Friday, December 10, 2010

If you read this blog regularly, you probably know already that I have a long list of complaints about my students: laziness, whining, extreme aggression toward other children...you name it, I've probably bemoaned it.

One of the most disappointing things I've encountered in my teaching career is when students show such an enormous lack of respect for classroom materials and supplies.  At the beginning of my first year in the classroom, I bought colorful caddies to sit on each table and filled them to the brim with brand new supplies: pencils, pens, erasers and pencil sharpeners.  Not more than a week later, everything was broken, missing, or defaced.  My fellow second grade teachers and I made a mutual decision to stop giving our students post-its to jot on, because inevitably we would find post-its scattered all over the floor, ripped up into pieces, inscribed with inappropriate language or being made into flip books.  Some of my students used markers to draw on pencils, on our desk caddies, on the floor. 

This isn't, of course, a universal problem.  A great many of my students treat their supplies exactly the way I remember treating mine in school, with the utmost care -- each pencil and eraser tucked lovingly into their pristine pencil case.  (I hate to generalize here, but let's face it: Most of them are girls.)  But every time I turn around, I inevitably catch someone scribbling doodles on a post-it and then ripping it into pieces that end up on the carpet, or someone else drawing on his notebook with a dry erase marker, or someone else using a scissors to whittle a pencil.  (Why do you even have a dry erase marker?  How did the scissors end up on your desk instead of in the scissors bin where they belong?)  One of our students routinely snaps pencils in half when he gets angry.  (Are you tempted to suggest that we give him a squishy ball instead?  Been there, done that, our students managed to break the squishy balls.)  My friend Edward managed to color all over the bottom halves of his sneakers with red marker (which then bled onto the floor, leaving red streaks.)  Several of our students have managed to use their pencils to bore holes through the protective covering over their nametags, scribbling over their names until they were little more than black streaks.

How do you teach your students to respect their supplies?

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Why can't we just get along?

One of my students hates me, and I'm not sure what to do about it.

Sure, I've had students express anger and even rage at me before.  I've had students glare at me and grumble at me and gripe at me.  I've even had students yell at me.  But having never team-taught before, I've never experienced a situation where a student is so freaking rude to me alone -- not my co-teacher, but only me.

Edward registered on my radar at the beginning of the year as a slightly spacey, soft-spoken kid who appeared to be in his own world most of the time but occasionally contributed really insightful comments during read aloud.  His mother wrote us thoughtful notes about how she was working with Edward on his maturity.

Then, a few months into the school year, Mom got a new job.  Edward started coming to school wearing dirty clothes, or clothes that were inside-out and backwards, or, most bizarrely, his karate uniform.  He started putting his head down and falling asleep in the middle of the afternoon, and complaining that he was hungry and hadn't eaten dinner or breakfast.  He stopped doing work altogether in class, stopped participating in African dance, and started antagonizing his classmates (one of whom I overheard exclaiming with exasperation, "Why is Edward so hard to work with?!"). 

And he started a significant crusade against me.  When I said in a casual, friendly voice, "Hey, Edward, what's in your lunch bag there?" he snapped, "None of your business!"  When I try to talk to him, about anything, he frequently puts his hands over his ears or a book in front of his face and says, "Blah blah blah!"  He's asked me never to speak to him again, he's expressed a desire to petition the principal to have me fired and, most oddly, he's told me I smell like carrots (I diplomatically replied that I would take that as a compliment). 

He can't explain -- or has chosen not to explain -- why he has such a huge problem with me, but no problem with my co-teacher.  (Not that his interactions with her are a bed of roses, but he will at least follow her directions, whereas he has actually run away from me on numerous occasions.)  The only reason we've ever been able to eke out of him is that I'm "mean."  But I make every effort to speak to him in a polite, civilized tone of voice, and still our classroom interactions play out like this:

(Edward is rolling around on the carpet taking up spots that should belong to other kids.)
Miss Brave: "Edward, please sit up."
(No response from Edward. Ms. Halpert comes over.)
Ms. Halpert: "Edward, sit up NOW!"
(Edward sits up.)

A-ha, you might be thinking, it sounds like Edward is one of those kids who responds better to stern voices!  Except when I do the stern voice, Edward claims I am "screaming" at him.  I can assure you: In our classroom, it is Ms. Halpert who does most of the screaming.

I honestly didn't think it would bother me this much -- after all, as I said, I've had kids dislike me before -- but when every day he is insufferably rude to me and then responds to Ms. Halpert, I can't help taking it personally.  Edward has decided I don't have to listen to anything Miss Brave says, because she is mean.  So we're locked in this vicious cycle where I try to ignore his behavior, only to have him amp it up to the point where he's literally throwing it in my face (watch me misbehave! ha ha!), so I feel compelled to address it, and then I get: You're mean. Yesterday I informed him that he would not be participating in choice time, and he responded with, "That's what you say."  In the end he spent choice time sitting next to Ms. Halpert wearing the angriest of angry faces, but didn't talk back to her the way he always talks back to me.

We're working to get counseling added to Edward's services, so I'm hoping this is something the counselor might be able to address with him.  But in the meantime, I dread my interactions with him, which is a shame because I am, you know, his teacher.  Julio's behavior last year was much more out of control, but at least Julio believed that I was, at least some of the time, on his side.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

All over the place

I'm not sure how to admit this.  I'm not sure if you'll even believe me when I say it.  Or perhaps, if you're a teacher yourself, you'll nod your head knowingly and say, "I could have told you this would happen."

Are you ready for it?

I miss my old class.

Don't get me wrong.  I love my new school.  I do not miss my old school.  I love that the principal knows my students' names and that I can walk through the always-open door in his office and ask for help with a problem.  I love that my super third grade colleagues and I are constantly firing off e-mails to each other about ways to strengthen our teaching.  I love that my students get to participate in African dance, and chess, and playwriting, and musical theater, and tons of other opportunities that weren't available at my old school.

And yet -- that's why I miss them.  When a handful of my third graders acted obnoxiously during one of our African dance classes, I couldn't resist the urge to lecture them about how my former second graders would have cherished the opportunity to participate in something so unique.  And thus, not only did my mind wipe itself clean of memories of obnoxious behavior on the part of those very same second graders, but I pulled out one of those "you don't realize how fortunate you are" speeches that pretty much has zero effect on obnoxious third graders.

This is a school year of firsts: my first year in a new school, my first year teaching third grade, my first year in a CTT classroom.  On the latter two, I remain conflicted: I enjoy the independence of my third graders but miss the relative sweetness and innocence of my second graders.  I enjoy the collaboration of team teaching, the way my co-teacher challenges my thinking to better ideas and pushes me to be accountable to my ideas, but I miss the freedom of having my own classroom.  But this is my fourth year teaching, and every year I've switched positions.  I'd like something to remain the same for next year, just so I could have the experience of going into a school year already familiar with the curriculum. 

Unfortunately, lately I've felt a little stuck in a rut -- as if I was pinning so many hopes on this new school, as if I could switch schools and magically all my teaching problems would go away.  Since the school year started, however, I've been realizing that now that I no longer have to worry so intensely about covering my behind and keeping up with absurd paperwork, I have no excuse but to focus on my actual teaching...and in teaching, of course, that work never ends. Especially in our CTT classroom, my co-teacher and I face this constant struggle.  Am I scaffolding enough? 

Also, while I love the other teachers on my grade, several of them teach gifted and talented classes, and those of us with general ed kids often find ourselves in the awkward position of trying to decide whether a particular unit or lesson will be appropriate for our kids. When I walk down the hallway and peek into the TAG classes, where all the kids have their noses stuck in books or are busily working in hushed whispers, and then I open the door to my own zoo of a classroom, I'm faced with uncomfortable questions. Are the gifted kids better behaved?  Is it normal for 27 third-graders to be making this much noise, or are we doing something wrong in here? 

Just the other day, though, Mr. Brave commented on what a huge difference it is coming home to me this year.  No longer am I crying about the latest out-of-control incident in my classroom, or seething with rage about the latest directive from my principal. 

So, that's where I'm at.  And at some point in the (hopefully) near future, I'll be writing less about my personal conflicts and more about the learning that's taking place in my classroom.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Back by popular demand

I hate those bloggers who suddenly stop blogging, only to return with abrupt, short, cryptic posts that promise longer posts in the future.  So because I didn't want to write until I actually had time to sit down and write...I just stopped writing altogether. And therefore became one of those bloggers who doesn't know how to play catch up because so much has happened since the last time I blogged.

There was my school's fall festival, at which I applied temporary tattoos (some of them woefully more temporary than others) and watched in awe as my principal painted delicate designs onto the faces of our students.  (My principal face painted, people!)  I gaped at the stacks of school merchandise (sweatshirts! mugs! hats!) being sold by the PTA, and the enormous bake sale, and the long lines in the schoolyard...what an incredible shock coming from P.S. Throwing Chairs, where no one even showed up for PTA meetings.

There was the Great First Grade Debacle, in which my principal made good on his longtime threat to send one of our notorious troublemakers Back to First Grade...a move that appeared to have backfired once he shrugged it off and observed, "It's just like third grade, only easier and I get to be the cool older kid."

There was the phone call from the school secretary notifying us that one of our other notorious troublemakers (we have five, to be exact) is moving out of the state.  (I got the same phone call right around this time last year about Julio, however, and we all know how that turned out.)  "When are you sending up the cake so we can celebrate?" I replied.  (I said it. I admit it.)

There was the uncomfortable grade meeting during which my assistant principal awkwardly noted that students from "non-standard English-speaking families" (i.e., minority students) under-perform on state tests and average three and a half reading levels behind by the time they're in third grade.

There was the day a teacher accosted my fellow third grade teacher in the hallway to tell her that her class and my class were "the worst of the worst" in the school, and the time I had to console my co-teacher by telling her that at least she'd always remember her disastrous first class.  (When I noted I'd had much worse, she responded by saying, "I think that's why you're so calm cool and collected all the time!") 

There was today, when I arrived in the cafeteria after lunch and one of the school aides said to me, "I feel sorry for you, I don't know how you do it!"

I know how: By not letting behavior get to me. By remembering that tomorrow is another day. By savoring moments like when Gabrielle apologized to Shawna by saying, "I didn't know you felt that way, I'm sorry" or when Tara flawlessly explained the intricate plot of her level Q chapter book.  By energizing myself towards productive activities like lesson plans...amazingly, I find that now that I don't have an assistant principal or literacy coach dictating my every lesson, I'm producing better work.  My co-teacher and I have developed some great rubrics and models of the work we want our kids to be able to do in their reading notebooks and in their writing.  I've even gotten a little pumped up about teaching math, because the kids seem to like it so much and I'm determined to make the abstract TERC curriculum clearer to follow.

So where have I been?  I've been reprimanding Kiana to stop rolling her eyes and try African dance, I've been collecting suggestions on how to title my bar graph, I've been developing a grading rubric for reading notebooks, I've been struggling in vain to show Michael how to use quotation marks. ("Look in this book, Michael. Do you see quotation marks around every single word? Do you see quotation marks around the word 'said'?")  I've been arguing with Brian about the best player on the Mets (he's partial to Jason Bay and Jose Reyes -- Mr. Brave's head about exploded when I told him, considering, "Jason Bay doesn't even PLAY!") and introducing my word work group to trigraphs.  I've been reassuring Aliyah that sometimes glasses snap in half...and trying to convince Kiana to wear her glasses.  I've been seething at the potential release of those teacher data reports, and frothing over the closing credits of Waiting for Superman (as if texting the word "possible" to some 5-digit number is all that's need to solve the problems in urban education!). 

I've been adjusting. But in the future, I'll try to do a better job keeping you posted while I do.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

The magic five

Before the school year started, Ms. Halpert and I were warned (ominously, in some cases) about a group of our students, whose second grade teachers referred to them not-so-affectionately as the "magic five."  Considering I used to teach in a classroom where a "problem behavior" was throwing chairs, I was prepared for anything.  I was prepared for war.

But actually?  They're not that bad.  Are they irritating?  Yes.  Are they impulsive?  Yes.  Are they lacking in self-control and the ability to sit still during a lesson?  Yes and yes.  But are they throwing chairs?  No.

I expressed this to a colleague of mine, and she rolled her eyes.  "Some teachers here have never taught anywhere else," she said in a low voice.  "You've definitely seen worse." 

Is it the neighborhood?  Maybe.  Is it the attitude projected by the administration?  Possibly.  But the impression I get is that, whatever the cause, my new school's "worst kids" don't hold a candle to the worst kids as P.S. Throwing Chairs.

Speaking of which, I received an e-mail from a colleague of mine at my former school, who now has the infamous Julio in her self-contained special education class.  She wrote:

We're working on relaxation techniques and developing him into a good leader. he is so kind to the other kids, he loves helping them and me. On the second day of school, Julio said to me, "Ms. J, I really like being in the small class. I was nervous at first but now I'm not. When I used to be in a big class, I used to get frustrated."  He's doing REALLY well! Thanks for caring so much about him, he tells me that some of the things I do for him are what you used to do. He won't forget you. 

Not to be all full of it, but: I credit myself for finally convincing Julio's mother, after years and years of guidance counselors and teachers all telling her the same thing, that a self-contained class was where Julio would thrive.  And if I can help reform that kid, I can certainly reform the magic five.

Friday, September 10, 2010

What a difference CTT makes

Even though I was eager to teach in a CTT classroom, and even though Ms. Halpert and I seemed to be getting along well for relative strangers, I had my reservations.  Last year, my classroom at times resembled a war zone.  And as the only person over the age of 9 in a room of thirty people, I learned to think fast, to make firm decisions, to improvise.  I had no paraprofessionals and no push-in providers, so I never had to clear my decisions with anyone else.  If I wanted to extend my social studies lesson and shorten my word work period, I did it.  If I wanted to spend all of first period discussing the schedule for the week and changing classroom jobs, I did it.

When Ms. Halpert and I sat down and started planning, I quickly realized I would face a new challenge: compromise.  One of the things I appreciate and admire about Ms. Halpert is that even though she's a brand-new teacher, she doesn't just take my word for it and let me make all the decisions.  If our roles were reversed and I was a brand-new teacher working with someone more experienced, I would probably take a passive role and let the experienced teacher take the lead.  But Ms. Halpert doesn't do that, and our give-and-take on decision-making often leads to better decisions.  The downside is that decision-making can take twice as long.

So in addition to my usual first-day-of-school fears, I had added concerns about co-teaching for the first time.  Even though we'd been working together and practically attached at the hip for the first few days, we'd never actually seen each other in front of a group of kids before.  Would we accidentally interrupt each other's first-day-of-school speeches?  Would we disagree in front of the students?

So I'm pleased to report that the first day of school went really well.  I really, really like Ms. Halpert's style with our class -- probably because it's so similar to my style, which reassures me even more that our principal really knew what he was doing when he "arranged our marriage," as he put it.  I felt confident that we really presented as a united front, a teaching team.

Even better, I'm really pleased with the style of CTT.  When we walk our class through the narrow stairwell (where our 28 students don't all fit on one flight of stairs), one of us is at the front of the line and the other at the back.  When we did our Writing On Demand, Ms. Halpert walked around the classroom to check in with our students, and I sat with Karolina, who's newly arrived from Hungary and speaks very little English.  We looked through a picture dictionary together and worked on simple sentences ("I like books," "My brother plays football"), and I didn't have to worry that somewhere else in the room something sneaky was going down.

After school, we high-fived each other, went to the dollar store to buy 10,000 more sets of plastic bins (classroom teachers, take note: you can never have too many plastic bins) and divided up our extensive to-do lists for the weekend.  And thankfully, I still feel optimistic about the way the year will go.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

10 Things I Wish a Teacher Had Told Me

Happy back to school!  In honor of my officially becoming a tenured teacher (take that, new value-added teacher data reports to determine tenure), I present to you 10 Things I Wish Someone Had Told Me When I Started Teaching.

1. Don't sweat the small stuff.
You put your students' names on everything in your room only to find out that some of them are spelled wrong on your class list.  Or some of them moved away and you're getting three more instead.  And now you don't have enough little birthday cakes to complete your class chart!  Something like this will inevitably happen in the first week of school.  But the truth is, the only person who will notice is you -- and if you resent the fact that you're going to stay at school until 6 pm redoing it, you're just going to make yourself miserable.

2. If you can put off until tomorrow what you planned on doing today...you might want to think about it.
I realize this sounds an awful lot like procrastination, which to most teachers is a dirty, dirty word.  But as a new teacher, you're going to be staying in your classroom until nightfall anyway.  Your classroom is going to become a time-sucking vacuum of dry erase markers and despair.  (That was poetic, no?)  So if you really, really wanted to plan out your entire week's worth of math lessons, but it's after 5 pm and you've got at least an inkling of what you're going to do tomorrow -- go home.  You'll take care of tomorrow tomorrow; tonight, you have to take care of you.

3. You can only plan what you can plan.
You can't build a house without bricks.  So if you're itching to start planning your word work period but your workbooks haven't come in yet, don't make yourself do the same work twice.  If you're a brand-new teacher, it will kill you that you have empty boxes in your plan book.  Trust me, you will fill them with something.  Probably forty-seven somethings that you won't finish.  Which brings me to...

4. There is no such thing as empty time.
When I first started in my own classroom, I used to panic about how I was going to fill all the hours in the day.  Then I quickly learned that at no point in your teaching career, ever, will you look around the classroom and say, "Well, kids, we're all done for the day!  Let's knock off for a bit!"  First of all, if you have elementary schoolers, everything will take seven times as long as you think it will (except, of course, the activities you actually want to drag out).  And you can always ask the kids to read.  Or write.  Or practice their math facts.  Or...you get the idea.  If you're relatively innovative and have a good head on your shoulders, you will always come up with something for your students to do.  That said...

5. Be prepared for anything.  Really: anything.
Preps get canceled.  Field trips get canceled.  Assemblies get canceled.  Push-in and pull-out teachers cancel.  You know who never cancels?  Your naughtiest student, that's who.  It always pays to have extra activities on hand -- or at least in the back of your mind -- that you can pull out when the copy machine breaks and you can't hand out your social studies worksheet.  Because idle students are restless students, and restless students are troublesome students.

6. Improvise.
I used to love it when my math teacher's guide instructed me to display something on my overhead projector. Because guess who didn't have an overhead projector?  Or when I taught reading AIS and wanted to construct the same chart in all five of my classes, but desperately needed to save paper.  That's when I discovered that contact paper + dry erase markers = reusable heaven.  Work with what you have, and as Tim Gunn would say: "Make it work!"

7. Use resources from your sources.
Last year, when I was new to classroom teaching, I would fly into my neighbor's classroom every morning in a panic about something.  "Today's math lesson says all the kids need individual thermometers!"  "The first teaching point in the writing unit mentions a character map and I don't know what that is!"  And every morning, my saint of a colleague would patiently walk me through it.  "Oh, we never do that thing with the thermometers, we just skip it and do it whole-class."  "Let me take out my writing stuff from that unit last year and we can put in for copies."  Most of your co-workers were brand-new teachers once, too, and most of them will be more than willing to help you out.

8. Never assume.  Speak up!
When I was first hired as a cluster teacher, my principal vaguely assured me that at some point in the first few weeks of school -- she wasn't clear on the details -- we would sit down and talk about what I should expect to be teaching in my brand-new position.  If you've ever worked in a school like my former school, it won't surprise you to hear that I didn't talk to my principal again until she came to observe me teach -- in April.  Sometimes you have to speak up and ask, whether it's about the curriculum you're unfamiliar with or the workbooks you haven't gotten or the dismissal procedures you're unclear on.  At my former school, classroom teachers were responsible for picking up their classes from cluster teachers and delivering them to lunch; at my new school, cluster teachers bring their classes to and from lunch.  (Which means, since I have a before-or-after-lunch prep three days a week, I get almost two solid hours kid-free in the middle of the day.  Duuuuude.)  So it never hurts to clarify.  But remember...

9. Some days, you have to be brave and hold your own hand.
Your first year of teaching is often overwhelming.  If you're lucky, you'll have a support system in the form of friends, family and fabulous co-workers.  But your fabulous co-workers have their own bulletin boards to staple up, their own spelling inventories to grade and their own running records to copy.  Those are the days when you may feel terribly alone in the world.  But this too shall pass (and all that junk).  Three years in, you'll be writing blog post reassuring new teachers about how much they don't know.

And lastly...
10. Your moment will come to you.
Teaching will rarely play out in your classroom the way it does in the movies.  In your first year, probably no one will thank you for changing her life or turning his academic career completely around.  But a little girl may delight in the books you picked out for her.  Or a goof-off may admit, for the first time ever, to liking reading. Or you may just emerge unscathed from a year of epic battles.  Whenever it happens, that will be your moment as a teacher -- and nothing in your value-added teacher data report can take that away from you.

Friday, September 3, 2010

The walls, the walls are coming down

"The walls, the walls are coming down
The here and now is coming round"
--Fanfarlo 

This year I will be the general education teacher in a CTT ("collaborative team teaching") classroom.  In the CTT model, there are two teachers in a classroom, one a special ed teacher and one a general ed teacher.  60% of the students are general ed, and 40% have IEPs ("individualized education plans" for students with special needs -- IEPs outline a student's struggles, modifications and specific goals for progress in the year ahead).  CTT classrooms are a good fit for students who need more support than SETTS (pull-out special ed services) but can function in a less restricted environment than a "self-contained" special education classroom (also known as a 12:1:1 because there is one teacher and one para-professional to every twelve students).

When I interviewed at my new school and the principal asked me whether I'd be interested in a CTT classroom, I immediately said yes.  I had so many frustrating experiences last year with William and Julio, who needed IEP services but weren't getting them; I wanted the experience of being in a classroom where students who needed a modified curriculum were getting the services they deserved.  And I was also interested in the experience of team teaching.  As my new principal explained, "CTT is like a marriage, and I've set up a lot of blind dates."

Co-teaching will definitely be a new adventure.  My new co-teacher and I have spent a significant amount of time together this week, setting up our room and planning for the first few days.  One thing our principal warned us about our class is that we've got a number of strong personalities (something I'm used to by now!) and that we'll need to be highly structured in our expectations of behavior and get ourselves on the same page so that we can be consistent.  There are so many things that go into classroom management that I've never had to agree upon with another teacher: What signal will we use to get our class silent and attentive?  When is it okay to get out of your seat, or to ask permission to go to the bathroom?  I have to admit, at one point, our endless discussions started to wear me down; when you're in a classroom by yourself, you get to make all the executive decisions and be done with it.  I'm also experiencing a little bit of culture shock, moving to a new school; when we were discussing what the consequences should be for inappropriate behavior, my co-teacher suggested "removal from the group."  Apparently it's common to send a student to another classroom, or banish someone from the meeting area--both totally verboten at my former school.  (Which isn't to say that we didn't do it, but I preferred the gentler terminology of "giving someone a break" from the crowded meeting area or distracting classroom, because making a student sit apart was basically considered akin to corporal punishment.) 

When I went for my interview at my new school, I could tell my principal was pleasantly invested in making sure that my co-teacher (who had already been hired) and I would make a good team.  Apparently many people interviewed for the position, which tells me that he didn't hire just anybody to throw together, and he noted that we have similar styles.  He also wanted us to meet each other first before he officially hired me.  (I remember sending her silent messages of "Please like me! Please help me get hired!")  I can see why he thought we would be a good fit; we're both analytical and detail-oriented.  Unfortunately, sometimes we seem to be oriented to different details: In the past few days, my co-teacher (henceforth known as Ms. Halpert) has been focused on planning our curriculum, while my priority has been to get our room set up and in order
 for the first day.  Which is probably natural considering that I'm entering my fourth year and this is her first; I can teach those first few management mini-lessons in my sleep (you know, "writers think of ideas for personal narratives by sketching a memory," "readers prepare for reader's workshop by setting goals for themselves," blah blah blah), while she may not have ever considered that our students will need to practice pushing in their chairs over and over and over again on the first day of school.  She starts a lot of her sentences with "I'm worried that..." but has at least given me permission to tell her to calm down.

So slowly but surely, we nailed down our routines and expectations.  We'll ring a bell for attention, but we won't clap.  No one may go to the bathroom when we're meeting at the carpet, but you don't need to ask permission to get up to get another pencil or piece of paper.  And there will be no boys' line and girls' line -- because when I taped down lines on the floor to mark the beginning of each line, my new principal gently asked me to rethink it; there was a girl at the school who identified as a boy, and the principal preferred not to delineate gender specifics.  "I want especially the girls to know that they're people, too, not just 'girls,'" he said.

Inside, I cheered.  And I slowly began to think outside the box my former school built around me.  We could do a "Question of the Day" as part of our new morning routine!  We could build choice time into our Friday afternoon schedule!  We could let our students have more than two minutes to pack up at the end of the day!  "Here, no one will tell you how to do anything," noted a veteran teacher down the hall.  And that is an idea I can get married to.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

It's the end of the summer, when you send your children to the moon

"She doesn't want to go, because she won't know what she's up against
The classrooms and the smart girls, it's the end of the summer"
--Dar Williams 

The end of the summer always sneaks up on me. One minute I'm taking myself shopping mid-week and trying to convince myself that summer has weeks and weeks left to enjoy, the next I'm feeding the parking meter at the school supply store and blowing my entire Teacher's Choice allotment (this year clocking in at a grand $110) in a single hour.

This school year brings a huge amount of change to my teaching career: new school, new grade, my first year in a CTT classroom. But to my pleasant surprise, I've yet to have a single back-to-school nightmare, and I find myself uncharacteristically relaxed about the entire endeavor. Maybe it's because my lovely co-teacher is brand-new to teaching and has confessed to a serious case of "nervous new teacher" syndrome, leading me to assume the (out of character) role of laid-back veteran. (As I joked to Mr. Brave, "Can you believe there's a partnership where I'm the laid-back one?) Maybe it's because nearly everything horrible that could happen to me as a teacher has already happened. Maybe it's because the vibe at my new school is already so much more relaxed than my old one (which is going to take some getting used to: I still jump about when my principal drops by my room just to say hello and check in, and I'm still processing the news that teachers get to set their own classroom schedule).

So even though I'm never ready for summer to be over, this is the most excited I've ever been to start a school year (well, as a teacher, at least).  Let's hope the feeling lasts, at least through Rosh Hashanah!

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Summer dreams

School may have ended, but my dreams about it have not -- at least Ms. Flecha's most recent post has reassured me that I'm not the only teacher who dreams about school over the summer.    Most of my dreams have been of the "it's a regular day in school but something seems wrong for some reason" variety; of course, after I wake up, I realize that something seems wrong for some reason because schooooooool's. OUT. FOR. SUMMER!  (Sing that like Alice Cooper, baby.)  In one nightmare, my (former) principal was observing me in math, and I was panicking internally because I was going to have to pull some strategy lessons out of my you-know-where, and my mind was shrieking, "But didn't we already get permission to take apart our data binders?!"  (In fact, we never did receive an e-mail granting us permission, and my AP came looking for some of my spreadsheets on the last day of school, so I waited until literally the moment before I walked out of the building -- walked out of the building forever, mind you -- to dismantle my data binders and throw away my data.  Hundreds of pieces of paper, forests of trees, wasted.)  


My most recent dream was a peculiar dream-meld of my former school and my new school: In it, I was team teaching, but with a former colleague, and I told her I'd be leaving the school.  Our schedule for the day had "dance" on it (my new school has more arts, theater, music and dance enrichment programs available than my former school), but at that point the dream took a major digression (as dreams often do), wherein I may have been a student on the way to class myself.


But no such luck, I'm still a teacher -- while in Colorado on vacation, Mr. Brave and I made a pit stop at Target to buy shaving cream, and I was lured into the Dollar Spot like a bear to honey.  If you're a teacher and you haven't experienced the sensory overload of the Dollar Spot, get yourself to Target -- they actually do have useful supplies for educators that come way cheaper than the ones in those Carson-Dellosa/Oriental Trading/Really Good Stuff catalogues.  (I love Really Good Stuff -- I would buy all their really good stuff if I could -- but who can pay thirty dollars for a set of desk nametags when you can buy a set at the Dollar Spot for 1/30th of the price?)  Poor Mr. Brave had to pack my bounty of little pointers and bookmarks and birthday badges in between his clothes so they wouldn't get crushed on the trip back.  (Yes, there are Targets in New York, but the one in Colorado had tantalizing supplies I'd never seen before.)  


While I was away, my new principal sent an e-mail to his new hires about a workshop he wanted us to attend before school started.  I replied that I was familiar with the program but I would attend anyway -- and he wrote back that the workshop was really for beginners and there was absolutely no need for me to attend something superfluous.  It was a really simple exchange, but it strengthened the good feeling I've had about my new principal and school.


Now, if only we could do something about the heat...!  I can't believe I was out of town for two weeks and it's been this hot the entire time I was gone.


Lastly, this is belated, but in my first year of teaching I made a "School's Out" playlist.  I dedicate it to all my fellow teachers who are enjoying a relaxing and well-deserved summer off:


1. "Freedom," George Michael
2. "Salt of the Earth," The Rolling Stones
3. "Forever Young," Rod Stewart
4. "Damn It Feels Good to be a Gangster," Ghetto Boys
5. "School's Out," Alice Cooper
6. "At Last," Etta James
7. "Child," Low Stars
8. "The Best of What's Around," Dave Matthews Band
9. "Better Days," Bruce Springsteen
10. "Bigger Than My Body," John Mayer
11. "You Can't Always Get What You Want," The Rolling Stones
12. "I Need a Holiday," Scouting for Girls
13. "Long Time Comin'," Bruce Springsteen
14. "How Far We've Come," Matchbox Twenty
15. "It's All Over Now Baby Blue," Them
16. "All Will Be Will," The Gabe Dixon Band
17. "Summer in the City," The Lovin' Spoonful
18. "See You in September," The Happenings

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The last day

On the last day of school, I sternly instructed my students, no one would be allowed to leave before I received a "real goodbye." There would be no sneaking off while my back was turned, I warned them, no frantic cries of "Iseemydadbye!" amid the usual chaos of the schoolyard.

As it turned out, the last day of school was just as much of a blur as the first. By the time we returned our books to the class library, cleared out our desks and seat sacks, played our last round of board games from home (did you know that Uno now comes in a Disney Princess edition?), ate our last leftover snacks from our Friday celebration, discussed our favorite moments from the school year, the importance of reading over the summer (with the Baby defiantly proclaiming, "I'm not reading nothing over the summer, it's boring!") and our summer vacation plans (Ecuador! Mexico! Florida! Sesame Place!) and handed out report cards and important notices (why did we photocopy a letter from Joel Klein addressed to "colleagues" that effectively slammed the UFT and send it home to the parent of every child in the school? who knows?), there was nothing to do but leave.

So leave we did, trooping down to the schoolyard in our summer clothes, the Mean Girl outfitted in a printed T-shirt that proclaimed a need for a "boy slave," Ashima in a pretty pink dress. Arianna (who, during our discussion about summer reading, noted, "My mom used to buy me boring books, but after you gave me those two Amelia books, I asked her if she could get me those instead) presented me with gorgeous white flowers; Marielle gave me a cardboard box inside an enormous pink bag that turned out to be an elaborate ceramic sculpture of two gilded elephants, which I'm informed represent good luck.

Good luck, Miss Brave's class.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Onward

Monday will be my last day teaching at P.S. Throwing Chairs. Even though I've been waiting to say that for, oh, three years now, leaving will still feel bittersweet. The old adage about how "whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger" has never run truer than in my teaching career. In my first year of teaching, I taught 400 students in 19 different classes on six different grade levels, in a school where I knew no one. I taught English Language Learners and special needs students in CTT and self-contained classes. I taught English Language Learners who were special needs students in CTT and self-contained classes. I had no curriculum, no mentor, and no bathroom key. I wrangled entire grades in the auditorium all by myself during mass preps and our school's most notorious troublemakers in the suspension room. By the time the year was over, I knew I never wanted to be a cluster teacher again, but I also knew how to walk into a room full of strange children and command respect (or at least a few moments of suspicious silence).

My second year, I provided small-group academic intervention in reading. My roster shrank from over 400 students to under 60, but for the first time I was subject to the same intense scrutiny of my teaching (not to mention my ability to sift through sanity-crushing loads of data) as everyone else. I survived weeks (months, even) when it felt like I was testing more than teaching and other weeks (other months, even) when it felt like I was covering other teachers' classes more than teaching. When the year was over, I felt I had finally developed a niche as a reading teacher...only to have my principal decide to place me in a classroom of my own.

At the beginning of this year, I had a running debate with myself over whether this year's start was harder or easier than my first year. In my first year, I didn't know a soul; at least this year, I had a support network of other teachers. In my first year, though, I got to flee the classroom after 50 minutes; this year, I had to stick it out with my most challenging students all day.

Was it easy to deal with William and Julio, to battle the Not-So-Magnificent Seven and my apathetic literacy coach? To teach an above-average size class of 28 students with zero push-in support and hold in my pee for hours on end? Of course not. But did it strengthen me as a teacher? I have to hope that it did, otherwise my three years here were in vain. And I can't bring myself to believe that.

Recently, with my classroom still in a shambles after Julio's most epic meltdown, I spent my prep on the phone with the parent of one of my students who's been diagnosed with tic disorder and will probably qualify for testing modifications and occupational therapy next year. He's a student who's been frustrating me all year, because despite his intelligence he bottles all his frustration inside him and prefers to work independently (very, very independently) rather than with anybody else. So this mother and I were talking, about the ways in which testing mods wouldn't give him an escape hatch from hard work but rather ease his frustration a little bit, and his mother very sincerely said to me, "You're describing my son exactly the way I see him." I can't even tell you how gratifying that is for a teacher to hear -- not "You're the best teacher in the world," or "You have changed my child's life forever," but simply, "You're describing my son exactly the way I see him" -- You know my child. You understand him. You may not always be able to get through to him the way you hope, but you continue to strive for him.

Later that week, she phoned our IEP coordinator and mentioned how happy she was to have me as her son's teacher, that she wanted to visit the school and tell the principal how much she appreciated me. Seeing as my principal hasn't acknowledged me since I notified her that I would be leaving, I don't think she's feeling particularly appreciative of me at the moment, but it was still nice to hear. Then I got an e-mail from my new principal, whose tone in addressing his staff seemed so cordial and genuine. It made me feel hopeful. I've been so happy in my personal life and yet so miserable in my professional life for so long. This time, maybe, I won't have to kill myself quite so much to become stronger.

Monday, June 21, 2010

First and last

This school year, I have gone on interviews for three jobs. One was an administrative-type position at a non-profit that organizes free sports activities in the five boroughs. Even though I was overqualified for it and it would have meant taking a substantial pay cut, I was so desperate to get out of my classroom that I would have taken it anyway. Fortunately, I didn't get it.

The second was an opportunity to create and direct a toddler curriculum for another sports organization. I went on multiple interviews and even presented a PowerPoint. I was told the position had come down to me and someone else.

I didn't get that job either.

It appears that the third time's the charm. In the next school year, I'll be teaching in a third grade CTT class in another borough.

I have been trying to leave my school since the day I arrived, but after three years, my feelings are more mixed than I thought they would be. Leaving my school also means leaving behind a significant portion of my favorite students, who would have been in my class next year, and my fabulous colleagues. And just because my class this year was populated by the Not-So-Magnificent Seven doesn't mean every class would be.

But while my students would have changed, what probably never would have is the lack of support I get from my administration. Since the beginning of June, Julio has been off the wall out of control. I'm talking throwing chairs, throwing his shoes across the room, emptying the garbage can all over the floor, showing all of us the middle finger, running around the room hitting kids on the head, excessive swearing, jumping off tables, chewing on paper towels, and did I mention throwing chairs?! Actual chairs, people. Not pushing them, but picking them up off the floor and tossing them. One day last week I hustled my entire class out of the room ("Like it's a fire drill, line up and get into the hallway and don't make a sound"), and my principal sent someone upstairs to take pictures of my wrecked classroom like it was a crime scene, and other teachers stood by in the hallway and gawked like it was a crime scene, and after it was over people asked me, "Are they going to let him come back after this?" when I knew that the truth was that he wouldn't get suspended and that there would be no discernible consequences of any kind. And did you know that you are only "allowed" three (official) student removals per semester? I found out when my AP said, "Because this would be your second..." in a leading tone.

Today I called upstairs to tell her that Julio was walking around the room hitting kids on the head, cursing at them and grabbing their stuff away from them to throw it on the floor, trying to code a little urgency in my voice, like, remember what happened last week when my classroom was a crime scene? From there the conversation proceeded like this:

AP: "Oh, well, I'll try to call the guidance counselor."
Me: "Yeah, she already spoke to him."
AP: "Okay, well, I'll try to give her a call."

Translation: Hang up the phone and shut up. So now I feel a little bit like a second grader myself: You don't want to help me? Fine, I'm leaving and I'm taking my toys with me!

Someone inquired in a comment on my last post about whether Julio would get his special education placement. The answer is yes. Julio's mother signed her consent for Julio to enter into a self-contained second/third grade bridge class in our school next year.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Endings and beginnings

I had a truly fantastic birthday at school. First and foremost, Julio's mother gave me the greatest birthday gift of all by not sending Julio to school on my birthday. As a result, it was a blessedly relaxing day, and I was genuinely touched by the gifts and the love my students gave me. The Sneak's mom even sent in birthday balloons! (Since Julio recently chose a meeting between me, his mother and my assistant principal to reveal his claim that the Sneak had showed him a condom in his wallet at lunchtime, the guidance counselor cynically observed that the Sneak was probably kissing up. Side note: When this juicy tidbit of information was revealed, my eyes literally bugged out of my head. It was followed by my assistant principal asked Julio, "How did you know what it [aka the condom] was?" Most awkward silence ever!)

I wrote thank-you notes to all the kids who made me cards or gifts :)

Of course, just when you're least expecting it, the $#@! will hit the fan. When I arrived in the morning on our Brooklyn-Queens professional development day, I wasn't expecting to find next year's organization sheet in my mailbox...but it was there. With my heart pounding, I quickly scanned all the names of next year's second grade teachers.

And my name...wasn't among them. Apparently my students aren't the only ones moving to third grade next year!

I wasn't thrilled. I did not want to change grades, I did not want to move into a testing grade, I did not want to deal with this year's second graders again, I did not want beginning ELLs, and I did not want to change rooms. And now: I'm changing grades, I'm moving into a testing grade, I have to deal with this year's second graders again, I'm going to have beginning ELLs, and I have to change rooms.

After the shock wore off, I consoled myself with some of the advantages. I will get push-in AIS support for math and reading and push-in ESL support for my ELLs, none of which I had this year. My new room is lovely and has much less bulletin board space (which translates into less wrestling with backing paper and standing on my tiptoes on tables trying to reach the top). And because we didn't do our articulation of classes until today, I was able to selfishly and sneakily place eight of my favorite students in my third grade class.

After dismissal, I went to see Arianna, one of my chosen eight, in her after-school program. Last year, Arianna was in my reading group, and when she was held over in second grade, I was happy to have her in my class. She's a lovely, sweet, earnest girl who isn't getting a lot of support at home and sometimes seems a little lost.

Last year, Arianna's second grade teacher lent her Amelia's Notebook, a book that purports to be the notebook of a young girl who loves to doodle and record her ideas. Arianna kept the book for months. When she finally returned it, I caught a glimpse of Arianna's own notebook. She had copied the pages of Amelia's Notebook -- copied them! -- so that she would be able to save it for herself.

Ever since then, I've been telling myself, You've got to get that girl her own copy of Amelia's Notebook. So today, after school, I presented Arianna with her own copies of Amelia's Boredom Survival Guide and Amelia's School Survival Guide. She gasped, then threw her arms around me and exclaimed, "Miss Brave, you're the best teacher ever!"

And at that moment, seeing how completely thrilled she was, knowing that she would treasure those books all summer long and that she would be coming with me to third grade...I kind of felt like it.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Fishy

Every elementary school classroom probably has that one student who loves to shower her teacher with homemade gifts and trinkets. In my classroom, that student is Ashima, who came to my class from an English boarding school in Nepal. Ashima is an adorable, pint-sized study in the adjustments of immigration: At seven years old, she has an impressive knowledge of her Nepalese background ("Miss Brave, in Nepal, the cats are our gods"), but her wardrobe is 100% Hannah Montana. I have no idea what it's like to attend an English boarding school in Nepal, but it definitely hasn't always been easy for Ashima to adjust to life in a New York City public school; more than any other of my students, she's so easily upset by perceived slights of friendship or disturbances in which she doesn't receive a proper apology for the injustice in question.

Ashima comes to school nearly every day bearing some gift for me; once, a little bracelet she made from beads, once a figurine of a dog with a bobbling head. But today, she outdid herself; inside the bag she proudly presented to me was a miniature tank with a single beta fish swimming lazily around a teeny palm tree.

I let the kids write down suggestions for its name; ultimately, I went with Wilbur. So now we're a classroom of 28 children, 30 brassica plants, 1 burned-out teacher, and 1 Wilbur the fish. Here's my concern, though: My birthday is on Wednesday. Do I need to worry that she's going to bring me a puppy?

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Sweet sixteen

Well, it's been an eventful few days. First Julio had a meltdown of unprecedented proportions, in which he hurled an art project constructed from wooden blocks halfway across the room, then picked up the broken pieces and began smashing them to the floor, screaming incomprehensibly. This was literally ten minutes before the end of the school day, and I had an obligation to leave right when school was over, so I stayed just long enough to notify my assistant principal and hear her standard "Write it up as an anecdotal, call his mother and tell the guidance counselor" line. God forbid he had thrown those blocks toward us instead of away from us, and we'd be all be looking at concussions.

Meanwhile, Julio has spent a lot of his time lately insisting that he is "dumb" and "stupid," which is probably the source of all the rage simmering underneath the surface, so...this is a child in crisis, and I cannot for the life of me get anybody to care. I love our guidance counselor, but she is extraordinarily overworked as it is and she seems to spend most of her day running around the building putting out fires and dealing with immediate emergencies. (Ironically, her office is directly across the hall from my classroom, but naturally she wasn't in it when Julio threw the blocks.) My assistant principal is an intelligent, competent administrator, but she seems more interested in how things look on paper. And all over the school there is a chain reaction of middlemen, from the IEP coordinator to the social worker to the guidance counselor, when what we really need is a direct line for emergency situations.

That night, Julio put on a pint-sized superstar performance at the school talent show, and the next day, he didn't show up for school. Obviously he had some recuperating to do. All this time I've been thinking he's an emotionally disturbed child with untreated ADD, but maybe he's just preparing for his future as a rock star!

Sixteen more days, sixteen more days...

And what are we going to be doing with our time in those sixteen days? Not doing any quality teaching, that's for sure! No, we're administering a final round of reading assessments. Back at the beginning of the school year, we started these new assessments that took us two months to complete, and that was with a push-in AIS teacher helping us. Now, we have sixteen days of school left and no push-in AIS teacher, so this is going to get done how...? It's not going to have any impact on report card grades, because those are due before we'll finish. We never looked at our original set of data from September or used it to drive our reading instruction in any way, so I have no idea what this round is supposed to measure or accomplish. All I know is that it means I have students reading at fantastically high levels that I never encountered when I was in AIS (my highest reader is a P, or end of third grade), but I won't get to meet with them for guided reading or small group instruction because I'll be busy assessing whether my students know how to read pairs of rhyming words.

In other news, today in read aloud we were up to the chapter of Charlotte's Web where Charlotte dies. I think I almost cried a little in front of my whole class. Even though we had been preparing for Charlotte's death for a while now (and most of the kids have already encountered the movie, so the cat was out of the bag), they still seemed faintly stunned that it had actually happened. I don't think they're enjoying this book as much as they did James and the Giant Peach, because it's not as outrageously funny, but I think it has such rich messages about friendship and loyalty and duty and growing up (they loved the parts where Fern is itching to go off and ride the Ferris wheel with Henry Fussy). Today, in another attempt to move past the vocabulary of "sad," I talked about the word "grief" and how grief is deeper than sadness, like what you feel when someone close to you dies. "You might be sad if you lose your favorite toy," I said, "but you wouldn't feel grief." So we talked about how Wilbur is grieving for Charlotte, and Ashima, who joined my class when she moved to the United States from Nepal in November, raised her hand and said, "That reminds me of James and the Giant Peach when James' parents died." Yay! There's nothing like a good literary connection to warm an embittered teacher's blackened, shriveled heart.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Miss Brave gives up

I have a long post about Julio saved that I've been meaning to finish and post, but I've got to be honest, people, I'm kind of tired of talking about him. To his mother, to my assistant principal, to the guidance counselor, and the IEP teacher, and even to Mr. Brave when I come home and say, "You won't believe what Julio did today..." I mean, what more can you say about a kid who crawls under your desk, takes his shoes off, tosses them into the middle of the room and then emerges, feigning confusion and asking, "What happened?" Last week, Julio asked me if he could have a drink of water. I told him he would need to wait until after our mini lesson. He went to the water fountain, drank water, and then returned to me and...asked me if he could have a drink of water. I couldn't help it: I laughed. "You just drank water," I exclaimed. Julio shook his head. Drops of water were literally flying off his lips as he proclaimed, "I didn't drink any water!"

How can you reason with that? You can't. So...I just stopped trying. I'm not going to argue with him. I'm not going to berate him. I'm pretty much going to ignore him. Wait, let me rephrase that: I'm going to ignore his antics. The singing. The banging. The dancing. The screaming. See, Julio does his work; he just doesn't do it at the same time or in the same manner as everyone else, because Julio thinks he is Justin Bieber and has to schedule his schoolwork around his concert performances of "Baby" (now playing at a classroom rug near you). Any antics can't ignore, I either (a) address in a supernaturally calm voice or (b) pick up the phone and call my AP, my guidance counselor or the office...whoever picks up the phone and will send someone to come get him. (Recently, a school aide burst into our room asking, "Where is he?" 27 pairs of eyes immediately slid over to the closed bathroom door, where Julio had barricaded himself and was loudly banging out the rhythm to "We Will Rock You." "What's he doing in there?" the school aide demanded. I shrugged. Lady, if I knew that, I'd either be making a lot more money or we wouldn't be in this mess in the first place.)

Julio isn't getting placed in 12:1:1 by the end of the year -- I believe the guidance counselor's exact words were "You're stuck with him until the end of the year, I'm so sorry." So I have developed an attitude of Zenlike patience and calm. The mantra that goes with it sounds like this: Eighteen more days, eighteen more days, eighteen more days...

Saturday, May 22, 2010

The ownly best teacher in the world, part 2

After I hugged the girls and thanked them for their cards, I told them I would take them home and put them on my refrigerator, where I hang all the cards they make for me. (When I hang them on my desk in the classroom, they inevitably get ripped and torn down by my whirling tornado students.) As usual, they were fascinated by any mention of my personal life (Miss Brave has a refrigerator?!).

"Did Mr. Brave ever make you a card telling you he loves you?" one girl asked.

Mr. Brave? Love? Everyone giggled the way second grade girls giggle when the subject of romantic love comes up.

Then, glancing toward our class birthday calendar (my birthday is next month), she ran away with it: "Ooooh, maybe he is waiting for your birthday and he is going to surprise you!" With that, everyone began chiming in. "I think Mr. Brave should make you a birthday surprise!" "Yeah, I think Mr. Brave is going to surprise you on your birthday!"

"Wow," I said, "I should bring Mr. Brave here to listen to your suggestions!" Now poor Mr. Brave has to compete with the girls in my class for a birthday surprise.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

The ownly best teacher in the world

Here's hoping that at least some of you fabulous teachers out there were blinded by a dazzling display of appreciation this past Teacher Appreciation Day. I know I sure felt appreciated by those "STOP LISTENING TO THE TEACHERS' UNION!" commercials I hear at the crack of dawn as I steel myself for another day in my overcrowded classroom with zero intervention services support and no accommodations for my special education student in a teaching position that may or may not be eliminated due to excessing and budget cuts...but hey! Thanks for the belated bagel!

Anyway, my class had a trip on Teacher Appreciation Day, so in the morning before we left, I had my kids make Teacher Appreciation Day cards for other teachers in the school. Most of them chose their first grade teacher. Emilio (aka the Class Clown) started going on and on about how he loved Ms. S because she had given his class ice cream. I reminded him that we had had an ice cream party, too.

"Yeah, but that was one time," he said scornfully. "In Ms. S's class we had ice cream like millions of times." (As you may have guessed, Emilio is prone to exaggeration.)

"Oh, so you like Ms. S better than me because she gave you ice cream?" I asked jokingly.

"No, I like Ms. S better than you because she's nicer than you."

Zinged! No one cuts a teacher's self-esteem (well, other than those "STOP LISTENING TO THE TEACHERS' UNION!" commercials) more skillfully than the Class Clown.

Since then, a few of the girls in my class have been out on a mission to reassure me that I am, in fact, the teacher most deserving of appreciation. I'm sure every class has a cohort of those girls: They live to please, they always volunteer to help, they bat their eyelashes adoringly and shyly tell you that they want to be teachers exactly like you when they grow up. And that's how I ended up with these:


Take that, Education Reform Now! Now I feel appreciated.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

What every teacher longs to hear

The Class Clown has recently discovered the Magic Tree House books, a series about a boy and a girl who travel back in time and around the world to solve mysteries. The other day, he looked up from his book with an amazed expression on his face.

"Miss Brave," he began, "I may have never said this before ever in my whole life, but...this book is awesome!"

Later on, he approached me with an expression on his face that said, Are you ready for this?

"Miss Brave," he said, "I may have never, ever, ever, ever said this before, in my whole life, but...I like reading!"

Ladies and gentlemen, my work here is done.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Be here soon, June

This morning, a very verbal, intelligent student said to me, "Miss Brave, my daddy said something really bad about you." Then she kind of clapped her hands over her mouth. Half-concerned, half-curious, I asked what he had said.

"He wasn't gonna get up and take me to school because he was too lazy. So I said, 'Do you want Miss Brave to give me a bad report card and I won't go to third grade?' And he said, 'If Miss Brave gives you a bad report, I'll just punch her in the face. She's short anyway.'"

Apparently I don't deal with enough; now I have parents telling their students they have no problem with punching me. I felt like I was in that scene in It's a Wonderful Life where George Bailey calls up Zuzu's teacher and bawls her out for letting Zuzu walk home with her coat open and then the teacher's husband punches George in the bar. "She cried for an hour!"

To top it all off, on the way to lunch, one of my girls dropped an entire can of Pringles (why do parents send an entire can of Pringles for lunch? Particularly when we eat lunch at 10 am?) on the staircase, and The Baby decided to eat chips off the floor. I don't know why they constantly pull stunts like that when they're so totally and obviously going to get caught; besides the fact that about six grossed-out classmates ratted him out as soon as we exited the stairwell, plus the fact that their grossed-out-ness was reported to me by another teacher who overheard cries of "Ewwww, he ate it!", but he was staring at me bug-eyed with chipmunk cheeks and chip crumbs all over his face. It was exactly like that scene in cartoons where the cat eats the bird and there are bird feathers floating in the air.

30 more days?

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Miss Brave: Lawyered

One of my students handed me this note this morning as I was taking attendance.

5/12/10

(Yes, he actually wrote the date.)

Dear Miss Brave

I Just need to tell you that the Mean Girl is bothering me here are the things she does.

(What follows are actual bullet points, ladies and gentlemen)

  • Dosent know how to play.
  • hits me.
  • tells me to tell something to someone else when you arnet looking.
  • takes my pencils.
  • Dosen't let me concentrate when you are speaking.
she bothers me soso so so so so much.

Miss Brave I want you to change the Mean Girl's seat.

(And just in case it wasn't clear...)

P.S. I don't want to be her partner :(

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Too funny not to share

Scene: My classroom, during art. Our lovely art teacher, Ms. R, is good-naturedly complaining to my students about their habit of anxiously hollering her name across our (small) classroom.

"Every five seconds I'm hearing, 'Ms. R, Ms. R!'" she scolds. Emilio throws up his hands.

"Welcome to Miss Brave's world," he says.

Friday, May 7, 2010

The Not-So-Magnificent Seven

My new points system is working out pretty much the way I thought it would (although not necessarily the way I hoped it would): my most fantastic, excellent, never-ever-misbehaved students have hit 30 points and above, my good students have between 20 and 30 points, a large chunk of the class has between 10 and 20 points, and then I have seven students -- the Not-So-Magnificent Seven, let's call them -- who have yet to reach 10 points for their first "reward" and usually hover dangerously around zero.

What I like about my new system is that it allows me to hone in on the kids who are doing the right thing, rather than going right to the kids who aren't; when I stand there with my points clipboard, I'm looking for the kids who are doing what they're supposed to be doing. It's allowed me to recognize those quiet kids who always slip under the radar because they never cause problems. It's also allowed me to recognize exactly who's in that troublemaking category, that core group of seven kids who can't manage to hang on to their points long enough to earn a chintzy eraser from the small prize bin. 75% of my class makes an effort and strives to do right most of the time. But it's the Not-So-Magnificent Seven, the other 25%, that cause 90% of the problems. They are the kids most likely to call out, to interrupt, to be unprepared, to lose their books and papers and folders and pencils, to use unkind language and violent behavior. Together, they present such a broad spectrum of capital-I Issues that, for those of you who have never had the chance to observe the Not-So-Magnificent Seven in their natural habitat, I thought it would be useful to present a guide to their actions and behaviors should you recognize one of the Seven in your own classroom.

1. The Sneak
The Sneak gets away with a lot because he, unlike many difficult students, is not loud and obnoxious. It's only by making careful study of his actions that a teacher begins to realize that the Sneak is not actually working, as he appears to be, but rather is crashing colored pencils together under his desk, or thumbing through Pokemon cards, or drawing crude pictures of gangster-looking dudes with giant sunglasses and weapons. The Sneak is frequently discovered to have items that don't belong to him in his possession, but when confronted with the evidence, the Sneak goes completely blind, deaf and mute, all "Who, me?" and "I don't know how that got there" and "Someone must have put it in my desk!"
Most common form of communication: Shrugging and blank stares.
Most recent offense: Getting up in the middle of Read Aloud to pass a notebook to another member of the Not-So-Magnificent Seven. When I confiscated the notebook, I found that it was filled with inappropriate language and drawings. The Sneak, of course, could not explain how any of it appeared in his notebook or why he was getting up in the middle of a lesson to pass it on.

2. The Baby
The Baby mistakenly believes that he can get his way in the classroom simply by pouting and whining, even though he is neither cute nor persuasive. When others are being rewarded for good behavior, the Baby is frequently heard to exclaim, "I want that!" or "I wish I could get that!" without acknowledging the unfortunate truth that one needs to behave in order to earn rewards. When threatened, the Baby reacts by pulling his sweatshirt or schoolbag over his face, avoiding eye contact, refusing to explain himself. The Baby is unhealthily stubborn and reserves the right to stew in his own bad attitude even in the face of others enjoying themselves. Although he clearly finds the thought of negative behavior intoxicating, the Baby doesn't have it in himself to cultivate that devil-may-care attitude, so his forays into genuine troublemaking usually result in him bursting into tears and begging for a second chance.
Most common form of communication: Whining "Aw, man!" when he gets in trouble.
Most recent offense: Refusing, for an entire afternoon, to do any work. When I whipped out my cell phone to call his mother (I have threatened to do this many times, but this was the first time I actually went for it), he flipped out.

3. The Drama King
With an attitude usually assumed to be more native to females, the Drama King insists that it's not his fault he can't get any work done -- everyone has it in for him! Someone was making fun of him! Someone didn't want to share! Someone snatched something away from him! Someone won't leave him alone! No one wants to be his friend! The Drama King is so wrapped up in his woe-is-me lifestyle that he often isolates himself in a corner of the room for no apparent reason. Should something unfortunate happen to him -- such as a broken pencil or a dropped book -- everyone in the room must experience his inappropriately loud cry of distress. When caught red-handed in the act of wrongdoing, the Drama King's rebuttal emerges in a rambling flood of mumbled excuses that typically have nothing to do with the crime at hand, usually something like: "It's because, at lunch no one wanted to sit next to me, and I was trying to get the pencil but she just snatched it away from me, and everyone was just telling me to stop for no reason, and my head hurts because I'm so thirsty because I didn't eat breakfast this morning because my stomach was hurting."
Most common form of communication: All misery, all the time.
Most recent offense: According to the Sneak, the Drama King is allegedly the author of many of the inappropriate sections of the confiscated notebook.

4. The Antagonist
Unlike the Drama King, who mistakenly believes that he is always the target of some imagined offense, the Antagonist is spoiling for a fight. A bright and creative thinker, he believes all of his classmates are far less intelligent than he is and never passes up the opportunity to let them know it; a loud "Duh" or an exasperated "Noooo!" to a classmate's wrong answer is the Antagonist's favorite weapon in his arsenal against second grade stupidity. The Antagonist, unlike the Baby, actually is cute enough to get away with some degree of wrongdoing, but his taunting of his classmates and his aggressive behavior leave other students begging to be separated from him.
Most common form of communication: Name-calling and the occasional punch in the arm.
Most recent offense: A sad-eyed student approached me in the lunchroom today and said, "I don't feel comfortable with the Antagonist at my table because he called me a poopie girl and took my pencil away from me." (Side note: Don't you just love that she phrased her complaint by saying, "I don't feel comfortable"? I changed his seat pronto because that girl worked it.)

5. The Class Clown
Hyper-energetic, frenetic and occasionally entertaining, the Class Clown loves to sacrifice a serious mood in the classroom for the sake of a good joke. He wants all the attention, all the time, even if it makes him the target of what he believes to be unfair punishment. Despite his obvious intelligence, the Class Clown is so focused on pretending he's the star of his own one-man show that he is often lost when it comes to independent work. While others listen to directions, the Class Clown calls out to ask what he's supposed to do because he wasn't listening the first time the instructions were given; while others raise their hands and wait for help, the Class Clown hollers across the room that he doesn't understand, or needs help, or doesn't get it. The Class Clown just can't seem to stop himself from jumping out of his seat and interrupting constantly. Believing himself to be adorable and funny, he is deliberate in his attempts to get away with everything from extra sips of water from the fountain to drawing pictures during work time. While his behavior may seem harmless and cute in small doses, his overbearing personality and refusal to admit any wrongdoing will wear thin by May.
Most common form of communication: Sly (although toothless) grin.
Most recent offense: While making a card for his first-grade teacher for Teacher Apprecation Day, he commented that he loved her because she gave the class ice cream a lot, whereas I have only held one ice cream party this year. "So, you like her better than me because she gave you more ice cream?" I joked. He replied, "No, I like her better because she's nicer than you." Ba-dum-ching!

6. The Mean Girl
Interestingly the only female of the group, the Mean Girl is all attitude, all the time. Her responses to simple requests ("Please take out your math journal") consist of dramatic sighs, elaborate eye rolls and often the phrase "Oh my Gawd." A resentful teenager trapped in the body of an eight-year-old, the Mean Girl spends every waking second of the school day chatting, gossipping and making excuses, all the while managing to act incredibly put out that she's being expected to do any work.
Most common form of communication: Besides all the dramatic body language, the Mean Girl is cursed with a loud, piercing voice that somehow always manages to sound like a whine.
Most recent offense: While sitting right in front of me during one of my many lectures about not speaking when a teacher is speaking, she attempted to whisper to someone at the next table.

7. The One Who Completely Loses His $#!@
This is, of course, Julio, about whom no further explanation is really necessary; what other kid would deliberately squeak his sneakers across the floor so often and so loudly during today's Read Aloud that I interrupted it to call my assistant principal, feign normal behavior while she was watching him and then begin throwing things across the table and finish it off by barricading himself under his sweatshirt inside the closet? This after a morning in which he, for no apparent reason, cocooned himself inside his sweatshirt and crawled underneath a table from which he would occasionally emit a loud groan, squeak or meow. (Yes, a meow.) Evidently this didn't garner the desired attention, because he emerged only to fake hitting his head on the table and collapse on the floor again. He topped off the afternoon by randomly spinning in circles. A telling anecdote: During Read Aloud, we were discussing what it means when someone can't be trusted, and Julio stood up and yelled, "Like me, when I tell lies!" After school, when I personally delivered him to his mother to tell her what a terrible day he'd had, what did Julio do? He lied.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Hidden talents

Kiri at Elbows, Knees Dreams asked me to participate in a meme about my "hidden teacher talents" -- you know, those astonishing feats of superteachery we can all perform that don't exactly line up as bullets on a resume. Here are mine:

  • I can distinguish between a child doing the "pee dance" who actually has to use the bathroom and a child doing the "pee dance" who's just trying to convince me he has to go to the bathroom.
  • When a child slams his book/folder shut and triumphantly exults, "I'm done!", I can tell whether or not he is, in fact, actually done.
  • I can, on the spot, come up with about 30 more things for children who are "done" to do.
  • Out of the 28 children on line behind me, I can tell which one is squeaking his hand on the banister, which one just jumped down the last two steps and which one is surreptitiously whispering to the girl in front of her.
  • I do an impeccable Toad voice in my read aloud of Arnold Lobel's Frog and Toad books.
  • I can instantly feign shock and awe in response to a child who believes he is imparting new information, even if what she is actually saying is, "Miss Brave, did you know that birds have wings?!"
  • I have mastered the "I was just checking to make sure you were paying attention" response to students pointing out my mistakes.
  • I can make chores seem like such a special, precious task that children are practically begging me to let them organize things.
  • I know where in the room my naughty kids are at all times and can instantly sense when they are up to no good.
  • I can get an auditorium full of hundreds of children to quiet instantly just by clapping my hands.

April showers bring May changes

Oh, it's been a rough couple of weeks. Through some combination of spring fever and general boredom, it felt like my class was starting to come apart at the seams, tattered by frayed nerves and overworn patience. All of a sudden we were sniping and tattling and whining, problems we never experienced earlier in the year. Apparently one of my male students exposed himself (yes, that kind of exposed) to another student in the cafeteria, to which the other student responded by calling him "gay." And if I dried one more set of "she said she's not my friend anymore" tears, I was going to lose it.

On the morning of a recent field trip, I decided to give everyone a fresh start by changing everyone's seats, which had zero effect. On the field trip, we visited a restaurant where I was appalled and embarrassed by my class's behavior: bouncing up and down on the booths, crawling underneath the tables, flicking straw wrappers. I thought back to our very first field trip, to the farm, and how my excited, wriggly new second graders were able to contain themselves as they stood in two straight lines and waited to pet the animals.

When we got back from the field trip, I knew we needed a bigger change. When I asked the class if they felt like it had been hard to learn lately, they nodded vigorously and hands flew up around the room, eager to explain why. "Sometimes people are talking a lot and it makes it really hard to concentrate." "I keep looking out the windows and thinking about how nice it is outside and how I want to be outside playing instead of in school." (Honesty is the best policy, right?)

I came up with a points system in which I conspicuously walk around with a clipboard, adding or subtracting points from each individual student. Ten points gets you a trip to the small prize bin, twenty points the larger prize bin, and so on to more coveted rewards like fifteen minutes of free time or computer time. I'm fairly pleased with the results so far, if only because it justly rewards the kids who always do the right thing and always have to listen to my lectures to the whole class even though they always follow directions...and it does seem to have inspired those kids who are "on the fence," behavior-wise, to shape up. But there's still three or four kids (Julio among them, of course) who gain and lose the same one point over the course of the day and have yet to inch above three points even while my superstars have already collected their first rewards.

So today we took another field trip, and my class was overall much more well-behaved than they were on the last one. After we returned to school to eat our lunches, finish the last few satisfying chapters of James and the Giant Peach and pack up, I rewarded them with perhaps the most valuable prize of all: free time. And I was amazed: Whereas in the course of independent reading or writing or math time I usually have to ask them to quiet down multiple times, during free time I didn't have to say it once. Some kids were playing Hangman or Tic Tac Toe on their slate boards, some were drawing at the carpet (and managing not to squabble over the crayons and colored pencils), some were reading together at their seats, but no one was yelling or shouting or screaming.

Obviously, it wasn't complete silence -- the kind of silence I expect during independent reading or writing or math work -- but it was also quieter than it is during math game day or science groupwork. One of my devoted helpers took it upon herself to rearrange the schedule for tomorrow and then helped me post up the teaching points, while another begged me to help organize the classroom library. Several kids drew "you're the best teacher" cards. A number of boys chose books from the math bin, which we almost never get to read from because we're too busy trying to squeeze in all the components of Everyday Math. Others chose old favorites we read aloud at the beginning of the year, like Wemberly Worried and How Full is Your Bucket? For Kids. Some of them used our class stuffed animals to act out Mo Willems' The Pigeon Wants a Puppy.

It was -- dare I say it? -- peaceful. And it got me thinking about how I can better incorporate free time or "choice time" into our overworked, overstressed, overstimulated days.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Goodbye vacation

As usual, it's here too soon: the last day of vacation. The upside to my vacation is that I hardly dreamt about school at all (which I'm horrifically guilty of doing on vacation) and barely talked about school (also guilty). The downside is that I consequently did very little work for school, either. Just before the vacation, I received my teaching points for our new reading and math units (which are written for us by our literacy coach). The reading teaching points made me cringe so much that I couldn't even look at the writing ones until the next day, at which point my jaw dropped: They are literally the exact same teaching points we used for our unit in September. Two words have been changed in each one, to replace the theme of September's unit with the theme of this unit, but other than that, they are exactly the same.

(1) Did anyone in adminstration actually approve this? If so, how and why?
(2) What exactly does our literacy coach do all day, if she's just copying and pasting stuff from old units and passing them off as new units?
(3) Why must I always teach what my literacy coach and administration order me to instead of what I want to?

Although administration must feel differently, I am not stupid, and my students are not stupid, and we all know this means we are actually teaching the same unit over again, which is ridiculous on about eighteen different levels and I refuse to do it. And yet, over the vacation, all my badass plans to rewrite the unit evaporated, because...it's April and I'm already burned out? I wanted to have a life outside of teaching? I am lazy and incompetent and don't care about what's best for my students? You be the judge.

Maybe it's because I've come down with a cold just in time to go back to school, or maybe it's because next year's preference sheet is already out and I'm pondering what I'll be doomed to teach next, but I really, really don't want to go back to school tomorrow.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

The latest in the saga

Do readers of this blog feel like they're tuning in to an educational soap opera?

Anyway, I met with Julio's mother this morning. She asked if she could come into the classroom a few times a month to sit with him, to see if that would help him focus. I said I would have to run it by my assistant principal. She promptly nixed the idea, saying it would be "disruptive to the other students" (evidently she's in denial about how disruptive Julio is all on his own...!). I mean, I get that, but as diplomatically as I could I said, "I think Julio's mom is just wondering, now that he's on this waiting list for placement, what services we can provide him here and now. Because he's not getting any services right now."

My AP agreed with me that Julio is indeed getting no services, and then beat the same hasty retreat that she does whenever I start asking those kinds of pesky questions.

Meanwhile, one student went home with an asthma attack, another went home with an allergy attack, the nurse called me 17,000 times today, and then we were all called into an "emergency UFT meeting" after school during which we learned that evidently 8,500 of us are about to be fired.

Good times!

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The balancing act

One of my recent posts about Julio generated a flurry of discussion in the comments about the nature of collaboration, the role of students and teachers and the general fairness involved in pairing or "buddying" up students with special needs with other students. One commenter felt that I didn't display enough concern for the rights of the other students in my classroom, and I defended my position, which was basically: I'm trying to do what my mother taught me, which was to do the best I can!

Today we had a very, very difficult afternoon. Julio had not had a good day: yelling, singing, humming, tapping, taking his chair wherever he pleased, pulling his jacket over his head, etc. During math, I gave this direction to the whole class: "Take out your slates and your markers. If you can't find your slate or your marker, take out your notebook and a pencil instead. If you can't find your slate or your marker, take out your notebook and a pencil instead." Notice how I repeated this last part when I noticed kids starting to get up and wander around the room to look for extra slates or markers.

Julio had forgotten his marker. And I had forgotten to Pick My Battles. So as he got up from his seat to snag a marker after he had very specifically been told not to, I took the marker from his hand and asked him to take out his notebook.

Right around that time, Julio transformed into the Hulk. I'm familiar with Julio's Hulk routine, so initially I wasn't impressed. Basically it consists of rattling his desk back and forth as if he's threatening to tip it over. Occasionally he does tip it over, and then he goes full-on Hulk, grunting and groaning loudly as he tries to pick it up.

So there I am, trying to manage (1) the Hulk and (2) the math lesson. Briefly, it seemed as though the math lesson would win out. To Julio, I said, "I understand that you're upset, but you're choosing the wrong way to get my attention, so I'm not giving you my attention until you can choose a better way." To the class, I said, "If this dime is one whole, and two nickels can make a dime, what fraction of the dime would one nickel be?" The class is also familiar with Julio's Hulk routine, and although some of them were kind of eyeing him suspiciously out of the corner of their eyes, they were on the whole admirably focused on math.

Just as Lonny was about to offer a well-reasoned answer, the Hulk brought his desk crashing down on top of his leg. At which point the Hulk transformed back into Julio, a seven-year-old boy rolling around on the carpet clutching his leg and screaming and crying about how he had just chopped his leg off.

I immediately called the office and asked them to send someone upstairs, and then I told the class that we would have to change direction for a few minutes. I asked them to take out their math journals and work on math boxes instead. Lonny dropped his head back and said, "Aw, man! But I knew the answer!"

Eventually Lonny did get to offer his answer, after the security guard and the assistant principal led Julio away to the nurse, before I had to fill out the incident report and accident report and make the phone call home to Julio's mother. But I've been left grappling with all the questions raised by the Hulk, chief among them what can I do to make the rest of the year bearable? At this point, Julio is on a long waiting list for a seat in a self-contained class. When I call his mother to tell her what he's been doing in class, I'm not telling her anything she doesn't already know. My assistant principal is sticking to her "Document everything and call his mother" mantra; I have a 5-page single-spaced document of Julio's transgivings on my computer, and no one ever looks at it but me. Obviously I need to be more proactive and do a better job fighting for my students -- all of them-- but I hate casting myself in the role of agitator when at the moment I just feel overwhelmed.

Is my anonymous commenter right? Am I dooming my students to a lifetime of fearing impulsively violent classmates and being cast aside while emergencies like this one continue to build? Why, in a school where we've had to call the police and ambulances for disruptive students, do we still not have a crisis plan in place for these situations? Why does my assistant principal call me to nitpick the reading levels of my students but not to find out if my desk-flipper is flipping any desks over today?

Too many questions. Not enough solutions.