Thursday, October 29, 2009

I definitely did not teach this in a mini lesson

Today it was blissfully quiet in my classroom during reading. It was so quiet, in fact, that I was considering granting my class a much-coveted compliment (they have been stuck at 16 forever, while they need to get to 25 to earn themselves either (a) a popcorn party or (b) a Michael Jackson dance party. Yes, I said that).

I assumed it was quiet because William is no longer with us (do you hear that? It is the sound of a choir of heavenly angels is also a story for an entirely different post). As it turns out, I should have known better. It was not quiet because my students were so studiously reading their books, drinking in the vast store of knowledge that can only come from endless re-reads of Mr. Putter and Tabby Bake a Cake. No, it was quiet because they were using the post-its from their book baggies -- which are supposed to be used to mark important parts of their books and jot down notes, thank you very much, yes I did teach that in a mini lesson about how readers blah blah blah by blah blah blay -- they were using the post-its from their book baggies to write and pass each other notes that read, among other things, "Suck my balls" and "Have sex with me." (And, by the way, the only reason I know exactly what these notes read is because I had to go digging through the trash can, CSI-style, to retrieve the evidence.)

Excuse me, I teach second grade. I do not teach middle school or junior high school, and precisely for the reason that I did not ever want to rehearse a phone call home that included the words "Today your son wrote 'Suck my balls' and 'Have sex with me' on a post-it."

What makes the whole thing even grosser is that these notes were being passed to girls, like, now I have a case of seven-year-old sexual harassment on my hands, which does not jive very well with our class trip to the petting zoo tomorrow.

Meanwhile, you know how every class has those girls who are very precocious and very prissy and very bossy and know-it-all and can always be counted upon to Inform you (yes, that's Inform with a capital I) who was doing what? Well, my authoritative informants assured me that Julio was the culprit (naturally), but his mother angrily told the guidance counselor that it wasn't his handwriting. (Which means that he didn't write the note, he just passed it around and flashed it at my Informants, which isn't really necessarily any better but ensures that his mother will probably hate me forever now for accusing her son of being a budding pervert.)

But, having now added Handwriting Comparison Expert to my growing list of teacher skills, I know who the real author of the note is. Alas, the number on his blue card turned out to be disconnected. I sort of hope he's at home right now playing with his DS, because I suspect that once I get in touch with Mom, today will be the last he sees of it for a long, loooong time.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Every kid has a story

Every kid has a story. That's something I have to remind myself constantly in my class, because -- even putting aside William (who remains in my classroom, despite assurances from virtually everyone in the school that he'll be gone "any day now") and Julio (whose mother just sent me a lengthy form to fill out from a psychiatrist, hallelujah), I have some naughty, naughty kids in my class. But, unlike William and Julio, there's usually some kind of motivation for their behavior, and that's where the stories come in.

Jason is one of those naughty boys. He's so naughty, in fact, that his articulation card clearly stated that he shouldn't be placed in the same class as Julio (see: pants-wetting, tantrum-throwing and overall violent behavior). Wonder of wonders, I ended up with them both, and while Jason started out the year okay, lately he's been acting up. And by "acting up," I mean that (a) the tattle turtle received an anonymous note that read: "Jason tried to punch me in the face at lunch, (b) Jason passed a note to another student that read "dum dum," and (c) somehow the words "Shut up, crybaby" were deemed an appropriate response to another student playing a math game.

Jason is actually very bright, but he's also extremely lazy and a total whiner. I'd been communicating with his mom via e-mail, but after he broke out the "dum dum," I broke out the phone call. "What did he do?" she said knowingly after I introduced himself, sounded exasperated and affectionate at the same time. After speaking with his mom, I realized I'm so used to getting a total blank response from William's mom and excuse after excuse from Julio's mom that I wasn't expecting an actual positive response from a parent. That's when I got the story. Of course, it doesn't excuse the name-calling and the refusals to do classwork and the bordering-on-rudeness, but it does explain it a little. Jason's mom wrote me a long note today in which she explained Jason's side of the story but also conceded that "you never know with kids who's lying" -- a parent who's willing to admit that her child isn't perfect! How novel! And now I know that Jason is getting counseling outside of school, and we have a plan to keep Mom updated via e-mail.

It's not easy teaching a class of 27 kids, but it's even harder teaching 27 classes of 1 kid. But every kid has a story.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Friday cupcakes

Yesterday, while I was walking my class upstairs with William at the front of the line (which is not where his line spot is, but you try getting him to stay in his place), he enthused to me: "We're going to have a party!"

"Where, in after-school?" I asked.

"No, in our class!" he responded, jerking a thumb to the back of the line. There was Arianna carrying three boxes of Entenmann's Halloween cupcakes that I had no idea were coming.

Now, Friday was Joan's birthday; Saturday was Arianna's. A few days before, Arianna had said to me: "My dad asked if the class could sing happy birthday to me, but I don't want to take away from Joan's birthday."

My hardened, blackened teacher heart melted, and I assured her we could sing to both of them. But I had not been forewarned about the cupcakes.

Arianna is a holdover; she was in my reading group last year. She is a quiet, sweet little girl who tries very hard, has low self-esteem, and giggles when I tell jokes to the class. Naturally, I adore her. I get the impression she doesn't necessarily get pumped up by her family at home, so I was surprised they went out of their way to send her in with birthday cupcakes. Here was the problem: There were 18 cupcakes for my 27 students. (Well, 25...thank goodness Julio was absent and William was with a pull-out teacher, because the day might have ended with a food fight instead of singing if they had been there.)

That's why, seventh period, I found myself sawing through the gooey cupcakes with a plastic knife. Robert gave each student half a paper towel, Tanya collected all the garbage, and I handed out baby wipes so everyone could clean their frosting fingers. Then a student from across the hall popped in to offer me a cupcake from her birthday party. When she proffered the box of cupcakes, I nearly fainted: They were from Magnolia Bakery! You bet your sweet frosting I took one.

As we all settled in to eat our cupcakes, my students started venting their complaints about William: "I know why I can't behave," Jose said sadly. "It's because William keeps saying mean things, and I try to ignore him but he keeps saying them, and then I just get so mad!" Melinda agreed: "When William keeps coming to my table and bothering us, my brain just gets so angry and I just have to say something to him."

And I really can't blame them. They're seven years old. It's hard. Even I can't control my anger at William sometimes. How do I explain to them that William is angry, and frustrated, and compensates for that by trying to bully them? How do I explain that William is obviously not in an appropriate setting, that we're working to find a better environment for him?

All I know is, for forty minutes on Friday afternoon, I got a taste of what my classroom would be like without William and Julio. And oh my, it was sweet.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

This is why I wanted to stay a reading teacher

We just finished our first unit in math, and I feel like a dismal failure as a math teacher. I have 16 students in my math group. From the pre-test to the post-test (they have exactly the same questions), 6 of my students got exactly the same score (usually because they got exactly the same question wrong), 6 went up, and 4 went down.

I despise math.


Yesterday afternoon, very close to the end of the day, Julio had an accident. He was already in the bathroom when it happened, so I figured (a) he had waited too long to ask me to go, (b) he was fooling around in the bathroom and underestimated how much he had to go, or (c) he had trouble getting his belt undone and ended up wetting himself. Anyway, I called downstairs and the office called his mother, and because it was so close to the end of the school day, his mother just took him home. There was an awkward period in between when he wouldn't pull up his wet pants and come out of the bathroom, so he simply stayed in there with his pants down, only he wanted to hear the story I was reading, so he kept sticking his head out of the bathroom, which of course caught the attention of some of the girls, who squealed, "Julio has his pants down!" But eventually Mom showed up and I figured that was the end of it.

Today, Julio had another accident. Again, he was already in the bathroom. But this time, he peed all over the bathroom floor. Again, he wouldn't pull up his wet pants and come out of the bathroom, but today, he started wadding up toilet paper and throwing it out of the bathroom. When I confronted him, he flat-out denied it, and then -- maybe in a misguided attempt to get rid of the evidence? -- he stuffed the toilet paper in his mouth and started chewing it.

So now we have the pants-wetting, and the violent and sexual pictures he's been drawing, and the fact that when he gets angry he bangs his head against the wall and says things like, "I'm going to kill myself." Last year, when he was in first grade, he scrawled a racial slur on the hand of the only African-American child in his class. And every day, when I pick up the class from lunch, I hear, "Julio punched me, Julio kicked me, Julio spilled milk on me."

Mom promises she's looking into getting him counseling. But in the meantime, I can't hold my breath.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The pencil problem

My classroom has a pencil problem.

Before the first day of school, in my adorable naivete, I supplied each table in my classroom with a table caddy filled to the brim with pencils, erasers, crayons and a pencil sharpener.

That was my first mistake.

Within weeks, all of those things had disappeared. The pencil sharpeners were broken. The erasers were missing. The pencils had been swept up by the janitor.

That's when the complaints started: "I don't have a pencil." "My pencil is broken." "I don't know what happened to my pencil."

Every afternoon, our pencil monitor sharpens pencils. Every morning, I sharpen a box of pencils. And by second period, all of those pencils are broken, or missing, or both.

Now, I have a few naughty children who simply snap them in half, or use them so inappropriately that they break. And I have those others who simply can't stop sharpening their pencils, even when they are sharp, so they sharpen them until they break or get too tiny to use.

But for the love of God, where are our pencils going? Do my students not know how to use pencils without pressing hard enough to break them? Why, every single day, do I spend half the day dealing with a total effing lack of pencils?

Yesterday, I put new pencil sharpeners on all the tables. This morning? They were all gone. According to many reliable student sources, the culprit was a student who was absent today. "He took all the sharpeners," they took me solemnly. "I saw him. He said not to tell."

Why do I have so many students who think it is acceptable to just take things that they want? I already have William dancing around the pencil sharpener, saying, "I'm going to break it!" I have William blatantly taking things right off my desk or snatching things right out of the hands of other students and then accusing them: "Shut up, you big fat liar! Who asked you? I'm gonna punch you in your head!" (Nice.)

And the one desktop pencil sharpener I bought (again, with my own money) has had a group of children crowded around it constantly, no matter how many times I explain that only one person at a time should be standing near the pencil sharpener.

I've been reduced to begging my students to tell their parents to send them to school with an ample supply of sharpened pencils (and really, is that too much to ask?) or at the very least a pencil sharpener. But I beg of you, other classroom teachers: How do you solve the pencil problem?

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Opposite ends of the spectrum

Sad but true: On any given day, 90% of my energy is directed toward making sure William and Julio don't burn down the school. Which leaves a paltry 10% of my energy for kids like Leah.

Who is Leah? Leah is your basic dream student. She is polite, conscientious and intelligent. She raises her hand; she never calls out. She always follows directions, and in a timely fashion. If I say, "Put away your social studies book, take out your book baggie and go to the carpet," Leah will always be the first (and often only) student there. Best of all, Leah does all this without fuss: She never brags about how smart she is, or yells at the other kids at her table to get their mess together so they can get a table tally. She just does what she needs to do in a totally mature fashion without any complaint. Even my other brightest students are in my face all the time, asking me for drinks of water (albeit extra maturely: "Miss Brave, my throat is really dry, may I please have a sip of water?") or trying to show off for me, but not Leah. That would be just so...beneath her.

Now, I know there are teachers who might find Leah boring. After all, she never kicks up a fuss; it's actually a treat to see her even smile, because Leah is clearly not in school to fool around, she's in school to learn. But I, for one, am thankful I have a Leah in my class. Leah doesn't get caught red-handed by the School Safety Patrol at lunch for drawing pictures of naked ladies. She doesn't have to be sheepishly returned to the classroom fifteen minutes after dismissal for managing to leave school without her backpack. She doesn't pretend to be shooting machine guns at the other students, or blow air inside her book baggie with her mouth hoping it will blow up and pop, or crawl underneath a table and pout when she gets upset.

She just tries her best, every single day. Thank goodness.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Options in October


First of all, I want to say thank you for the outpouring of support that followed my mental breakdown. Your comments were comforting and in some cases a lot more constructive than those of my colleagues' ("I'll pray for you" and "I'm going to throw some holy water at your room" were two I heard today...OK, I'm glad I'm not the only one who notices that my class is a 3-ring circus, but throw me a bone, people), and I'm touched to know that so many people out there were thinking of me and trying to help.

Now, the plan. We've put both William and Julio on a token economy system, where they can earn little cards that give them the privilege of going to the gym, the computer room, or art. And for William, at least, the last two days have been -- cautiously -- great.

Holy effing moly, did I really just say that? Knock on wood and cross your fingers, people. He raised his hand during Word Work. He sat up straight and flashed the quiet signal. And...this is the kicker...he successfully navigated a science experiment that involved using a sharpened pencil, clothespins, and a sharp, poky wire.

Last period.

After gym class.

OK, I just got chills down my spine, so I need to type that again slowly. I gave him sharp objects...last period...after gym class...and he was fine. He was better than fine; I started calling him "Professor William, the scientist."

That's the thing about William: He drives me to tears, and Xanax (oh yes, I said it), but every day I give him another chance. Today, during Word Work, he sat at his seat (the separate desk I set up just for him, with a little clipboard propped up next to him that says "William's Goals") and hollered, "I NEED HELP! I NEED HELLLLLPPPP!" And I thought: Ooooh, what an improvement! Because last week, he would have been tossing his Word Work book up at the ceiling and doing backflips on the carpet.

Of course, classrooms are full of yin and yang, and as William has been improving, his sidekick Julio has not. Today I had a long talk with Julio's first grade teacher after school. Our conversation revealed all sorts of interesting tidbits; the juiciest was that Julio has, in fact, been diagnosed with ADHD, but his mother doesn't want him on medication. Dear Julio's mother: For the love of God, give your son some Ritalin. I mean, I would respect her right to explore options other than medication if I actually thought she would, you know, explore options other than medication, instead of living in the gigantic bubble of denial she's created. Like, failing to show up for a meeting with me two mornings in a row because you bring him to school late every day? Doesn't really give me the impression that you're all that invested in how he's doing. And while we're at it, let's ask some other questions, like: Why does your son constantly draw pictures of people shooting and stabbing each other? Why does he shout curse words when he's angry? Why does he tell me he's going to kill himself? OK, seriously: Your seven-year-old threatens suicide when he's angry.

And he's angry a lot. This kid is not stupid. He knows he can't sit still, he knows he doesn't behave when all the other kids can. He's like an alcoholic who doesn't know how to quit because -- oh, right -- he's seven years old and needs more help than I can give him. Especially with 26 other kids in the class. One of whom is effing William! (Dear administration: What a fantastic idea it was putting these two kids together. Seriously, am I being punished or something? No love, Miss Brave.)

I would like to close with the unexpected, and much-needed, laugh I got last week when this happened:

Scene: Our classroom, dismissal. Chaos reigns. Papers fly. Schoolbags hit desks. A sweet little girl walks up to me and hands me a box of wipes.

"Miss Brave, my mom said to bring these in for the class."

I take the box. I say thank you. It is only when the day is over, and all the kids have gone home, that I retrieve the box to add to our collection. It is then I notice: They are not baby wipes. Or Clorox wipes. They are Preparation H medicated hemorrhoid wipes...and the box is half empty.