Monday, June 23, 2008

13 reasons to be happy for the summer

  • painted toes and flip flops
  • sleeping in
  • gin and tonics
  • walking to ice cream
  • spaghetti straps
  • tomato season
  • bike rides
  • out-of-town guests
  • girls' nights
  • sleeping in tents
  • cookouts on the deck
  • the way the air sometimes smells salty like the ocean
  • mountains to climb

Friday, June 20, 2008

Ending the Year

Lots of craziness and fun go on as the school year ends. The teachers relax and let things slide; there's not so much actual teaching going on; it's hot out. I've been to several meetings this week that deteriorated into hysterics, as the teachers can barely hold it together anymore. My brain feels like it has turned into mush and I can't concentrate on anything except the gin and tonics that are helping me sleep at night.

Still, as a class, we've managed to have some adventures this week, among the exhaustion, stress, and frustration that define the end of June. I don't have an agenda so much anymore, so I am better at just letting us hang out together, chat, be silly, give each other crap. It's actually pretty rare for me to be sad at the end of the year -- I'm not that sentimental. But with this group, I would be sad if I hadn't just officially decided to move up to second grade with them next year. So I can enjoy them without being sad about saying good-bye -- instead I just think how cool it will be to have another year with them. (Except for when they are having tantrums, defying me, or whining endlessly, at which time I wonder what possessed me to want to spend another year with them.)

This week, though, we took a bird walk in the forest, which also happens to be a cemetery, so in addition to talking about birds (and catching a glimpse of a white-breasted nuthatch, a downy woodpecker, and other birds that commonly live in these parts), we talked about death and God a little. I mostly just said over and over again, "Yes, some people think God makes everything happen. Yes, some people think you go to heaven after you die. Yes, some people think Jesus was God's son. Different people believe different things about God." And, they mostly ignored me, as they often do, surely thinking to themselves, "Who is this crazy white lady we spend so much time with, and why does she say such strange things?"

We also made salad from our own garden,
took some silly walks,
and did some crazy dancing (see above).

And, I tore my classroom apart, another essential part of the sacred end-of-year ritual. It is both exhausting and refreshing to move everything, throw stuff out, pack things into boxes, and wonder how the hell you have acquired 7 bags of clothespins over the years, and who you could trick into taking some of them from you.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Camping with the Sixth Grade

It is a new tradition at our school that every spring the sixth graders go on a camping trip to a nearby island. This year's sixth graders were the very first class I taught, way back when. You might say I learned how to be a teacher from them. And with my interest and experience in outdoor pursuits, it seemed to make sense that I join them for the trip. Three days away from my own kids seemed like too much, so I decided to go for 2 days and 1 night. Leaving my students in the utterly reliable hands of my assistant, I lent out lots of gear (proof that I am, indeed, my father's daughter), and set out for the island to meet a class that has been infamous at our school for years.

I learned a number of things over the past two days. First of all, that sixth grade boys could throw rocks and catch crabs forever and never get bored. My suggestion on our hike yesterday that perhaps a bucket full of six live crabs was sufficient, and that we enjoy the rest of the crabs without trying to catch them, was received with incredulity and then promptly ignored. Promises of rock-skipping contests and crab-catching were enough to get them to complete almost any task, including cleaning trash off the beach, and made me think about what the world would be like if the way to an adult man's heart were as simple. (Having never tried to win over a man with crabs or rocks, I may just have to add this to my rapidly growing repertoire of dating strategies.)

Secondly, I learned that you manage sixth graders in just about the same way that you manage first graders. Having little experience with these preteen beings, I was initially somewhat uncertain about how to get them to comply with directions. I quickly found that my toolbox was quite well-suited to the task. Of course, getting them to do any one thing took much longer than it would take a first grader, because for a sixth grader it is very important to convey the impression that they have no intention of complying with your request, even as they begin to do so. So, for example, when I asked Antonio to join us for a photo (or a walk, or cleaning up, or basically anything), he would retort, "I'm not going. There is NO WAY I'm gonna be in that photo," as he began to very slowly make his way to just the place I had sent him. I soon discovered that the best response to this situation was to ignore the litany of refusals and cheerfully thank him for starting to join us. Other times it was best to ignore him altogether and pretend not to notice that he was, indeed, following directions.

Because it could take anywhere between 2 and 10 minutes for a sixth grader to follow a direction, I remembered something I learned from Techszewski a few years ago. Techszewski has experience teaching at a number of grade levels, and he told me that the single most valuable classroom management strategy he has discovered is counting backwards. It works with little kids, it works with middle schoolers, it works with high school students. So, I started counting backwards for the sixth graders.

There is something magical about counting backwards. It lets them know unequivocally how much time they have to begin to comply. If you count forwards, on the other hand, they don't know if you are giving them until 3 or 5 or 10, whereas counting backwards has a definite ending point. And as soon as I would say "5... 4...," they would start to move -- very, very slowly, as if their legs were buried 16 inches in mud, but moving nonetheless. They seemed to notice that I was counting for them more than the other adults were, and Leroy asked me why I was counting so much. I said, "I'm counting because it works! It worked when you were in first grade and it still works." He tried to tell me he was too "grown" for counting, but since he kept on doing what I asked when I counted, I kept on counting.

In the end, the camping trip did not help me understand very much about why some people want to teach middle school. There were memorable moments on the trip, and it was satisfying to see students who have never experienced anything like camping before thoughtfully engaged in shooting a bearing with a compass, writing intently in their journals at sunset, or exploring barnacles with fascination. They were conscientious about following the Leave No Trace guidelines we had taught them, and a number of students absolutely stepped up as leaders, displaying excellent Expedition Behavior whenever there was work to be done.

But many students were noticeably less pleasant people than they had been in first grade. I decided to be optimistic, and to assume that middle school is the lowest point in the evolution of a person, and therefore they will improve back at least to where they used to be as they get older. But first graders aren't ashamed to be excited about learning, or to openly love their teachers. And if you are going to spend all day around a group of 20 (or, in this case, 40) kids, it sure is nice if they show a little enthusiasm and affection.

Still, there were great moments. It made me remember how much I often wish to teach my students (and by this I mean kids of color from the city) in a place with a farm and the woods and the ocean, where they can be outside all the time and work hard and be healthy and safe and study at the same time. So many of them chafe in the classroom all day, and who would blame them? But outside they can run around and use their energy and come alive, and those who can't concentrate for two minutes inside become focused and intent on everything around them outside. I was thoroughly enchanted by one student, Kareem, who I hadn't known before, but who seemed to approach every moment on the island with quiet, contemplative appreciation. When several boys and I were on a bird walk early this morning, and they were talking about how they couldn't wait to go home, I asked him if he was excited to go home. "No," he answered quietly. "I like it here." I figured, if even 4 of these 40 kids felt that way, the trip was worth the trouble.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

The Audacity of Blogs

I am caving and have started a blog. I mean, since I won't get a Facebook profile, a blog is probably the next best thing, right?

The purpose of this blog is primarily to facilitate things for my Easterner-in-Exile friend, who likes to steal my teaching stories and pass them off as her own. Now she can be the life of the party without even having to talk to me.

Having a blog seems somewhat audacious. Like, who am I to think anyone cares about the little stories in my head? Who is really going to read what I write? But I think that is very 90s of me. This century, we all are supposed to think that everyone wants to read every little thing we do and say and think.

I have been reading some teacher blogs in order to get inspired, to discover the norms of this strange bloggy world, and to see how others go about this. Looking at other edublogs has made me notice that there are a lot of teachers out there who have a lot to complain about. I am not saying this to complain about teachers who complain too much. I just notice that a lot of (presumably) smart and talented teachers seem to be working in atrocious bureaucracies, administered by idiots relying on failing educational policies. This is not a situation to be made light of.

Luckily, although I teach in a country operating under the "standards" of No Child Left Behind, I don't have so much to complain about. (At least not this year.) I work with dedicated, thoughtful professionals in a school with a mission I really believe in. Compared to the things my fellow teacher-bloggers write about, I have almost nothing to kvetch about. So this will not be a complaining blog.

On the other hand, it won't be an overly dreamy blog that makes teaching look like a perfect job and first graders look like they should run the world. Teaching is a hard job. And first graders are like the rest of us. Sometimes they do great things, and are smart and lovely; other times they give in to temptation and do bad things and hurt each other -- or make their teacher crazy, which might be worse. Anyone who leaves those parts out makes you feel a little guilty for ever having dark thoughts.

I imagine I won't write so much about school politics and what goes on outside of the classroom. (Except for the gardening and the bird walks and the field trips, of course.) I imagine I will tell about the things that I think about, that make me happy, that piss me off, and that make me excited, all in the course of a normal day at school.

So here's the first story. Last week, little Julio was reading to me for his end-of-year reading assessment (his DRA, for those in the know). [A side note: Julio came in to first grade without going to kindergarten. He didn't know all of his letters yet and couldn't read any sight words. But he is a very bright kid, albeit impulsive and young, and has made a year of progress in reading since January. Yay!]

While he was reading, he kept making little comments, half to me and half to himself. He was so much fun to eavesdrop on. One of the first things he said was when he saw a picture in the story of a purple butterfly sitting on a flower. He was doing an amazing job of describing to me what was happening in the pictures, and when he first saw the butterfly, he said, "The butterfly is pollinating an orange flower, right?"

We don't study farms and gardens all year for nothing, I tell you!

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Overheard (from the students at the Orange Table)

"I think she needs a vacation."

"No, I think she just needs some peace and quiet."

(In my own defense, I was not being too mean or cranky before this conversation. All I did was say that I was tired of everyone saying my name over and over again.)

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Writing Report Cards

It is absolutely AGAINST THE RULES to start a blog until you have finished writing all of your report cards.