Sunday, December 21, 2008

December stories

My students have recently found out that I don't have a TV. (At least, not one that shows television programs). They cannot understand this; it does not fit into their world view.

"But what do you do for entertainment?" they ask. "How do you get your news?"

I talk about books, the radio, the newspaper, the internet. They are still mystified.

Later, I am sitting in the hallway with a few kids, sorting minerals. Julio looks thoughtful. Finally, he says, "You know, Ms. Swamp, we have two TVs at my house. You could have one if you want."

I know he is offering me something very big, even though it is something I really don't want.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Jarad and I haven't been getting along too well. He looks bored, spaced-out, and annoyed almost all the time. He rolls his eyes at me on a regular basis, and mutters rude things under his breath. Then he is rude to Ms. Annie at recess. I call him over to talk.

"What is going on, Jarad?" I ask. "It seems like you don't like school much anymore."

"I don't!" he answers emphatically. "It's so boring!"

I ask if he liked it last year. Yes, he did. We make a list of what feels different this year. I realize that our latest math units, on data and geometry, are not challenging enough. I am good at making the units on numbers and operation more challenging, but the geometry and data units for second grade are new to me, and I've been teaching them mostly as they are written. It is kind of boring for him.

We make some plans for the new year, so that school feels better to him. We agree that I will ask him to do things in a more friendly way, if he will respond more politely. I promise that both math and writing are going to be harder and more exciting in January.

The next day, he gets to go see the Celtics practice as part of a local reading program. "Bring me something back!" I joke as he leaves.

When he returns later in the afternoon, he rushes into the room where I am meeting with other teachers.

"Ms. Swamp," he says, "I brought you something!"

He hands me a paperback book. "It's about bikes!" he announces proudly. He has chosen a children's chapter book about Lance Armstrong for me. He knows I love to ride my bike.

If I doubted it before, I am sure now that we've made up.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

December Survival Guide

How to survive the last week before vacation.

By Ms. Swamp

1. Copious quantities of red wine (No, not at school)

2. Crazy dancing, as often as possible

to be continued

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Boys Group

I recently started a group for 4 boys from my class. On Thursdays, we play games together for half of recess (Jenga or Twister, so far), then eat lunch together. Ostensibly, the group is for having fun. Really, I started the group to help my on-the-spectrum student gain better social skills and friends. But actually, the group is serving the purpose of teaching all of them social skills, including how to win and lose and take turns and encourage each other, and how to not all talk at the same time while eating lunch. (Really, it is amazing the way they seem to think there is nothing wrong with speaking at the same time that everyone else is talking.)

Last week we had the group on Wednesday because I was out of town Thursday and Friday. This week, every day one of them asks me when we're having the group: Wednesday or Thursday?

Today Ms. Annie poked her head in my classroom at lunchtime to ask if I was free for a meeting tomorrow at lunch. My kids were eating quietly and listening to hippie folkie acoustic music I was playing for them.

"Sure," I said. "I can meet at lunch, I don't have anything going on."

She nodded and left. Tyshaun looked up.

"When are we having our lunch group?" he asked off-handedly. He looked so casual, but I could see immediately what he was thinking.

I told him we'd have it on Thursday, not tomorrow. He was right, I had almost forgotten about it. Sometimes it amazes me the things kids can keep in the forefront of their minds (while so many other things seem to disappear...). And I like it that he likes the boys group so much. They are so different in that small group. Careful of each other, thoughtful, calmer. If only I could always have them in little groups!

PS. If you haven't listened yet, you need to check out the podcast of This American Life from Sept. 26th. You can stream it here, or buy it through the website also. It's about Geoffrey Canada and his work in Harlem, and what he is doing is spot on. Highly recommended.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Exhibit A

One last Tyshaun story (for today). This one is a Thanksgiving story.

Yesterday, we celebrated Israel’s birthday. As we always do, we danced with abandon to “Birthday,” by the Beatles. The song lasts five or six minutes, and we jump and bounce and boogie all over the place to it. It is very good for all of us.

I noticed, partway through the song, that my class was dancing in small groups, and they were mostly dancing with the people they are closest to. There was a small group of four girls over here; three boys danced together over there. Some students stood outside the groups, including Alex.

Alex is new to our school this year, he’s the only Asian student in the class (and nearly the only one in the school), and he is somewhere on the autistic spectrum. We have been struggling since the beginning of the year with kids being mean to Alex. He has strange mannerisms, and pretty poor social skills, and is different in so many ways from everyone else.

As we danced, I suggested over the music that everyone try to dance with “the people you don’t talk to all the time.” This is the same language I use during our greeting at Morning Circle every day: I remind them to choose someone who is not their “very favorite friend” to greet, and it really helps mix up the order of the greeting. It ensures Alex doesn’t get greeted last, and that boys don’t only greet boys and girls don’t only greet girls. Sometimes someone goes to greet someone else, and their greeting is rebuffed with, “You talk to me a lot. You should choose someone else.”

I wasn’t sure if they really heard my suggestion, but then I looked across the rug at Tyshaun. He has been one of the worst offenders in terms of picking on Alex. I watched as he unselfconsciously extended his hands toward Alex. “Want to dance, Alex?” he asked. “Come on, dance with me.”

As I mentioned, Alex isn’t so strong with his social skills, so he didn’t answer or even acknowledge Tyshaun. Tyshaun tried two more times before giving up and just dancing next to Alex, smiling.

I didn’t say anything to Tyshaun about it at that moment. I wanted him to hold on to that feeling of doing something caring for someone else just because he wanted to, not because he thought I was watching. It was such a tender moment: the tough, cool boy holding his hands out to the autistic kid, offering not only to dance with him but to hold his hands. And not feeling rejected by Alex’s failure to respond, but dancing near him anyway.

That’s Exhibit A of why I like Tyshaun so much.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Trying again

This may sound strange, but I sometimes feel like Tyshaun and I relate to each other in very traditional male-female ways. I tell him how he makes me feel when he is unapproachable and try to get him to express how he is feeling; on a good day, he begrudges me a monosyllabic response through which, for a second, I catch a glimpse of his interior emotional landscape, and I feel rewarded and pleased with this minimal success.

After he took something from my desk, and treated me with hostility because of how embarrassed he felt, I wrote him a note. I thought a lot about why he might be acting so terribly after stealing from me, and made some good guesses about how he was feeling. I told him that I still cared about him even when I was disappointed in him – that we were still “tight,” and nothing was going to change that. I told him that just because he made a mistake didn’t mean that he was a bad kid, so he didn’t have to act like a bad kid. It was half a page long, and it was a really nice note.

Tyshaun read it, grabbed a pencil, and scrawled “OK” in the margin. Yep – I poured my heart out in an effort to help him feel better, and he gave me a one-word answer.

I felt good about it anyway.

The way Tyshaun enters the classroom in the morning affects my day a lot. I notice that I wait for him to arrive with anticipation, because I can tell a lot about how his day is likely to go just by his body language when he comes through the door. When it’s a bad entry, I can feel my heart rate quicken, because I know it could be a rough day.

The other day he came in.

“Good morning, Tyshaun,” I said. He ignored me.

“What kind of milk do you want with your lunch today?” I asked. He ignored me and kept laughing and joking with some boys by the door. I could feel my irritation building.

“You all need to come in now!” I said sharply. “Tyshaun, this is the second time I am asking you what kind of milk you want with your lunch!” My voice became shriller as I spoke.

“God!” he snarled between his teeth. “I’m just coming in. God! Leave me alone. Chocolate milk.”

I hate starting the day like this. And I had decided a few days earlier that I had to set stricter limits about him talking to me disrespectfully.

“You cannot speak to me like that,” I said. “I told you that if you talk to me like that, you can’t stay in our classroom. Come on. I’m taking you upstairs to Ms. Cruz’s room.” Our agreement was that if he was rude to an adult, he took his work upstairs to a fourth-grade classroom for about half an hour. He hates not being in our room, with us.

“No!” he answered. “I don’t want to go.” He didn’t move toward the door. “I’m staying here.”

“Tyshaun, I told you you can’t talk to me like that. It is not okay to start the day out like this. Let’s go. You can come back in half an hour and try again.”

His tone softened as he saw that I was serious, and he tried to figure out what might work with me. (He probably works just as hard to figure me out as I work to figure him out.)

“But you made me mad because you talked to me like that when I came in,” he tried to explain. “Can we try again?” I couldn’t help but smile. I am always amazed when I hear my students use my words, when what they say sounds just like me.

“I’m sorry I talked to you like that,” I said gently, taking a deep breath. “But you hurt my feelings when came in the room and ignored me. I don’t want the day to start like that.”

“Sorry,” he muttered. And we agreed to try again. I asked him what kind of milk he wanted, he responded in a somewhat pleasant tone of voice, and the rest of the day went smoothly.

It is generally not considered good teaching practice to announce a consequence and then let a student talk you out of it. I gave in for several reasons. One, I had spoken to him sharply, partly because I was stressed about other things, and him coming in like that pissed me off. Two, he used a good strategy to deal with me – he told me how I made him feel, and he suggested we try again. I have to admit it, I’m a sucker for kids who use the strategies I teach them. And three, I knew that if we could manage to re-start the day, there was a good chance the whole day would go well. Whereas, if he started his day by spending 30 minutes in the fourth grade, his day might be a wash. And every good day at school is money in the bank for Tyshaun.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

How to win friends and influence second graders

For a long time I have been wanting to write about Tyshaun, but I haven’t been able to figure out how to do it. I have been his teacher for thirteen months of school now, and we have a tumultuous relationship. He is one of the main reasons I decided to loop up to second grade with my class this year, because he is a student with a lot of sweetness hidden under a tough exterior, and because he is very, very vulnerable to many things that entice him now, but could hurt him in the long run. The idea of letting him go at the end of last year, of putting him into the hands of a new (though very competent) teacher, was too much for me to stomach.

Here is an introduction to Tyshaun, who is much more complicated than I’ll probably ever be able to show.

Tyshaun approaches most new people, and most transitions, with a growl and a scowl. When learning specialists come to work with him, his face darkens with displeasure and he frowns deeply, slamming a folder on the table. It can challenge even the most seasoned of educators to be greeted like this, day after day, and still treat him positively and optimistically.

When he comes in the room each morning, I greet him with a cheerful “good morning,” and I have no idea what response I’ll get. He may smile shyly and come over to tell me something exciting he made or discovered in the before-school program; he may ignore me as he stomps across the classroom to his desk; or he may answer me as if I were the last person on earth he wants to talk to.

Tyshaun is often oppositional and sneaky, and has a hard time not taking things that he wants, even if they belong to other people. He has difficulty with expressive and receptive language, word retrieval, and processing information; reading and writing are very hard for him, and he needs a lot of help with math too. He is tall for his grade (because he repeated first grade) and walks more like a tough teenager than a second grader. There is a vulnerable little boy inside him, who he keeps tightly under wraps nearly all of the time.

There is nothing Tyshaun wants more than to please the people around him. Give him an order, and he will openly defy you; motivate him with positive feedback and he will rise to your highest expectations. Talk to him like he is a child, and he will be unyielding before your demands; consult with him as if he were an adult and he will respond with maturity and thoughtfulness. Part of the reason I like him so much is the challenge of figuring out how to approach him, and the amusement and pleasure I get out of seeing how easy it can be to get him to do the right thing once you figure out the secret to relating to him. You have to work for it with Tyshaun.

One small example from last year: we wanted to get Tyshaun to meet with the school therapist, a white woman. (The poor guy is surrounded by white women. What I wouldn’t give for a black male therapist.) I knew he would be reluctant and possibly hostile toward her; I also knew he would end up loving his one-on-one time with her, and that it would be really, really good for him.

She came by one afternoon to check in with me about a time that would be good to meet with him. I decided that the more autonomy I gave him in this decision, the better.

I introduced the two of them, and told him, “Tyshaun, Ms. Larson’s job is to talk to kids about how they are feeling and help them figure out what to do when they don’t feel so good. I know you’ve been talking to me about how you haven’t been feeling that good sometimes lately, and I thought you might like to meet with her. What do you think about that – does it seem like a good idea to you?”

He thought about it for a minute and then nodded quickly, carefully veiling his enthusiasm.

“Great!” Ms. Larson said. “When would be a good time for me to come get Tyshaun?”

“One day at lunch might be good,” I answered. “Tyshaun, how would Thursday at lunchtime be for you?” I knew that Thursday lunchtime was the time Ms. Larson had available for him, but I wanted him to feel like he had some choice in the matter.

“Um, how about Wednesday?” he asked. “Wednesday would be better for me.”

I smiled inside. Tyshaun’s Wednesdays were indistinguishable from his Thursdays; he was letting me know that giving him some say in when he would like to meet with her had been the right thing to do – he wanted influence over what happened in his day.

“Unfortunately, I’m not here on Wednesdays,” Ms. Larson answered.

“Oh, that’s too bad!” I said. “Tyshaun, since she’s not here on Wednesdays, do you think you could do it on Thursday?”

He nodded. He had been consulted, we had let him know his opinion mattered to us, and as long as he felt that regard, he would be flexible and open to trying this new thing out. That’s the secret to Tyshaun – if you can just approach him in the right way, you can move mountains, but it’s often easier said than done.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Snowy Day

We have been doing an author study of Ezra Jack Keats. As a culminating activity, we made a 3D mural of Keats' neighborhood. Most of his stories take place in one neighborhood in New York City. We brainstormed all of the characters, settings, and objects that should be included, and each student made several pictures for the mural. Our plan is to make little puppets of the characters, so they can act out the stories against the backdrop of the mural.

Many of you have read The Snowy Day, which was the first children's book published with a child of color in it (and as the main character, no less). I read The Snowy Day to my kids every year on the day of the first snowfall. It is a simple story of Peter, who explores the snowy city outside his house. The dramas he encounters are small: some big boys having a snowball fight; the snowball he saves in his pocket; the tall snowy hill he climbs. The world in the story is entirely peaceful, bringing you into the muffled silence of the world the day after a big snowstorm. No matter what, even with the excitement of the first snow falling outside the classroom windows, this book always makes my students quiet.

I was struck by the detail and beauty of their versions of Keats' illustrations, and most of all, at how well they emulate his style as an illustrator.

Here is Peter walking through the snow. You can see the small footprints he leaves behind him. He himself is tiny, which is just how he is in the book, where he has the perspective of a very small boy surrounded by the big, snowy, white world.

See the black lines? Those are the grooves he draws in the snow, as he walks, with the stick he picked up.

Here are the snow angels Peter makes. The blue one is already finished; the red one is the one he is making right now (that's him in it). Lying across him is the stick he carries around and drags through the snow. Next to him are the bare, wintery trees.

When Peter goes inside, he puts a snowball in his pocket for later. Here is a picture of his coat, hanging up.

If you look closely, you can see the snowball melting in the pocket, and dripping onto the floor.

Finally, Peter takes a hot bath after his day of exploration. Here is his bath.

Not to toot my own horn, but these illustrations were done almost entirely independently of adult input, although some children worked with a partner. I never felt like I was very good at art, and certainly didn't imagine I could teach it well. But we spend so much time in the early years at our school teaching about sketching, paying close attention to detail, getting the colors right, making decisions about the background, and zooming in on the subject, that by the time they are in second grade, their independent work displays the result of this instruction. They are also highly invested in doing excellent illustrations, and work very, very hard to produce their best work.

I will put more pictures of the mural on as we put it together.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

I found this the other day. It's a recycled card -- we use the blank side for spelling words, but Jerry turned it over and filled in the locker side. He is one quirky kid. I love it.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Neighborhood Walks

Yesterday was our first neighborhood walk. We explored the neighborhood around our school, just down to the train station. Each group took inventory of some aspect of a neighborhood: transportation, green spaces, public art, infrastructure, buildings. I am in charge of the transportation group (so I can brainwash them about alternative forms of transportation and why driving is bad, I suppose).

We left school equipped with clipboard and pencils. On their clipboards was a list of things to tally: bus stops, buses, trains, train stations, cars, people walking, bikes, bike paths, bike racks. We forgot to put motorcycles on the list, but we saw them too.

What I hadn't expected was the excitement this endeavor would generate. We exited the school building, walked down two steps, and my 8 kids started to exclaim, "A car! I see a car!" "Look! There's a person walking!" I hadn't anticipated that we would start counting that soon, but they were unstoppable. Their papers quickly filled with tally marks (some more accurately than others, I might add). As we continued toward the train station, they continued to call out every time they saw something on the list. Every city bus was cause for joy, every person walking was met with elation. We didn't see any bike racks for awhile, so when we came to our first (we counted 7 in all), they swarmed and climbed around it as if they were opening their presents on Christmas morning.

Needless to say, it was a terrific afternoon. When your main job is to slightly temper the boisterous exuberance of a group of children who are enthralled by their assignment -- just enough so that they don't run in front of a passing bus -- it is a good day of teaching.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Barack Obama's Life

Here are excerpts from my students' writing about Obama's life after reading Barack Obama: Son of Promise, Child of Hope by Nikki Grimes. Each sentence or paragraph is from a different student. I put it together into the story of his life in a more or less chronological order.

I have edited the spelling and punctuation so they are conventional.

Barack Hussein Obama had a black dad and a white mom. His dad was from Kenya. Barack was born in Hawai’i.

He was light brown and his father was dark brown.

When he was little, they called him Barry.

When he was a child, his mom and dad got divorced.

His dad moved far, far away.

His heart was crushed. He only heard stories about his father -- he didn’t get to see him. Then his father called. They took walks and shared talks, but his father was just visiting.

He didn’t know what to say to his dad. He moved to Indonesia with his mom. He was happy, then sad, because he saw poor people.

He told his mother, “How can I help these people?”

Barack was the one keeping his family together.

He did not know who he was. He said, “I am not my mom or dad.” And his head was filled with words of what he thought he was.

When he was growing up, he thought “What am I, black or white, or do I look like my mom or dad?” People at his school said, “You’re you. You’re not your mom, not your dad, you’re just yourself.”

Then when Barack was a teenager he was thinking about education, and he went to Harvard Law School.

He heard everyone say, “Education is the way, education is the path you should stick to.” He heard Hope saying, “Be the person that you are. Stick to the path you are on.” Hope said, “You’re the bridge that will bring black people and white people together.”

He went to another country called Kenya to see his dad’s family.

He decided he wanted to change his name to Barack after his dad’s name. He went to church with his mom and his mom squeezed his hand.

He decided he could change the people and he could be both black and white.

His dad passed away. He went to see where his father was buried.

When he was at his father’s grave, he heard God talking to him. God was saying, “Go now, be free like a bird.”

He went to church to pray for his father and he was talking to Hope and to God and he seen God in his mind.

He wanted to be president.

And the Latinos and the black people and the white people said, “Yes we can.”

Sunday, November 9, 2008

High Expectations

I've now watched Obama's acceptance speech several times. The second time through, when I was no longer too dazed to take it all in, I was struck by the history he told, in the context of the life of 106-year-old Ann Nixon Cooper. He talked about many historical events of the past 100 years, both positive and negative, but they were all put in the context of change, and hope, and how the world has been made a better place by common people. There was no mention of September 11th in his history of the past 100 years. Instead of motivating people through fear, like the last administration, he uses hope. He is able, by speaking positively, to inspire people to be better, to want to work for their country, to feel united. He holds up a high standard, and lets us know he believes we can rise up to that standard. As my mom said tonight, we now have a leader who will help us be our best selves, rather than our worst selves.

This is how good teachers motivate their students to be better people. It is what we are taught time and time again. No matter how hard it is to like a particular student, or to expect good things of him, we say, "I know you can do this. I know you can be a leader for your classmates. I know you can solve this math problem. I know you can use your words to tell someone how angry you are without hitting them." We hold up examples for them, examples that demonstrate our high standards and our belief that they can rise up to meet them, whether we use Dr. King or another second grader as an example. And, many times, they do live up to these expectations, because when you expect good things of someone, that's what you get.

Teachers can motivate their students through threats and fear, like Bush and his cronies, or through hope and high expectations, like Obama. I have seen the latter approach work over and over again in my classroom. Here's hoping it works in the larger world as well.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

The day after the election

"I love my planet," Israel said happily, looking around him at the trees and people as we walked to the train station yesterday.

Most of us were feeling that way on Wednesday.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Hope and Fear

There is a buzz of excitement in my classroom these past few days. You can imagine why. We are talking elections left and right. My kids are fuzzy on many of the details, but they seem to be quite clear on who they want to be president. (They also don't seem too fond of the Republican party. I guess they've been brought up in households like mine...)

There have been LOTS of questions. "Why can't we vote?" (Because you're not old and wise enough.) "What happens when you go to vote?" (I acted out the process.) "What if someone gets there before you and says they are you and gives your address and votes for you?" (I wasn't really sure on this one.) "What if you change your mind after you vote? Can you go back and change it?" (Nope.)

There were many, many questions about the fairness of voting, and cheating, and things going wrong at the polls. Yep, we're all worried about that.

"If Obama wins, will they still call it the White House?" This was asked seriously, not as a joke. Which made me think about all the kids of color around the country, thinking that the White House is so named because only white people can be president.

This one took my breath away:

"My cousin says that if Barack Obama wins, he'll be shot."

This was quickly followed by another student chiming in: "Because some white people don't think a black person should be president."

I sat quietly for a minute, thinking. The best I could do was: "Yes, some white people don't think a black person should be president. There are millions of white people who are going to vote for Barack Obama tomorrow, who think it is good and wonderful if a black person is president, but there are also some white people who don't think it's okay. And there are a lot of people whose job it is to keep Barack Obama and his family safe, and they are working very hard to keep them safe all the time."

Another student mentioned the two men recently arrested for plotting to kill Obama, and again I pointed out that the people keeping Obama safe are doing such a good job that they caught those men and arrested them before they could hurt him.

But the next comment was about Dr. King, and how he had been shot. Of course, it comes back to him. I thought of an editorial I read recently by James Carroll, who wrote about the assassinations of King and Bobby Kennedy:

"We knew that, if ever gripped by passionate hope again, we would see it snatched away unrealized, although we could not bring ourselves to say by what. And why shouldn't we, right then, have stopped being young? One of the joys of the current season is to see a fresh generation respond to the promise of Obama without reflexes of worry. Young people have a right to uncomplicated hope, and Obama is himself young enough to nurture it."

But no. Even 40 years later, Dr. King's death is part of the collective memory of children who are only six or seven years old. His story, mixed with their families' experiences of racism and alienation, make them afraid that if Obama wins, he won't live long.

This thought sobered me all day, and continues to weigh on my mind. The consolation I have found is in their discussion of the freedom fighters they have learned about in our school. Besides Dr. King, today we talked about Rosa Parks and Cesar Chavez. They are well-versed in their histories, and in marches, boycotts, and strikes. They remember our conversations about these leaders from last year, and the way that people who were poor rose up to fight, and became leaders of powerful movements. These things are also part of their collective memories, and will stay with them.

And maybe, maybe, maybe, their ideas about who can be president will be changed tomorrow, and Barack Obama will die in a long time, of old age, and a little bit of their fears will be erased.

A last question: someone asked, "Was Barack Obama alive when Dr. King died?" I said yes, he was, and tonight I did a little research. It turns out that Obama was 7 when Dr. King died, which is exactly the age of my students. Maybe Obama is going to be a little too busy, but I think we should write him some letters about all of these questions.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Second-Grade Geologists

Geology is all the rage in my classroom these days. There is little that gets the kids more excited than rocks. Who knew? They are finding rocks at recess, at home, and on the sidewalk, and bringing them in. I bring out a new mineral (yesterday it was sulfur, all yellow and bright) and there are gasps of delight. Next week it will be mica, which has always been a favorite of mine.

Yesterday Julio and Ramon came up to me excitedly with rocks in their hands.

"Look what I found at the Nature Center," Julio said. (They go to the before-school program at an Audubon Society Nature Center down the road.) "And it's in the book!" He ran to get one of our rocks and minerals field guides and came back with it open to the pumice page. The rock he had found wasn't pumice, but it did kind of look like it.

Ramon's rock was yellow, rounded, and smooth. We oohed and aahed over it as well.

"I think this one is translucent," Julio said. "But I'm not sure."

"Well, why don't you go test it?" I asked, pointing to our geology table which has all the tools you need to test minerals for streak color, luster, transparency, and hardness. He skipped off to grab a flashlight.

A few minutes later he returned.

"It's opaque," he said. "And dull. And only the nail can scratch it." He had done all the mineral tests.

"So is it a harder rock, or a softer rock?" I asked.

"A hard one," he answered.

Ramon was meanwhile scratching his smooth, yellow rock with the nail and trying the streak test on it. Later, I watched Lucy work on a mineral test assessment. She is a student with a number of serious learning disabilities, and she works harder than almost anyone I know. She worked with a gypsum sample, talking quietly to herself. "It's kind of glassy," she mused, "because of the sparkles. But kind of dull too. I think I'll put down glassy." She circled "glassy" on her recording sheet. At recess, Lucy had approached me with a rock she had found, and had started to go through the mineral tests on her own, holding it up to the sun to check for translucence, and scratching at it with her fingernail to test the hardness.

I am as surprised as anyone else at my students' passion, excitement, and engagement with this curriculum. I mean, I knew rocks were cool, but they don't do the things animals or even plants do. They are pretty still and unchanging (at least to our eyes). Who would have known that after 4 weeks of mineral tests, the kids would still be this excited? And that they would have internalized the vocabulary and concepts so deeply?

I like to think that they walk around their city looking at things with new eyes. Last year, they started to hear and see birds as they went about their days. This year, it's rocks, and soon they will start cataloging what a neighborhood contains (things such as stores, green spaces, transportation, public art, and infrastructure). In starting to plan our neighborhood inventory walks, I have begun looking at things differently as I think about what a neighborhood contains. I notice the trash cans, the mail boxes, the phone booths, and I think about each store I walk by. Is it a shop or a service or a restaurant? How will the kids categorize it? And there you have it, the purpose of education: looking at the world with new eyes.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Rug Vibrations

A good friend recently returned to her homeland of California, where she was somewhat discomfited to find everyone, including her father, talking about vibrations. In California, it turns out, people are allowed to talk like that. They are even allowed to believe that people (and places) produce vibrations of energy, positive or negative, that influence those around them.

Well, I took it upon myself to test this vibration theory. I decided to change the vibrations of our rug.

The rug had been an uneasy place since school started. Despite the fact that second graders are bigger than first graders (and growing quickly), we have a rug the same size as the one we had last year. Trying to fit all 22 students, plus 2 teachers, in a circle on the rug was uncomfortable. Some of the boys' legs just didn't fold well, and everyone was banging knees with their neighbors. Meanwhile, I was trying to make them sit there, still-ish, and learn. There were conflicts, there was drama -- it wasn't happening.

I decided it was too much to try to fit them all on the rug that way, and that I was asking something unrealistic of them. So now we have 5 chairs on the edge of the rug and a rotating chair-sitting schedule. I made it so that 1 or 2 of the more-wiggly kids are in chairs each day, as well as 3 or 4 less-wiggly kids. The kids on the rug have more space, and more flexibility of where to sit, because I have loosened up on my assigned spots on the rug. They can move to where they are comfortable, and I can move them as well, if their chosen spots aren't working. They know that every 5 days, they will get to sit in a chair. (These chair spots are highly coveted, I tell you.) And, everyone pays more attention and the rug feels like a less wiggly place. Still wiggly, yes, and still unvacuumed, but at least a little less wiggly.

I am here to tell you all, vibrations do exist. I have improved the rug vibrations in my classroom, and we are all a little better off for it. Next I am going to hang some crystals, re-evaluate the classroom feng shui, and build a wiggle-decreasing altar.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Six years later

Yesterday, the dream of every teacher came true for me.

Two seventh graders came to present to my class about recycling and global warming. (At our school, the seventh graders run the recycling program. My kids are already very excited about recycling, because they have a hippie teacher. But we still got the presentation.)

One of these seventh graders happens to have been my student when he was a first grader. He was six, and I was 26, and it was my very first year of being a teacher. And he was one of three students who gave me a run for my money that year. Yes, a very big run. We struggled, we fought, he climbed on tables, and I learned a lot about how to teach, from him. I sat by his mom when we first evaluated him for learning disabilities, and she cried, and I promised to explain all the experts' jargon to her (and I wanted to punch those experts with their jargon, as they talked about her son in that way). We ended the year good buddies, Antonio and I, as often happens between teachers and the kids they struggle with for ten months. You forge strong bonds, even as you fight.

Antonio has continued to have a hard time in school and has been diagnosed with a few complicated things. But he always says hi to me in the hall, and he is a sweet, sweet kid. (I don't think he climbs on tables anymore.) And last week I got a letter from him in my mailbox, a very professional, typed letter, telling me about why recycling and global warming are important, and asking when he could come teach my class about it.

He and his classmate were amazing teachers yesterday. They did better than many an adult would have with a classroom of 22 second graders. They were poised, organized, and knowledgeable about the subject. They stopped by in the morning to check out their plans with me, and to go over the time line of their presentation. They asked my students questions instead of just lecturing. They had a recycling game planned, that involved some running, and it went off without a hitch and without injury.

I am running the risk of being a corny teacher in admitting this here, but it brought tears to my eyes and filled my heart with joy. Antonio, who used to cry and run out of the room, and hide in a refrigerator box when he was sad, was teaching my kids, six years later, about global warming. If ever a teacher had a proud moment, this was it for me.

Saturday, October 4, 2008


I spent this morning in a MathPower training at school, getting introduced to their approach to math intervention with struggling students. Finally, a workshop with people whose philosophy of teaching math is aligned with mine, and whose focus on inquiry-based math and helping students truly understand what they are doing has not been distracted by standardized testing and No Child Left Behind! Read the above link to get an idea of the mission, vision, and history of MathPower, which came out of Bob Moses' Algebra Project and has a focus on strong foundational math skills as well as constructivist teaching in order to best serve urban students. Interestingly, improved standardized-test scores are, as I understand it, one of the outcomes of the program, even though it does not "teach to the test."

Our training today was to introduce us to the math intervention curriculum MathPower is piloting in two Boston Public Schools. The curriculum, First Steps, was developed in Australia (a lot of great math teaching has come out of Australia), and the idea is that students struggling with math often have not mastered concepts as basic as place value, counting, or operations. Their foundation is shaky, so when they are sherpherded along into fractions, decimals, percents, integers, pre-algebra, etc., their math falls apart because the basics are lacking.

First Steps, like other Australian math assessment and instruction tools I have seen, is based on developmental stages in math that, while they may correlate in general to certain ages, are not specifically linked to grade-levels. You may have first graders who are in an advanced developmental stage, while some seventh graders have yet to master more basic concepts. The key is in assessing where students are -- which "key understandings" they have yet to develop -- and then working on those concepts with activities that promote real understanding, not just rote mastery of a procedure.

I took away two big ideas from today.

Number 1:

The First Steps curriculum is designed the way I would design curricula, the way I always talk about curricula, and the way I actually use curricula I am given: like a menu. Instead of a prescribed progression (Day 1, everyone must do this; Day 2, everyone must move on to this, whether the students understood it on Day 1 or not), there are multiple entry points. Different students start at different places and move at different paces, and instructional decisions are made by the teacher. I know, revolutionary. Teachers assess their students, group them flexibly (ie. students are not tracked into "high" or "low" math groups but move from group to group depending on the skills being taught), and teach them what they need to learn. For each Key Understanding, there is a menu of activities to choose from, grouped by age level so that middle school students working on more basic concepts are not being asked to do activities that seem childish.

This is how I have been teaching math for several years: grouping students flexibly, tailoring instruction to meet their needs, and choosing math activities that will teach the concepts they need instead of following the curriculum as it is written. It felt so good to be around other people who advocate teaching in this manner, who think that the idea that a prescribed curriculum can ever meet the needs of all students is insane, and who trust that teachers, once well-trained, can make instructional decisions on their own.

Number 2:

Those of us who teach early-childhood math are in such a good position to think about the teaching of math at all levels. We know how hard it is to break down concepts that to us are like breathing, so that children can start to master them. (For example, the fact that when you count a group of objects, the last number you say tells you how many are in that group, is a developmental step -- not all kids can do it. But it is so obvious to adults, many of us have no idea that it's not obvious to small children, and even less so how to teach it.) This puts us in a position of knowing how to approach more and more sophisticated mathematical tasks with students of any age. We know how to break them down into the smallest steps; we know how to start with the most concrete kinds of problems and move toward the more abstract; we recognize many common misunderstandings students fall into; and we know how to teach in a hands-on way because that's the only way to teach small children. (It's the best way to teach older children as well, but many teachers don't realize that.)

It was fun to get a glimpse of how my years of thinking about and teaching math to first graders have prepared me to think about and teach math to older students as well. Much of what I have had to think about over the years is applicable to students of any age, both in terms of pedagogy and content. Older students often still struggle with the concepts I teach to first and second graders; advanced first and second graders are ready to think about concepts older students are learning. The best ways to teach these ideas (through inquiry and concrete experiences) are the same no matter who you are teaching.

Now wasn't I just blogging about a new career? Math coaching is high on my list.

Friday, October 3, 2008


A common topic of conversation at work this week has been sustainability. And I do not mean sustainability of our nation's gas-guzzling life-style, or living in a way that takes less of a toll on our earth. No, we have been talking about the sustainability of the teaching life.

The work is so hard, and so draining. We aren't sure how long we can keep doing it, or if we want to keep doing it. Some days we have a lot of joy, and other days we can't even imagine where the joy came from. Often, the moments of joy last just for a few seconds, interspersed among mundanities.

I leave work most days at 4, and I am exhausted. I don't feel like I have the energy to go running, or rock-climbing, or on a date. I vowed to make this a year when I could work, and do a good job, and still go out for drinks on a weeknight. But man, is it hard. You can be totally prepared and on top of things, and the kids will throw you for a loop. Someone will have a fit in your classroom, or a lesson will bomb, or you'll have to work, over and over again, with a student who has such special needs that you're not sure you can make it work for him. You can go to bed early and get a good night's sleep, and you'll still be ready for bed again by 4 the next afternoon.

At work this week, a colleague had to break up a fight in her classroom; another had a student pour water all over her belongings when she was out of the room for lunch; another had to teach 9-4 without a break because her assistant wasn't at work that day. There are unvacuumed rugs and no paper towels; there are kids being hit at home by their moms; there are kids who miss their dads so much it is a physical pain; there are kids living in the midst of violence and poverty. On top of this, there is the constant strain of trying to make kids stay still and focus. Of trying to have a conversation or a lesson while constantly reminding kids to stop playing with the velcro on their shoes, picking up lint off the rug, and nudging the kid next to them just to see what will happen. Of spending your day feeling sometimes like all you do is make people do things they don't want to do. Of seeing how the students love to go outside and explore and learn in a joyful, free, hands-on way, but you have to make them stay inside and control their little bodies that just want to move.

It's hard to figure out how long one person can do this job, before she decides she wants more of her own life, more time for herself. I noticed recently that I am more often sad, or lonely, or desiring of love and affection, than I was in the summer. And someone said to me, "Well, that's because in the summer your life was nurturing you. And now your life isn't anymore, and you need nurturing." It's true. You get home from teaching, and you want someone to rub your back and make you dinner and hand you a glass of wine. But, as several people have pointed out, the people who love you and who you live with can't nurture you constantly. Sometimes they will have bad days. Who wants to live with someone who has such a hard job they need to be taken care of every day?

A friend who is a social worker told me recently she works 4 days a week. Fridays she dedicates to working on her hobby / small business venture: jewelry-making. She said she needs it for her mental health. I started to fantasize about having a 4-day work-week. Never mind the complications of how to do that as a classroom teacher. I was quickly calculating 80% of my salary to see if I could still pay my mortgage (and keep buying outdoor gear, of course). Then I started thinking about which day of the week I would take off. Not Friday... how about Monday?

A similar idea comes from Google, where engineers spend 80% of their time doing their "job," and 20% of their time working on their own creative projects. This is how many of Google's innovations have come about. (The link here is to the google website. Can't quite find out how it all works, and if they really get paid the same amount if they take the 80-20 option.) But, imagine how teaching would be if it worked like that. 80% of your time teaching; 20% of your time to work on exciting, innovative curriculum projects. (I owe this idea to Kirsten -- she brought it up a few years ago.)

Because exciting ideas about curriculum energize me -- they remind me why I'm a teacher. Wednesday after work I was deflated about my job, and talking about this sustainability question with a couple colleagues. Then I had an Experiential Education planning meeting, about our partnership with Expeditionary Learning Outward Bound, and I got excited and energized. My exhaustion dissipated. To have time built in to your schedule for this -- to design and research and write curriculum -- would be restorative. It would absolutely help with the sustainability question.

Every year I struggle with these questions. Every year, right around November, I start to fantasize about other jobs I could have. (It came a little early this year.) The overwhelming difficulty of the daily task we face seems to make all teachers wonder about this, and many leave. I have seen dozens of teachers leave my school in the past 8 years: for family, for consulting jobs, for curriculum-writing jobs, for graduate school, for other careers, for other schools where the work is easier. The question is always there: what else could I be? What would my life be like if my job didn't consume me?

Tuesday, September 30, 2008


There's this teacher I know... and sometimes she can't help pushing her own agenda in the classroom.

So yesterday, when her students started asking her about why she rides her bike to work every day, it was too much. She really owed it to them to answer that question well, didn't she?

Today, at morning circle time, the class talked about why it's a good idea not to drive a car too much. They had some ideas about why cars are better than bikes:
  • You are more likely to get lost on a bike. (?)
  • You are more likely to get wet when it rains on a bike. (Okay, that one's true.)
But they also had ideas about why driving a car isn't such a good idea:
  • It might take longer.
  • You might run out of gas. (This one meant you yourself might run out of gas in your car, not that the whole world might run out of gas. I left that for another day.)
  • Gas costs a lot of money.
  • Cars put pollution into the air. "Gas isn't good for the trees" was actually the way it was said.
And, they thought they knew why I like to bike to work: it gives me big leg muscles, they said.

Then that teacher, who just couldn't stop herself, did a quick little lesson on global warming, and how pollution makes the earth warmer. A very basic little overview that included the earth putting more layers on, kind of like extra shirts or coats, as pollution builds up in the atmosphere. She mentioned how the earth getting warmer leads to things like hurricanes, and isn't good for plants or trees or animals or anything alive, really.

They asked if this was fiction or non-fiction. Which some grown-ups still wonder, apparently.

They made a list of ways they could get around without driving a car:
  • ride a bike
  • walk
  • wear heelys
  • ride a motorcycle
  • take the train
  • take a bus (They noted that black smoke comes out of buses, but we talked about how they use less gas than cars, on average. Kind of hard to understand.)
  • ride a skateboard
  • use a scooter
  • use a wheelchair (These kids are not ableists!)
  • use roller skates
  • drive a 4-wheeler (not being an expert in such vehicles, I wasn't really sure about this one. Can you drive a 4-wheeler around the city? Is it fuel-efficient? It sure is popular with the boys...)
We forgot skis and snowshoes.

Sunday, September 28, 2008


Oh dear, I keep stealing my sister's stories. But this one is good.

Last week, her kids were eating snack. Often, some of them don't like the snack that is provided, and they try to get out of eating it (or, if my experience is true in her classroom, they are trying to get an alternative snack).

One student said, "I'm allergic to this fruit cup."

"Kymauri," she replied. "I just got your health form from your mother, and you are not allergic to anything. You have asthma, but you are not allergic."

"Oh," he said. "Then I'm asthma to this fruit cup."

Friday, September 26, 2008

A letter

Here is the reason not to write whiny blog posts, or even to whine inside your head.

Sept. 25, 2008

Dear dad,

I miss you. When are you comeing from Atlanta? My mom is gonna ask you. Dad I need to ask you some thing. Are you gonna come back or are you not gonna come back?


P.S. You never call me

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Paper towels

Sometimes I wish I had a job where, when I went to wash my hands in the bathroom, there was soap in the soap dispenser.

Or, when I was ready to dry my hands, there were paper towels in the paper towel dispenser. So that I didn't have to put my wet hands all over the dirty door handle, and then walk around until I found paper towels somewhere, or resort to wiping my hands on my pants and leaving big wet handprints.

And then, if we did run out of paper towels, I could go to a supply closet and there would be paper towels there, because we wouldn't have run out in the whole entire school so that actually no one could dry their hands anywhere. Because someone would be on top of ordering things like paper towels, because everyone wouldn't be so overworked. And people wouldn't be hoarding paper towels in their closets because they know we tend to run out and they don't want to be the ones to run out so they take extras and hide them.

Or maybe I could work somewhere where the rug got vacuumed more than once every ten days, so that it wasn't covered with the accumulated dirt and grub of 22 small children. That way, when they had to sit on it (oh, about ten times a day), it wouldn't be disgusting to sit on.

I try not to sweat the small stuff, and to be cheerful and good-natured and give people the benefit of the doubt. I think usually I do a good job of it. But sometimes the small stuff is just too much, like when you haven't had enough sleep because you're working so hard to be a good teacher, and you have insomnia because of all the stuff you have to do, and maybe you have a hard day even though you're working so hard and trying your best.

And then you go to wash your hands and there's no soap or paper towels, and it feels kind of like a personal insult, like someone should care that you don't have soap or paper towels. Or you go in to work in the morning with a to-do list a mile long, and seeing that dirty rug covered with crumbs and dirt just feels like a slap in the face, considering everything else you need to accomplish. And then you decide you should just spend your own money on things like paper towels and soap, or your own time on things like vaccuming the rug, and that doesn't feel too good either.

And then you start to think about the plight of public education in this country, and standardized testing, and how maybe we don't have paper towels because people don't value public education or teachers. And when it gets to that point, you probably realize it would be better to go to the bar and have a gin and tonic or three than to keep traveling down that mental pathway.

ps. I heard that there are no paper towels in any school in Boston right now because they are negotiating a contract with the paper towel people. I cannot confirm this information via the internet, or my Budget Gal contact in City Hall. But isn't that kind of amazing? 56,190 students in the city, and no paper towels. Isn't bureacracy a wonderful thing?

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Biking in heels

This morning I told my kids a story about biking home from work yesterday. They were enthralled, hanging on my every word. (They love it when I tell stories.)

At the end of the story, Tyrone raised his hand.

"Yes, Tyrone?" I said.

"Ms. Swamp," he asked, eyeing my dress-up shoes suspiciously. (It was Curriculum Night tonight so I was more dressed up than usual.) "Do you ride your bike in your heels?"

He has such an ability to get down to what is really important.

Friday, September 19, 2008

"I have to water Samantha"

So Ms. Swamp the Younger, my little sister, is a first-grade teacher in Brooklyn. Her class has a plant. That's their pet. (That's about as much pet as a first-year teacher in a first-year school should have, I firmly believe.)

They named their plant Samantha. They had a vote about it.

Today she kept a few kids behind at recess to talk about their behavior and to stress the importance of doing the right thing at school. (This is something many of them need to work on.) The talk had a big impact on one student, whose job this week is watering Samantha. All afternoon, he talked about being good in school, and listening to the teacher, and he wrote about it at Writer's Workshop time. He wrote, "I have to be good in school. I have to listen to the teacher. I have to follow directions. I have to water Samantha."


Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Smashing rocks

Today I told my class that our plan for science was to sketch the inside and the outside of a rock.

"The inside of a rock?" Miguel asked.

"Yeah," I answered. "How do you think we could find out what the inside of a rock is like?"

"Take a hammer and smash it," Tyrone answered dryly. He was trying to be funny.

"That," I said, raising my eyebrows at him, "is exactly what we're going to do!"

My class looked at me with disbelief and excitement. I mean, what could be more fun than smashing rocks with a hammer?

It turns out it's not that hard to break rocks with a hammer. Second graders can do it. Who knew?

Inside, we found things like this:

Monday, September 15, 2008

Great Moments from Math Class

"I've never done so much subtraction in my life!" Pili said at the end of math today.

Now that is a good math class.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

What are rocks?

The big question this week, to start off our geology unit, was this: what are rocks? I realized quickly that I did not, in fact, know the answer, despite having a number of graduate credits to my name in the subject area of geology. Oops.

So I cheated and looked it up on wikipedia. It turns out rocks are a bunch of minerals put together. Big help that is to second graders, who have probably not heard of minerals. Anyway, I have been doing an informal poll and have not as of yet found any adults who can really answer the question of what rocks are, except for my dad, who was a geologist in a former life. But he still thought it was a thought-provoking and complicated question, and noted that often the simplest questions are the hardest.

We talked about it a bunch this week in school and sorted objects we found outside into three groups.

We knew these things were not rocks:

They were an apple, a leaf, some moss, some soil (although this one may be debatable, and we did find pieces of rocks in the soil), a feather, some bark, and a seed pod.

We knew these things were rocks:

And we disagreed or weren't sure about these things:

They were a brick, a piece of painted ceramic, and some sand.

I don't think it really matters if my students can define what a rock is, or if we ever figure out whether these "not sure" items are rocks or not. Thinking about it and discussing it is what matters. We've been making lists of properties that all rocks have in common, and properties that only some rocks have, and next week we have lots of different and more interesting kinds of rocks to examine, sketch, compare, and sort.

I am so excited about doing geology that I woke up extra early Friday morning to go to school to look at all the rocks and minerals we had in the curriculum kit and get them ready for next week. We are going to be smashing them open next week. Whoever knew rocks were so cool? (My dad's been trying to convince me of this for all 32 years of my life, I think, and I've never believed him. The life of a dad with a skeptical daughter is very hard.)

I love that in second grade we are asking questions that most grown-ups can't answer, and that don't really have right or wrong or cut-and-dried answers. Those are my favorite kind of questions.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Hopes for Second Grade

"He's been spendin' too much time with you," Ms. D said when she saw this one.

I hope we do studying, read 3rd grade books, do hiking on rocks, go in the forest and look for birds and nice rocks, and do chemistry and do a test.

My hope it to learn how to handle potions. I want to be a scientist. I want to be a genius.

I guess I need to start looking for potions and nice rocks. Any donations?

Tree Pose

Yesterday after reading, I told my kids to stand up and move around a little on the rug while I got the science materials out. They had been sitting a little too long. I crossed the room to where I had set out the baggies, trowels, and trays for collecting soil and rock samples. When I turned around, they were all in tree pose: swaying on one leg, arms waving in the air like branches, little knees jutting forward or to the side. Every few seconds a tree would fall over.

It took us all of first grade to learn that one. I guess it's time for a new pose.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Solving problems, the Longfellow way

*Note: for the sake of this story, the name of my school has been changed to Longfellow.*

On the first day of school, we gathered the 42 second-graders in the schoolyard to play some team-building games. A few minutes in, I noticed that a student new to the school, Arthur, was exchanging heated words with Shawn, a student who has been at Longfellow for 3 years. I quickly approached the boys, and asked what was going on.

Arthur replied angrily, "He hit me!"

"I did not! It was an accident!" Shawn growled back.

"No, it wasn't, stupid!" Arthur shot the insult Shawn's way without thinking twice.

I intervened quickly, deciding to give Arthur the benefit of the doubt.

"Arthur, at Longfellow we don't call people names like that. If you're upset with someone, you can tell him you didn't like what he did, and he will say, 'What can I do to make you feel better?' and you will tell him something that will make you feel better, like a handshake, or standing next to you in the game. Here, Shawn, will you show him?"

"I didn't like it when you called me stupid," Shawn obliged.

"Now you say, 'What can I do to make you feel better?'" I coached Arthur.

He repeated the line in a grudging tone, through clenched teeth, so I responded as I always do in that situation: "I can see you're not ready to solve the problem with Shawn. You're still feeling too upset. Come on over here and have a seat on the bench so you can calm down and feel better. I'll come check to see if you're ready in a few minutes, and after you solve the problem with Shawn, you can come play the game again with the rest of us."

A few minutes later I walked back casually over to where Arthur was sitting.

"Are you ready to solve the problem with Shawn?" I asked.

"I think I need one more minute," he answered.

I hid my surprise at his obliging tone, and told him I'd be back in a minute.

One minute later: "What do you think, Arthur? It's been a minute. Are you ready to ask Shawn what you can do to make him feel better?"

He said he was, so Shawn came over, and I got pulled away by someone else. A few minutes later, I saw the boys rejoining the game.

"Did you solve the problem?" I asked. They nodded.

"Great job, Arthur. You're learning how to solve problems the way we do them at Longfellow already, on the first day! I knew you'd be able to do it," I told him.

It was not surprising to me how effective it was to give him that chance. Instead of assuming he was a bad kid (although I could see he has the potential to be a challenge), I assumed he hadn't been in a school where he'd learned these techniques before, and where insults weren't interrupted effectively. He had a logical consequence (leaving the game for a few minutes to calm down), and surely the fun of the game helped him be ready to give my problem-solving technique a try. But the spirit of my interaction with him -- that he just needed to learn how we do it at our school, and that we don't ever call people mean things at our school -- preserved my relationship with him, and gave him a chance to do the right thing. I tried to present the situation as a native would to a foreigner -- oh, that's not how we do things here, you just have to learn our way.

It doesn't always work this well, but I imagine Arthur has been in similar situations before and has been labeled the "bad kid," and then what motivation does he have to prove he's not bad? But on the first day at a new school, he had some motivation to prove he could learn the "Longfellow way," and when given the opportunity, he did.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Ready for the first day

Just a few pictures of the classroom the morning of the first day of school. (Click on pictures to make them bigger -- except they will get very, very big. You will probably be able to see the dust bunnies in the corners.)

You will notice a few things:
  1. There are tennis balls hanging around. These are to make the chairs and desks silent as they are moved around. Unfortunately, the ones put on last year are all falling off -- they cut the holes in them too big. So I am throwing them away. I may get new ones, but I do NOT want to spend an afternoon slicing holes in 84 tennis balls with an exacto knife, so then again, I may not.
  2. There is almost nothing on the walls. This is done on purpose, because I want the students' work and art to fill the walls. I never buy pre-made stuff from teacher stores for the walls. (You can see a pre-made alphabet in one photo, left over from last year's teacher. I plan to take it down.) If we need an alphabet, they make it and illustrate it. We start on Day 1 making decorations for the room, and the things on the walls will be either student-made, or teacher documentation of what they say and learn (in the form of charts, etc.).
The writing center, with all of the writing supplies: pencils in caddies for each table, scissors, glue, etc. This is also where finished work gets handed in (in the baskets at the top, as of yet unlabeled.)

The math shelf, just inside the front door. On this side of the math shelf is the Conflict Area, with pillows, where children can go to solve conflicts and also to have alone time if they need it, or to rest if they are overly tired or sick.

You can see the classroom door behind the math shelf, and the Feelings Board (with strips of velcro in parallel lines) where we all place our name under the way we are feeling as we come in every morning. This year we don't have pictures of the feelings, just the words, because it's second grade.

This is just past the math shelf (you can see it on the right). There is one of the tables where students will work, and a map of Boston where we will map each person's home as we start our study of Boston Neighborhoods.

Continuing counter-clockwise around the room, this is Sweet Melissa's desk (the assistant teacher). Just past her desk is the block area, which is a big, carpeted space for building. It has shelves around it so it feels protected and hidden and blocks get knocked over less often.

Here you can see the meeting area, with the small white-board easel on the right. (That's where the teacher sits). On the big white board in the middle of the room I am trying to write the learning targets for each day, so the kids know exactly what we are working on and why. (Learning targets are specific goals for the unit / day / lesson, phrased in kid-friendly language so that they can gauge their own progress toward meeting them -- thanks to our partnership with Expeditionary Learning Outward Bound for the concept.)

You can see that some of the books in the meeting area are covered so they aren't available at the beginning of the year. This is part of the Responsive Classroom approach of introducing the parts of the classroom gradually, building routines and understandings of how to use each area over time.

The student computers are on the left, and on the other side of them are my desk. (I've never had a desk before! I still am not quite sure what to put in it. I am thinking of it more as another work space for me, students, and Melissa, as well as a place to put my piles of crap so they don't fill up the rest of the classroom.)

And, our almost-completed to-do list, which Sweet Melissa and I managed to finish before everyone arrived. Phew!

Just one story. We were brainstorming synonyms for the word "happy" (because I told them that in second grade we can't just say "happy" or "sad," we have to use more interesting words than that.) So we got "glad," "excited," and "ecstatic" on our list. Then Kevaughn raised his hand and said that another word for happy was "crying tears of joy." Mmmm, yes!

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

The Beginning of School Blues

On Sunday, it occurred to me that it was an absolutely glorious summer day, and I was headed to some of my least favorite places in the world: the teacher store and the container store. (Okay, so it was pointed out to me that I actually kind of like the container store, because containers are very, very exciting. In general, though, it's not the kind of place I like to be on a beautiful day.) And then I was headed to my classroom. And it was Labor Day weekend.

I became filled with self-pity in the car on the way to the suburbs. (I KNOW! The suburbs! Who wants to go there, ever? Especially on a beautiful day!?) This is the time when I once again have to face the truth, after a summer of fun, that I have a job that consumes enormous portions of my time as well as my emotional and physical energy. (And yes, I realize that my job also gives me summers of fun, which most jobs don't, so I shouldn't feel too bad for myself.)

But a few days ago I was talking with an older colleague about the fact that we were all in school on the Saturday of Labor Day weekend. She leaned forward conspiratorially and said in a whisper, "I can tell you the ultimate solution ... but not right now." Intrigued, I said, "Come on, tell me!" She looked around like she was about to reveal a state secret, and whispered, "Become a professor." "What?" I asked. "Yes," she continued. "Get a professorship and you'll have a wonderful life." I expressed disbelief at the idea that being a professor was so much easier than being a teacher, or that it would solve all my problems. "That's what good teachers do," she said. "All my friends who have done it have great, easy lives. You have no idea what normal people's lives are like!"

Okay, so I don't necessarily believe that a professorship is the answer. I love my job, for many reasons. But it has its drawbacks, and one of the biggest is how much it consumes my life. Many days, I leave work exhausted. I get overwhelmed by the challenges, the discouragements, the impossibles. My job, and my kids, invade my dreams.

Last year, starting in February, I did a great job of working less hard. I had been teaching first grade for 6 or 7 years (depending how you count). I knew what was coming next, and most likely had all the materials ready for it. I gave over the teaching of science to my assistant. I went out for drinks on weeknights -- unheard of. I loved it.

So when I was offered this opportunity to move up to second grade, I said to the Queen Mother, "If I teach second grade, I'll have to work hard again." (She knew I was trying to work less and have more of a life.) "Yes," she said, "You will. But you like to work hard." And that's true too. I like a new challenge. It was the right thing to do. And the biggest challenge of this year will be taking on a new curriculum, and a new age-level, without sacrificing my life. I would like to be able to make the balance work, so that I don't have to become a slacker professor. I would like to prove that I can have it all -- be a teacher in an urban school, and still go out for drinks on school nights.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008


or·gan·i·za·tion [awr-guh-nuh-zey-shuhn] (noun)
1.the act or process of organizing.
2.the state or manner of being organized.
3.something that is organized.


Saturday, August 30, 2008

Teacher Dreamin'

It usually kicks in sometime in August. Early August or late August, most teachers arrive at the point during this eighth month of the year when our job invades our dreams. I haven't as of yet met a teacher who didn't have it happen. I even knew about it before I was a teacher, or dreamed of being one. A good friend from college who began teaching at least 3 years before I did mentioned to me that she never slept well in August. Before she was even consciously aware of being anxious, she stopped being able to sleep. It might have begun in late July those first few years.

My younger sister, The Other Ms. Swamp, started her first year of teaching in her own classroom this week. I think it was late July or early August when she mentioned her first anxiety dream to me. "Welcome to teaching," I replied.

Last year, I caught a glimpse of what anxiety dreams could be on a whole new scale when Nina, the Queen Mother, and I were talking about them. Nina mentioned a dream she had where she came to school on the first day but her classroom wasn't set up at all. (I've had this dream at least 5 times.) The Queen Mother smiled. "I had the same dream last night," she said. "But in my dream, all the kids and teachers got here on the first day and there was no school building. Everyone was walking around outside looking for the school, and I was trying to figure out what to do." I laughed. Teachers dream about no classroom and 20 kids on the first day; the poor principal has to dream about no school, 350 kids, all their families, and 70 teachers!

Our dreams have come up already several times at school this week. One teacher came in my room in the morning to get something. "Last night I was dreaming about setting up my room," she explained, "and I realized I might have left some of the things in my dream here last year." Even while she was sleeping, her brain was working on her To Do list.

Of course, even worse than anxiety dreams is the insomnia. I've come by my insomnia and wandering toes (aka restless legs) honestly -- thanks, Dad. It's not just teaching that does it to me. But the quality of my sleep tells me a lot about the level of my anxiety. If I can't fall asleep at night, or wake up in the middle of the night and can't get back to sleep, or wake up far too early in the morning -- if any of these things happens, and my brain can't shut off, I know I'm entering the land of the anxious. A land I often wander into in late August.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Progress that destroys

That's what the Queen Mother (aka the principal) said when she came in my classroom a couple days ago and saw the chaos: "progress that destroys." I kept telling everyone who came in and saw this:

that is really wasn't as bad as it looked. "I know it looks like a mess," I would say. "But it's all in piles!" And that's what the Queen Mother meant too -- I was making progress, but the progress sure looked awful.

Today things look a little better.
And actually, that was this morning when I first got there. When I left this evening, it was even better than this, although an outsider might not be able to tell the difference. Today I had a slow morning, even going out to a cafe for coffee, a currant scone, and the newspaper before work. But then when I got there, I started to get a little panicky. Setting up my classroom hasn't been this hard in years. I guess I knew that moving up to a new grade and switching classrooms would increase my workload. But I hadn't anticipated all the work that setting up would be. I certainly hadn't anticipated that I would spend most of the first 3 days of the week sorting through things left behind by last year's teacher, choosing what to keep and what to get rid of. I haven't had to go through someone else's stuff in years -- it's been mine, and I've known what to do with it and exactly how I wanted the classroom to look. This year, I've been moving furniture this way and that, trying to decide what will work best, in a way I haven't in years.

The good news is that I only cried once at work today. So that's not bad at all! And with the help of the Wailin' Jennys (which I accessed at school from my home computer via my Sugarsync backup!!), I managed to wipe my eyes and get back to work. I got the furniture mostly where I want it, and I set to work organizing books. Second grade books are different from first grade books, and I got excited about old favorites from when I was little: Ramona, Roald Dahl, Frog and Toad. It will be fun to see my students reading these kinds of chapter books and loving them the way I did a long time ago.

The other good news is that at least I have learned enough over the years to stop and go home when I can't handle it anymore. I knew the other day, when I looked at the math shelf and it seemed utterly overwhelming, that it was time to go home. "The math shelf is not overwhelming, Ms. Swamp," I said to myself, "so it must be that you are too tired and too hungry to stay here anymore." So I went home. And as I face the holiday weekend knowing that I will be in my classroom for all of the next three beautiful, sunny days, I just remind myself that I spent more than half of the past two months in my sleeping bag, in beautiful places. So now it's everyone else's turn to be outside and relax, while I work on my room.

We all just have to hope the progress I'm making doesn't destroy my mental health before I'm done. :) Good thing I have several Friendly Neighbors around who came by last night to bring me flowers from their garden, shuck, blanch, and freeze 20 ears of corn, eat a 98% local dinner, and watch Obama give his speech. That should be enough to keep me sane.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Kids like us

At the open house for new kindergarten and first-grade students last June, there were two tall blonde twins who stood out. Mostly they stood out because they were white. (At my school, if you are a white child in a classroom you are in the minority. I usually have one, maybe two white students out of 20 per year.)

The first-grade teacher called them this week to set up a home visit. "Oh," said their mother. "We decided to send them to another school instead. We really love your school -- we think it's a great place. We love that you do home visits. But we decided we really wanted them to be in a school with kids from our neighborhood -- you know, kids from [insert the name of the whitest, wealthiest neighborhood in the area]."

Nina said she was at a loss for words. But when she told our principal, she didn't pause for a second. "Good," she said. "Let them go to another school. We don't want them." We all knew what the code stood for. "Kids from our neighborhood" means kids like us -- white kids.