Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Substitute Voices

Teachers use our voices much the same way singers do -- all day, every day, at a strong volume. Teacher voices have to project above the voices and noises of 23 bodies in one room, and across large spaces such as the hallway or the playground. But we never learn the things singers learn about how to warm up, how to project, or how to breathe, so voice problems among teachers are common.

Right now at least 3 teachers at my school are suffering from severe voice strain, and I am one of them. I am going to speech therapy once a week to learn exercises I can do to use my voice more efficiently, so that I get maximum volume with minimum effort. I am drinking buckets of water every day. (All day, my students remind me: "Ms. Swamp, drink water! Ms. Swamp, here's your water bottle.") I am supposed to vary the range and tone of my voice throughout the day, and not to talk too much or too loudly.

My students are all on board with this. They understand the problem. They are quieter than usual, and they hush each other so I can talk at a lower volume. I am working really hard not to talk too loudly, so my voice is pretty quiet. I'm using a normal speaking-voice volume, but in an action-filled room, it can be about as effective as a whisper in a noisy bar.

Today I decided to share some of the vocal work. At the end of recess, I asked Ola to lead the circling up. He counted down from 10 to 0, then told everyone to hold hands, raise them, drop them, and check their shoes (to see if they were tied), all in exactly the same words I use when I lead that routine. He called students to line up (and called Cliff last because Cliff was smiling -- God forbid anyone smile in school!), and he led the class back to the classroom. He told the line leaders to stop at the appropriate places in the hall, and directed the door holders to do their job as well. At the classroom door, he made the class stand silently at the door, and only let quiet students in to walk to their seats for lunch.

"It looks like you've found your substitute voice," Amalia remarked to me as she went by.

But really I have found 22 substitute voices. Raheem is brilliant at quieting the class when he rings the bell to make an announcement. "Michael, please go to your seat," he instructs. "Everyone, please stop touching the cubes. It's time to clean up. Make sure you check the floor under your tables. Ramon, please look at me when I ring the bell."

In the hallway on the way to drumming, Ivan quieted the group. "Ms. Swamp is waiting for you," he said, his eyes on me as I stood quietly waiting for silence. "Bria, please stop talking. We are going to be late for drumming!"

The classroom could run itself without me, it seems. They know the routines inside out and backwards. Not only do they know the routines, they know exactly what I am going to say, and exactly what words I am going to use, at least when performing everyday maneuvers. It is fun to watch their leadership emerge, and to see how they rise to the occasion. If Tyshaun is in charge of getting the class to PE, he doesn't fool around in the hallway like he might otherwise. He stands a little taller, and looks around at his classmates with an authoritative expression on his face. They ask each other in respectful but assertive tones to listen, to be respectful, and to help us get where we need to be. Meanwhile, I stand back and watch, and grin.

Friday, April 10, 2009


The second grades spent two days this week at an Audubon Society center in the city. It is a true green oasis in the midst of urbia (that's the opposite of "suburbia"). It smells like the woods, and it sounds like the woods, and that is rare to find in these parts. Even though large portions of my life have been spent in rural spaces, for many of my students this is a relatively unknown world.

I told them we would go on a hike on the second afternoon. They know I love to hike. We sat in a circle in the sun to get ready for what was really more of an amble over half a mile of flat trail than a hike.

"We're going hiking!" I announced.

A shout of approval went up. "Yay!"

"Wow," I said. "There is just about nothing that makes me happier than if I say 'We're going hiking' and people say 'Yay!' Let's do it again! We're going hiking!"

"Yay!" they cried even more enthusiastically, always eager to please.

"So, there are 4 things you need to know about hiking," I said. "And the first one is this. Hiking is hard work. So you have to be really strong and tough to do it. And that means no complaining. Even when it's hard, and you're tired, and you want to stop, you can't complain, because you have to be really tough.

"Second, I'm going to be first, and you need to be behind me." [We talked a bit about how we would make sure no one fell too far behind.] "Third, we want to see birds and animals, so we have to try to go quietly in the woods so we don't scare them away." [We agreed on a quiet way to get each others' attention if we needed to show each other something.] "And last, it's important to stay on the trail, because if we walk off the trail, we'll step on things and hurt them, and we want to leave the forest the way we found it."

I told them I had learned to hike when I was their age, about 8.

"When you learned to hike, did you complain?" Pili asked.

(It is at this point in the narrative, if not before, that my parents give each other knowing looks and chuckle.)

I thought for a minute and said, "Yes, actually, I did use to whine and complain when I went hiking. But that was because no one told me that you had to be tough and strong to hike. I didn't know that rule of hiking. And at first I didn't like it that much. But after awhile I discovered that the woods were full of beautiful things to see, and I learned that if I was really tired, instead of thinking about how much farther I had to go, I could just think about each step, one at a time. When it's hard, I try to think about this step that I'm taking right now, and nothing else."

"And then you get there!" Amelia finished my thought.

"Yes, then I get there," I repeated.

I am happy to report that 16 of us "hiked" through the urban wilds for over an hour, with a grand total of zero complaints. It was warm and gentle there, and we looked at small bugs, tree bark, cattails, mallards, and burrs. We picked up sticks and put them down again, we watched red-tailed hawks coast above us, and we enjoyed the first moments of spring.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

The end of the insects

From Paige's final entomology test.

"A simple metamorphosis is when some bugs don't change like a waxworm changes but a milkweed bug does not. The life cycles goes like this egg - nymph - nymph - adult. It goes the nymph three times because it never changes.

"A complete metamorphosis is when a insect goes egg - larva - pupa - adult. A milkweed bug is different because it doesn't say larva or pupa insted it says nymph three times. The adult of a waxworm is a moth.

"When insects molt they shead something cemuller to skin but it is calld exoskeleton. When a insect is littel and it has to grow up it sheds the exoskeleton."

Cemuller! I love it.