Friday, February 26, 2010

Legend of the snow day

When my students returned from lunch yesterday, they noticed I had posted an "extra homework assignment" on our announcement board.

"Extra homework!" exclaimed Michelle, outraged.

"Read it," I encouraged.

"Sleep with your pajamas inside out and hope for a snow day," she read. Her mouth dropped open and she turned to me. "You're crazy!" she said.

Who knows where the legend of the inside-out pajamas (and don't forget the spoon) came from, but I am proud to announce that I participated last night -- in fact, Mr. Brave complained that he rolled over in the middle of the night and got jabbed with the spoon (I had neglected to read the part where the spoon goes under your pillow). When my alarm went off at 5:30 this morning, and I in my inside-out snowflake pajamas trudged into the living room, Mr. Brave was waiting for me.

"Don't get too excited," he said, "but I think they might have just closed the schools."

The announcement came, he said, exactly as my alarm was going off. And after I returned to bed for another three glorious, snuggly hours, I ascertained through Facebook that a number of my co-workers had participated in the exact same ritual: inside-out pajamas, spoon and all.

"You can all thank me on Monday," I posted. Until then, I wish all my hard-working educator colleagues a well-deserved three-day snoweekend!

Monday, February 22, 2010

Return of the busy

I realize whining is undignified, but...going back to school after one's honeymoon is haaaard. Every time I return to school after a vacation, I'm faintly stunned by how much work I seem to do every day. Like, "Is it always like this? Am I always this busy and overwhelmed?" And alas, the truth is, yes. When I got to school, I rotated the classroom jobs, printed the week's homework sheet, straightened up the desk I had left a wreck last week (honeymoon = running out of school on Friday as if my behind was on fire), put together a folder of copies I needed to request, and prepared my social studies lesson on the three types of resources. During my prep, I filled in math grades on the sheet we send home to parents, filed the tests away in my binder, and added to our growing science bulletin board. At lunch, I managed to unearth Volume 2 of my math teacher's guide, wrote up the next unit's vocabulary words for the math word wall, prepared my reading mini lesson, and spoke with a parent on the phone. After school, I wrote up tomorrow's schedule, graded all the math mid-year assessments, filled in the master class rubric, stored away all the old math journals, looked over tomorrow's science lesson and Comprehension Toolkit lesson, briefly previewed all the teaching points for our next units in reading and writing, and stood on a chair leafing through giant stacks of paper to weed out the paper we'll need for our next writing unit. Tonight, I'll need to make copies of the math pre-test and choose goals for the next unit that align with the standards, and that's on top of the work I did yesterday (which I swore I wasn't going to do while I was still on vacation), grading the last unit's math tests, grading the Writing on Demands, getting my copy requests ready and reading through the "job applications" (when it's time to switch classroom jobs, I make them fill out a job application telling me which job they want and why they're qualified for it). And all that is on top of, hmm, the regular classroom day: Julio taking his shoes off and singing "We Will Rock You" during our math test, Joy crying all morning with homesickness, Jason complaining that Anita gave him a wedgie, Danny moaning that he feels like he's going to throw up.

Is it always like this? Am I always this busy and overwhelmed? Yes.

The best parts of my day had nothing to do with real schoolwork, but with listening to my little friends talk about their vacations. Manuel said he had gone skiing for the first time and fell, tumbling down "like a bowling ball." A number of them claimed they had gone to water parks, which I'm still puzzling over. Rosie said she had played Frisbee with her brother, and when someone asked what a Frisbee is, Manuel (who does not normally talk like a human dictionary), said, "It's a small disc for throwing or tossing." We read a non-fiction passage about sand castles and I pulled out a laptop to show some examples of amazingly elaborate sand sculptures. They went nuts. One of my most polite, well-behaved girls actually said, "Dang!" and I heard a few kids say "O. M. G." (Just like that. O. M. G.)

But still, it's back to work, midway through the school year. O. M. G.

Friday, February 12, 2010

What about Mr. Brave?

Behind every stressed-out teacher trying to hold it all together, there is (hopefully) someone at home who is sympathetic. For me, that person is Mr. Brave (formerly known as the soon-to-be Mr. Brave). Mr. Brave has helped me grade math tests, hang backing paper in my classroom and transport school supplies. He gets outraged on my behalf when teacher-haters start their teacher bashing (you know: "All that vacation! Days that end at 3 pm!" PSHHH), brags to his co-workers about my feats in the classroom (actually, it's more like, "At least you don't have to deal with kids peeing on the floor like my wife does") and lectures me on the importance of properly teaching mathematics.

Somewhere in between the insanity of my first year in the classroom, Mr. Brave and I managed to have an outrageously fabulous wedding. With all my co-workers popping in to offer their congratulations and peek at photos, my class was aware of our nuptials, and Mr. Brave inevitably arises in any conversation about my personal life. If I say I went to the supermarket over the weekend, they ask, "Did Mr. Brave come too?" If we're talking about birthdays, they ask, "When is Mr. Brave's birthday?" When someone draws me a picture and leaves it on my desk, Mr. Brave is often included. (My favorites above!)

I'm thinking about this now because Mr. Brave and I just returned from our equally outrageously fabulous honeymoon, and I am feeling very little desire to return to school tomorrow. But, even though they've never met him, my students have managed to see Mr. Brave exactly the way he is: as a terrific guy who cares deeply about their teacher.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010


For our next unit in writing, we'll be doing "expert projects." The idea is that the kids choose something they consider themselves to be "experts" in (video games, drawing, taking care of dogs) and write a little book all about that thing. It's really fun and I'm looking forward to modeling my "expertise" in running.

Our genius administration decided that, just as we give pretests in math, we should do a kind of pretest for this unit. This is known as "Writing On Demand," and in the past we've given the kids one full period to write a complete "small moment" story and then grade them on it. This time around, though, we were supposed to instruct them to write an expert project book, which seemed a little ridiculous. We were e-mailed a rubric for grading, which I'm still not entirely sure what I'm supposed to do with, given that it seems fairly obvious that their 50-minute Writing on Demand effort will be far inferior to what they could produce in a month-long unit. That's a lot of extra grading for a "duh!" effect.

Anyway, though, I was pleasantly surprised at the quality of what they were able to produce. 95% of my class did this same expert project writing unit in first grade, so they were able to draw on that knowledge and include some nice effects. Here is a sampling of my favorite excerpts!

"I know all about reading in reading you need a book to read and when you are dune with the Book take a nuther book out. if you like reading a lot you can read allmost every Day or allmost every year."

From an "all about babies" attempt: "Then she did poop my grandma had to clean her butt. With baby whips." Baby whips? Ouch!

"Do you want to run fast. like sonic then try as hard as you can. Whare Jordens, Nikes, Levis. then if your in a race you can do it. Now let's get started step one...get one of thease Jordens, Nikes, Levis & try hard to run with them step two try to get style's on your shoes step three run & what i mean by run is run super super super fast or maybe you might be even faster."

"People love run because they don't want to be fat."

"Rule to not get bitin by a shark: Do not bring jreley to the bech." (If anyone can help me decipher what he means by 'jreley,' I would love your assistance.)

"The play station game is the best first I am going to show you the best game ever that goes with the playstation you need to buy it. It looks like this and in the next page I am going to show you how to use the control. In the beginning the X is for racing square is to slow down of course you don't want to do that because you race with challanger."

"I am a expret at singing frist you have to do vace warmups unlless you are doing jazz. then you pick out a song to sing or you could make one up. Then you sing! Last if they like you you could have a chance at being a star at singing!"

"I'm a exbrt at reading I can read up side down, with my eyes clowes." Really?

And now a sampling from that small section of my class that kind of really knows what they're doing:

"To make birthday cake First you need all of the ingredents. You need flour, eggs, cake mix and milk. Then mix it all together. Then put it in a pan. then take it and put it on a tray. Then make the frosting. use whatever kind of frosting you like for example chocolate. Then when you mixed it all up put it in the oven until 9:00. When your done share it with your family and decerate it."

"I am a expert at art if you want a big painting you use a fat brush if you want a small painting use the skinny brush you should use ole you pass stell [oil pastel]. you should only use crayola crayons you should use the paint brush lightly so you don't wast the paint. you should use pencils before you use crayons because you can mess up. use the crayons lightly so you don't mess it up do all thees tips and you will draw grat."

"I am an expert on how to make peperroni pizza. all you need is cheese peperroni and some tomato sause. first you need to put the tomato sause on the pizza. then put the cheese on the tomato sause. then if you like peperroni pizza you can put the peperroni on the pizza. then you can put it in the oven or in a microwave you put it for two minets and then take the pizza out of the oven or the microwave. you now have a really good pizza now you can eat your fantastic pizza."

"I know all about swimg it is very simple and esay. I will tell you what you need. The first thing is to put on a pair of Goggles. The secend thing is a swiming cap some pools are very clean and they don't want hair in the water. Third thing is a bathing suit you can't go swimg without a bathing suit. This is how you swim you put your figers together and kick your feet strait if you don't you will sink and go noware. When you want to flaot you could move your hands and feet how ever you want. If you don't learn how to flaot it is go to be a problom. Another thing about floating is to relxt at then you will sink into the water. When you float backwards you have to put your chest up high. if you don't you will sink deep down into the water. and you have to relax. you have to put your head up for it could be looking up to the sky and you will not sink. this is how you swim." Can you tell this one was written by Leah?

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

100 acts of kindness

After I found out that the 100th day of school wasn't going to be the extravaganza it has been in years past, I had to come up with a way my class would commemorate the occasion. Some teachers ask their students to do projects where they bring in 100 of an item, but I honestly didn't want my classroom cluttered with collections of 100 coins or crayons or toothpicks in ziplock baggies. So I decided to make that an optional project, with a note on the homework sheet that says children who do participate will be "eligible for a special prize."

I am giving a 100 days homework sheet with very simple fill-in-the-blanks: "I wish I had 100 _______. I could eat 100 ______, but I would never eat 100 ______." My favorite one is "Miss Brave has told me 100 times to _______." (I gave the class a special preview of this one, and one of my chattiest students shouted, "Be quiet!" Ding ding ding, we have a winner!) I also have a few activities for us to do in class that shouldn't be too taxing: Write the letters in your name over and over in a grid with 100 squares and then color in the first letter to see what the pattern looks like; count up the tickets in our class ticket jar to see if we have fewer or more than 100; lick a lollipop 100 times and see what it looks like, etc. But everything else I found online seemed too expensive (I spend a fortune already on school supplies, am I really going to buy 100th day glasses?) or too complicated (each of the 28 students in my class is going to make a necklace with 100 beads without making an enormous mess? yeah right).

Then I found this great lesson plan, for which I can't take credit, about collecting 100 acts of kindness in honor of the 100th day of school. (The lesson plan ties in to Martin Luther King, which I didn't explicitly do.) So I set up this giant posterboard with a grid of 100 numbers on it. I printed labels (which I bought at Staples) that say, "I caught _____ being kind! Here is what I saw." Each label is the size of one of the numbered boxes on our posterboard. On Monday, I told the kids that we were going to be "kindness detectives" and try to catch each other (along with our teachers, friends, family members, etc.) in the act of being kind. We talked about how all the little things we do for each other every day (like lending someone a pencil or helping someone pick up something they dropped) is an act of kindness. Then we got the ball rolling by writing about a time when we were kind to someone else. (I wanted to get all the "I did something kind!" stuff out of the way right off the bat, and for the rest of the project they are not allowed to catch themselves being kind.) Anyone who is "caught being kind" gets to wear a smiley sticker that says, "I was caught being kind!"

I was a little nervous about how they would react to all the touchy-feely kindness stuff -- for young kids, my class is usually a pretty skeptical group -- but I have to say they are doing a fantastic job. We are up to 82 acts of kindness and counting -- everything from lending someone an eraser to sitting with someone who was alone. Jason -- who says things like, "Move it, sissy" to other boys in the class -- has been caught being kind multiple times and has been thrilled to pieces about it. Ariela, who is always kind to her classmates and who has already been Student of the Month, told me with a shy and proud smile that she had seen her name on the "kindness board." During our science experiment, when I against my better judgement trusted my kids to be able to pour dirt/rock mixtures into containers, I witnessed Bryce (the king of personal space) and Felix working together: "You hold the cup still! I'll pour!" When they were done, they said, "Yay, we did it!" and gave each other a high five. I swear to you, it was like an afterschool special. I "kindness boarded" them myself for that one.

I love this project -- which, by the way, I researched in my own time and bought my own materials -- far more than I have ever loved (or even liked or merely tolerated) any of the boring, repetitive, droning, rote learning teaching points that are supplied to me by my administration. I don't have any way of checking it off on a checklist, or of entering into a data field, but to me it's still a lesson that's valuable, and I'm so glad I've taken the time to teach it in my classroom.

Friday, February 5, 2010

More fishiness

Last year, when Julio was having problems in first grade, his mother apparently told his first grade teacher that he had been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder, but that she didn't want to medicate him so she was seeking a second opinion. Which she's entitled to, so fine.

Then, during another meeting, she changed her story and denied that she had ever said anything about him having ADD.

When Julio left our school for his new school, where they convinced his mother to get him evaluated, the IEP they wrote for him classified his "diagnosis" as OHI, or Other Health Impaired. When Julio's mother brought him back to our school, our social worker asked where that classification had come from. Julio's mom claimed that she didn't know, that he had no health issues.

Just out of curiosity, I Googled OHI. Because I know that children who require special services because they have chronic illnesses are sometimes classified OHI, and I wondered where Julio would fit into that.

Well, duh, it turns out that "the most frequent medical conditions under which students
qualify for services as OHI are attention deficit disorder (ADD) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)." I swear upon my teaching license that this child clearly has ADD and his mother is covering it up.

It's such a complicated situation, because there's still such a stigma about having your child "labeled" or "classified" as "special ed." And obviously, not all children with special needs have the same special needs. In our self-contained second grade, we have children who are non-verbal except for their echolalia alongside children who are reading on a third-grade level. In whatever 12:1:1 classes Julio's mom was presented with, she saw children with severe MR and autism and felt that her son didn't "belong" with those children because he's academically not that far below grade level. But regardless, I feel strongly that he has a special need and would benefit from special services. I just wish his mother would give it a chance.

Julio's first day

I jumped up and down when Julio left us in early November, and when he came back yesterday, I spent the afternoon in my classroom sobbing into my conference notes. The guidance counselor gave me a pitying look. "I'm so sorry," she said.

That ought to give you an idea of what I was in for.

After I dried my tears, though (I cry in fear of seven-year-olds and I am not ashamed to admit it!), I had to develop a plan. I didn't even have a chair for him, for Pete's sake. (FYI, my assistant principal phoned my classroom three times this morning looking for my class reading levels -- which, by the way, I personally handed to her last Wednesday -- but mysteriously did not find the time to say one word to me about Julio's reappearance. Nice, right?)

My students sit at tables, not individual desks, and I had already decided that being the fifth student stuck on the end of a table already crowded with four other students would be too overstimulating for him, so I set up an extra desk, facing the meeting area, so he would have a built-in spot. (That desk used to be William's old seat, but rather than becoming the throne of shame that I feared it might, it was so coveted among the rest of the class after William left that I finally repossessed it for myself. They're so on top of each other that everyone wanted that desk as an island of solitude to themselves, and everyone was jealous of Julio when they saw where he would be sitting.) I went digging through the closet in search of Julio's old books (some of which I had given away to other students but all of which I had at least had the foresight to keep rather than throw away like I wanted to). I rustled up a sticker chart and taped that sucker right to his desk. I took one of the rectangular prisms we use in math and taped index cards to three of its sides. One side says, "I am working. Everything is OK!" One side says, "I am upset. Please leave me alone." And one side says, "I have a problem. I would like to talk about it."

Just before lunch, Julio rotated the prism so the "problem" side was facing out. I went over to his seat.

"I want to eat lunch up here with you," he said. I considered it. I eyed his sticker chart, on which he had already earned one sticker for playing nicely during math game day.

"How about when you earn five stickers on your chart, instead of computer time, you get to have lunch with me?" I suggested. He nodded happily.

Was he a complete angel? No. He still can't sit still, or keep himself from making noise at inappropriate times, or keep to his own personal space on line. He's already gravitated towards friendships with some of my more unsavory students. At the very, very end of the day, when we were just about to put our coats on and escape into the weekend unscathed, he chose to jump up from his desk and do the macarena, to the amusement and delight of the rest of the class. He's obviously in his honeymoon period, testing the waters to see how much he can get away with before he snaps.

But it could have been worse. And at least, going forward, I have a plan.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

He's baaaack

Julio is back.

Not just at my school. Ohhhhh, no. Julio is back in my classroom.

I am so enraged over this entirely f-ed up situation that I can barely calm down enough to post about it.

Quick review. Julio has severe behavior problems at my school since kindergarten. By the time he gets to me, in second grade, his mother has decided that it's probably the school's fault, so she transfers him to another school. On his first day at his new school, Julio gets suspended. New school pesters and badgers Julio's mother until she finally agrees to have him evaluated. The evaluation recommends that Julio go to a self-contained, 12:1:1 classroom. Julio's mother loses it, refuses the IEP, and dumps him back in my school, where for reasons that are completely beyond me, they decide to put him back in my class.

There are six classes in the second grade. One of them is a self contained special education class with one teacher, twelve children (which means they're full) and four paras. One of them is a CTT class, with two teachers and a mixture of special education and general ed kids. One of them is a SETSS class, with one teacher, a para, and several children with IEPs who receive special education services. One of them is an advanced ESL class with a para. One of them is a beginning ESL class. And the last class is mine.

Let's see, should we put the boy with the IEP recommending 12:1:1 services in the CTT class, where he'll have a special education teacher? Should we perhaps place him in one of the two classes with paraprofessionals, so at least there will be another adult in the room with him? Or should we just dump him back in Miss Brave's class with 27 other students and hope he doesn't burn the school down?!

I get that his mother didn't sign the IEP, and therefore it's kind of like it doesn't exist. But, hello, just because the emperor thinks he's got a fabulous outfit on doesn't mean he's actually wearing any clothes. Julio was evaluated by trained professionals, and trained professionals think he needs the support of a self-contained classroom, and just because his mother lives in denial doesn't mean the rest of us should just ignore the problem and hope it goes away. Let's be clear on the details here: self-contained class = a maximum of twelve students with one teacher and at least one paraprofessional. Our self-contained second grade has twelve kids, one teacher and four paras. That's five adults in the room, nearly one for every two kids. My class = 28 students and just me, or: a ratio of 1:28. Are you kidding me? How is this allowed?

No one -- and I mean no one -- gave me a heads up, either; I went to pick up my class from lunch (i.e., not even the beginning of the day) and there he was. They literally dumped him in with the rest of my class while I was at lunch, and no one had the decency to warn me.

I've gone from being fired up to being depressed. How am I going to get through the rest of the year now? And what about my rights and my students' rights and Julio's rights -- not his mother's?

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

100 days

For years, my school has made a huge production out of the 100th day of school. Instead of following our regular old TC reading-writing-math schedule, our classes were treated to a smorgasboard of fun 100th day activities. To really understand what an undertaking this was, you have to understand that my school builds in very little time for fun, by which I mean no time at all during which any fun activities are ever supposed to take place. Like, one year on St. Patrick's Day a fourth grade teacher gave her class some shamrock graphing activity to do during math, and her assistant principal happened to pop in and observe the shamrock graphing activity taking place, and she sternly ordered the teacher to stop said shamrock graphing activity and resume her regularly scheduled non-fun mathematics.

But I digress. Anyway, so our 100th day of school was a day of actual enjoyment. We licked lollipops 100 times, we did 100 jumping jacks in the gym, we made shirts for the kids to wear with 100 handprints on them (well, I did not do this, but some very ambitious first grade teachers did). We did not sit in our classrooms with our legs folded criss-cross on the carpet while our teachers droned on in mini lesson after mini lesson; rather, we roamed the school in packs, attempting various feats of mental strength involving the number 100!

Unfortunately, of course, all good things must come to an end, and the teacher who used to coordinate our 100th day of school extravaganza is no longer with us. So today I received this hilarious missive from my assistant principal:

On Friday, February 12 we will be celebrating the 100th day of school. On that day you will be paired up with another class on your grade for one period. During that time we are inviting you to participate in a math game/activity. We are asking that you collegially decide what game/activity you wish your students to play and what period of the day to facilitate this arrangement. Below is a list of teacher teams and your room assignments.

Hmmm, so, let me get this straight. In my itty-bitty classroom, which is already overcrowded as it is with 27 students, you would like to invite me to invite 27 more students? And you would like to invite me and these 54 students, who are now crammed into my teeny-tiny overheated classroom, to play some sort of "math game/activity"? (Thank you for bolding that, by the way, otherwise I might have missed it!) And you would like me and the other teacher, in our massive amounts of free time, to decide on a game or activity that will hold the attention of our 54 students on the Friday before vacation while they are all stuffed into my immensely warm and crowded classroom?

First of all, I'm not even with them on the 100th day of school thing. I have been counting very carefully (and not because I'm torturing myself, either -- every single morning we talk about what day of school it is and how many tens and ones go into that number), and I could swear that Friday, February 12 is actually the 99th day of school and that someone at my school is faking it so that we don't have to hold our "celebration" on the day we return from the break. Can any other NYC public school teachers corrorborate either side on this?

Second of all: bummer. The only glimmer of hope comes at the end of the memo, in which we are "further encouraged to plan other activities within your classroom to celebrate this day."