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?