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.