Sunday, January 31, 2010

Replacing us

About a month ago, there was a big brouhaha over this article about substitute teaching. Most teachers (the non-substitute ones, that is) agreed that the author had some valid points and some invalid ones, and everyone wanted to address the issue from their own perspective.

I'm late to the party, and most of my issues have already been admirably covered by Mrs. Mimi and by Mildly Melancholy, but I just wanted to add a few thoughts of my own.

The article's author is "angered" at how many teachers are absent on any given day (er, except if they were in school, then you'd be out of a job, wouldn't you?). Teachers, she claims, "are most likely to be absent on Fridays, followed by Mondays."

This is an issue I can address from personal experience -- and it's not because teachers are party people who want a three-day weekend. Rather, it's the opposite. My first year teaching, I was out sick five times, most of those on Friday or Monday. And it's because I got sick (from a roster of 400 elementary school students carrying hundreds of millions of germs), but I continued to dddrraaaaaaaaaggg myself into work day after day until I was so sick by the weekend that I had no choice but to call in Friday and/or Monday. Sorry to burst your bubble there, sub!

One of her suggestions is that administrators "should check with their subs during the school day." This sounds like it's coming from someone who's never actually worked full time in an actual school. I'm not the World's Biggest Fan of my administrators, but I will tell you this: They are busy people. On any given day, we have state testing going on, or our suspension room is in effect, or inquiry teams are meeting, or there are grade conferences, etc. Checking in with substitute teachers? Is the least of their concerns.

My favorite part is when she says, "Principals should also try to arrange for other teachers to use their prep time to fill in for absent colleagues." Hi, that was my nightmare last year and I did not like it one bit. And guess what, those teachers didn't leave very detailed plans for me, either, but I sucked it up and dealt with it because I am an intelligent human being.

Last, she wants unsuspecting parents and educators to know "that too many teachers are leaving their children’s education in the hands of unskilled, untrained stand-ins." Okay, well, first of all, that's the district's fault, not mine. If the district is going to hire people as substitute teachers without requiring them to have any formal teacher training, does that mean I should refrain from calling in sick because God forbid my class have to spend the day with one of these "unskilled, untrained stand-ins"? Please, I have enough things on my mind already. Second of all, speaking as someone who's both subbed and had other teachers sub for me: When you're subbing, that day may feel like the longest day in the world, but in reality it's usually just one day out of a week or a month or a year. Most teachers I know are just happy to come back to a classroom that's not in complete shambles and the absence of accusatory notes from the sub on her desk. No teacher I know would leave an absolutely essential or vital lesson plan in the hands of a sub, even if they knew it was going to be a competent person, just because when something is absolutely essential or vital, of course you're going to want to teach it yourself.

I'm writing this as I'm sick at home with a cold, and will I call in sick tomorrow? Probably not, because I've managed to schedule three parent meetings for the morning that I don't want to cancel. Oh and also because, like the vast majority of teachers I know, I'm pretty dedicated. Don't forget it.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Read aloud time

One of the areas in which I've been striving to make my teaching more thorough is our read aloud time. In our schedule, read aloud time is paired with science and social studies, and because my class has been so successful with science and science typically takes the bulk of the period, read aloud time has sometimes gotten the shaft. And while I've managed to read my students a whole lot of what I consider classic children's literature (including nearly everything by Kevin Henkes and Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs before it became a movie), there's never been any kind of structure to our read alouds. I stop and model, we turn and talk, blah blah blah, but it's been lacking the substance I feel that read aloud time deserves.

So recently I showed my students how to set up their reading notebooks with "frames" in which they could stop and jot their thoughts during read aloud time. I modeled how when I was having a thought about what we were reading, I would stop and jot it in one of my frames, being sure to put the date inside the frame and the title on the top of the page. I modeled abbreviating the names of the characters and of my thinking (like "C" for a connection I was making). Then, as I read, I would stop and ask them a question: "What do you think will happen next?" or "How do you think this character is feeling right now?" and ask them to jot down their answers. Let me tell you, there is hardly a lovelier vision for a teacher than the sight of her 27 students bent over their notebooks, carefully scribing their thoughts instead of screaming them out for everyone to hear.

Now I'm easing them off the prompts -- I still ask them to stop and jot in response to a question, but I'm also encouraging them to jot whenever they have a thought instead of waiting for my direction. This way everyone is jotting at some point, but I've caught sight of Leah scribbling away and I know she's doing more than what's being asked. Since I ask a lot of predictable questions, some of my students have started jotting down their predictions and their thoughts before I ask.

What's really helped this to grow is that we've been consistently reading the Frog and Toad books by Arnold Lobel. I adore Frog and Toad, and my students do too. The Frog and Toad stories are simple, funny, touching, and full of lovely little messages about friendship -- when Toad is sad because no one ever sends him any mail, Frog sits on the porch with him feeling sad too (before running home to write Toad a letter); when Frog tells Toad that he looks funny in his bathing suit, dignified Toad answers, "Of course I do," and marches home with his head held high. The characters are consistent, but never boring -- downtrodden Toad prefers the comfort of his warm bed, while adventurous Frog is always trying to get him up to enjoy the outdoors. Today I read "Down the Hill," in which Frog wants Toad to go sledding with him. Toad demurs, protesting that he has no winter clothes, but Frog is one step ahead of him: "'I have brought you some things to wear,' he said. Frog pushed a coat down over the top of Toad. Frog pulled snowpants up over the bottom of Toad. He put a hat and scarf on Toad's head. 'Help!' cried Toad. 'My best friend is trying to kill me!'"

By the time I got to the high point of the story -- in which Frog falls off the sled and Toad, unaware that Frog is no longer behind him helping him to steer, chatters on about how much he is actually beginning to enjoy winter, until he realizes that he is "ALL ALONE!" on the sled -- my class was in hysterics. What a sweet sound to start the weekend.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Promotion, complaints and funny stories

Okay, kids! Here's what's on Miss Brave's agenda today:

1. shameless self-promotion;
2. complaining;
3. funny stories.

Yes, in that order. It wouldn't be a Miss Brave blog entry without the complaining and the funny stories, but the shameless self-promotion might be a new one for me! I was honored to be interviewed at findingEducation's Digital Teachers' Lounge; you can read the interview here! They asked me some really thoughtful questions and I enjoyed answering them. They're now looking for middle school teachers in order to survey middle school students, so if you're an NYC middle school teacher, click here to find out how you can help the project.

There, that wasn't too bad, was it? So let's move on to the juicy stuff: the complaining. At a time in the year when I feel as though I should feel relatively settled in, I'm actually continuing to feel more and more overwhelmed. Maybe it's because I'm striving to take things more seriously instead of merely trying to survive the day -- we've always been expected to do two strategy lessons during each major subject (reading, writing and math) in addition to a mini lesson, but in the beginning of the year I was lucky if I could even get to one. Now I'm truly making the effort to fit in two, and I'm sure it doesn't surprise you to learn that it's a lot of work. And it doesn't always happen. Just the other day we had writing first period, where time always gets shaved off for unpacking and announcements, and then as we were dispersing from the mini lesson (which itself was interrupted by a visit from my assistant principal) I happened to notice sneaky things going on with Frick and Frack, and while I was dealing with that, my AP came back to speak to another student about something that had happened the day before. Things like that happen every day -- they're the rule, not the exception -- and I wish my administration would just roll with it instead of honestly expecting two strategy lessons out of us.

Or maybe it's because we continue to make changes to our curriculum that are difficult to keep up with. At a meeting last week, we were informed that we'd be using this new program two days a week during word work, we were given one hour of professional development in the new program (half of which consisted of watching a pointless video that was obviously filmed in some sort of blissed-out Montessori classroom where the teacher had transformed the entire room into a jungle and the kids concluded their share time by saying to each other, "Are there any comments, compliments or connections?") and then ordered to begin the new program in two days. Last year, during reading, we were always expected to do one guided reading group and one strategy lesson. This year, they decided (who's "they"? who knows?) that we should do two guided reading groups. Now, they want us to go back to doing one guided reading group and a strategy lesson, but with the added twist that everything we teach has to be (a) goal-related and (b) taught over a three-day period. So if I want to teach "inferring characters' feelings," or "synthesizing information in text," I have to come up with three different ways to teach it. Which is fine, but it's just...never-ending. I still feel like I do an enormous amount of preparation for every single day...and when that day is over, I know I have to do it all again for the next day.

Or maybe it's because we're in that January rut where you start saying to the kids, "It's January! We've been in this classroom since September! And yet you're still calling out! Raise your HAND!!!!!"

All right, enough complaining. On to the funny stories!

If you ask any teacher whether they've ever found themselves in a situation that caused them to simultaneously think, "I can't believe I went to graduate school for this" and "No one taught me how to deal with this in graduate school," the answer you're going to get is "Abso-freaking-lutely." I had one of those moments recently when I was walking my class upstairs and one of my students got his whole arm stuck in the stair banister. There we are, all 28 of us, with me trying to coach him out of it while simultaneously wondering whether I'm actually going to have to send two students to the office to announce that we need help because someone is stuck.

I got him out.

Next: My extended day students have developed a fondness for the quiet game. (I know, I can hardly believe it either.) Every day as we're putting our coats on and I'm telling them to calm down for the 68th time, they ask me if we can play the quiet game on the way downstairs. Their favorite aspect of the quiet game is that I deviously attempt to make them talk: "Hmmmm, Felix, do you have any plans for the weekend?"

So today, as usual, they decided to play the quiet game, except that Julisa announced that she wasn't going to play. Julisa is one of those students who's not technically an ELL, except that she's totally an ELL. But she's really come a long way recently in how comfortable she is conversing and explaining herself.

A moment later, Julisa decided, "I'm going to try to make everyone talk!" She pranced around the room from student to student: "David...why are you wearing glasses? you think I'm pretty?" The other kids just stared back at her, their lips pressed tightly together, shaking with silent giggles. I was watching her when it clicked: She's doing me!

Friday, January 22, 2010

Miss Brave in the Sparkle Days

Yeesh! Where do I begin? In one day I've collected enough stories for a week's worth of posts.

Let's start at the top. And by the "top," I mean the head. And by the head, I mean "the head full of wriggling, squirming, itchy creatures that have apparently invaded my classroom." Yes, that means what you think it means -- lice has come to Miss Brave's class! Apparently Julisa's aunt e-mailed our parent coordinator that Julisa has been complaining of an itchy head since the winter break ended (which, by the way, was three weeks ago, thank you for waiting three weeks to tell us). So two school aides came up to my classroom to check my kids' heads for lice. (While they were taking a math test, by the way.) Introducing them was definitely one of the weirder announcements I've had to make to my class: "Boys and girls, we have some visitors in our rooms, and they're going to be taking you out into the hallway to...look at your heads." (Cue confused faces from the class.) "It's not going to hurt, and they're not going to do anything to your hair, they're just going to...look at your head."

Apparently lice is not a phenomenon with which my students are familiar, because at that point only one person whispered, "Ew, what if someone has lice?"

Anyway, there was a brief scare at one point when the school aide confided that poor Dana appeared to have a head full of nits, but I think they turned out to be dandruff. I have now been assured that my class is lice-free! Which doesn't stop my own head from feeling like it's crawling. Ew.

At lunch, I worked on my "promotion-in-doubt" list. I've just been informed that I have to designate Amhrita as promotion-in-doubt, even though she just moved here from Nepal. She's not "technically" an ESL student because she attended an English boarding school in Nepal, and in order to make room for more new arrivals with no English they transferred her out of an ESL class into my class. But seriously? She's an ELL. She's a sweet, polite, enthusiastic kid, and she's not hopelessly below grade level, and I just think it's kind of unfair to threaten to hold her over when maybe she just needs more time to adjust to moving to the other side of the world.

Next. During social studies, the guidance counselor poked her head into my classroom. Now, she is a lovely woman, but I have seen a lot less of her since William and Julio departed, which is kind of the way I like it. No matter how lovely she is, nothing good has ever come of having the guidance counselor poke her head into my room (except when she comes to reward my Student of the Month). But anyway, she came with news. Juicy, twisted, horrifying news. Apparently Julio's mother showed up this morning and wants to re-enroll Julio at our school.

Okay. Let's take a minute and revisit the story of Julio. Since kindergarten, Julio has had massive behavior problems. He was like the first six-year-old ever to be suspended. In first grade, Julio was diagnosed with ADD. His mother didn't like that diagnosis, but instead of getting a second opinion about why he might be exhibiting such grossly inappropriate behavior at school, she just pretended the diagnosis didn't exist. By the time he got to second grade in my class, he was wetting his pants (and my entire bathroom floor) repeatedly, threatening suicide, drawing pictures of violent shootings and stabbings and anal sex, screaming curse words, and throwing chairs. Literally throwing chairs!

I met with his mother. The guidance counselor met with his mother. The assistant principal met with his mother. Her response was to transfer him to another school. Where, on his first day, he cursed at and hit another student.

Somehow, in the time that's elapsed since that happened in November, his new school convinced his mother to sign an IEP that places him in a 12:1:1 classroom. I have no idea what his classification is, but I wouldn't be surprised if it's "emotionally disturbed." So what did his mother do? She showed up at our school, crying, claiming she didn't realize what she signed. We don't have a self-contained placement for him, but apparently she has the right to "cancel" his IEP and re-enroll him at our school. (Are you wondering what his zoned school is? Julio and his mom were staying with his grandmother and commuting to our school. She transferred him to his new school by listing his address as the grandmother's, but she's now claiming that they never actually moved, they just pretended to move in order to get him transferred. Which I know personally is a lie because Julio is a fairly bright kid and he told me what neighborhood he lives in.)

First of all: No backsies on this kid. Second of all, I think this is the first time in my teaching career that I've literally been this angry at a child's parent. I mean, there's denial, and then there's just doing the wrong thing for your child. You can't yank this kid around like a yo-yo just because you disagree with pretty much every teacher, counselor, principal and social worker who's ever assessed him. That is not what's best for him. It's one thing to have doubts about giving your child a "label," or placing him in an environment where he's not going to thrive, but it's another think to totally ignore the fact that your child is in pain, he is angry, he is disturbed. I'm not talking about a kid who used to get mad at other kids and impulsively reach out and pinch them, like Jason does. I'm talking about a kid who used to bang his head against the wall and then throw himself onto the floor in the corner of the room and curl up in a ball and sob. Even Julio knew that he had a problem, that he didn't react like other kids, that he couldn't control his anger and his frustration. None of that is going to change by sticking him back in a general ed classroom at our school (as if his two and a half years here did him a lot of good), and it's obviously only going to get worse as he gets older!

Whew. And now to switch gears a little. The other day, when I picked up my class from lunch, two of my boys were sitting off to the side by themselves. This is like wearing a giant sign on yourself that says I AM IN TROUBLE. Listening to one of my students try to explain how they got into trouble when I wasn't there is like Rashomon. "All I did was tell him to go in front of me!" "Well he was waving his hand up in the air and it looked like he was going to punch me and then they made us sit over here!" Okay, um, what? I still have no idea what went on. Anyway, my class was scheduled to be in the auditorium for three periods in a row while I was at a meeting (one thing I do not miss about being an out-of-classroom teacher is those ridiculous mass preps), so when we got upstairs, I geared up for full-blown Lecture Mode. You are representing our class. You want other teachers to want to spend time with us. You understand that our rules are the same whether we're in the classroom with Miss Brave or in the auditorium with other teachers. Then I had this funny conversation with some colleagues:

Me: "Ms. M, let me know how my class is when you're in the auditorium with them, because I told them they could earn compliments from you."
Ms. N: "Oh, me too, if they behave with you they'll earn a check."
Ms. J: "I just told them they better not make me look bad or they'll regret it for the rest of the year."

Heh, everyone has their own style. Anyway, my class happily received a good report, so up went the compliments.

Then it was Shaina's birthday. Shaina is a great kid, mellow with a good sense of humor. After we ate the cupcakes and drank the juice she brought to share with the class (with most kids calling out, "Thank you, Shaina!" without me even having to remind them), she asked if she could go offer one of the extra cupcakes to her first grade teacher. (See? Such a good girl.) As she was leaving, Bruce ran up to her and said, "Tell Mrs. C I say hi!" which I thought was cute. While she was out of the room, the rest of the class decided they wanted to surprise her by bursting into the happy birthday song when she returned. (Then they decided we should turn off the lights and "hide," to which I was like, uh, no. Where would we all fit?) And so they did. A bunch of the girls had been busily decorating cards for her while they were supposed to be packing up, which I pretended not to see because, well, I thought it was sweet and she deserved cards.

Then it was time to pull a ticket from the ticket jar. When my kids are behaving, I hand them a ticket on which they write their names, and then they drop it in the ticket jar. A few times a week, I pull a ticket from the jar and that person gets a prize. We've had a problem in the past with s-o-r-e l-o-s-e-r-s who act poorly when their name isn't the one called, so I've been trying to instead encourage celebration for the person whose name is called. (Because, let's be honest: Alex has about twelve times as many tickets in the jar as the rest of you knuckleheads.) Anyway, when I pulled Lyle's name from the jar today, everyone started calling out, "Congratulations, Lyle!"

I'm not even going to be glib about this: I was so pleased. And to celebrate their celebration of Lyle, I gave the whole class another compliment.

So what's up with Miss Brave in the Sparkle Days? Henry and Mudge in the Sparkle Days is one of my favorite Cynthia Rylant books in the Henry and Mudge series about a boy and his dog. In it, the "sparkle days" are what Henry and Mudge call the days of winter, when everything seems to sparkle.

Despite everything that happened this morning, we had a lovely afternoon. Today was a sparkle day.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Two nice stories

Remember Azul? When he became my student in September of 2008, he was a B reader who had just moved to the United States a few months before. I saw him in the hallway today at school and asked how he was doing in reading. He told me that he's now a level L! From B to L in a year and a half. Amazing.

Today with my small extended day group we were answering some questions that asked us to circle the word that didn't belong. I was trying to get the Sesame Street "One of These Things Is Not Like the Others" to play on our computer, but our school network naturally blocks YouTube, so I had to settle for reading the lyrics today. One of my students was bouncing and bopping around as I read them, and the boy next to her turned to her and sternly admonished, "This is not a dance party!" Heh.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Is this a backhanded compliment?

A letter to me from one of my students:

"Dear Miss Brave,

You are the pretty's woman in the wold and you are the Best teacher in the wold and it's fun learning with you. Miss Brave why can't you take [a] brake from us some time Miss Brave and let a other [teacher] to teach us one day please."

Underneath a picture of me and all 27 kids in our class (represented by tiny stick figures), it says "look in the back"...the back is a heart that says "Your the best best best teacher ever ok."


Friday, January 15, 2010

Science and social studies

At my school, we're so hyper-focused on reading, writing and math that science and social studies toooootally get the shaft. Which is unfortunate, because taking a strong interest in a particular area of science and social studies is often the catalyst for progress in reading, writing and math.

One of the things that's surprised me in my first year as a classroom teacher is how much I really enjoy teaching science. Science was never my thing when I was in school, but as a teacher I get to see the "Eureka!" of discovery on a daily basis, which is pretty cool. We use the FOSS science curriculum, and unlike Teachers College, I can honestly say I love it. (And my students do too.) The kits come packaged with almost every supply we need, which is fabulous because it means I don't have to run around trying to find plastic cups or clothespins for our experiments. All the lessons are hands-on, and they tend to surprise me even more than my students. There have been many times when I reviewed a lesson ahead of time, rolled my eyes and thought, "My kids will never be able to do that" -- but then they can! I usually test out the lessons ahead of time so I'll be able to demonstrate them for my kids, and half the time my kids can make the experiments work better than I can.

In our current unit, we're studying rocks. This has been great (albeit slightly messy -- the rocks come all dusty and then we have to drop them in water to see what happens, which creates puddles), especially because of all the rich vocabulary we're getting to use to describe our rocks. Even though I don't technically have ELLs in my class, many of them speak other languages at home, and I'm noticing that they lack vocabulary for description. So we have a growing "rock words" wall where we're collecting words like shiny, bumpy, dusty, chalky, sharp, flat, smooth, rough, and so on.

Recently, after a few days of observing different kinds of rocks under a microscope and how they react in water (FOSS came with enough rocks for each kid to get their own bag of rocks and a mini microscope -- brilliant!), I got to "reveal" the names of the rocks and their origins. When they found out they'd been handling three different types of rocks that all originated from various stages of a volcanic eruption, they were awed. Then I brought in photos of my visit to Kilauea, the Hawaiian volcano. We could see the types of rocks we were studying in the photos! It was pretty neat to see the progression from talking about "the reddish rock with the holes" to talking about "scoria."

But of course, volcanoes will hold anyone's attention; social studies is a little trickier. This week, we took a break from studying map keys (boring) to discussing Martin Luther King, Jr. I'm like 99% sure that they have to have learned something about Martin Luther King in first grade, but none of it seemed to ring a bell when we started our discussion (except for the fact that he was shot and killed -- that everyone always seems to remember and wants to talk more about).

I started out by saying that just like we have rules in our classroom, our country has rules called laws. And there was a time before we were born, but not very long ago, that some places in our country had laws that said that people who had black skin couldn't go to school with people who had white skin, or ride the same buses, or drink from the same water fountains. Their reactions to this ranged from shock to outrage to puzzlement (how could that be the law?). We talked about how laws can be unfair: I asked them whether it would be unfair if I made a rule in our classroom that only children born in February could be allowed to use our bathroom. Then I asked them to think about how they could convince me to change the rule. Because this is where the boys start saying grandiose things like, "If someone told me I couldn't go to the same store as other people, I would just punch that person in the head and run inside!" I said, "If you thought the new rule was unfair, and you decided to run up to me and kick me really hard so that I would change the rule, do you think I would feel like changing my mind because you kicked me?"

So then I explained how Martin Luther King tried to use words instead of violence to change people's minds. Jason remained unconvinced, and in fact is probably at home right now plotting how he will achieve whatever he wants in life by brute force. But anyway. We listened to a very brief part of the "I Have a Dream" speech: "I have a dream that one day my four little children will live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character," and we talked about what it means to "judge" someone. We read the fantastic Martin's Big Words, and talked about how the things he said were "big words" because they were words that got people to change. Then they wrote their own little "I have a dream...I can help by..."

Jason's dream was peace on earth, but he couldn't think of a way that he personally could help acheive it. I was like, "Hmm, maybe you could start by not calling Felix a crybaby so I won't have to pull the two of you out of the classroom on my prep to discuss how we respect our classmates by not making them feel sad."

Happy weekend, everyone!

Friday, January 8, 2010

Puzzling but true

The more I think I know my kids, the more I realize I can never predict what they'll get and what they won't. Twice in the past week, I've been teaching about a concept in a lesson when I realize it's come up before -- only I can't remember when or in what context. And both times, my class has lit up like a Christmas tree with children reminding me what we've learned.

The first time, I was teaching a reading lesson about how readers can infer what their characters are feeling by paying attention to body language. I mentioned that we had talked about body language before. "Oh yeah!" someone said. "Like in The Nutcracker, they use body language to tell the story instead of words." I had to give myself a big Duh, Miss Brave. Before the vacation, we took a field trip to see The Nutcracker, and I spent a long time talking about how the dancers' body language would tell the story in lieu of dialogue. We even practiced acting out some scenes from the book I read them (using body language, of course) before we went to the ballet.

The second time, we were reading an article about the invention of the Ferris wheel, which some kids were finding a little confusing because the article jumps from a paragraph about the London Eye to the invention of the first Ferris wheel in 1893. I was encouraging the kids to pay attention to the time shift, and I reminded them that we had recently read a book in which the author goes back in time to tell us about something that had already happened before the beginning of the story. Only I didn't tell them what book it was, because I couldn't remember! All of a sudden, I had kids calling it out to me: "A Chair for My Mother!"

Are my students smarter than me? Do they just have better memories than I do? Why is it that they can make these connections about things we learned weeks apart, but they can't remember to take their lunch money out of their schoolbags when they unpack or what page in their math journals I just asked them to complete? It's like there's some special trapdoor inside the seven-year-old brain that automatically gets rid of the last directive out of the teacher's mouth. In any case, I'm lucky they retained anything, so I'll take what I can get.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Money matters

We recently went on a (free) field trip to a bookstore. I had 26 kids with me, and 21 of them had brought money to buy books. Some had as little as $5 (thank goodness for the store's 20% discount and tax exemption), and some had as much as $20. (They can't really conceptualize how expensive books can actually be, and they're still not really clear on the concept of "getting change," so a lot of the kids with $20 bills were running around holding four books and attempting to find just one more that would bring them up to a grand total of exactly $20.)

Bryce was one of the lucky $20 kids. He is not normally a kid who likes to share (in fact, he typically flies into hysterics if someone so much as picks up his pencil by accident), so I was surprised when he spontaneously announced that he was going to buy a book for his partner, Dana. Dana is sweet, thoughtful, wants to be a teacher when she grows up, and comes to school about a half-hour late every single day. As I watched Bryce walk around juggling half a dozen paperbacks, I worried he would change his mind.

Then Mario started asking me about the price of various books, which was odd because he hadn't brought any money with him. Apparently Jason had told Mario he would give him $4 for a book. Jason is notoriously unreliable, and I was getting concerned about the whole transfer-of-money thing. On the one hand, I didn't want to tell Bryce and Jason they couldn't buy books for their friends. (Although I'm pretty sure Jason's gesture was purely mercenary -- he was finished using his money on the books he wanted, and it's not like it was his own money that he was saving for anything, so he let Mario have some.) But on the other hand, I didn't want the kids with $5 clamoring for extra money from the kids with $20, or the kids with $20 lording it over the kids who hadn't brought anything.

In the end, Bryce did buy a book for Dana, and Jason did buy a book for Mario. That left three students with no money, whom I quietly took aside and allowed to choose a book. So everyone in my class went home with something. And thankfully, I didn't hear any bribery or bargaining going on, at least until we got back to school and Kyle started divvying up his new Captain Underpants books.

On an unrelated note, I love field trip days, because they let me get to see the best of my class. (i.e., my students are surprisingly enjoyable when I am not forcing the workshop model down their throats!) On our last trip, someone threw up on the bus, and no one near him said "EWWWW! GROSS!" or made fun. They get ridiculously excited about the mundane things they can spot out the window ("MISS BRAVE! I SEE A DUNKIN' DONUTS!!!"), like little sponges slurping up the outside world. When we get back and eat our lunches, they munch with sighs of satisfaction like their sandwiches are the best thing in the world. (Actually, since they're used to eating lunch at 10 in the morning and it's usually 1:00 by then, they probably are! Also, today a girl brought two donuts as her lunch. Yuck.) My dream student Leah always holds her partner's hand for safekeeping (because she's just that responsible). On our trip to the bookstore, the bus ride back to school was a low hum of excitement over everyone's new books, and when we pulled up in front of school, my most adorable student looked up in happy amazement. "Miss Brave," he said, "me and Tara were so quiet! We didn't even talk, we were just reading our books."

Oh, man, don't you wish every day could be like that?

Tuesday, January 5, 2010


In addition to the sixty lessons I am dutifully planning (ahem) each week, I'm also supposed to be taking notes on all the strategy lessons I'm doing with my small groups during independent working time in reading, writing and math. I have a sheet for every student in each subject that lists their three goals for the unit, and every time I meet with that student for a strategy lesson, I fill out a little box with the date, my teaching point, my observations of the student, other "things I notice," and whether the student has "mastered, attempted or not mastered" the teaching point.

So, let me break it down for you. Let's say I have five students who share the common goal of developing strong conclusions to their stories. And my teaching point for the strategy lesson is "Writers develop strong conclusions by writing how they felt at the end of the story." That means for each one of those students, I'm taking out their piece of paper and writing that same teaching point in the little box. "Writers develop strong conclusions by writing how they felt at the end of the story." "Writers develop strong conclusions by writing how they felt at the end of the story." "Writers develop strong conclusions by writing how they felt at the end of the story." "Writers develop strong conclusions by writing how they felt at the end of the story." "Writers develop strong conclusions by writing how they felt at the end of the story."

Did that just drive you crazy to read that five times? Imagine how I feel writing it five times. I feel like Miss Brave the Trained Teacher Monkey, that's how I feel. Not to mention that I still haven't figured out how to write notes on my observations and other "things I notice" of five students while simultaneously trying to, you know, teach the lesson. Plus, keep in mind that this is one strategy lesson, for one subject, and I'm supposed to be doing two strategy lessons per day in three different subjects, which means that if each strategy lesson has five students, and I'm doing six strategy lessons a day (in an ideal teaching world, of course), I'm filling in little boxes of observations and things I notice and teaching points thirty times. Per day.

The point of all this is that I detest that sheet full of boxes that we use for writing, so I attempted to redesign it to make it work better for me. I basically took the same sheet we use for another subject, which is slightly more manageable, and modified it for writing. Then I sent it off to my AP in a groveling e-mail in which I asked permission to use my sheet instead because I thought it would work better for me. Note italics.

First let's set aside the small indignity that I had to ask permission to modify my own note-taking procedure (hello, Miss Brave the Trained Teacher Monkey). My AP e-mailed me back that she would bring it up at the next cabinet meeting (um, whatever that is) and get back to me.

Rrrrrghhh. It literally has to go before a committee before I can use it, and if the committee decides it's a good redesign, they will probably foist it upon every teacher in the school. One of my co-workers recently redesigned our reading sheets, and she said it took about a month before her design was "approved," and when it was, it was handed down to us like Moses receiving the Ten Commandments -- this was The Reading Sheet We All Had to Use.

As my colleague dryly noted, "They want us to differentiate instruction...but they don't." Seriously, all I'm trying to do is organize my own way of collecting my own data in order to drive my own instruction, but God forbid I'm not doing it in the same little boxes as everyone else. I'm starting to feel like that dude in Network.

Monday, January 4, 2010

A better way

Aaaaaaand we're back! I left my house this morning at 6:20 am and arrived at home this evening at 6:30 pm. In between, I saw zero hours of daylight and spent nearly eleven hours straight in my classroom, punctuated by brief trips (avec class) to the cafeteria and (sans class) to the bathroom. (I read Julia Child's My Life in France over the vacation and still have Paris on the brain. In fact, I kind of wish I were there right now. Ah, c'est la vie.)

I thought I had done a good job preparing my classroom for January, and I had -- I had already (sneakily) changed over my calendars and set up the schedule. So this morning all I had to do was switch around the jobs, fill in my teaching points, print out the homework sheet, put reading logs and newsletters in the mailboxes, return the math tests, take down the chairs, pull out the new Fundations materials, take out the pre-tests, set up the unit overview -- deep breath -- you see where this is going.

Then the kids arrived. Welcome back, I had a party, I made goo, I went to the history museum, I exploded confetti, you cut your hair really short this time Miss Brave, when are we going to use the computers, next week is my dad's birthday, is the trip this week, etc.

Then the kids left, and I spent what felt like a zillion hours filing and organizing papers and grouping my kids by goal for strategy lessons, which is pretty much what I feel like I spend every waking minute of my teaching life doing. Like, did I plan any concrete lessons for the immediate future (i.e., tomorrow)? No. I spend soooo much time grouping and organizing my kids that by the time I've figured out what strategy lesson I'm going to teach them, I have no time or motivation to actually plan the lesson. Which is completely backwards, no? There has to be a better way.

I've mentioned before that we're expected to make sure each of our students has three goals for each unit in reading, writing and math. While students are working independently after the mini lesson, we're supposed to meet with two small groups for strategy lessons to help them meet these goals. What I've generally done, at least for writing and math, is create a monthly "pool" of ten goals for the class, from which I select three for an individual student. The kicker is that each goal has to be addressed three times (our lame-ass motto is "Three days, three different ways"). So, for those of you keeping score at home, that's ten goals, over three days each, hmmmm, poof, thirty lessons! Miss Brave, you may be asking, are there even thirty days in a unit (which is usually a month long)? Well, no, there are not, hence my valiant (and often futile) attempts to meet with two strategy groups per day. But guess what, sometimes it's last period and three-quarters of my class leaves for early dismissal, or sometimes it's first period and it takes seven-year-olds too long to unpack, or sometimes there's a fire drill, or I have to send someone to the nurse, or -- you see where this is going.

Meanwhile, in the car on the way home, I was boggling my own mind with the sheer volume of lessons I'm supposed to be planning. In reading, writing and math, I teach a mini lesson, and two strategy lessons, each day -- that's like three lessons per subject, or nine altogether. Plus word work, science or social studies, and a read aloud -- that's another three. So twelve altogether. Multiply that by five days in a week and that's sixty lessons a week.

I'm exhausted just thinking about it. Which is why I'm going to go eat my Monday night sushi and not think about it until it's time to get up and do it all over again.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Back to school

I have heard stories about teachers who miss their students over break and look forward to getting back to school, but alas, I am not one of them. I was touched to receive several more thoughtful gifts from my students (some of them appealingly edible!), including a surprisingly fashionable earrings-and-necklace set from Arianna (who had also happened to stay up half the night hand-writing cards for the other students in the class), who presented them to me like this:

Arianna: "Miss Brave, I got you a gift. Guess what it is."
Miss Brave, looking around at the frantic hustle and bustle of morning unpacking: "Um, I don't know, sweetie, that could kind of take all day. Is it...a block of cheese?"
Arianna: "No. I'll give you a hint. It's for your ears, and your neck."
Miss Brave: "Ooooh, is it a pair of shoes?"

Heh, heh, I crack myself up.

The last day of school before vacation was our best day in school yet. My two most irritating troublemakers were absent (a gift in itself!), along with several other students, and it also happened to be Pajama Day and Bring a Stuffed Animal to School Day. I wore my snowflake pajama bottoms and my panda bear slippers, which were received with fantastic shouts of glee by my class. While they were at gym, I played Santa, setting out gift bags filled with small treats: a pair of gloves (two pairs for $1 -- thank you, Target), candy canes, pencils and a miniature tub of Play-Doh. After gym, we lined up outside the door and I very seriously gave instructions about packing up. As I sent them inside to discover their little gifts, I felt like the Grinch when his heart grew three sizes -- they were swooning with joy, hugging their pencils to their chests (I believe I literally heard someone utter the words, "A lead pencil, just what I've always wanted!"), swearing they weren't taking their gloves off until bedtime, and thanking me spontaneously. It was pretty fabulous -- well worth the loooong afternoon I spent at Target loading up my cart with 27 of each item (several people mistook me for a Target employee shelving items) and the small fortune I spent on all the trinkets.

Naturally, I managed to dream about school several times during the vacation; as always, I dreamt that I was late to school (school starts at 8 am. I arrive before 7 every morning. I am never, ever even close to being late for school). Other than that, though, I spent less time than I had planned getting organized and doing work. My assistant principal is collecting our writing and math binders in the next few weeks (major eye roll), and I had wanted to double-check everything in my binders to make sure it was all copacetic, but of course I lugged my gigantic binders home and left a lot of the individual student papers I need to file inside them at school. Our current reading and writing units end next week, and as I haven't received my checklists for the next one, there's not much I can do to prepare. One of the most frustrating things about my school is that my teaching points for each reading and writing are literally placed in my mailbox (usually approximately one day before the first day of the unit); I have zero input into the shape of the unit itself or any of the individual teaching points we use.

I did spend a long and puzzling Tuesday morning trying to get my math stuff up to speed. In my first year as a teacher, I taught writing, and in my second year as a teacher, I taught reading. Math (a subject I've never liked) is still my weakest area as a teacher, and it doesn't help that my school no longer has a math coach.

We use the Everyday Mathematics curriculum, and while I appreciate its methodology, it can be a little overwhelming to follow. It's like some mad mathematician outlined every single thing that second graders need to know in math and dumped it all together in no discernable order whatsoever. Like, one day we'll do temperature, and the next day, estimating costs. And nine times out of ten, the assessment for a particular lesson or unit doesn't align with what was being taught. Like, I'll teach a lesson on telling time, but the "secure goal" I'm assessing that day is whether students can correctly record tally marks. Or, I'll teach a unit on all these various concepts, and then the post-test will assess their ability to count by 5s, a skill that wasn't really addressed in the unit.

The philosophy is of a "spiraling curriculum," which I understand makes sense in the real world because everything in the real world is mathematical and it's not like mathematical concepts come in a vacuum, blah blah blah. But all the jumping around is still confusing. And my school's new push for strategy lessons is to give each student a goal that is addressed "over three days, three different ways." So it can be hard to come up with three different ways of teaching a particular mathematical goal that doesn't just end up confusing everyone, especially when some of the things that Everyday Math asks students to do is just, in my opinion, unnecessarily complicated. So I spent some time outlining strategy lessons for our next unit.

I do have to say that, even though I remain dissatisfied with my job, when I think about where I am mentally compared to last year at this same time, this feels better. I don't know if it's because I no longer have to deal with the frustration of endless coverages and schedule changes, or if I'm just doing a better job mentally "checking out" of all the bullshit of work when I leave.

I'm not ready to go back...but go back I must. And I will.