Friday, February 27, 2009

The best guided reading group ever

Friday, last period. Mentally, I'm done for the week. Still, I summon up the last reserves of my energy and call together Stanley, Adam L., Adam P. and Victoria for guided reading.

At level J, they're my highest readers (still below grade level -- at this point in the year they should be reading at L -- but so close and with so much potential!), and today is our last day reading Corduroy. All my J-reading friends get extremely jazzed to read Corduroy, because generally it's a book they're already familiar with, and I've had some great guided reading conversations about seeing things from the character's point of view and using your imagination and what it means to have a home and friendship and be loved.

So we take a little picture walk through the last pages of the books, and my friends are already firing neat little comments to each other ("Is she stealing Corduroy?!" "No, she just doesn't want a box because she wants to hold him and feel him"), and then they go ahead and read to the end of the book. Stanley and Victoria are sitting next to each other, and suddenly shy Stanley's eyes go wide and he leans over and whispers excitedly to Victoria, "She knows that Corduroy can talk!" and they have a little side conversation about whether Corduroy is a real bear who comes alive or whether Lisa is just using her imagination to talk to Corduroy (I think all the non-fiction reading they've been doing is affecting their suspension of disbelief, bigtime). Then Victoria turns to the back of the book, which says, "Poor Corduroy! Will he ever find a home?" and she says to me, "I just realized something. Corduroy is looking for his button, but he's really looking for a home."

Thunk. I don't know whether or not that sounds like a big deal to you, but for me that was one of the most insightful, wonderful comments anyone in my reading groups has ever made. My kids' reading levels are low enough that they don't often get to do much critical thinking about their books -- you should see the contortions I've gone through trying to coax some higher-level thinking out of books like Danny and the Dinosaur -- and so Victoria's comment was such a breath of fresh air.

Then we got into a conversation about how Corduroy is looking for a home and Lisa is looking for a bear and both are really looking for a friend, and quiet Adam P. points out, "Each other." Okay, awwwww.

It may not seem like much, but it seriously made my afternoon. What a great way to kick off the weekend.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Tales from the front

Yesterday I got a new student who speaks no English -- zip, nothing, nada, no "hello," no "bathroom," nothing. I paired him up with another ELL who came in knowing next to no English (well, except for maybe "bathroom") but who is now on her way to being a D reader and who is a regular English chatterbox! (I love love love how quickly some beginner ELLs make progress!)

During reading time I overheard another student telling her to explain something to my newcomer in Spanish. She gave the suggester a total "duh, girlfriend" look and said, "No, he needs to learn English. No Spanish. Talk English!"

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Thank goodness for mid-winter break

What would school be like without vacations? I desperately needed this break (despite the fact that I already sort of had a break grading the ELA a few weeks ago). Lately I've been feeling really down about school without really knowing why. I know the constant rearranging of my schedule has been getting to me, especially because I've been working really hard to make sure my students get all they can out of our non-fiction unit and a lot of my hard work gets thrown out the window when I'm not there. I know I've been starting to worry a lot more about where my students are headed in third grade and beyond. A lot of them just aren't progressing the way they need to be, and they don't seem to share the sense of urgency about it that I do, which means that they will always be behind.

It's past the famous 100th day of school, which means it's more than halfway through second grade, and I still have kids aimlessly spinning around in the meeting area during my mini lesson, or staring blankly into space, or tearing holes in their book baggies. It's getting to be that point in the year where my patience starts to wear thin when they come to the meeting area without a pencil despite the fact that every day I patiently announce three times that we need to bring pencils to the meeting area, or when kids are carrying around two sad-looking books because they've ripped or lost their book baggies for the umpteenth time this year.

And then there's William, who receives so much of my time and care and patience, who treated me with unacceptable disrespect last week ("I read that already," he snarled as I innocently approached him with a book, ordering me to "get another one") and to whom I fear I will never get through. On the Friday before this vacation, I gave him a ridiculous speech during which I actually said things like, "I know you don't like reading, and I know you don't care about reading right now, but you're going to need to know how to read in order to live your life, and when you grow up and you can't read, you will say, 'I wish I had listened to Miss Brave in second grade!'" Uh...yeah, because prognosticating the future failures of an eight-year-old is always a successful motivator! I have definitely seen too many teacher movies in which, at the climax, William would fight his way to becoming an M reader and then thank me for believing in him all along (which, by the way, I do, but try telling William that as he puts his hands over his ears and turns his back on me).

I am already dreading my return to school and the long, dreary, spirit-killing month of March, which is punctuated only by running records and parent-teacher conferences (more gloomy reminders of how far below grade level my poor students still remain). I don't mean this to sound like I'm giving up on my students, because I'm not, but I am feeling a little depressed about their odds: If it's the middle of second grade, and you're almost nine years old because you've already been held over, and you are completely stymied by the fact that your pencil is not sharp enough to write with, and you need an incredulous teacher to remind you that there are ways to solve your pencil problem, such as (a) sharpening your broken pencil, (b) finding another pencil, (c) asking a neighbor for a pencil or (d) using a pen, then something in the system that is supposed to be teaching you to be a functional human being has failed, and I don't know whose fault it is.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

A time and a place

Imagine you're a lawyer, and you wake up early one morning to finish preparing your arguments for a case -- say your client is on trial for robbing a grocery store. You arrive early at the courthouse, review your notes and feel ready to go. But then midway through your opening arguments, you get a call informing you to leave the courtroom and go to the one next door, where you'll be arguing an entirely different case on patent law.

You'd be a little caught off guard, right? Maybe a little irritated that you didn't find out about the change sooner? Maybe kind of annoyed that all your hard work will go to waste?

Yet this happens to me every day at my school. For the past week, at least once a day I've been pulled out of my regular schedule and sent to cover third grade teachers, the suspension room, you name it. Wherever I am -- my office, a classroom -- a secretary manages to track me down and send me someplace else. Occasionally I get sent to cover kindergarten classes in the annex and when I get there, I discover I'm actually supposed to be the science teacher or the art teacher. Sometimes these changes are announced beforehand, usually in obscenely archaic memos that are impossible to decipher without a hefty chunk of time and the help of several colleagues, but sometimes they are not. And since nobody at my school who makes these decisions actually consults with each other, I am routinely scheduled to cover two different classes at the same time, which means I have to go running all over the school tracking down the people in charge and informing them about the laws of physics.

Weeks ago, I got an e-mail about a schedule change due to third grade math coaching (which it's lucky I even opened in the first place, as I am not a third grade teacher nor a math teacher) during which we should all be following Week 4 of our coverage schedule. Then the date was changed. Twice. Then "Week 4" was renamed "Cycle D" as to avoid confusion (nice try). Because I am extremely conscientious about these things, I was pretty sure the schedule change was still on today, but there were so many date changes that I didn't know (a) if it was even happening or (b) which coverage week (excuse me, "cycle") to follow. So one of my colleagues called down to the main office and, with my own ears, I heard her ask this question: "Are we following the coverage schedule today for third grade?"


NO! So off I went to my class. Twenty minutes in, I am paged over the loudspeaker, along with six other teachers, to report to a third grade classroom I am apparently supposed to be covering, which happens to be a different classroom than the one I thought I was supposed to be covering (because for some mysterious reason we were following Cycle B instead of Cycle D).

The following period, a phone call dispatched me to cover another class for the rest of the day. So there went my day -- mini lessons down the drain, strategy lessons scrapped, guided reading groups put off. When will I learn not to get to school an hour early to plan lessons I don't get to teach?

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

A day in the life

Since today happened to feel like a ridiculous day, but since it was also completely representative of my life as a reading teacher, I thought I would enlighten my readers with a blow-by-blow account! Let's call it "A Day in the Life of a New York City Public Schoolteacher (or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Enjoy the Chaos)."

5:45 am Wake up. Watch NY1. Alternate side of the street parking? Still in effect. Darn.

6:18 am Leave for work (I know the time down to the minute, thanks to NY1).

6:35 am Arrive at school. Begin long, arduous search for a parking spot.

6:40 am Parking spot! Score! Park and prepare to sit in car until school building opens at 7:00 am.

6:41 am Realize that car is actually parked at pump. Resignedly pull out of parking spot and reverse car down the block to other available parking spot.

6:55 am Get out of car and walk to school (yes, I sit in my car for up to twenty minutes each morning because we are actually made to wait outside the school building in the cold until it is officially "open").

7:00 am Move time card, check mailbox, and grab keys. My day has begun! I am always the first one in my office (which I share with five other out-of-classroom teachers), so I use the hour before the school day begins to prepare for the day.

7:35 am Head upstairs to check in with Ms. A, who was absent yesterday, about how we plan to launch our new unit today.

7:40 am Arrive back in my office and am immediately paged over the loudspeaker. Call office and ask, "What did I do?" to secretary who picks up the phone. She asks me to come downstairs and speak to the parent of one of Ms. L's students, because Ms. L is absent.

7:40 am Arrive downstairs to meet with Shawna's mother, who starts telling me how frustrated she is with Shawna's lack of progress in reading and how Shawna is uninterested and unmotivated and doesn't want to do her work at home. As she is telling me about how smart her older daughter is and how she doesn't know what to do anymore with Shawna, she starts to cry right there in the hallway. I promise to speak to Shawna and Ms. L and work on a plan for Shawna's progress.

7:55 am As soon as I walk back into my office, the phone rings. It's for me. "Tenir's mother is here to see you." As I know absolutely nothing about this meeting, I panic and run down the hall to Ms. J's room: "Why is Tenir's mother here to see me?" According to Ms. J, Tenir's mother speaks no English and I should just go downstairs and assure her that he needs to practice reading more.

7:56 am Ms. J is right: Tenir's mother speaks no English. I try to explain that he needs to do more reading. Tenir reluctantly translates.

8:10 am First period! Normally during first period on Tuesdays, four of my students get pulled out of the room, so I plan around them. But today, no one showed up to take them. Which means I can do the guided reading I had planned to put off! So I run back to my office to grab the book that I need.

8:40 am My four students inexplicably get pulled halfway through the period.

8:45 am I ask my remaining students to jot down one thing they already know about their topics. One little girl, who will be reading about the solar system, writes, "Pluto used to be a planet but now it's not." Hee!

8:50 am During a strategy lesson, I realize that Arielle is crying, presumably because she does not want to wear her glasses. In the course of our discussion, Arielle claims that she does not actually need glasses, but lied to the doctor in order to get them! (This is not true. Arielle totally needs glasses.) Arielle is very overweight and has horrendously low self-esteem, so we have a talk about how I like wearing my glasses and how I think she is beautiful with or without her glasses, after which I think she feels a tiny bit better.

9:05 am Fernando asks if I miss having him in my reading group. I do!

10:00 am Third period. I head downstairs to cover the suspension room, except no one is actually suspended. "Yeah, he didn't show up today," someone tells me, despite the fact that this morning's announcements stated very clearly that the suspension room was in effect. Since there's no suspension to cover, I might as well go to class! Except first I have to run back and forth to my office a few times to gather all the things I thought I wouldn't need since I wasn't supposed to see that class today.

10:55 am Lunchtime! I scarf down some carrots, a cup of coffee and a sandwich while simultaneously re-organizing my morning materials and planning for the afternoon. I also compose a lengthy note to Ms. L about my meeting with Shawna's mother.

11:50 am Since Ms. L is still absent, I am winging our non-fiction unit with her whole class. I also meet with Shawna, who claims that she doesn't do what she's supposed to be doing at home because her mom curses at her all the time. Hmm. Mom didn't mention that in our talk.

12:45 pm I only have five students in my sixth-period class, because the rest of them have been pulled out of the room. In trying to get Neel to write down something, anything, he knows about his topic (land animals), I have the following maddening conversation with him:

Miss Brave: "What's one thing you already know about animals?"
Neel: [long silence]
Miss Brave: "What's your favorite animal?"
Neel: "Alligators?"
Miss Brave: "OK, and what do you know about alligators?"
Neel: "They live in the water?"
Miss Brave: "OK, but remember, your topic is land animals, so you need to think about an animal that lives on the land. What's an animal that lives on the land?"
Neel: "Alligator?"
Miss Brave: "Remember, you just told me an alligator lives in the water. What's something you know about an animal that lives on the land, not in the water?"
Neel: "Alligators have sharp teeth."
Miss Brave: "That's true, but we can't think about alligators, because they live in the water. What animals do you know that do not live in the water? They live on the land, out of the water?"
Neel: "A crab?"
Miss Brave: "Where does a crab live?"
Neel: "In the water?"

OH. MY. GOODNESS. Meanwhile, Lukas (who barely speaks English) is sitting next to Neel shouting out things like, "Lion! Monkey! Lion lives in the jungle! Monkeys eat bananas!"

12:50 pm Barbra tells me she likes my hair. Other students chime their agreement. Lukas pipes up, "I don't!", because lately Lukas likes to exercise his burgeoning English skills by vocalizing his disagreement with everyone else, usually while I'm asking some rhetorical question to which the answer should always be yes.

1:25 pm Since we mix our groups together during non-fiction reading, one of Ms. N's highest readers is in a group with three of my lowest readers. During share time, I overhear her say importantly to the rest of her group: "This is the book I read. As you can see, it has dolphins..." I didn't hear the rest of what she said because I was still boggling over the "as you can see..." Ms. N and I agree that we should probably put another high achiever in her group. Because I love Ms. N's kids, but Lord, they are spacey (see Neel, above).

1:30 pm Blessedly, my prep! I run over to the book room and grab piles of non-fiction books like a mad woman. I also fold up my rolling cart so I can take it home and load it up with more non-fiction books I took out from the public library yesterday (please don't let the children lose them).

2:20 pm Time to pick up my afterschool kids from three different classrooms on two different floors (first I have to retrieve one errant student from the bathroom).

2:23 pm Alexandra lifts up my scarf, which is dragging on the floor as I am carrying my coat, my bag, my rolling cart, a binder and a clipboard. I love Alexandra.

2:25 pm We arrive in our room, dump our backpacks and coats, and start setting up computers. Of course some of them don't turn on, some of them aren't charged, and hardly any of the headphones work, and of course my usual afterschool colleague is absent. I very nearly lose my cool when Tenir yells out, "I need headphones!" as he does every single day when he can very clearly see that I am doing my best to (a) untangle all the cords and (b) figure out which ones work and which ones don't while (c) simultaneously trying to get Lukas a computer that actually turns on, but luckily I have been blessed with a reserve of patience today!

2:40 pm I remember to send Josephine downstairs early to catch her bus. Naturally, as soon as she leaves, the office calls upstairs looking for her.

2:55 pm Even though it's been snowing all day and it's obviously going to be an indoor dismissal, the school waits until now to announce over the loudspeaker that we need to bring our classes down by 3:05, which means we have to start packing

2:59 pm There is too much talking on line by the door, so I send everyone back to their seats to try again. Barbra (who likes my hair) protests, "But I wasn't talking!" and earns herself a lecture on not making it worse by speaking out.

3:00 pm Our line is at last nice and quiet. Unfortunately, as we are attempting to leave the room, we get stuck in a traffic jam of other groups blocking the door as their teachers have a conversation. Normally I would wait, but we're running late as it is and we need to retrieve all our stuff from the hallway. So I sneak my line past the logjam.

3:03 pm Someone is loudly squeaking his hand along the banister as we walk downstairs.

3:06 pm Someone else is not facing forward as he walks and holding up the whole line.

3:07 pm We've made it! Return attendance folders and keys, move timecard, trudge back to car.

3:15 pm Wet feet (I hate that). Brush snow off car (this already looks like 3 inches). Drive to gym.

4:10 pm Run on treadmill and ruminate on doing it all again tomorrow!

Monday, February 2, 2009

It's always the bad boys

Apparently William was in rare form while I was out last week, disrupting his teacher's lesson while she was being observed by our assistant principal and then pulling his favorite trick of spending all his independent reading time drawing in his reader's notebook directly under the AP's nose. I'm now convinced that she'll be back to observe me in William's class any day now, as I'm sure she's wondering what Miss Brave could possibly be teaching William that makes him think it's acceptable to draw in his reader's notebook during independent reading time.

And yet...when I happened to see William's class in the hall on their way to lunch, his face lit up and he called out, "I missed you!"

It's always the bad boys who miss you the most.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Grading the ELA

I haven't posted about school all week because I haven't been at school all week. Instead I've been at another school, on the other side of the borough, grading the state English Language Arts (ELA) exam for third, fourth and fifth graders.

It's difficult for even an experienced teacher-blogger like me to describe the disheartening disorganization and incompetence that's been a daily part of this experience. First of all, the entire thing seems to have been thrown together last-minute when it was decided that rather than pay teachers per-session to grade the exams after school and on weekends, each school would have to send a few teachers away from their regular assignments to grade the exams during the day. I missed a week at my school, but some teachers are grading the ELA for up to three weeks in a row, right up until February break. By the time we come back from vacation, they will have missed an entire month of school! Most of these are not classroom teachers, but still. At one point the site supervisor attempted to placate us by referring to us as the "cream of the crop," as if we had been selected by our principals because of our competence; we all laughed, because we knew that we had actually been selected because we're disposable.

In any case, the entire experience grew more ridiculous by the day. I don't know who was in charge or how it was supposed to be organized, because it seemed to us like the supervisors had very little idea how to run things. Like how about the fact they had one sign-in sheet for 200 people and expected all 200 of them to sign in and then sit down before they made announcements? Or the fact that they wanted us to count ourselves off by 24 in order to send us upstairs to rooms? Or the fact that every morning we practically played musical chairs as the supervisor said things like, "If today or tomorrow is your last day but you have not been trained on the fourth grade reading and writing, move to this side of the auditorium"?

And then there were the more serious transgressions, the ones that had us worried about the actual integrity of the test grades. If, for example, you were about to give a student a 2 on one section of the test and happened to notice that another grader had given the same student a 4 on another section (as 4 is the highest grade you can receive, this seems like a substantial discrepancy), and you voiced your concern, you were told to (exact words) "MYOB." (Listen, lady, I'm not being a nosy parker here, this is my first time grading a very important state exam and I just want to make sure everything is copacetic.) If you and all the other graders at your table happened to notice that the essay appeared to be written in two very different handwritings, as if it sure looked like the teacher had made a few changes, and you voiced your concerns, your objections were dismissed. I don't know what teachers at other grading sites experienced, but I have to say that I was treated with less respect than I typically try to treat my second graders, and that had me worried for the validity of the scoring.

My fellow graders and I did our best to be thorough. We frequently passed tests around the table to get a second opinion, and for those essays we were truly on the fence about, we had spirited discussions and consulted our rubrics frequently before committing to a final grade. When grading the editing passages, in which students have to correct grammatical errors, I always counted twice to make sure I was grading correctly. But we were only one room, and who knows what was going on in the other rooms at the other grading sites? Some schools sent intermediate and junior high school teachers to grade third graders' exams, and some of those teachers had to be gently reminded that they were dealing with the writing of eight-year-olds, not teenagers. Some graders seemed to be handing out 4s to nearly every essay, while others seemed to be unwilling to give the students the benefit of the doubt. Despite our supervisors' best efforts to get everyone on the same page of the same rubric, grading the ELA, I learned, is frighteningly subjective. The exams we graded, for example, all came from districts outside our own -- districts that tend to be high-scoring. I teach a population of mostly ELLs in a low-scoring district, so I was pretty impressed by the work that I read -- until I thought about teachers who are used to teaching high-scoring kids in other districts who would be reading the exams from my district and wondering what the kids could possibly be thinking.

I don't want to accuse the ELA graders of incompetence, or cheating, or messing with the exam results, or even incomplete or invalid training of the graders. All I want to do is point out that my own experience grading the ELA was less than positive because of the overall disorganization of the process. It set a tone that was unfortunate, given the vital work we were doing. And that vital work was what I tried to remind myself of each time I opened a new test booklet and faced the determined, sprawling handwriting of a new student trying to make himself understood.