Saturday, June 28, 2008

All over but the shoutin'

Well, that's it.

I haven't been this proud of myself since I finished the 2004 Cape Cod Marathon. And I was going to write a reflective wrap-up post, and I make it a point never to post about my personal life on my teaching blog -- but the last day of school was not only the last day of school but the day I got engaged, and now all my binders and grammar games and laminated Dolch words are stashed away in the trunk of my car and school is truthfully the last thing on my mind.

Bring on the summer!

Thursday, June 26, 2008

My "School's Out" Playlist

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

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The last days

When I graduated from kindergarten, I wore a sundress and a mortarboard made from blue paper. I had my first brush with fame when I delivered the line "We welcome you to kindergarten graduation."

Like many rites of passage, kindergarten graduation has come a long way since the late '80s. As I gazed around in amazement this morning at my 6-year-olds transformed into 16-year-olds through the magic of polished shoes, poufy dresses and copious amounts of hairspray, Miss B read my mind: "It's like a prom," she said, and then she corrected herself: "It's like a wedding and a prom."

The boys wore 3-piece suits made by Calvin Klein (!), complete with vests, ties, and slippery shoes. Their hair was slicked within an inch of its life ("My mom says my hair can't get messed up," one reported). The girls had their hair curled, or blown out, or otherwise styled, and at least 75% of them were dressed like Princess Diana (if Princess Diana were about to become a kindergarten graduate, that is).

181 school days ago, on the very first day of school, my kindergarteners were the first students I taught at this school. Armed only with a copy of Miss Bindergarten Gets Ready for Kindergarten (and the all-important stickers, of course), I was scared to death. Now they are kindergarten graduates and I am very nearly a second-year teacher -- we've all come a long way.

I oohed and ahhed over how handsome and beautiful they all looked -- "Miss Brave, do you like my tie?" "My grandma bought me these shoes!" "My titi did my hair!" -- and then I patiently zipped up gown after gown, admonishing them not to touch their tassels ("Miss Brave, what's a tassel?") or fuss with their hats. When the boys began to complain that their ties were too tight and the girls began to complain that their bobby pins were sticking them, I introduced them to a painful truth: Fashion hurts.

But then again, so does growing up. And that's what this year has been all about.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Putting the function back in dysfunctional

Recently, someone posted the following comment on my blog:

"What is wrong with your students' families that they are not teaching these basic skills long before the kids show up in your classroom? Are they just so dysfunctional that they don't know how to raise their children up right?"

My first reaction was to rush to their defense. After all, only I'm allowed to badmouth my students; no one else gets that privilege! My second reaction was to think about the rather wide cultural divide that separates me from my students. The majority of them -- I think the figure hovers somewhere around 80% -- are from Spanish-speaking backgrounds. And an even greater majority of them are from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds. When their families encourage them to fight back, to hit someone who hits them, I believe that their intent is not to raise their children to be dysfunctional; their intent is to raise their children to be survivors.

It is true, though, that a lot of my students come from troubled backgrounds. I have students whose fathers are not around because they're in jail for molesting family members or dealing drugs. I have students whose fathers are not around because they're abusive and have restraining orders against them. I have students whose parents fail to bring them to school on time -- or at all -- because they can't get themselves out of bed in the morning, let alone their children. I have students whose parents are on drugs, or drink too much. I have 10-year-old students whose mothers are 23, or whose mothers are dead at the hands of their fathers, or whose mothers have boyfriends that neglect or, worse, abuse them. I have students whose parents work more than one job and students whose parents have more children than they can probably take care of.

So yes, I have students whose families are dysfunctional. And I'm constantly having to remind myself that when my students do something that I consider outrageously offensive and then stare at me blankly like they have no idea what they've done wrong, the great majority of the time they really do have no idea what they've done wrong. I have students who genuinely do not grasp the difference between positive and negative attention. I have students who hit back because that's what they've been taught to do. I have students who behave inappropriately because that's all they know.

So it's my job, not just to teach them how to diagram a sentence, but how to get along with each other in a world full of people. Because most of all -- even on the days when it seems hopeless -- maybe especially those days -- I have students who are full of possibility.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Solving the missing equation

Today I was working with a first grader whose teacher unsuccessfully argued that he should repeat first grade next year. The administration decided to pass him onto second grade because he had already been held back in kindergarten. If I stay next year, he'll definitely be one of my reading kids.

Anyway, Will danced over to his seat and sang out, "I'm almost finished!" I looked down at his paper; it was blank.

"Will," I said, "you didn't write anything on your paper yet."

He looked up at me and blinked. "Oh. Right," he said.


In the same classroom, some incident sparked a fellow teacher to say, "You know what we should be teaching them? Problem solving skills. Like, what do you do when you spill juice all over the floor, or your pencil breaks?" I got so excited at hearing this, I can't even tell you; it's exactly the sort of thing, along with social skills, that I think our kids desperately need to learn. Because right now they don't know what to do when they spill juice all over the floor or when their pencil breaks. I can't tell you how many times I've happened upon a student staring blankly into space, ten minutes after everyone else has been scribbling away. "Student," I'll say, "why aren't you writing?" Student will look up at me helplessly and shrug. "I don't have a pencil." I will sigh hopelessly, and then patiently say, " can you solve this problem?" Thoughtful face. "I could...ask my neighbor for a pencil?" Or how many times I've been on one side of the classroom only to hear a student on the other side repeating a singsong refrain: "I need help...I need help...I need help..." without raising his hand or making any other effort to actually get my attention. And these are second graders I'm referring to.

That's what we should be using our extra 37.5 minutes after school for; when everyone's brain is shot from all the academics, that would be the perfect time to work on this kind of stuff. Hmmm.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

You say it's your birthday

Martin: "Miss Brave, is it true that I have a big head?"
Miss Brave: "Who said you had a big head?"
Martin: [evasive pause] "...people."

* * *

Yesterday was my birthday! Because I am the kind of person who enjoys a shameless amount of birthday hullabaloo, I made sure all 420 of my students knew about my birthday. To my older students, I read Patricia Polacco's Some Birthday!, and to my younger students, I read Frank Asch's Happy Birthday, Moon. (After we finished reading, one of my hyperactive ESL first graders inexplicably asked where God lives. I believe my eloquent reply went like this: "Uhhhhhhh...that is a very complicated question!" His classmate responded: "In the sky, of course!")

All my self-promotion paid off: Today (I saw none few of my students yesterday because I was in all-day planning for next year -- the best school-related birthday present of all!) my most perceptive students remembered to wish me a happy birthday! Cutest of all, my afterschool group (who has really been hearing about my birthday for ages because one of them had her birthday on Sunday, prompting endless discussions about which one of us would turn 9 first) launched into a rousing chorus of "Happy Birthday to You" when I walked into the quiet room.

I positively adore birthday hullabaloo.

In other news, with only 12 days to go left in the school year, I'm getting more and more indecisive about whether I'm coming back next year. The teacher whose position I'll be filling next year is retiring, and she has been extraordinarily helpful in preparing me -- the kind of support I lacked entirely when I first started at the school. I'm finally forming relationships with the teachers I'll be working with, and our first planning session together left me feeling a tiny bit exhilirated; it was so nice to be working as part of a team, bouncing ideas off each other and snickering at Lucy Caulkins' ridiculously over the top language in the curriculum calendar. At one point, one of my slightly intimidating colleagues said to me, "Everything you do is so ELL-friendly. I love your lessons." I think I may have actually beamed with pleasure.

So, obviously, I haven't told a soul that there's a possibility I won't be back. Awkward!

Friday, June 6, 2008

Sharing is caring

Yesterday during our Brooklyn-Queens Day professional development, my administration announced a new vocabulary initiative. Each grade had to come up with 200 words from various subjects to introduce to the kids in a 5-words-per-week breakdown. So that makes 5 vocabulary words a week, on top of their weekly Fundations words, Dolch words and word wall colleagues and I figured out that it amounts to about 20 "words of the week."

The idea is that teachers will introduce these five new vocabulary words each morning before first period starts, from 8:00 to 8:10, which makes me think that my administration has never actually been in a classroom before first period starts. First of all, at our school, attendance and punctuality are mere mirages, so that kids are drifting in and unpacking all through first period anyway. Second of all, that teeny sliver of time from 8:00 to 8:10 is when kids are eagerly vying to tell you every single thing that happened to them since the last time you saw them (yesterday), and is it really fair to take that away from them just so we can cram five more words into their already overloaded brains?

Do you know what my students really, really need, more than 5 new vocabulary words clapped out to them? Because I do. What they really, really need is some direct instruction in social skills. I cannot stress this enough. The other day, I did "Game Day" with my kindergarteners, where I give each table some word games. Sometimes they surprise me with their creativity and their willingness to work together, but on this particular day there was fighting, grabbing, screaming, the whole nine yards.

I took everything away from everyone and conducted a little demonstration. I sat myself down at the blue table and proceeded to steal things from other kids and refuse to share with them. Fortuitously, I happened to sit across from our kindergarten's resident prodigy, who soon schooled me in the art of getting along. "No, Miss Brave!" she explained patiently. "Other kids want to play too. You have to share with them!"

Then I gave everyone a game card and made them practice nicely asking their partner if they could borrow theirs.

I can't even tell you how many of my students tell me that their parents tell them to hit back; it's no wonder they're confused when they're getting mixed messages. And I think that instead of learning five more vocabulary words, we should learn some life skills.