Saturday, March 29, 2008

Teacher's passion quilt

CBH at Triangle Teacher tagged me to help create a "teacher's passion quilt" by posting an image that "captures what you are most passionate for kids to learn."

I thought about it for a while, and I decided that at the core of everything I want to teach my students is the notion of RESPECT. When you respect your teachers, you don't talk back, you listen, you give your best effort. When you respect your classmates, you keep your hands to yourself, you use kind words, you make an effort to help them. When you respect classroom property, you treat things gently and carefully. When you respect yourself, you try your hardest to make positive choices.

I fervently believe that what's missing from my students' curriculum right now is socialization: how to get along in a world with other people and treat them with respect. I really wish we could make that a scheduled part of our school day.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Gimme an A

Lately I've been doing "alphabet stretches" with my kindergarteners. We stand up and try to stretch our bodies out to resemble different letters of the alphabet. The kids are really enthusiastic about it, and they come up with great and interesting variations. Sometimes I select one child to come up to the front of the room and choose a letter for the rest of us to imitate.

My most exuberant class, which also happens to be ESL, is particularly into it. Today I saw them just as they were returning from a field trip to the aquarium, so all I did was open up juice boxes and bananas as they ate their lunch and talked with their mouths full about the big turtles and purple fish.

Of course, as they finished eating, they got out of their seats and started to run around. And then my naughtiest troublemaker scurried up to me and, out of nowhere, blurted: "I can do a Y!"

And lo and behold, he did. And then the other kids jumped in: "X! B!" Before long, they were laying down on the carpet to bend their legs in all sorts of interesting ways, and a few of them -- this was the kicker -- actually worked together to form letters they couldn't make on their own.

It was great!

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The sun never sets on the in-school suspension room

When students at my school are suspended, which happens on a fairly regular basis, they have to spend the day in the in-school suspension room (which is really just the guidance counselor's office with a special code name). This is really more to give their classmates and teachers a break from them than a punishment for the suspended student, because all it means for them is that they're excused from regular classroom routines and expectations for the day. Students who are aggressive become more aggressive after being cooped up in a small office all day. Students who crave unlimited attention -- positive or negative -- get exactly what they want in the suspension room, because they're alone with a teacher. (School policy is that teachers are never to be alone with just one student, but this happens all the time in the suspension room.)

When a student is in the suspension room, a rotating cadre of teachers is assigned to cover the room -- including, of course, your own intrepid Miss Brave. My two periods a week in the suspension room are "schoolwide" periods, meaning that I wouldn't be doing anything else during those periods anyway except using them as extra preps. But other teachers assigned to the suspension room are Academic Intervention Services teachers, meaning that they're being pulled away from providing services to our neediest students in order to sit in a room with a suspended student. They used to put memos in our mailboxes when the suspension room was in effect, but now it's open so frequently that they can't keep up and they just make announcements over the loudspeaker. I typically don't hear these announcements, since I'm out of the building first period, which forces other teachers to come looking for me and then I feel like a jerk. But the teachers who cover the room after me are also almost always late; I would estimate that in the past few months I've lost at least an entire prep period's worth of time (five minutes here, ten minutes there) to waiting for my suspension room replacement.

Sometimes our school is sent students from other schools who have been suspended. As you can imagine, this makes a difficult situation worse because we the teachers don't know the students or why they've been suspended, and the students are in a strange environment with strange adults and are expected to make a smooth transition from one adult to the next every 55 minutes.

The suspension room is the only place in my school where I've felt genuinely unsafe. It's the only place I've had students touch me or threaten to touch me in an aggressive manner. It's an ugly combination of factors: emotionally disturbed and angry students + young, inexperienced teacher without crisis intervention training + small office without outside stimulation minus any kind of guidance or support = implosion. No one, for example, has ever explained to me what kind of interaction I'm supposed to have with these students; ostensibly they're supposed to be doing work that's provided to them by their classroom teachers, but it's essentially busywork and they can tell, which is why a majority of them spend their time staring at the walls or trying to pick fights with me. Am I supposed to ignore them? Am I supposed to encourage them to do their work, but try to keep my interaction minimal? Am I supposed to offer them my support? No one has ever told me who to call when suspended students start to go beserk, which has happened to me on a few occasions while no other adults were in the office. No one has ever advised me what to do when students start peeling things off the walls and tossing them in the garbage can, or pushing buttons on the copier, or banging large wooden blocks furiously against the table. (All of those things happened during one memorable hour with my most challenging second grader; in the grand culmination, he grabbed my wrists and forced them away from a garbage can lid that he happened to be swinging, and how could we respond? By bribing him with choice time for ten minutes of "reading.")

Twice a week, I leave the suspension room feeling frustrated, exhausted, disillusioned, and emotionally broke down. Today, for instance, my suspension room coverage ended in tears...and I'm not talking about the suspended student. (He physically assaulted at least two teachers in the last two days, so I consider myself fortunate that I at least escaped without bodily injury.)

There has got to be a better way.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Using our words

Alas, I did not get observed today. What I did get, however, was a homework assignment. At 1:30 in the afternoon -- just as we were switching over to the last period of the day, mind you, so that cluster teachers would naturally be in the hallway walking to their next class -- there was an announcement on the loudspeaker: "Would the following teachers please bring two lesson plans to professional development on Monday."

What irritates me more than actually doing this assignment is the manner in which I was notified -- what if I had been over in the annex, or in the bathroom? You know that if I showed up Monday without a lesson plan, I'd be castigated for being unprepared. It's like my schoolwide periods in which I'm assigned to cover the in-school suspension room; lately they've been making announcements on the loudspeaker that the "suspension room is in effect today," but I never hear these announcements because I'm in the kindergarten annex, and then they have to come looking for me.

Meanwhile, all my lessons went beautifully today, which of course means that when I actually do get observed, they'll bomb. And, I was in a bad mood all day because I was expecting to get observed at any moment. It's like water torture: a slow, excrutiating descent into madness.

Happy long weekend, everyone!

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Living in fear

Q: What did one kindergartener say to the other kindergartener?
A: "F**k you!"

Oh yes, it's true. And it neatly sums up the kind of day I had.

My fifth graders and I have been studying idioms and proverbs. One of the proverbs we explored was "Don't count your chickens before they hatch." Oh, how I should have taken Aesop's advice. See, the kindergarten was supposed to go on a field trip today. So when I headed over there this morning, I fully expected to see just one class for about twenty minutes before they headed off. I brought one book to read them and one pitiful little stack of paper to write on in case they were leaving later than expected. I thought I was all set.

Except that the field trip, of course, had been canceled, and I was caught totally off guard. I faked it -- er, "improvised" -- quite nicely, if I do say so myself; we read my book and then we wrote about one thing we had learned from it, and the kids actually did an awesome job drawing beautiful pictures and writing fairly sophisticated sentences. Everything was going swimmingly!

Until...dum dum DUUUMMMM -- my assistant principal turned up to do some observations. She came into a classroom I was in expecting to see another teacher, but I thought she was there to see me, and I literally -- literally -- stopped breathing for a few seconds. The one time in my entire teaching career I had been caught unprepared...! I had counted my chickens! Now I would pay for it! I wasn't sure whether to fall on my sword with excuses -- "The field trip, I didn't know" -- or just go for it and pretend I was blissfully ignorant of the fact that my mini lesson was neither mini nor a real lesson.

Anyway, it turned out that she wasn't there to see me anyway, but I went totally gonzo bonkers nuts during my lunch period because I was absolutely convinced that she was coming back for me after lunch, which she didn't, which almost virtually guarantees that she's coming for me tomorrow, unless she doesn't, in which case I will be holding my breath for the rest of my teaching life. The surprise observation thing? SO UNFAIR. When I thought I was about to be observed, I literally almost cried thinking of the dozens of beautiful, fantastic lessons I'd done that had gone over so well, and now I was about to be judged on this? Plus, the kids were absolutely bonkers all day, and can you blame them? They were supposed to be on a field trip! Why make the decision to observe teachers on a day they weren't even supposed to have planned lessons for?! To surprise them out of spite? The week after everyone went freaking insane over the Quality Review? It just seems so counter-productive and -- dare I say it? -- mean-spirited. Like, "Don't forget, we're watching you at every minute."

And, get this, one of the kindergarten teachers asked my AP if the kids could watch a movie since they were disappointed that they didn't get to go on a field trip...and she responded by telling the teacher that the kids have to learn to live with disappointment. Um...they're five? And their lives consist of a very teeny tiny bubble in a run-down neighborhood? And many of them live with people who hit them and use language like the F word so frequently that they've picked it up and think it's okay to say it to their classmates in school? I'd say they've already learned to live with disappointment. And, like so many things at my school, that makes me a little bit angry and a little bit sad.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Flat Stanley will save us

Hakeem: "Miss Brave, I need to get another tissue because another booger is coming out."

* * *

One of my ESL second grades sent their flat selves to a friend of mine who lives in San Francisco. She took them to the Golden Gate Bridge, the Bay Bridge, a local farmers' market, and Full House! To wrap up our Flat Stanley experience, this past Friday I gave my students the pictures of them in San Francisco to take home.

The looks on their faces when I gave them the pictures of their flat selves in California...It was pure joy. They compared photos with each other -- "Look, we're in the same place!" They eagerly quizzed me on where the photos had been taken. One student said she planned to take her picture home and put it on her wall. Today I gave another student her picture of her flat self in Boston; she studied it lovingly for a long while and then exclaimed, "I've never been to Boston before!"

It was that kind of moment I dreamed about when I decided to become a teacher.

Flat Stanley, the Noun Eater, and the "I took my ____ to ______" project -- those are the lessons I want to become a part of my teaching legacy, and best of all, they're all lessons I conceived and created by myself. I get no mentoring, no professional development, and no coaching, but my students still know that M-A-T spells MAT because I've made them wear vests with letters on them and tap it out; they know that conjunctions connect words and phrases because we've sung the Schoolhouse Rock "Conjunction Junction"; they know that antonyms have opposite meanings because we read What's Opposite? and chorused the word "antonym" about a hundred times; they know that writers leave spaces in between their words because we demonstrated how words are like people who feel squished and say, "Move over, I need some space!" when they stand too close to each other. They know that periods are like stop signs at the ends of sentences and that exclamation points are so excited about sentences with strong feelings that a line jumps up above the period.

I'm proud of that. No matter what I decide to do after this school year is over, no matter how disgusted I sometimes get with myself or my students or the DOE -- I need to remember that I'm not a bad teacher, I'm just a beginning teacher. I have done some good work this year. And I am proud of that.

Speaking of which, if you know a teacher you're proud of, Lands' End contacted me and asked me to let my readers know about their Light the Way awards for outstanding teachers; you have until April 17 to write 500 words describing how your favorite teacher is a "bright light in education," and if your teacher wins, you get $250!

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The verdict

Two days, countless teacher meltdowns, and a torrent of fear later, the Quality Review proclaimeth: We are well-developed, with outstanding features.

In response, my principal issued a memo praising everyone's hard work and reminding us that "data is our friend."

"Oh, no," I overheard another teacher moan, "this is just going to reinforce everything!" In other words, all the ridiculous pressure that is placed on teachers at my school to collect and maintain their data, all the excrutiating minutiae about how the data should be mined and organized, all of that has been for the greater good, because for the two days some British guy spent at our school, we appeared well-developed with outstanding features. Never mind all the hyperventilating and panicking and literal crying in the hallways that went on in the days leading up to the Quality Review, and never mind that while the Quality Reviewer was outside interviewing students, a colleague was in my office telling me about how one of my students, who's in first grade this year for the second time and still can't spell "the," lives with her grandmother because her father is in jail for killing her mother, who gave birth to all three of her children by the time she was 20 years old.

Don't get me wrong: My colleagues are, by and large, great teachers. They are dedicated, they work hard, they push our students to succeed, and they deserve recognition for it. But the entire process of getting ready for the Quality Review -- of polishing our image, so to speak, so that we came out looking like the best school we could possibly be -- left a bad taste in my mouth. I have students who are in first grade for the second time and who are still reading at a level A. I have students who tell me about the big cockroaches they see in their apartments, or about how Mommy has to go to court on Thursday because she doesn't want Daddy to live in their house anymore, or about the big kids on the bus who told them they should show their mothers the middle finger. I have kindergarteners who tell other kindergarteners that when they grow up, they're going to join the Army and shoot their houses. I have second graders who get suspended for assaulting their teachers. And still it's like our biggest concern is the checklist, the labels, the binders, when I think what our kids really need is structured instruction in social skills, some lessons on how to interact with other people without lashing out, how to differentiate positive attention from negative attention, how to control your emotions in a social setting. Because I see my students get so angry over such small infractions, so full of rage and tears and violence, and for some of them I can tell that it's not a normal childhood squabble but something deeper because at home they get hit or they live in a shelter or their parents have already written them off as "screwed up" or "stupid," and they're six years old and they're thinking, Why on earth should I care that writers express dialogue by using quotation marks?

I have this first grader who's incredibly obnoxious and disruptive and annoying and naughty, and one day he was whining and fooling around and generally not applying himself, so I sat down next to him and told him he was smart and asked him if anyone had ever told him that before, and he shook his head and I told him that in his life there wouldn't always be someone standing over him helping him and that he needed to try for himself, and then I felt like Matthew Perry in The Ron Clark Story saying something treacly and absolutely unhelpful. There's a scene in Mad Hot Ballroom -- the documentary about the ballroom dancing program in New York City public schools -- in which a teacher interviews that she wishes she could get inside each one of her students and steer them in the right direction, help them to make the right choices, and I know how she feels, because truly there isn't one student I have in whom I don't see some promise or cleverness or a way to do good.

I don't think we're failing our students. But I do think that they need more than we're giving them, or more than we can hope to give them, and there's no way that we can fix that with a Quality Review.

Monday, March 10, 2008

We gotta get out of this place

There are 15 weeks of school left. There are 69 days of school left.

I am seriously considering my options for next year.

For a time, I was convinced only that I wanted out of my current position, but I wasn't sure how -- whether I wanted my own classroom in my current school, my own classroom in another school, or some AIS position. But since shortly before February break, I've fallen into this melancholic morass that I can't seem to get out of. It's like I've burned out at 24 years old.

The thing is, I'm not a bad teacher. When one of my colleagues taught her first graders about what she called "telling words," one of her students reported: "Miss Brave taught us this already. Those are called verbs." Another colleague told me that her students had said the same thing, and -- better yet -- when she tried to trick them by challenging them to define a noun, they answered: "A person, place or thing!" One of my new fifth graders recently wrote that she had interpreted the meaning of a fable by "reading between the lines" -- an idiom we had discussed the week before. A fourth grader whom I don't teach, upon seeing my Flat Stanley bulletin board, exclaimed, "I didn't know they had Burger Kings in Israel!" Despite the persistent feeling that I have no idea what I'm doing, my colleagues have complimented me on my creative lessons and my tone with my students.

Would it be easier for me to leave my job if I was obviously terrible at it? I don't know. Is this kind of thinking, six months into my first year of teaching, premature? Probably. But can I do this for another year? I'm increasingly convinced that the answer to that is no.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Um. I've been having some trouble updating lately, because you know that saying, "If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all"?


Instead, I went back to my roots and composed a poem:

Disheartened, downtrodden, and distressed;
Doleful, drained, and depressed.

I feel dread and I despair;
I've fallen into disrepair.

I don't know what's gotten into me --
But I blame the DOE.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Stick a fork in me

5:30 am Wake up
6:00 am Leave apartment
6:50 am Arrive at school
8:05 am Class begins
3:15 pm Dismissal
4:00 pm Leave school
5:10 pm Arrive at gym
6:30 pm Leave gym
6:40 pm Arrive at home
7:00 pm Shower, eat dinner, prepare lunch, pack clothes for tomorrow
10:00 pm Bedtime

My life is starting to feel like Groundhog Day.

Yesterday a second grader sat down on the (off-limits) rocking chair, picked up my book, and flung it aside. Calmly I told him I don't like it when he throws my books. He denied it. I repeated myself. So he called me -- direct quote -- a "stinking liar."

Sometimes I just stand there and think, This is what I got a master's degree for?