Wednesday, September 21, 2011


There's an article in GothamSchools today about how teachers plan to use iPads in their classrooms. I too have a DOE iPad, purchased by my school during last year's "the DOE is not going to let schools carry over their extra funding" spending spree. I honestly didn't see a use for it at first and wasn't sure how I would put it to use in the classroom. But I'm a big believer in making an effort to use all the resources provided to me -- especially ones as coveted and as expensive as the iPad -- so I started to build a library of apps that slowly but surely are making my teaching more effective. There is an app called Confer that is designed for the workshop model. For each subject, I can group my students by level or arrange them into groups of my choosing (in writing, for example, whenever I do a small group for a certain strategy, I rearrange the groups in the app). Each time I meet with a student, I can list the "tag," "strength," "teaching point" and "next steps" of our conference. The best part is that the app saves everything I enter so that I can enter it again if I find myself, say, using the same teaching point over with another student. It's also really nice for small groups so I don't have to put in the same information on four different sets of conference notes. Also, I can list my students by date, so I can see who I haven't conferences with in a while. This year I even started doing my running records on the iPad, which has taken some getting used to but which is cutting down tremendously on the amount of paper and ink I use. I open the running records from the TC website in an app called iAnnotate, which allows me to type directly into the PDF file. I use an app called TeacherPal to keep track of attendance and grades; it also has features for tracking behavior and personal information (for example, I have my students' parents' e-mail addresses in there and I can quickly send an e-mail to my class list from it). Lastly, I always have this problem where I type up my plans, print them out and then promptly misplace them before a lesson. Now I just load everything into Google Documents or Dropbox and then they're always available when I need them. I don't think I'd go out and buy an iPad if it hadn't been provided for me, but I'm lucky to have one and I'm looking forward to figuring out other ways I can make it work for me!

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Rocking and rolling

One full week (plus two days) of school is in the can!  As Emeril Lagasse would say back in the '90s, "BAM!"

My students for the most part seem bright, personable, and eager to learn.  As an extraordinary bonus, there are only 21 of them (for now) -- by far the smallest class I have ever had.  Every time we line up to go someplace I experience a brief moment of panic where I think, "Where are the rest of them?!" until I realize that I do in fact have my entire class in front of me. 

I have been frank about how nervous I was starting off this school year.  I was brutally honest with myself in admitting that last year my co-teacher and I both made a lot of mistakes in the first few weeks of school that set the tone for the rest of the school year, errors that I obviously didn't want to repeat.  At my former school, first period was first period: we gave our classes about ten seconds to unpack and then it was on to the academics of the day.  My current school is more progressive in terms of the expectation that you conduct a "morning meeting" and build your classroom community, and one of the things I really wanted to nail in the first week of school was a sense of routine at the beginning and the end of the day.  As part of our morning meeting, we're checking the weather and doing a brief math activity, and we've been able to jump into shared reading right from morning meeting every day, so that has been a success. 

Another area where I can declare "so far, so good" is behavior management.  My behavior chart looks like this one (only my students have numbers on our chart so it's not instantly like, "Look at Julio always on red again"), and I built in an escape clause for those students who turn their behavior around.  At the end of the day, they use crayons to color in the day's square on the calendar; a week of greens earns a reward.   I'm trying (and this is going to make me sound like Mean Teacher again) not to be too soft, or at least not to set consequences where I don't follow through (...actually, I guess that's not really the same thing).  Our first consequence is a "friendly reminder," so instead of issuing a warning/threat like, "If this continues I will ask you to move your card," I just ask them to move their cards.  More often than not the offending behavior stops and the student is back on green by the end of the day. 

There are some teachers who warn you not to smile until December, and there are other teachers who will tell you that's baloney and you should be yourself from the beginning.  I have to confess, after my students last year openly worried about how I would fare in a classroom "by myself" because they insisted I was "too nice" (I felt like an evil dragon lady from hell, but apparently my co-teacher was the "strict one"), I'm in the first camp.  That doesn't mean I don't say funny things to my students or that I'm mean to them or that I'm unsympathetic when someone is hurt or sick or needs to use the restroom; it doesn't even mean I'm not nice.  But in the past I've let far too many behavioral issues turn into negotiations or power struggles.  As a recent article put it (I can't remember where I read this): "You're the only adult in the room. You've already won."  So I'm trying to be gentle in my reminders but firm in my expectations. And so far, knock wood, I haven't raised my voice or felt my blood pressure shooting through the roof. 

I'm not sure whether I've gotten more efficient at planning or whether it's the good fortune of having a relatively low-key class (again, so far! knock wood!), or more likely a combination of both, but during the first week of school I accomplished pretty much everything I set out to accomplish, which is both rare and awesome.  I'm fortunate enough to have tons of technology available to me (I have a SMART Board, a document camera and an iPad), which has also made the beginning of the year much smoother; no more hours spent writing up mock drafts on huge chart paper, now I can just model with the document camera.  I'm even able to do running records on the iPad, which cuts down tremendously on paper and printer ink...and considering that my toner is already low and the cartridge costs an astounding $400, is amazing.

I swore I was going to be better about blogging regularly and more thematically this year and this post is pretty much a mess, but there you have it: We all survived the first week of school.

Monday, September 5, 2011


Just trying to test out this mobile blogging app...

(1) First official day back for staff is tomorrow...good luck NYC teachers!

(2) Through Wednesday, Staples is selling packs of 8 pencils and packs of 8 erasers for one cent each. (Yes, that's one penny each.) The limit is 2 per customer, but if you show your teacher rewards card, you can buy up to 25. So that's 200 pencils for 25 cents. I'm going to try to go back tomorrow and Wednesday if I can!

Friday, September 2, 2011

Dear Me

 A few weeks ago, another NYC teacher blogger, Mr. Foteah, wrote a letter to himself on the eve of his first year teaching.  (I hope he doesn't mind me co-opting this topic here.)  I enjoy reading Mr. Foteah's blog because it's so earnest.  He comes across as incredibly passionate and dedicated, which makes me feel bad about my unkind thoughts toward the profession.  Like this one: After I read Mr. Foteah's heartfelt letter to himself, I asked myself what I would have said to myself on the eve of my first year teaching.  And as I told Mr. Brave, my letter could have been written in a single word: "Run."

Teaching will make you crazy, I would have told myself.  Some nights you will come home so exhausted that you will eat Cheez Doodles for dinner and pass out on the couch by 8:00.  You will find yourself hiding in your classroom with the lights off, alternately crying and blotching the redness out of your eyes so no one will notice you have been crying.  You will feel anger directed at copy machines, hole punchers, staplers and staple removers.  You will be called a "stuck-up bitch" by an eight-year-old.  You will want to quit.

...which is why, four years later, I'm glad I never wrote such a letter.  I've lived through a great deal of the teaching horrors I feared, and I survived. Even more miraculously, I stayed.  Because I think I can do better.  I refuse to be a cliche and tell you that it was all worth it when Michael learned to read or when Meredith thanked me for being the best teacher ever.  Of course teaching has its magical moments; I've even written about some of them in this blog.  But I would have wanted myself on the eve of my first year teaching to be clear on this: Teaching is not a movie, and being a teacher means so much more than teaching.  On any given day, you may have to carry forty notebooks up six flights of stairs (manual laborer), mediate an argument between two seven-year-olds (marriage counselor), decide on a just punishment for misbehavior (judge), console a distraught parent who can't control her child (social worker), copy two stacks of handouts (secretary), bag a lost tooth (dentist), fix a broken zipper (MacGyver),...and the list goes on.  No one teaches you those things in college when you're learning about Piaget. 

Now, I wouldn't want Mr. Foteah (or you!) to think that I'm getting all bitter and jaded, so on the eve of my fifth year teaching, I issue myself this challenge: Find the good in every day.  Last year I ended too many days feeling frustrated -- with my students, with my co-teacher, with myself -- and began too few days feeling refreshed and ready to start anew.  I once read an anecdote about all these teachers in the faculty room comparing classroom horror stories, and another teacher comes along and says, "It happened to [the kids], not to you."  Last year I too often felt selfish: What a bad day I've had, instead of realizing the kids had lived it too and it was up to me to change it for the better.  I've already set all sorts of teaching goals for myself this year: Conduct targeted small group strategy lessons in reading and writing at least three days a week, squeeze in read aloud every single day, do an end-of-the-day wrap-up meeting as often as possible, make better use of my vocabulary word wall.  Now my personal goal is to dwell on the good instead of the bad, to do my best to do better. 

There are 185 days in the school year.  That's 185 things I can teach, 185 good things that can happen for my class, 185 times we can all think, "I'm glad Miss Brave is my teacher."  Let's make it happen!

Monday, August 29, 2011

Back on the chain gang

Today was my first day back in my classroom since June, and I'll be totally honest: I was d-r-e-a-d-i-n-g it.  Which is not a good sign, because the summer should have (and usually does!) left me feeling relaxed and refreshed and ready and other pleasantly alliterative r-words to set up my classroom.  New Sharpie flip chart markers!  New table names!  New refrigerator and microwave for my classroom!  ("No matter what happens this year," I said ominously when I bought them on sale at Target, "at least I'll have snacks.") 

I must do a bad job teaching my students to respect our school supplies, or maybe $#@! just happens when you have nearly thirty 8-year-olds in a room, because I've had the misfortune of watching my supplies get destroyed so many times that it almost (almost!) sucks all the joy out of restocking my classroom with new ones.  Every year I buy those cheap plastic sharpeners from Staples on sale for fifty cents, and every year they break three days into the school year (which is likely the fault of shoddy manufacturing, not mishandling by my students), and every year I buy more, reasoning, "Hey, it's fifty cents."  If I added up all the fifty-cent sharpeners Staples has suckered me into purchasing, I could probably afford to purchase a fancy electric sharpener.  (I have one of those, too, but the noise is so ear-splitting that my #1 classroom rule this year instead of "Respect classmates, teachers, schoolwork and property" is likely to be "No one touches the sharpener."  Just kidding.  Probably.) 

Of course, it wasn't just the threat of broken school supplies that gave me pause.  Last year was a really hard year for me.  In some ways, it was my toughest year yet as a teacher because it so deeply shook my confidence in myself and my ability to teach, to work as a member of a team, to keep myself and my classroom organized, to get through to my students.  It was my first year at a new school, and I left it somehow feeling as though I hadn't represented myself the way I wanted. I wasn't happy with myself as a teacher.  I did a lot of thinking about it over the summer, because I knew that the only way to start fresh in a new school year would be -- as self-help-y as it sounds! -- to shift my perspective from excuses (I had a hard time because I didn't get along with my co-teacher, or I had a tough class) to pro-activity (next time, I can try to change...).  Otherwise I could feel myself slipping easily into the role of those stereotypical bitter old teachers everyone is always complaining about. 

When I got my teaching license in college, my professors made me write a statement of purpose defining my teaching philosophy.  I wasn't yet a teacher, so how could I know what my teaching philosophy was?  I just pulled out my fancy portfolio to look at it and it's filled with jargon-y buzzphrases like "empower my students with the ability to take charge of their own learning" and "differentiate instruction for students so that each student may have an opportunity to work at his or her instructional learning level."  It's easy to look back on those words now and laugh at myself: Oh, undergraduate Miss Brave, IF YOU ONLY KNEW.  But it's also easy to take those words in earnest.  Of course students should take charge of their own learning!  How fantastic it would be if teachers would always differentiate instruction for students so that each student may have an opportunity to work at his or her instructional learning level!  (Memo to undergraduate Miss Brave: That is a mouthful.) 

I guess my point is that the education debate sometimes feels so polarized that you're either a bitter old cow of a teacher who's just riding out the years until retirement, or you're a naive eager young teacher who's passionate about revolutionizing the teaching world.  In terms of teaching experience, I'm practically middle-aged (according to this article, almost half of NYC teachers leave the system within six years), and this year like never before I feel a strange pressure to define my teaching philosophy for real this time, not just for pretend in a college class.  And the truth is, despite what the movies would have you believe, I don't think that all it takes to help your students succeed is prove to them that you believe in them.  I think it takes more than that -- a lot more -- and my task this year is to put those puzzle pieces together, to keep all those balls in the air.  Be strict, but not mean.  Be firm, but be flexible. 

There was a really interesting article in the Times magazine recently about "decision fatigue," about how being forced to make lots of decisions -- even seemingly insignificant ones -- can sap your willpower.  Mr. Brave's first reaction when I told him about it was to comment: "That explains why you're so exhausted at the end of a day of teaching."  Then he put on his 8-year-old voice: "Miss Brave, can I go to the bathroom?  Miss Brave, can I sharpen my pencil?"  Teachers make dozens of decisions in the course of a school day.  Last year I got so bogged down in the little decisions -- am I going to let this go or am I keeping him in for recess?  Should I express my opinion or just keep my mouth shut? -- that I forgot to focus on the big ones.  Am I going to try something new or just give up?  Am I going to take charge of this class or aren't I?

So this year as I rearranged and reorganized and readied and other pleasantly alliterative r-words my classroom, I was realistic.  I didn't fantasize about how my sharpeners would stay pristine and unsullied all year.  I didn't tape up my new behavior chart without expecting it to fall down (which it did, moments later...and moments after I tacked it up again...and moments after that...until I finally tracked down my mounting tape!).  But I did get a little geeked out about my hot air balloon nameplates for the door.  And I did name my tables after important values I want my class to display this year.  (Calling the Kindness table to line up is just much cooler than calling Table 3.)  I started with the small decisions, so I could ease in to the bigger ones.  What kind of year are we going to have?  It's not entirely up to me, of course, but I need to set the tone -- and with September 8 drawing nearer, I'll have to make the decision to be ready.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Staples: Not in fact all that easy

I have a love-hate relationship with Staples.  Like many teachers (Mrs. Mimi springs to mind), I love bright shiny new school supplies.  But I sort of hate Staples, where I always wait on line for waaaaay longer than necessary and the staffers always seem to be singularly unhelpful.

Nevertheless, I've been at Staples frequently the past few days, trying to stock up on supplies while they're on sale.  Today I was trying to buy five highlighters for a dollar, except the packages I had picked up apparently didn't match the teeny picture in the circular (even though the brand and colors were the same), so the cashier sent me back to Aisle 3 and then took another customer whose e-mail address he had difficulty inputting into the system, adding another twelve years to my wait.

Just before I handed over my Teacher Rewards card, he asked me if I would like to donate $1 to buy school supplies for children who can't afford them.  I politely said, "No thank you."  For one, I have done this before in one of my many, many trips to Staples.  For two, that's pretty much what I was doing at Staples in the first place: buying school supplies for children who can't afford them.

He took my rewards card, shook his head, and said, "And you're a teacher."  So...I know I'm very sensitive and easily offended, but...I was offended.  This is where I should have exploded into a Taylor Mali-esque "What Teachers Make" moment, but what I said was: "Exactly. These are school supplies for children who can't afford them.  I spend hundreds of dollars every year on school supplies."

On the way home from Staples, I ran into a former classmate of mine and we exchanged catch-ups.  When I told him I teach third grade, he laughed and said, "That's so cute!"  Ohhhh, former classmate, you have no idea.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

It's that time of year again

Since they start running back-to-school ads practically just as the last Fourth of July firework is shooting off, I try to ignore them as long as possible.  But when Staples Teacher Appreciation Day hits, you know the end is nigh.

Like many teachers, I spent most of the summer trying to forget about school while simultaneously trying to psych myself up for next year.  Every summer, I swear I'm going to do tons of preparation, and every summer, I don't do as much as I'd like.  Growing up, I was always conscientiously over-prepared, but summer brings out the procrastinator in me.

One thing I did do this summer was to read Awakened: Change Your Mindset to Transform Your Teaching by Angela Watson, who runs the Cornerstone website for teachers.  I'm sure there are tons of books out there about how to ease job stress, but it was interesting to read one that's aimed directly at teachers; only a fellow teacher can appreciate those uniquely frustrating circumstances like when your push-in prep teacher is fifteen minutes late or when an administrator suddenly demands that you have a classful of individual assessment results ready by tomorrow.  The lesson Awakened teaches is something I already know but have extraordinary trouble doing, which is: It's healthier to let go than to stew about it in a seething rage.  Summertime was the perfect time for reading it, too, because summertime is like New Year's resolution time for teachers: This year, I will remain refreshingly above it all and not get mired in misery of any sort!  Ms. Watson is up-front about the fact that clearly this attitude is a work in progress.  She's also up-front about the fact that she came by this attitude by way of her Christian faith, which I admit was disconcerting at first, but the content of the book doesn't really Go There, so to speak, which as a non-Christian I appreciated.  Bottom line: Anyone who's trying to help teachers feel less stressed out so that they can be better at their jobs, rather than blaming teachers for the sorry state of everything ever, is cool with me. 

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Looking back to plan ahead

Do you have any idea what you would have done differently this year if you could change something?

That question comes from Mr. Brosbe, a fellow NYC public school third grade teacher, and it's a question I'm glad he asked, because it gives me a chance to do some constructive reflection instead of wallowing in self-pity.  One of the things that's disheartening, looking back on my year, is that I should have known better about so many of these things from the start.  But beginning the school year at a new school in a CTT classroom for the first time threw me off my game, so to speak, and everything suffered as a result.  So these aren't just "things I should have done differently," but rather "goals for next year."

1. Establish consistency and routine right from the start.
It's so hard to know what works, and I have a tendency to jump the gun (i.e., if the kids aren't getting something right away, I switch tactics and try something else instead of having a little patience and keepin' on with the keeping on).  I wasn't used to teaching in a school where students trickle into the classroom on their own (as opposed to me picking them all up at once), or where a morning meeting is actually part of the daily routine, or where I set my own schedule altogether, for that matter.  So much of your classroom community and culture comes from establishing those comfortable routines, and I think the lack of them in my classroom this year is part of why I never felt fully "bonded" with my students. 

2. Keep it simple.
My co-teacher and I knew going into the year that we had a class that would need clear expectations set for them, and we set up this complex baseball-themed behavior system that involved "rounding the bases with good behavior!" and moving into the "strike zone" for acting out.  It just got too complicated to manage and we dropped it early in the school year in favor of a ticket reward system, which also involved finding time for everyone to trade in their tickets for fabulous prizes.  (The vast majority of our students preferred to hoard their tickets rather than trade them, with the end result that on the last day of school, I held a class-wide "ticket auction" in which everyone competed to see who would be willing to hand over the most tickets for the most worthless pieces of junk in the prize bin.  This is how I sounded as the auctioneer: "I have one dinosaur bookmark!  We'll start the bidding at 20 tickets.  Okay, I see 30!  Anyone going higher than 30 tickets?")

Now, of course every year you hope that your students will be so intrinsically motivated by learning that these sorts of systems aren't necessary, and I have heard from my future students' current teacher that "they want to please you" (the five sweetest words a teacher can hear), but next year I don't want to be messing around with when and how and where to distribute prizes...I just want a simple behavior system that manages itself!

3. Set reasonable, meaningful consequences.
My naughty friends this year were remarkably immune to negative consequences.  I had several students who were not allowed to attend recess or eat with their friends in the lunchroom for weeks at a time (on the principal's orders, not mine), and they were (or at least they pretended to be) totally untroubled by this.  One of them in particular enjoyed showing off just how untroubled she was by loudly declaring her contempt for whatever fun activity she was missing.  So there were times when I thought, "Why bother take away recess, it doesn't bother them anyway," but then there were other times when I found myself coming to the end of my rope and making unreasonable threats like, "If I see that one more time, you're going straight to the principal's office," as if I were in some zany 1950s teen movie where I played the stern teacher. 

So this goes with my above philosophy of keeping it simple: Consequences should be clear from the start, not invented on the spot by me in a fit of anger -- and the punishment should fit the crime, so to speak.

You'll notice I haven't said anything at all yet about actual instruction.  That's because I felt like this year was so clouded by management issues that my biggest difficulty was actually getting to instructional time.  But I will say for next year...

4. Use my student data to plan targeted small groups.
At my former school, we were expected to teach a million and one small strategy groups, but it was all about quantity over quality.  At my new school, the trend ran more towards individual conferences.  On the one hand, conferencing is a little easier because you just plop down next to a student, find out what he's working on, and go from there; on the other hand, I had a lot to learn about how to teach something in a one-on-one conferences (as opposed to just shooting the breeze).  I did so many individual conferences that I really moved away from small groups, and I missed out on a lot of chances to work with my students together in a group.  Next year, I'd really like to make sure I'm trying to group my students flexibly by need and do some groupwork on their goals.

And there you have it!  I'm in the middle of a move, but I'm hopeful that by August I'll be all settled in and ready to really plan for next year!

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Be careful what you wish for

Last year I used to tell myself that if I could survive my class, I could survive any class.  Which just goes to prove that you should be careful what you claim to be able to withstand, because "any class" could be coming sooner than you think.

Last June, at the end of a rough school year, I was able to look back at the year with a sense of relief and even pride.  Despite some very difficult challenges and a huge lack of support from my administration, I could say with certainty that my students were leaving second grade knowing more than when they came in.  I was reasonably sure that 100% of them were prepared to be third graders.

This year, I'm disappointed to report, I don't feel the same way.  Three of my students failed the ELA exam (two of them have IEPs with modified promotional criteria; the third will be promoted via his promotional portfolio).  Too many of my students moved too few reading levels, or haven't yet mastered their multiplication tables, or are writing the same kinds of pieces they were when they arrived in September.  (I nearly cried when I compared their June '11 on demand writing with their September '10 on demand writing.)

I could give you hundreds of excuses that put the blame on them: they didn't do their homework! They're not reading! But I categorically refuse to do this.  The truth hurts: It was a tough year, on the heels of another tough year, and I didn't do as much as I could have or should have to make sure the message went through.

And so I've made a promise to myself: Next year will be better.  And it won't be because I have a better class (although I've been told over and over how amazing next year's third graders are); it will be because I plan to spend at least some of my summer vacation really planning thoughtfully for next year.

Next year will be better.  At this point, it has to be!

Friday, May 13, 2011

Testing Miss Malarkey

Top 10 Questions/Comments Made By My Third Graders During Their First Ever Set of ELA and Math State Exams

(aka "Why Teaching In a Testing Grade May Cause Premature Aging," or "Why I Have Band-Aids On All My Fingers From Nervously Picking Off the Cuticles While Proctoring")

10. "Why do we have to use a #2 pencil?"

9. (Directions read by me: "You may not speak to each other while the test is being administered."  Student:) "What does 'administered' mean?"

8. "I don't get how to show my work for this part."

7. (The test directs students to continue working when they see the words GO ON at the bottom of the page and to stop working when they see the word STOP. On the ELA, students get ten minutes per passage and have to STOP before being directed to move on. On the math exam, they get 60 minutes to do all 40 questions, no STOPping. On the math exam, one student asked:)  "When is it gonna say STOP?!"

6. "But none of these choices are right."

5. "But both of these choices are right." 

4. "Can I look this word up in the dictionary?"

3. (while filling in a graphic organizer on the ELA in which the directions state, "Name two other things in the article that...")  "Am I supposed to answer this using my background knowledge?"

2. (while pointing to an open-answer question on the math exam in which the directions state, "Show your work")  "Do I have to show my work for this part?"

and the #1 comment one of my students made just prior to the start of the math exam...

1. "Wait, is this the real test?"

Happy end of testing season, everyone!

Saturday, April 30, 2011

I ain't taking no deep breaths

THE TEST is almost upon us!  Recently I met with my principal to discuss what grade I’d like to teach next year.  After many, many hours of soul-searching I had listed second grade as my first choice on my preference sheet, but there may not be an opening, so I then spent many, many hours agonizing over whether I’d rather move to first grade or stay in third.  My principal asked me to be “completely honest” about my reservations in third grade. 

“Well,” I said, “I’ve never done test prep before, and I’ve never had a class like this before, so getting this class through test prep has been…”

He finished the sentence for me.  “Get me the hell out of third grade?” 

Bingo!  I have not enjoyed doing test prep – what teacher does, really? – but I also do not believe, as some teachers do, that a solid curriculum is enough to prepare eight-year-olds to take their first standardized test without any additional “test-taking” support.  One of the highest readers in my class has committed a bubbling error on every single practice test we’ve taken.  Another one of my highest readers has raised her hand during practice tests to ask to see a dictionary.

Then there’s Marco, an IEP student who’s reading below grade level (not dramatically, but still), whose main issue with THE TEST is just plain stress.  During countless practice sessions, I’ve turned around to find Marco with tears streaming down his face, shaking his paper at me in frustration.  Because Marco’s IEP grants him modified promotional criteria, there’s little danger that he’ll have to repeat third grade even if he does fail the test (which – fingers crossed! – probably won’t happen anyway).  But Marco doesn’t know that, and he’s starting to crack under the pressure of day after day of reading test passages that are just a little too hard for him. 

I’ve been working on some coping strategies with him, like: If a question is getting really hard, just turn your paper over for a few seconds and take some deep breaths before you go back and read it again.  But the other day, I saw Marco’s fists starting to clench in anger.  When I got there, before I could even say a word, Marco looked up at me, waved his paper in my direction and angrily blurted: “And I ain’t taking no deep breaths!”

Oh, THE TEST.  May our pencil points stay unbroken, our bladders empty, and our minds calm!

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

April is the cruelest month

More than any other school year, I've had a difficult time blogging about teaching this year (as my near-total lack of posting obviously suggests).  I've always blogged a lot about my frustrations with my administration; at my new school, thankfully, most of those complaints no longer exist.  As hard as it is to believe, I've been busier than ever with planning and also dealing with parents outside of school, which is sort of new for me; it was extremely rare for parents at my former school to communicate by e-mail, but this year I feel like I spend a lot of time at home composing e-mails to parents.  Last year I posted a lot about my frustrations reaching my students; while my class this year is at least as "entertaining" as last year's wild bunch, I feel like I'm dealing with a lot of frustration more on a personal level than an academic one, which is difficult to put into words on this blog.  Perhaps it's because I lack a certain amount of autonomy in the classroom now, and I don't feel entirely comfortable posting about my co-teacher and our negotiations over lesson planning. 

I will say this: I had no idea how difficult it was going to be to work with someone else in the classroom.  For two years at my former school, I frequently parallel taught in classrooms with other teachers (i.e., either I pushed into a classroom or a supporting teacher pushed into my classroom; the class was divided into two groups and each of us taught a group on opposite sides of the room).  But we weren't necessarily teaching the same thing at the same time, we rarely planned together and we weren't "responsible" for the other teacher's students in terms of conferencing with them or recording data.  Co-teaching in a CTT classroom is entirely different.  You don't realize how many decisions you make in a day as a teacher until you've had to collaborate on every single one of them.  Also, at my new school, teachers have a lot more freedom to plan their own schedules and their own curriculum, so that actually makes it more difficult to work with someone else because all that has to be decided upon.  I've realized that my instincts are to plow through the curriculum and try to cram everything in and get it done, because I'm used to being told exactly what I'm teaching and when I'm supposed to be teaching it.  When my co-teacher has had to suggest slowing down or reviewing material, I've looked at her like she has seven heads.  If we review multiplication facts again, we won't get to number patterns in time for THE TEST!

Ah, the test.  That's the other thing: test prep.  It's been extremely stressful.  First of all, I've never taught "test prep" before, not least of all to kids who have never taken "THE TEST" before.  I'm convinced we don't know what we're doing and if (when?) they do poorly, it will be our fault for not adequately preparing them.  Second of all, I went to this TC workshop where I was shamefully reminded that my students are eight years old.  They are eight years old and I have spent the last four weeks being impatient with them because they don't understand how to bubble the bubbles correctly and we just taught you to circle the genre in the directions and that answer choice is directly from the passage and none of you are taking this seriously enough.  Meanwhile, we have been gearing up and gearing up for the test, and then we hit vacation, and now the weather is finally lovely and I'm sure none of us want to return to school for THE TEST.  When it's over (by the middle of May, both the reading/writing and the math test will be over), I'm not sure what we'll do.  We have other units left to cover, of course, but I fear the kids will be mentally checked out of school for the year now that it will no longer be on THE TEST, and as teachers we'll be looking ahead to next year.

I know I'll be back in my own classroom next year; CTT is not for me!  I'm hoping I'll be back in second grade next year, too (that is, if I don't get fired; just read this morning in the Post that the budget is still not looking good for teachers).  I'm not sure if it's my third graders, or just all third graders, but third grade is a little too much attitude for me.  I like my students small and sweet, not sassy (well, they can be a little sassy, like when I said to Mario, "It's not the end of the world," and he said, "Yes it is!  In 2012!  Like the movie!").  I also think I prefer the second grade curriculum.  We spent three torturous units in a row this year in book clubs.  That entailed: grouping the kids by reading level while simultaneously taking into account our ridiculous behavior issues; finding an appropriately leveled series for each book club to read; digging up multiple copies of multiple books in each series for each member of the book club to read; attempting to make sure each member of each book club read the same amount of pages each night in preparation for book club discussions; and monitoring book club discussions for signs of intelligent conversation.  I'm not necessarily anti-book club units, but I am anti three-book-club-in-a-row units.  In our class, we have many, shall we say, interesting personalities, at least a few of whom on any given day would outright refuse to meet with their book club, look at their book club, or sit near their book club.  A few of our kids will go so far as to call other kids "cheaters" or claim, "He stole my idea" if someone expresses the same theory about a book (and we're not exactly talking Gamp's Law of Elemental Transfiguration here, we're talking "I think she was being a good friend because she said I'm sorry"). 

Thank goodness, our last unit of the year is more palatable; the kids research another country and then write little information books about that country.  Bonus: connection with social studies!  The other thing I miss about second grade is teaching science and social studies; my third graders go to science twice a week with another teacher, and we in theory teach social studies once a week but in reality hardly ever manage to squeeze it in (especially now with THE TEST) looming.  I can't help feeling like there were so many little things that I managed to squeeze in last year with my class because it was me and only me calling the shots, and if I wanted to take five minutes to do something, I could.  I'm hoping that next year will be a nice fresh start and then I can really enjoy my new school, which -- aside from my issues with my co-teacher -- I really do like.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

I had a dream that I didn't pass the state exams and was going to have to repeat third grade.  Clearly the stress of test prep is getting to me.

I came home and followed a link on another blog to a transcript of a Rush Limbaugh show.  I know that guy's a maniac and no one should listen to anything he has to say, but nevertheless, let's take a look at what Rush has to say:

"Can we get rid of the myth once and for all that school teachers, anymore, are these average, ordinary, next-door neighbors who are just doing everything they can to further the educational experience of your children?  That's not who they are.  They are left-wing activists, active members of unions who are oriented first by a political agenda, second by their own well-being, and your kids come last.

Could these people who are making what they're making as a result of state and federal accidents, could they earn that money in the private sector on their own? Do they have the skills? Do they have the talent?  Could they?  Do they have the ability to even do what they're doing now reasonably well? The whole educational system has been co-opted by people who have found an easy way to a good living, and they realize it and they don't want to give it up without a fight.  It's always about the money."

Definitely, Rush, I know I certainly became a teacher because I was all, "Easy money!"   

I don't know how to prove it to these jerks, but please believe me when I say: I work so hard for these children.  I dream about these children.  I wake up in the middle of the night worrying about how I can best further the educational experience of these children.  



Friday, February 4, 2011

Booking it

Like last year, I have some capital-A Angry Kids in my class.  They are mistrustful and suspicious of everyone ("I don't need any friends, I don't trust nobody in this class").  They take everything as a personal affront or insult.  They go out of their way to attract attention through every possible negative behavior: loud and frequent farting noises, banging on the table, kicking other kids' chairs, bumping the table so no one can write.  And when asked to stop, they will tell you they weren't doing it even as they continue to do it.

Since winter break, our kids have been in "book clubs," reading the same book at the same pace so they can meet with each other and discuss the book.  Now, imagine you're a capital-A Angry Kid.  You hate books.  You hate people.  You hate being told what to do.  Now you're in a book club.  Perfect!

If you were to come to my classroom with the intention of watching my students chatter away in their book clubs, what you would probably witness instead in at least one corner of the room is someone getting Angry, kicking a chair or slamming a book down, and storming away from the group.  Today it took me fifteen minutes just to determine that Marcelino hadn't finished his book, because he kept rolling his eyes and exclaiming, "Jesus Christ!" when I inquired whether or not he had done the reading.  (He then went on to inform me in no uncertain terms that he had no intention of reading the rest.)  Walter came to his book club meeting without his book and sat there for about twenty minutes; when Ms. Halpert told him to go get it, he got up, walked in a semi-circle around his chair, and sat back down.  When I told him to go get it, he heaved himself up with a piercing "Okaaaaaaaaay!"  Vanessa eloquently summed it up this way: "I hate school, I hate people, I hate reading, I hate reading to other people, I hate talking to people, I hate books..."  I think it might have gone on from there, but honestly, I had heard enough.

I've been seeing that video clip of Cathie Black getting booed at the PEP meeting on Tuesday night and responding to the crowd's jeers with a sarcastic noise.  I would love, love, love to see Cathie Black come into my classroom and demonstrate how to be one of those fantastic teachers she's always talking about, and show me how to raise the test scores of kids like my Angry Kids.  I can be delivering the greatest lesson ever prepared in the most scholarly way ever, but if your hands are over your ears and you're rocking in the corner with your sweatshirt up over your head, that lesson is not going to reach you.  I want someone like Cathie Black to acknowledge that quality teaching is only part of it, that one has to be a social worker and a psychologist and a guidance counselor and a parental figure all wrapped up into one. 

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Things I really needed

First and foremost: the snow day, obviously. I had my hopes raised high for the last potential snow day; we even assigned "Sleep with your pajamas inside out and a spoon" as homework.  I slept badly all night from the anticipation, woke up at 5 am to hear the big announcement, and ended up hugely disappointed.  (Dirty teaching secret #437: I think teachers enjoy snow days more than our students.)  So yesterday, when Ms. Halpert started to say, "What do you think are the chances that -- " I cut her off with a "Absolutely none. Zero."  So it was an especially lovely surprise to get the gift of a snow day this morning!  On the news, I saw a reporter interviewing several home health aides who had been waiting for the bus for more than thirty minutes so they could get to their patients, and I immediately felt guilty.  So props to all the people (like Mr. Brave!) who did make it in to work today.

What I really needed, though, was a little encouragement.  Between the situation with my co-teacher and my students' tiny attention spans, I was beginning to question my effectiveness altogether. 

Then the other day, one of my students brought in a cake his mom had baked for us (delicious).  The attached card thanked us for all of our hard work and dedication.  "I have seen my son's love for school grow this year, and it could not have happened without you," she wrote.  Both of us teared up when we read it; what a lovely expression of appreciation, and what validation for both of us.

For some reason, the other day, my thoughts drifted back to the infamous Julio.  He's now in a self-contained class and, according to his new teacher, is doing great.  Recently she contacted me to tell me that his classmates had voted him student of the month for his kindness.  His kindness -- my Julio, who used to kick chairs in the direction of other students in my class.  All of a sudden, I was tearing up again.  Because I thought: I did that for him.  Was I the only reason he got the services he needed?  No.  But was I an instrumental reason his mother finally saw the light after three unsuccessful, frustrating years in school?  I give myself permission to say: Yes, I was.  I may have wanted him out of my classroom, I may have had many, many unkind thoughts about him, I may have cried my eyes out with frustration over him, but I believed in that child.  I am so honestly happy to hear that he's having a good year. 

So that's what I really needed: to feel good about myself as a teacher again, if only for a few brief moments.  (And to lie on my couch wearing my fuzzy pink slippers and blogging in the middle of the day while chunks of snow crack against my window -- that too.)

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Time to change, time to rearrange

There are some major differences in the culture at my former school, where I taught for the first three years of my teaching career, and the school I'm at now.  One reason I was so happy to be hired at my current school was that the differences were so apparent: my current school is helmed by a principal who knows most (if not all) of our students by name and whose presence is obvious throughout the school.  At my former school, the majority of my students literally could not identify the principal when they saw her.  Also at my former school, all of our decisions as teachers were rigidly controlled by the administration.  We didn't even write our own teaching points; they were handed to us by our literacy coach.  By necessity, because we had so many push-in teachers, our schedules were arranged for us (and heaven help you if you were "caught" teaching a different subject than the one your posted schedule said you would be teaching).  Everyone took conference notes in exactly the same way (a way that was changed so frequently you could get whiplash trying to keep up with which format to use).  At my current school, there is a lot more -- dare I say it? -- trust that the administration puts in teachers.

There are other differences, though, that are more subtle, and they've made the transition rockier than I may have originally thought.  I've blamed a lot of my unease this year on my co-teacher, but I'm sure that part of it is just adjusting to a new school.  I started out doing things the way I'd always done them, just because that was the way it was done at my former school, only to find out that I'd missed the memo on my new school's way of doing things.

At my former school, for example, it was common practice to plaster every square inch of one's classroom with charts and examples of student work.  You name it, I had it up on the wall in my classroom.  Now, for my first two years I was a push-in teacher, and I got around to a lot of classrooms.  All that stuff up on the walls?  It was totally overstimulating.  It was colorful, and it completely screamed "LOOK HOW MUCH LEARNING WE ARE GETTING DONE!", which is probably why we all did it, but it was extremely distracting and I'm not entirely sure whether it was for the benefit of our students or our visitors (I suspect it was the latter). 

So when I got to my current school, I followed suit.  Every chart we made went up on the wall somewhere.  And it stayed there, because we were proud of them.  The more stuff you have up, the more you must be teaching, right?

Then one day my principal gently informed us that he was going to help us "de-clutter" our classroom.  He suggested we peek into other classrooms to see what was going on in them.  And it wasn't that other classrooms didn't have anything up on their walls; it was just streamlined better, and not as overwhelming. 

Case in point: We have a gigantic calendar in our room.  It is so big that it literally eats up an entire bulletin board, so the only place we could stick it was behind the door, aka very far from the meeting area where calendars should live.  We have this gigantic calendar because I used it last year when a teacher at my former school loaned it to me, and I loved it so much I went out and bought it for my new classroom, even though it was ridiculously expensive.

We recently rearranged, reorganized and relabeled our entire room, as part of our kumbaya efforts to work together more effectively.  Our reorganization entailed carrying a dozen heavy tables back and forth down the hall (during which I stabbed myself in the ankle with a table leg, and it still hurts), wrapping every single basket in our library with packing tape, and countless hours of literal blood, sweat and tears.  And then last week Ms. Halpert glumly reported that our principal had pointedly noted that our overlarge, inappropriately located calendar was still up.

And that's how it came to pass that we are replacing my beloved $100 calendar with a $13 one from Staples.  If any teacher out there would like to purchase a very gently used, practically brand new gigantic classroom pocket chart me!

Friday, January 21, 2011

Phoning home

I hate calling parents.  I admit, this is almost entirely my fault.  First of all, I always let too many infractions go by before I do so, so that by the time I call I have an insanely long list of complaints ("...and then today, he poked another child in the eye with his pencil and called him a boogerhead") that the parent is always shocked, I mean completely shocked to hear about because of course he's never been like this before and they had no idea there was any problem.  (I know all the "Tips for Surviving Your First Year of Teaching" books always make it sound like you should practically be visiting your students at home over the summer to introduce yourself, but the reality boils down to: I don't have time to call 28 sets of parents just to shoot the breeze.)  Second of all, at my last school, calling a parent inevitably resulted in one of three things: (1) The child returned to school alluding to the fact that he had been or would be spanked or hit if his parent received another call home; (2) the child returned to school even angrier at me and the world because one of his electronic devices had been taken away as a result of his behavior, prompting the child to make the entire world suffer for his own misery, or (3) absolutely zero change in behavior. 

Thirdly, there's always the wariness factor.  Often I'm calling parents I haven't met, because unfortunately the parents I need to speak to the most are the parents who don't come to Meet the Teacher Night or parent/teacher conferences.  Sometimes there's a language barrier; sometimes I hear other children yelling or crying in the background; sometimes, with the advent of parents replacing their home phones with cell phones, I reach a parent who isn't really in a position to talk.  Many times there are such long silences on the other end of the line that I'm not sure if I'm being met with hostility or not.  In those cases I end up rushing through my prepared speech, or I find myself making excuses for the child ("I think he may have been upset because the other student took his pencil, but it's still not good manners to call someone a boogerhead"), even if in my head before the phone call I was ready to nail him to the wall.  And a lot of the time, it's not like I'm telling the parent anything they don't know.  "Yeah, he does that at home too, and I just don't know what to do about it" is a common response.  It's as if they're telling me: "Look, lady, if I had better control over him, you wouldn't have had to make this phone call in the first place."

This isn't to say I haven't made progress.  Last year, I pretty much gave up on sending notes home when I found several weeks' worth of The Baby's negative behavior reports stuffed into his desk.  This year, I called a few parents on a day when Ms. Halpert was out of the building, and when she returned she wanted to know what the students had done that was so much worse than usual. My answer was nothing, really, but at some point the usual shenanigans deserve a phone call home too.  Out of sight is out of mind, and I think some of our kids' parents have convinced themselves that they're perfect angels when they're out of sight at school all day...and if they don't hear anything to the contrary, how are they supposed to know what is really going on?

 My favorite parent to call was The Antagonist's mother.  She was the first one to tell you that her son had faults, and she was refreshingly open to hearing them.  I called her so often that she would answer the phone by saying, "What did he do now?" and then we would both laugh.  It may not have always changed his behavior, but just the idea that he knew that Mom knew what I knew at least put it all out in the open.

Unfortunately, I often call parents from my cell phone, just because it's more convenient to make a call from the privacy of my classroom, where I don't have a phone.  Last year, Julio sauntered into the classroom (late as usual) one morning and informed me that his mother had sent me a text message.  This year, my newest troublemaker's mother has taken to texting me at all hours; today, I got a text from her at 2:30 pm about where her son was supposed to go after school.  I didn't actually read the text until after school was over, because -- believe it or not, newest troublemaker's mother! -- my phone does not ring out loud nor do I check my texts during the school day, even on Friday afternoons.  On the up side, she gave me permission to call her at any time, and one of my favorite tricks is to whip out my cell phone during class and prepare to put students on the phone with their parents right then and there.  (This backfired on me once when no one answered and I had to leave a message instead.)

Tuesday, January 18, 2011


On any given day, I might find myself frustrated by a number of things that go on in my classroom.  I've written before about minor calamities (broken pencils! lost folders!) and major ones (suicide threats! thrown chairs!).  For the most part, those incidents -- like many things that happen when you become a teacher -- had nothing to do with my actual teaching ability, but rather my ability to not jump out a window in the face of overwhelming despair.

Lately, though, I've noticed something that does make me worry about my teaching ability: A number of my students, during mini lessons, are deeply engaged.  Deeply engaged, that is, with various activities other than paying attention to my mini lesson.  They are drawing on their folders.  They are playing with their fingers, or with the person's hair in front of them.  They are, in short, paying so little attention to the lesson that they are not even bothering to pretend to pay attention by staring at a space approximately above my head.

Over the years, I've tried a number of methods for bringing these students back to earth.  There's the singsongy, syrupy approach, in which I praise various other students in the vicinity of the offending student who are paying attention: "I can see that A.J. is ready to learn.  I would like to thank Tanya for paying attention..."  This approach has a calming effect, but when you have students who are seriously hardcore not paying attention, they don't even notice you're doing it.  Then there's the cranky bitter teacher approach, in which I zero in on a daydreamer with laser precision: "Manny, can you repeat what Jada just told us?  ...I didn't think so, because you're not paying attention."  I'm not such a fan of this one. 

Recently, though, I realized what does get their attention: not pleading, not "I'm waiting," not barking out orders to "sit on your bottoms, eyes on me."  What does get their attention is when I really get into my teaching; when I use funny voices, or toss in jokes, or act over-the-top animated like I'm just having such a good time teaching and we all will too, ha ha ha!  In short, when I teach like a teacher should teach.  Which leads to a vicious cycle, because when I'm frustrated by looking out into a sea of uninspired third graders who aren't paying attention, it's not easy to throw myself into a lesson that I'm convinced no one's listening to anyway.  So I carry on with the other stuff, and half our day is lost on just getting settled on the rug.

My principal told me once that maybe I focus too much on that management, that I should just concentrate more on my teaching and the rest will follow.  I think I need to experiment with taking his advice.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Putting the teach in team teaching

Friends, I am having a rough year.

Those of you who followed my exploits last year -- or, for Pete's sake, since I began teaching three years ago -- may be throwing your hands up and thinking, "Seriously, Miss Brave, again?"  Last year, alone in a classroom full of maniacs, all I wanted was for another adult to join forces with me to stop the madness.  That's why I was so eager to teach in a CTT classroom at my new school.  Now I'm...not alone in a classroom full of maniacs, and all I want is for my co-teacher to disappear.

I haven't blogged about it because I'm still not quite clear on when it all started to go downhill.  I know that I come from a school where, by necessity, we ran a pretty tight ship on time management of our lessons.  Because we had many push-in teachers for various subjects, if math was supposed to end at 9:37, math had to end at 9:37.  I got a little frustrated with Ms. Halpert when it was 9:37 and she was still working with one student instead of transitioning to our next activity.  But I never said anything to her about it, and that was my mistake.
The year progressed.  I started to leave school a little earlier at the end of each day, and Ms. Halpert (who is a first-year teacher) continued to stay late.  As it turns out, she was becoming more and more resentful of the fact that I wasn't there with her.  But she never said anything to me about it, and that was her mistake.

Meanwhile, both of us became increasingly fed up with trying to plan with each other; I tend to over-estimate students' capabilities, and Ms. Halpert tends to want to over-scaffold them.  But neither of us said anything to each other about it...and that was our mistake.

It all came to a head during a grade-wide writing planning session in which Ms. Halpert sat with her back to me (not very "turn and talk to your partner"-like behavior) and an extremely tense and awkward vibe seethed in the air.  The next day, our principal asked to speak with us individually; Ms. Halpert went first.  I don't know exactly what was said at that meeting, but it was alarming enough that my principal told me he thought he might have to take one of us out of our classroom mid-year.

Eventually we agreed we would salvage our partnership through the end of the year.  (We also privately agreed that we did not want to work together again next year.)  But that decision has opened up a whole new world of work for both of us.  In the process of transforming the layout of our classroom (again -- having 28 students and two meeting areas makes for an extremely cramped classroom space), I got whacked in the ankle with a heavy table leg.  It hurt.  We've been asked to work with the literacy coach and the math coach, which naturally makes us feel scrutinized.  To add insult to injury, the literacy coach (who has never watched either of us teach a lesson) has been bringing us to other classrooms to observe the "structure of the mini lesson," which is something we both know we can recite in our sleep.  Ms. Halpert was a student at Teachers College; I was a reading teacher for a full year.  Both of us know how to teach a mini lesson; what we don't know is how to navigate each other.

We agreed to try to do it, but it's a long, hard slog through the bleak, dark days of January, and what awaits us now doesn't seem all that rewarding.  Some days it makes me question my commitment to teaching altogether.  Other days, I just want to make it all the way to June.