Saturday, May 23, 2009

The house that reading built

(Why am I writing this entry at 4:30 am? Because I'm awake battling a fever, sore throat and chills. I'm not saying I have the H1N1 virus...I'm just sayin'.)

It's running record time again, and I'm pleased to report that I moved my Polish-speaking Lukas from level D to E. He happily rushed off to "move his person" (a little stick figure with his name on it) from the D envelope to the E envelope, and then he went to the classroom library to do what we call "shopping for books." From the other side of the bookshelf, I could hear him humming busily to himself as he dumped all the D books out of his book baggie and then stashed them back in the D bin with a chirpy, "Bye-bye, D books! See ya later!"

So cute.

How is everyone else doing? Azul, who started the year at B, is now an I, and I have high hopes he'll be a J when I meet with him again next week -- which means that even though he's behind where he should be at the end of second grade, he's still made more than an entire year's worth of progress in his first full school year in America. My first L reader is now an N -- and if you're thinking N is a third grade reading level (not to mention a letter I never thought I'd see in Academic Intervention Services), you're correct!

(Last week I subbed for a class and one of the kids, who was briefly in my reading group but has since returned to his teacher's, told me I was the "bestest substitute teacher ever." Then he congratulated me on finally having M readers in my group. This kid, I swear, is like 8 going on 40.)

It's not all so rosy. Neel is still stuck at C, and probably will be until his parents finally consent to a special ed placement. It's now the end of his fifth year at our school, and he is officially my lowest reader. Even my ELLs, who arrived in this country in September with no English, are at least D readers.

My K readers are struggling to move to L. The L running record story is about some kids who put their mother's lipstick all over their face and then get the bright idea to pretend they have chicken pox so they don't have to go to school. For two days straight last week I listened to reader after reader tell me, "First they put their mother's lipstick on their face and then they got chicken pox." Aargh!

Finally, on an unrelated note: When I noticed last week that one of my students was unusually moody, I took her aside to ask what was up, and she launched into this painfully adolescent litany of woes that sounded straight out of Mean Girls, only second grade-sized. The funny thing was that it all sounded seriously familiar, as though the patterns of girl friendship haven't changed much since I was in second grade, or probably for hundreds of years. It was the same old "Ariella is supposed to be my friend but I don't understand why she's mean to me but then when I'm not around she's nice to Tara" and "Danyelis is always saying that Ariella is her first best friend and Tara is her second best friend but I'm only her third best friend." But don't fret! We, like, totally girl-talked it out and hopefully she'll be able to move on.

Thursday, May 21, 2009


Yesterday a third grader at my school threw things at his classmates, gave his teacher the middle finger, made fun of her name by turning it into a vulgarity, and said, "F**k you" to her.

Yet he won't be suspended until at least next week, because our school suspension room is already full. So today, he was back in class.

That makes me extremely angry. To show that level of disrespect for other students and teachers and not receive any immediate consequences for it? That's the kind of situation where a principal should march into the classroom and drag the kid out by his ears. But at our school we have no one in a position of authority who demands that kind of respect from our students, and they're getting away with murder.

Yesterday I was asked to cover a class for the whole day for a teacher who was at a meeting. I happen to love that class, so I didn't mind and we had a good day together. Today another teacher was out sick, and her substitute unexpectedly had to leave to pick up her son, who apparently had a high fever (hmmm...). Wouldn't it be fair, since I was pulled from my program yesterday, to pull the second grade push-in math teacher instead today? Nope. Our push-in math teachers never get pulled to cover classes for the day -- it's like they think math teachers are incapable of following our literacy program or something.

Anyway, so I've got this class for the day, and then I realize that I'm the teacher who picks up all the early dismissal kids from the floor and brings them downstairs. (Side note: I seriously, seriously hope they come up with some way of revising our extended day program next year, because this year it is such a waste of time and such a chaotic disaster every day when some kids leave, other kids stay, some kids go to other classrooms, etc.) So, like the responsible, conscientious teacher that I am, I head into the office to tell the secretary that I have a conflict.

Now, I should have realized something was up when I saw my principal sitting next to the secretary's desk, but neither of them were talking and both looked deep in thought, so I approached and began to say quietly to the secretary, "I just want to let you know that I -- "

My principal interrupted me by holding up her hand and saying, "Not now, Miss Brave."

And so I slunk off, feeling oddly humiliated, as though I had just had an encouter with Simon Cowell. Not now? Let me tell you something: I am a second grade teacher, and I get interrupted all day long. Sometimes I say, "Sorry, you need to wait a minute," or "One second, please" or "I am working with another student, please don't interrupt." But I don't say a curt "Not now" and nothing else. I believe it's called you have to give respect to get respect.

(Addendum: After that I had to go back to class -- a class that was not my own, mind you -- and deal with tantrum-throwing children for the rest of the day, and that occupied my mind for the afternoon until the inevitable happened: The end of the day came, my students were packed to leave, and no one came to pick them up.)

Monday, May 18, 2009


I've been especially grumpy at work lately, so grumpy that I thought I wouldn't even mind a school-shuttering case of the swine flu.

But that was before I heard the sad news about Mitchell Weiner, the assistant principal at IS 238 who died from complications of the H1N1 virus.

My school, like everyone else's, was abuzz today with rumors about school closures, flu hotlines, and global pandemics. Convinced that the entire city was on the brink of shutting down, we had the radio tuned to 1010 WINS and our computer reloading (The Department of Education website, which claims that "the latest official information will always be available here," was about 24 hours behind schedule with the promised updates...ah, DOE, what else is new?)

Meanwhile, our principal, parent coordinator and UFT rep spent the entire morning personally calling the home of every child who was absent, armed with a checklist that allowed them to interrogate parents about their child's symptoms.

Now, even though fourteen public schools are closed, only one -- IS 238, where Mitchell Weiner was the assistant principal -- has confirmed cases of the H1N1 virus. The other schools have only reported higher than usual absences, which I personally think is the result of the nature of this kind of epidemic: Parents are being more cautious and keeping their children home from school, which causes the school to record higher than usual absences, which stirs up fears of possible contagion, which causes the school to close.

That's the logical way to look at it...but I also understand how terribly scary and sad it must be to be a junior high school student who loses a beloved assistant principal to an unfamiliar virus, and how vulnerable our young children -- many of whom suffer from asthma and allergies and other "underlying medical conditions" -- are. And part of me feels that this "monitor and see" approach -- three schools today, four schools tomorrow, forty schools on the "watch list," all schools reporting to a "flu hotline" -- creates more panic -- mightn't it be more prudent just to shut us all down as a precautionary measure? So what if it means giving in to public fears or acceding to public concerns? (...says the teacher who could really, really use a week or so off from school.) It's like the snow day when the city waited until 6 am to close the schools, only the snow is the H1N1 virus and 6 am is...death.

And even though I'm conflicted, my mind keeps going round back to Mitchell Weiner, who may or may not have had "underlying medical conditions" that contributed to his death but who in all probability would still be alive had he not contracted the H1N1 virus. I'm sure that in the months to come, there will be a lot of second-guessing and questioning whether the city and the DOE could have or should have done more to keep him alive.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Trickle-down pressure

I've been feeling really disconnected lately -- from my students, my job and from teaching in general. I feel like I'm starting to take out on my students all the inner resentment I have for the BS I'm asked to deal with, and I hate feeling that way because we do still have some lovely moments of clarity together that are unfortunately overshadowed by all the other nonsense. There is definitely a system of trickle-down pressure at work in my school -- teachers who are under pressure from administration then put that pressure on their students -- and I can't shake the feeling that I know I shouldn't be blaming my students or expecting more from them than they are capable of just because my administration has completely unrealistic expectations...but somehow I can't help it.

This month, for instance, we are working on a non-fiction science unit in which the kids will be researching a topic (say, plants) in reading and then writing about it during writing. The first problem with this unit is that there are multiple grades doing it at the same time, and there just aren't enough books to go around. Some of my teachers were gracious enough to make sure they had enough books for my group as well as their own and we just intermixed our kids, but others assumed I would be bringing my own books for my own kids...where am I supposed to unearth these mythical books from, you ask? Yesterday I made a trip to the public library to check out mounds of books, and today I made a return trip, and I ended up with the maximum number of books allowed. I even pleadingly asked if they could make an exception for schoolteachers, but no such luck. Now I have to impress upon my students that under threat of death they will take exceedingly good care of those library books.

The second problem with this unit is that, like everything else my school does, it is over-ambitious and rushed. Today, for instance, our readers were supposed to browse the books in their topic and ask themselves, "What smaller topics inside my big topic do I want to gather information on?" -- basically, they were supposed to choose six sub-topics to research. We talked about examples of good sub-topics, like, "What They Eat," "Where They Live," "What They Look Like" (the "They" being dependent on one's actual topic, of course), and some of them did an admirable job. But realistically, can you expect a seven-year-old to decide on six good sub-topics in fifteen minutes of non-fiction reading when this is only the second day they've ever seen the books at all? I feel like that's a concept that some high schoolers and college students would still struggle with. And these are the topics we're expecting them to stick with and research all month! I felt like I was telling them, "In other words, if you do a half-assed job today, you're screwed." One of my colleagues suggested that we ask permission to carry the lesson over to tomorrow as well, and I thought: Why should we need to ask permission to make a judgment call on a lesson that we didn't think went as well as it could have?

So when my usual troublemakers were stirring up trouble, I was more short-tempered than usual with them -- trickle-down pressure. There were the kids who had been daydreaming during the mini lesson and missed the point of it completely, who went off to their science reading and began to complain, "I don't know what to do." Then one of my lower readers, in an attempt to follow my suggestion that he use the table of contents to help him choose his topics, chose "Index" as one of his sub-topics.

I just see the whole month going this way -- one disaster after another, because the workshop model is not going to help them learn how to research a topic when we model it once and then just charge ahead and expect them to do it. Oh, and let's not forget about the parade of interruptions from running records and NYSESLAT testing. If I had my way, we would focus on fewer things, give them more time and attention, and I would meet with students individually and in small groups to help them with their research instead of pulling them for these ridiculous "goal" strategy lessons.

But of course, I don't have my way.