, eager to please, sweet smile. So I can't say that I'm surprised...but I am also, I confess, the teeniest bit thrilled. There were a lot of reasons I almost didn't do the Flat Stanley project -- I thought the kids would lose momentum, I spent my own money to mail the packages, I didn't get explicit permission from the administration to do any kind of ongoing project, it's not technically a "grammar and punctuation" kind of lesson -- but at least student got really, really interested in it.

That's the good news. The bad news is that when I finally put up my Flat Stanley bulletin board (which I only get to do because another teacher is being kind enough to lend me her bulletin board space for the month), there's a good chance I'll get in trouble for it because the letters are outdated. (The kids worked on them throughout the month of December and then mailed them off, and I obviously can't display them until they come back!) I'm actually considering doctoring
them so that the dates aren't visible. Let's see what Mr. Quality Review Man (as he is not-so-affectionately nicknamed at my school) has to say about that!

Monday, January 28, 2008

Go tell it on the mountain

Natasha: "Yovary is acting like the boss of everyone because he's Ms. K's helper. But he's not the boss of me! He's not the boss."
Other kids, in chorus: "Yeah, he's not the boss! You're not the boss, Yovary! There is no boss! No one is the boss!"
Natasha, importantly: "God is the boss. God is the boss of everyone."

* * *

Recently I finally put two and two together and realized that I see Lyle in kindergarten on Tuesday mornings and his sister Lillian in first grade on Tuesday afternoons. So last Tuesday I said, "Lyle! Did you know I'm going to see your sister this afternoon? Do you want me to tell her that you say hello?" Lyle nodded. So that afternoon, I dutifully announced to Lillian: "Lillian! Did you know I saw your brother this morning? He says hello!"

Today, Lillian followed me around the classroom, a shy smile on her face. "My brother say something," she reported.

"What did he say?" I asked.

"My brother say something," she repeated.

"Okay, what did he say?" I asked again.

"I want you to tell me," she said.

"You want me to tell you what your brother said?" I echoed, totally confused. She nodded vigorously.

"I...don't know!" I replied, wondering if we were playing some kind of guessing game. Her smile faltered a little.

"You see my brother tomorrow?" she said...and that's when it clicked.

I'm not just the writing teacher, I'm a fun messenger too!

In the same class, I was helping Amber add sentences to her story, and I asked her what she wanted to say. Here is what she recited: "One afternoon, I went to my favorite store, Target. When I walked in the store, I saw lots of Valentine's Day candy. I picked up the candy and dropped it in my basket."

This is, nearly verbatim, the same story I told her class a week ago. Amazing!

In other news, what do multi-vitamins, echinacea, extra Vitamin C, Cold-Eeze, Halls cough drops, hand sanitizer and anti-bacterial soap have in common? They all spectacularly failed to keep me from getting sick for the fifth time this school year. Today was the 90th day of school, which means I've been getting sick an average of once every 18 school days, which means my next illness should roll in right around the beginning of March. Let's see if my prediction comes true!

Friday, January 25, 2008

Round two

You've already read Miss Brave's version of the epic showdown between Mohammed and Justin. Now read the version written by one of their classmates!

(Miss Brave's note: You can see all the work we've been doing on capitalization and punctuation is having a major effect on him. :::buries head in hands:::)

"tow day I went to school I am having a good day but sum chilljrin are having a bad day It is. so crase to day and Justin and mohammed got in a fit Justin got mad and mohammed got mad then the teacher said wiy are you fiting! Then the teacher got ovre It Hse was still mad a little bit at the end of cklass they. got a letr home thay wer vere mad I think thay got pnisht."

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Love is in the air--wait, on second thought...

Kyle: "If you came over to my house, me and you could play golf."
Kayla: "I'm not allowed to go to boys' houses."

* * *

Benny: "I have a girlfriend!"
Miss Brave: "You have a girlfriend? Who is your girlfriend?"
Benny: "She's in the big school."
(Our kindergarten classes are held in an annex, and the kids refer to the main building as the "big school.")
Miss Brave: "The big school? Is she in" (lowers voice to stage whisper) "first grade?!"
Benny: "No, she's in pre-K."
Miss Brave: "Ahhhh, a younger woman."
Benny: (nods vigorously)

* * *

Norma: "Miss Brave, do you have a husband?"
Miss Brave: "No."
Norma: "Oh, then you need one!"

Friday, January 18, 2008

Flattery will get you everywhere

Leelee: "Miss Brave, I like your hair."
Miss Brave: "Thank you."
Leelee: "And your glasses."
Miss Brave: "Thank you."
Leelee: "And your shirt."
Miss Brave: "Thank you."
Leelee: "And your earrings."
Miss Brave: "Thank you."
Leelee: "You're beautiful."
Miss Brave: "Well, thank you very much!"

Typically I wear contact lenses, but my eyes were burning this morning, so I wore my glasses to school instead. I always feel vaguely half-dressed when I wear them, since I normally don't go out in glasses, but maybe I should more often; my second graders reacted like I was Princess Diana at her wedding and they were trying to out-paparazzi each other: "I love your glasses! They make you look so pretty!" It all culminated with this priceless comment: "Miss Brave, you're not pretty, you're beautiful."

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Vivian Paley would be proud

I think I've mentioned before that one of the things that disappoints me most about a great many of my students is their total lack of regard for their fellow human beings. They're always stepping on each other and sitting down on top of each other and writing on each other's papers and just generally acting like they're the only tiny people in the whole great big universe. There are days when I just get really sick of their selfishness and the unkind way they treat each other.

The other day, though, I finally witnessed some compassion from my kindergarteners. Apparently Mario accidentally spilled some water on Angelina's coat, and Alyssa -- who is like the kindergarten equivalent of Joan Rivers, always acting like the bossy queen bee and generally stirring up drama -- said something nasty about it, bringing Mario to tears. By the time it was brought to my attention, Sylvia and Alejandro were crowded around Mario's side, supplying him with tissues. "We have a plan!" Sylvia announced brightly. "We're going to sit with Mario at lunch so he feels better!" Angelina, of the wet coat, was rubbing his back and soothingly assuring him: "You're going to be all right, you'll see. Everything's gonna be just fine." Even Alyssa, who's usually busy running her mouth off with excuses for why she felt it necessary to cause a ruckus, looked majorly contrite, maybe because Mario, as a rule, is not a crier. "I'm so sorry, Mario," she whispered, her eyes fixed on her paper. "I'm so, so sorry." By the time Angelina (whose coat, by the way, dried off in about two seconds) led Mario off by the hand to get a drink of water (this is my cure-all solution for crying), he was back to his old self again. And I was touched, because if I could leave my students with one lasting lesson from this year, it wouldn't be about grammar or punctuation; it would be about how to live in the world with other people.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Isn't it ironic...

...that while the teachers are at a crisis intervention training session, I keep having crises with their students?

I could smell the tension as soon as I walked into the classroom. The sub said they'd been "horrible." (The sub had also put some of them in charge of being "helpers," which means that there were kids touching the bell and moving the discipline cards. Lesson #1: Never let your students touch your bell or move your discipline cards.) It was the end of their first full week back from vacation, and the kids seemed keyed up, restless, ready to snap.

As soon as I asked them to put their writing folders away, Mohammed and Justin (who is ordinarily so docile that I've occasionally wondered whether he has mental challenges) got into a physical altercation. It wasn't the kind of irritated jostle I see my kindergarteners and first graders get into; there was real malice flashing in their eyes.

"WHOA!" I shouted, sounding like a jockey trying to tame a wild horse. Upstairs, the crisis intervention counselor had urged the teachers to "speak CAR" -- Calmly, Assertively, Respectfully. My "WHOA!" was precisely none of those things.

I instructed them to separate, cool off, ignore each other, take a breath. But after the mini lesson was over, Mohammed spit at Justin and apparently threatened to "f**k him up." Justin told Christopher that after I left, he would beat up Mohammed.

I believed both of them. This wasn't a situation where I could chastise someone for using unkind language or not keeping his hands to himself. This was a genuine, explosive crisis.

Let's get some perspective: I did my student teaching in Newton, Massachusetts, a town that has a median household income of $121,496 and was named the nation's safest city for three years in a row. When I interviewed for a teaching job with the New York City Department of Education -- in a group with two other young, white, female students at private colleges -- my recruiter emphasized heavily the need for us to have a desire to teach in an urban environment. Having spent thirteen years of my own in the New York City public school system, and having become disenchanted with the segregation I'd encountered at schools in Massachusetts (in one first grade classroom in which I student taught, there was one African-American student in the entire class -- she was bussed in from a neighboring town, of course -- and when the librarian showed my students a movie about Ruby Bridges, the first black student to attend an all-white elementary school in the south, my students kept referring to her as "the Vanessa in the movie" and protested, "But we let Vanessa come to our school!"), I felt like I was up for the challenge.

But let's get real here: I thought "shut up" was a swear word until the fourth grade. And although I'd heard horror stories about things like second graders who say "I'm going to f**k you up" to each other, I never really thought I'd encounter it myself. Until one day I saw Nathaniel walking home from school, and his father was having a conversation with Nathaniel's older brother in which he casually tossed around curse words like they were popcorn kernels that were exploding their way into Nathaniel's brain. Is it any wonder that Nathaniel is one of my most challenging students or that he is so consistently rude and disrespectful to everyone around him?

Second graders in Newton do not threaten to f**k each other up. They're too busy taking swim lessons and getting privately tutored at places like Sylvan Learning Center. Which is why every urban teacher I know has such a beef with No Child Left Behind; obviously we want to hold our students to the same high standard, but how does whaling on them with standardized tests help us overcome the deficit that is a fact of life in less privileged areas?

After the fight, one of the students who'd tried to help break it up confided in me that "My dad keeps trying to teach me the wrong lesson. He says when someone hits you, you hit them back. I say tell the teacher. I say walk away. But he says pow, you hit them back."

This is why I worry about what will become of my students when they get older. I worry that we're spending so much time drilling them with academics in fear of federally mandated testing that we're losing sight of the responsibility we have to promote their social development. I worry that they are receiving deeply mixed signals from their teachers and parents about what kind of behavior is acceptable and who they should strive to be. And I worry that on days like today, when I yell at my students instead of trying to understand them, I'm only confusing them more and driving them to lash out in their anger.

Which is why I find myself wishing more and more that I had my own class; though I have no doubt that it would be just as challenging, it would be nice to have 25 or so students to worry about instead of 425.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Move over, Imelda Marcos

Today I asked a second grader (ESL, mind you) if I could meet with him.

"Indeed!" he replied.

I asked my ESL first graders what we call those three dots that look like periods (correct answer: ellipsis).

"Lipsticks!" they called out.

I told them I would miss Alejandro, who apparently moved to Long Island.

"The friendship is in your heart," one of them told me.

I modeled for a small group of them how I could choose an idea for a story by thinking about places I had gone. "Let's see, where did I go, where did I go. Oh, I know! I went -- "

Phillip cut me off. "You went to Target!" he chimed in excitedly. I stared at him in amazement; I had -- indeed! -- gone to Target. Phillip is so totally my first grade soulmate.

I regrouped and continued with my story about how I found the perfect new shoes (which I happened to be wearing) at Target. And just as I was thinking that a story about shoes probably wasn't the best example to be sharing with a group of 7-year-old boys, Charlie studied my feet, gazed up at me sincerely and said -- I kid you not -- "Those are lovely shoes!"

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Where everybody knows your name

I was proctoring the ELA exam yesterday when a girl looked up at me and said curiously, "Are you Miss Bray?"

"Miss Brave," I corrected her.

She smiled. "Oh!" she said. "My brother Phillip keeps talking about you!" Phillip is one of my favorite (see Item #6) first graders, and he also happens to talk nonstop about his sister, who is clearly his Hero, so it was great to finally meet her.

On Monday, Yovary gazed up at me, looking fairly pleased with himself, and announced, "I saw you on the subway yesterday!"

I wasn't on the subway on Sunday. "Maybe somebody who looks like me," I said. But Yovary seemed pretty insistent.

"Maybe the day before," I acknowledged, and his eyes lit up. "Yeah! I saw you. You were walking up the stairs and talking to your brother."

My brother? Hmmm. I don't have a brother, but I was on the subway with a boy. Curious, I tried to pump Yovary for more information.

"What did he look like?" I asked. He shrugged helplessly.

"His hair was...up," he said, motioning near his forehead.

"And do you know where you were?" I asked.

"I was sitting down. You didn't see me! I was behind you, and you were walking up the stairs with your brother."

"No, I mean, like, do you know if you were in Queens, or Manhattan...?"

"I was going to Mass," he said confidently.

"You were going to Mass?" I repeated.

"No, my daddy said he would buy a mask, so we was going to buy the mask at the place where we buy the mask and I saw you."

If I ever meet Yovary's dad, you can bet the first question I ask him will be, "Were you by any chance on the F train with your son on January 5?"

Monday, January 7, 2008

Choose or lose

So here's my big dilemma:

Every single morning (but especially on Mondays) I drag myself mournfully out of bed, and while I'm dejectedly brushing my teeth and deciding whether I'm going to wear my uncomfortable but badass professional shoes or my scruffy but blissfully pain-free flats, I think: I can't do this next year, I don't want to do this next year, I need to have a different job next year, I hope I'm not a teacher next year.

And then most afternoons, as I'm heading away from school toward the gym and Duane Reade (I swear I spend the bulk of my non-teaching time in a Duane Reade), a teeny tiny Vivian Paley-esque spark glimmers within me and I think: Well...maybe. Maybe.

I know that it's perfectly natural to feel dread at the beginning of the school day and relief at the end, but which will be the stronger pull for me? Should I heed the advice in this commercial (with which I strongly identify, by the way), or should I take heart in the message of this Teach NYC ad (with which I take exception; obviously New York's other influential role models wear Mets uniforms, not Yankee uniforms).

In other news, tomorrow is Day 1 of the dreaded ELA exam, and hmm, what's that I smell cooking in the air? Could that possibly be the smell of...doom?! I'll be proctoring, so it looks like I get to find out!

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Disturbing behavior

I've had a lot of bad days since I started teaching. Sometimes it's a bad day because the kids won't stop talking and fidgeting and interrupting and needling and I want to rip my hair out. Sometimes it's a bad day because they respond with blank stares and obvious confusion and I feel as though I haven't done my job as an educator. Sometimes it's a bad day because I'm just plain tired of denying them permission over and over again to go to the bathroom, get a drink of water and use crayons.

I've had bad days where I go home crying and bad days where I slink back to my office and pound the desk in frustration. But I've never had a bad day like Friday.

It started off with a really creepy dream in which I was helping my ESL first graders practice learning their colors when all of a sudden one of them looked straight at me and said, "We were glad when September 11 happened. When the planes flew into the buildings, we thought it was a good thing and we were celebrating."

Okay, what? First of all, she wasn't even born yet. Second of all, she doesn't speak English well enough to say all that to me. Third of all...there is no third of all, except to wonder why in the world my brain would even go there. Anyway, just as that happened, my alarm went off, and I was left with an eerie feeling to start off the day.

You may remember that Darryl is one of my favorite kids in kindergarten. On Friday, I found out from his teacher that Darryl's mother has taken out a restraining order on Darryl's father, who apparently tried to kill her. In front of Darryl.

Darryl has not yet received the mandatory counseling he's supposed to have been getting since the beginning of the school year. Darryl also hasn't been to school in two days.

And then, in one of my classes, I told Nathaniel I would have to send a letter home to his parents about his misbehavior, and he promptly burst into tears.

"I don't want to get a letter home!" he wailed. As you might imagine, this happens all the time, and so I wasn't exactly moved. But then he said something that struck me cold. The last time a letter got sent home, he said, his dad had choked him so hard that he couldn't breathe.

"He almost killed me," he said between terrified sobs. "I don't want to die! I don't want to die!"

There are few horrors in life that are quite like hearing a six-year-old cry at you that he doesn't want to die.

Nathaniel is a kid who doesn't always tell the truth, and he's a kid who acts out a lot in class and is prone to histrionics about it. But his regular teacher was absent, and so in the absence of more concrete information, I had to call the mandated reporter hotline and file a report.

Sometimes, this job will break your heart.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

The verb pipe

Jacob: "You know how I said you look just like my friend's girlfriend? Well, you sound just like her, too."
Miss Brave: :::crickets:::

* * *

I had a gut feeling that I would be Observed again today. As it turns out, I wasn't, but I wish I had been. I feel like the kids are much mellower after their vacation -- before break they were so obviously sick of each other, sniping and tattling and nagging all the time, and it was pretty disgusting -- and my snazzy lesson on verbs went really well. (It didn't hurt that Mark the hairdresser -- see Item #7 in the link -- was absent, either.)

First I read the kids a boring little story (with accompanying photos courtesy of Google Image Search) I wrote up about my vacation: "One chilly evening, I went to the Bronx Zoo. There were monkeys in the trees. I saw sea lions in the water. In the garden, there were butterflies." Then I jazzed it up by adding some kickin' verbs: "Monkeys climbed and jumped in the trees. I saw sea lions splashing in the water. Butterflies fluttered in the garden."

Then we did the same to caption some photos of our old friend Flat Stanley, and then I asked for "volunteers who are not shy" to play a game in front of the class; I sneakily showed my volunteers a card with a verb on it that they had to perform for the class, and then we wrote sentences about what they were doing and figured out which word was the verb. Aside from the usual tears from a few of my first graders who didn't get a turn, it went off without a hitch. And just now in the shower (where some of my best thinking occurs) I came up with an idea to present the ever-dreaded notion of verb tenses: a matching game like Concentration where the kids will have to match the present tense verb with its past tense form (i.e., "see" and "saw," "go" and "went").

If only I could get over my fear of singing in front of my students, I would teach them the verb song I made up to the tune of "Jingle Bells":

What's a verb? An action word!
It tells you what to do
I can write by using verbs
And you can do it, too!

Yup, move over, Rodgers & Hammerstein. It's better at least than my noun song, which never saw the light of day thanks to the wonders of the Noun Eater:

Nouns, nouns, looking all around
A noun is a person, place or thing
Nouns, nouns, looking all around
Nouns make writing interesting!

In other news, today a first grader asked me how to spell "TV."

You know, I could really get used to this whole "Wednesday through Friday" work week thing.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Well, ask a stupid question...

Miss Brave: "Keith, why were you in the bathroom for so long?"
Keith: "I was going poo poo."

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

We'll drink a cup of kindness yet

It's the night before the first day of school in 2008, and I'm irrationally worried that it's going to feel like the first day of school all over again.

Maybe if I hadn't had the best winter vacation in the whole world, it wouldn't be so hard to go back. But as it is, teaching feels like a dream: Did I really do that last year?

I left before the break feeling unexpectedly fond of my job, and now I find myself (not so unexpectedly) dreading my return.

I don't know if it's my position, my school, my colleagues or the profession altogether...but next year, something's going to have to change.