Monday, April 28, 2008

Round and round the roundabout

On Friday, I started to have nightmares about returning to school. In one, I was frantically trying to pick up a stack of paper that I needed for my classes, but my hand kept going through the papers like I was some sort of ghost; in another, I arrived in class only to realize that I had no idea what I had planned to teach; in all of them, I was desperately, woefully late.

The better vacation is, the harder it is to return to work, so between that, the dismal forecast, and today's after-school faculty conference, I was really not looking forward to school today. But for a Monday after vacation, it wasn't so bad. My special kindergarteners are always delightful after a break: just dazed enough to be relatively calm during our first period class and full of fun (and possibly fabricated) stories about their vacation. (My favorite? "I brushed my teeth!" Like, hmm, I'm hoping that wasn't a unique spring break activity.)

My special fourth graders are always detestable after a break: insolent, rude, and generally opposed to learning of any kind. I started second period with an off-the-cuff discussion of Iron Man and transitioned into a cheery "Welcome back, I hope you all had a great vacation, now please come and meet me at the carpet" and was met with the kind of groans and glares I might expect after announcing some kind of hideous exam. I've started doing more read alouds with my classes, though, and they got into Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, which is one of my favorite books ever, so I hope we're able to keep the momentum going next week.

My third graders were fine; one of them had a sourpuss face on and I scored some giggles by modeling it back to him. That's always dicey because I don't want my students to feel like I'm mocking them, but I went for it because he and I are on good terms and it worked; he laughed and the glower disappeared.

My first graders...oy! All 25 of them still think they're the only one in the class who could possibly have anything of value to say. So as a consequence, when I make an announcement like, "Please make one pile out of your papers so I can collect them, and when I see that your table is ready I will ask you to come to the carpet," at least 8 kids are up and out of their seat to surround me with follow-up questions and comments: "Can I go to the bathroom? Can I share?
I'm not finished! E.J. hit me with a pencil!" And no matter how many times I explain to the chattering masses that they all need to be in their seats, general mayhem ensues. I think I need to work out some kind of system with them.

And my second graders, the ones who drive me to the brink nearly every single Monday, were amazingly well-behaved! Possibly because I bribed them with a potential reward at the end of the period, which they all earned with the exception of one. I pushed my luck by reading them Jane Yolen's Owl Moon at the end of the period, which is a beautiful book but one that really requires calm and quiet in the room to be appreciated. (Before I read it I always make a big deal about how the language is lovely and relaxing and so we all need to be relaxed and quiet to let it sink in.) And they were into it!

Lately I've been teaching similes by reading Audrey Wood's Quick as a Cricket ("I'm as quick as a cricket, I'm as slow as a snail, I'm as small as an ant, I'm as large as a whale") and asking the kids to try out their own similes, which they've done to great success (some of my favorites: "I'm as dirty as a pig," "I'm as small as a mouse"). I decided that, to teach metaphors, I'm going to play the R. Kelly song "The World's Greatest" that was performed at the Opening Ceremonies of the 2002 Winter Olympics Games: "I'm that star up in the sky, I'm that mountain peak up high -- hey, I made it, I'm the world's greatest!" I suspect that they'll really enjoy listening to the song; now I just have to think of an interesting activity to go along with it.

And for my fifth graders, who have been reading about Anne Frank and who thus are probably a little too mature for Quick as a Cricket, I'm going to try out the two Langston Hughes poems about dreams: "Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?" (simile) and "If dreams die, life is a broken-winged bird that cannot fly" (metaphor). And then next week, to continue with the theme of descriptive language in all my classes, we're going to listen to a neat audio recording of Mem Fox's Wilfred Gordon McDonald Partridge that I found on Power Media Plus and draw pictures to go along with the descriptive text.

And that's the round-up!

Saturday, April 26, 2008

What I Did On My Spring Break

  • played Trivial Pursuit '90s Edition
  • performed all three key roles at the family seder: leading it, asking the Four Questions, and finding the afikomen
  • did a colossal spring cleaning in my apartment
  • baked multiple kosher for Passover items
  • ate matzoh brei
  • went running in Central Park
  • drank Jamba Juice
  • saw Forgetting Sarah Marshall
  • bought new jogging gear
  • had a shake at the famed Shake Shack on 23rd Street
  • ran in the Adidas Run for the Parks in Central Park
  • visited my former, beloved freelance job
  • ate half of a Sno-Cone (before I dropped it)
  • came in last place at Trivia Night at Pete's Candy Store in Williamsburg
  • tasted Turkish delight (which I only recently learned is not actually a fictional candy that C.S. Lewis invented for The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe, as I had previously believed) for the first time, at Economy Candy on the Lower East Side
  • went running at Jones Beach
  • saw Saturn through the high-powered telescope at the Columbia University observatory
  • rooted for the Mets (and an alum from my alma mater!) at Shea
  • saw a Josh Ritter show in Williamsburg
  • ate gelati at La Lanterna in the West Village
  • taught my two-year-old cousin how to make Herculean noises of effort while stretching
  • saw three brides having photos taken in Central Park
  • bought an Oscar de la Renta robe on major markdown at the mall
  • overhauled my spring wardrobe
  • bought chocolate at Jacques Torres on the Upper West Side
  • treated myself to a manicure and a pedicure
  • got mildly sunburned
  • wore pretty spring dresses
  • ate many grilled chicken salads
  • drank many iced lattes
  • made headway in reading a library book for the first time in months
See how much I can accomplish when I'm not...working?

Monday, April 14, 2008

Tough times behind

My day started with the longest paper cut ever (courtesy of a stubborn sentence strip)...and it ended with my lowest moment as a teacher.

I have a second grader whom I suspect might be on some kind of medication, because some weeks he is quiet and calm and gets all his work done in a timely fashion, albeit with a vaguely vacant look in his eyes, and some weeks he is inexcusably disruptive. This week it was the latter. He made clicking noises at the meeting area. He interrupted to say rude things. He laughed inappropriately.

I think I handled the situation badly. His class, who always gives me trouble, is by far my least favorite to teach. I go in there anticipating a battle, and it shows. And the kids maintain the attitude that they're not obligated to behave, since I'm not their regular teacher.

So things with Mr. Personality quickly spiraled out of control. He started to run around the classroom, jumping over tables and knocking over chairs. He yelled and beat his fists against his chest. He rolled around on the floor, kicking his legs up into the air and sucking his thumb.

The rest of the class seemed virtually unfazed. After a while, I brought them back to the meeting area and read them a book while Mr. Personality continued his wild spiral around the classroom. If I had hoped that ignoring him might wear him out, I was out of luck.

Eventually it was time for us to head downstairs, at which point, naturally, my friend sprawled himself out on the floor and refused to move. When I headed over to the phone to call the guidance counselor (who didn't answer), he jumped up to shove a few kids against the door and rolled right back down to the floor, all the while making some disturbing shouting noises. I finally got the class out the door, with my friend holding my hand, when he came to a dead stop on the stairs.

I was getting a little frantic. Here I had 25 kids on the stairs, with one of them sitting on the floor and yelling. I was deciding whether or not I should send a few kids to the office for reinforcements or just try to tough it out when my friend, who still refused to stand up, slid himself down the rest of the stairs on his butt.

Bottom line? He feels like he doesn't have to behave when his classroom teacher isn't in the room, because he doesn't give a hoot what I think of him, because whatever consequences he might suffer for the one hour a week he spends with me are worth it. At this point in the year, I'm extremely frustrated by my inability to get some of my more challenging students to respect me and obey me, especially since a lot of these kids I'm yelling at have difficult home lives and might be going through a tough time, which I don't know about since I only see them for an hour a week. At the beginning of the year, I was probably too nice, and it got me nowhere. Now, I've turned into this mean ogre whom I intensely dislike.

I did a bad job today. Instead of reacting with sternness, I reacted with anger. Instead of defusing the situation, I only made it worse. I didn't act like the teacher I've been striving to be, and I am not proud.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Should I stay or should I go?

We got "preference sheets" in our mailboxes today, which means that it's time for us to list the positions we'd like to be placed in next year.

As I expected, my position was not on the list. Now, I'd gotten the heads up beforehand from a senior teacher, but no one on the administration ever said boo to me -- for all they know, I got this memo today and thought, "Hey...where's my position?" Which leaves a sort of bitter taste in my mouth, because I feel like they set up this position to fail. It's the upper grades who need a writing cluster, to prep for the state exams, and yet for reasons unknown to everyone they made it a K-2; I don't get any professional development or coaching, in comparison to the classroom teachers, who get it on a regular basis; it's my first year with Teachers College; I have 436 students in six different grades. Hello? Anybody out there?

So now it's like this Machiavellian strategic mind-fart for me to figure out what I should list as my preferences for next year, all the while worrying about whether I might get excessed (in which case I am so completely not pouring my time and effort into finding another DOE teaching job).

I guess it's just another day as a public school teacher!

You know you've made it...

...when your students write poetry about you.

April is the poetry unit in our writing workshop. Here, presented exactly as she wrote it, is one third grader's ode to me:

Miss Brave
is nice
and her
scin is
vere whate.
Miss Brave
is funny
and kind
Miss Brave
is pretty
and she
vere sweet
and smrt
She is
not mena
to us
She is allwaze
nice to us
She nvere
at us.
She is
so nice
to us
Miss Brave

Did you get all that? Here's a translation: "Miss Brave is nice and her skin is very white. Miss Brave is funny and kind. Miss Brave is pretty and she [is] very sweet and smart. She is always nice to us. She never screams at us. She is so nice to us and that is my teacher, Miss Brave."

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

50 days to go

It is almost certain that my position at my school will no longer exist in the fall.

What that means for me is less certain. My principal swears that she's going to try to keep all of her current staff, but with another 8% in budget cuts coming down the pike, I don't see how that's possible. There are at least half a dozen first-year teachers at my school, and I wasn't the last among them to be hired, but I'm still not entirely clear what that means for me in terms of seniority and excessing.

I didn't want my current job again next year anyway, so in a way it's a relief to know that it won't exist. But what are my chances of receiving my own classroom, or an AIS position in the subject and grade I want? It all remains, as ever, up in the air.

Friday, April 4, 2008

A raisin in the sun

April is National Poetry Month, and in the interest of helping my budding poets use descriptive language, I decided to revisit a lesson I tried with minimal success back when I was a completely naive, inexperienced teacher (i.e., in October): Writers describe by using their five senses.

The first time I tried this lesson, it was with my first graders, and I collected various items of minimal significance (like an empty water bottle and a pencil) and dropped them into brown paper bags that I optimistically billed as "mystery bags!" I broke them into pairs and instructed them to use their senses to describe the objects inside their mystery bags.

If you are also a teacher of young children, you probably don't need your five senses to tell you what happened next: The mystery bags mysteriously ripped; the mystery objects were mysteriously strewn about the classroom; and much grabbing, shouting, and general chaos not so mysteriously ensued.

But never let it be said that Miss Brave does not learn from her mistakes! This time around, I was standing in my kitchen at 5:30 in the morning, blankly wondering what I could give my kindergarten students to describe, when in the cabinet I spied my savior: a box of California golden raisins.

Should you ever find yourself alone with a group of young children whom you aren't quite sure what to do with, remember this one rule: If you act like something is unbelievably, indescribably cool, they will start to believe you. So believe me, I talked up this raisin. Using my five senses, I described the living daylights out of this raisin. And it worked: They were captivated, their little mouths watering.

Then I paused, for effect, and dramatically announced that I would be giving each student his own raisin.

OK. Imagine announcing to a group of young children that they are going on a trip to, say, an amusement park. Can you picture it? The gasps, the screams, the excitement? Now imagine announcing to a group of young children that you will shortly be giving them a raisin. Except imagine that they have the same reaction as they would to the amusement park announcement. That's what it was like.

So I gave everyone a raisin, with strict instructions not to taste it yet. They were like little scientists, examining their tiny raisins and noticing every bump, every spot, every wrinkle. Slowly, some of them started to think like little poets: "It looks like a cloud," or "It looks like the sun" or even "It looks like a balloon with all the air taken out." We introduced fun words like "wrinkly" and "squishy" and "juicy." And then, at long last -- after a trip to the garbage can to throw away all the raisins that had fallen on the floor in the course of our examination -- on the count of three, we all tasted our raisins.

It was the most blissful kind of brief silence I have ever experienced in a classroom. And my favorite reaction came from a sweet, round-faced little boy who threw up his hand excitedly. "When I tasted the raisin," he said, "I could feel it all the way down to my toes!"