Wednesday, December 31, 2008

I feel human again

I guess that's why we get vacations.  It is amazing to finally see family and friends and remember that I am not just a teacher, but also a sister, daughter, friend, girlfriend, all of those roles I had been neglecting.  

Thursday, December 11, 2008

A glimmer of hope

I was absent from school on Wednesday. I hadn't planned it. I got really sick and couldn't get out of bed. So, I called my favorite substitute (avoid SubCentral at all costs!!!) to see if she was available (which she was), and told her where my emergency sub folder was. Since I hadn't left any specific plans, just the generic activities that were in the emergency folder, I didn't expect much when I came back to school today.

I opened my classroom door and immediately started vacuuming, sharpening pencils, cleaning, the tables, etc. Part of my normal morning routine now includes planning the guided reading lesson for the day, so I took out my little bin and noticed that the last set of guided reading books, the ones I had planned to use on Wednesday, weren't there. Hmmm? I thought. Then I looked at the reading chart to see which group I would see that day and I noticed the clothespin had been moved to the next group. Hmmmm? I thought again. So I checked the "Just Right" baggies of that group, and sure enough, the book was in each of their baggies. I really couldn't figure out how the substitute would have known what to do. Oh well, I thought, and started planning for the next group. A few minutes before I had to pick up the kids, the substitute came into my room to get her things (she stores her stuff in my room) for the class she was subbing for today and I asked her about the day yesterday.

She said "Oh, yeah, we did everything. We did the word sort and the kids said they were supposed to glue, then they wanted to do the calendar, so we did that. Then they wanted to read their "Just Right" books so we did that, except that a couple of kids insisted that they had to stay on the rug to do a reading group. I asked them, 'What am I supposed to do?' and they showed me the [guided reading] bin and the set of six books. They told me I had to show them the book and then they would read it to me."

Needless to say, I was beaming with pride. My students had guided the substitute through our entire morning routine including the guided reading group. Maybe all of my efforts are paying off. It seems that they have really internalized the structures.

Friday, December 5, 2008

We just became a "Corrective Action School"

Whatever that means. It kills me. I love my school and my students. We (meaning everyone: teachers, parents, school aides, janitors, and yes, even administration) work so hard to make a difference for our students. Just because we are a community school and we take EVERYONE who walks in the door, including children from a transitional shelter that is in our catchment area, we suffer the consequences of having low-performing students. It is not a reflection on the actual teaching or achievement of our "home grown" students, the ones we keep from Pre-K through 5th grade. What do they want schools to do? Shut their doors? Only let in a select few? I am proud of the fact that we educate everyone equally. I am proud to have over 80% ELLs in my class. The media always puts down these "underperforming" schools and it's so sad that my school has been categorized this way. I actually think that some of these schools are actually the best schools in the country because of all the hard work and dedication it takes to keep everyone learning. Talk about differentiation!!!. I won't give up. I just hope that we can at least maintain our "Well-developed" rating that we got on last year's quality review, I feel that this recognition at least helps us keep our heads above water and have faith that we are doing our best every day. The British guy said so!

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Illiteracy update

For those of you who read my blog regularly, you know that I am really concerned about literacy with my first graders. Some of you who have followed my blog from the beginning might remember a post where I talked about being trained for a one-to-one tutoring program that we were supposedly going to implement for at least 30 first graders this year. I remember when I posted it, feeling so hopeful that maybe, just maybe we were finally going to do something to help our strugglers. In the back of my mind, I worried that it wouldn't happen, that it wouldn't get scheduled. Everytime I had my doubts, an administrator would say "we're still ranking the kids," or " don't worry, it's all taken care of," etc.

It's December. This program was supposed to start the first week in October. We still haven't started. I am so desperate to get it off the ground that I have repeatedly inquired about when I am tutoring and which kid I will be tutoring. I even made up a possible tutoring schedule using times when a school aide could be with my class (like right when they come up from lunch), which I now can't even offer because I need to use that time for oral storytelling. I offered for them to pay off my preps and tutor then. I have tried all I can so that this training, which probably cost at least $15,000 can actually be put to some good use. Why does administration waste our time and money like this????? It's ridiculous. It makes me so angry. I can't count on administration to do ANYTHING for my students EVER!!!! It's all up to me. That's the honest truth.

Is this in my job description?

I spent about 30 minutes today chopping 3 inches off about 500 copies of reading logs, writing paper choices, homework assignments, etc. You see, we are having another copy crisis at my school. I was told that this crisis is city-wide. Apparently (according to my AP), the chancellor has put a "freeze" on all new purchases, including copy paper. We have been without white paper for almost a week right now. At first, no one said anything (communication anyone?), so the aides were doing our copies on colored paper, which is a complete waste of precious resources, plus a waste of paper since I can't have the kids doing their writing workshop pieces on pink paper. The copy machine for teachers, the one that is still my nemesis (This one), has been making really funky copies lately. They are all messed up and scrambled. Anyway, I discovered that if you choose "Tray 2" with 8 1/2 X 14'' legal size paper, the copies come out normal, plus I have plenty of the legal size paper. So, I spent an entire prep making all of the copies I need for the week on legal size paper and then I had to chop off the 3 inches to make all of those copies usable. Don't worry, I saved the 3 inch extras to make little mini-books for the kids to write in during choice time. What really gets to me though is that we are expected to have ample writing paper and reading logs and consistent homework, yet we have to jump through so many hoops just to provide the basics. I feel like I need to be a magician sometimes and make things appear out of thin air. When my "office" friends ask me what my job is like, I tell them, imagine being the CEO of a small company where you are expected to oversee employees, communicate with associates, and make a profit without email, copies, a phone, or any office supplies.

I'm writing a letter to the parents this week asking for a donation of a reem of copy paper for those families who can help. I hope I get at least 5.

Friday, November 28, 2008

El otro lado de la cara

Hasta ahora, este blog ha sido solamente escrito en inglés, pero esto no muestra la historia completa de mis experiencias como una maestra de primer grado. Yo, también hablo y escribo en español, y espero lo mismo de mis estudiantes, que sean bilingues. Me tendrán que disculpar si hago errores porque estoy todavía en el proceso de aprender el español como un segundo idioma y no se preocupan, porque no enseño español a los niños, pues, yo soy el componente de inglés en el programa, pero todos mis estudiantes están aprendiendo en español, que para la mayoría es su primer idioma.

Muchas personas en el área de educación creen que la enseñanza en español en la ciudad de Nueva York actúa como una muleta para los niños hasta que aprendan el inglés, pero lo que no toman en cuenta es que el español es un idioma muy complejo y que nuestros niños imigrantes acá en Nueva York son de diferentes paises y regiones y que tal vez no hablan el mismo dialecto del español. El trabajo de la maestra bilingue no es solamente enseñarles el inglés estándard, pero también el español estándard. Me hace desesperar cuando la gente cree que solamente traducir les va a ayudar a los niños tener comprensión de algo. Por ejemplo, casi la mitad de mi clase es mejicana y la otra mitad dominicana. Tenemos algunos niños ecuatorianos, puertoriqueños, un boliviano, un hondureño, y un colombiano. La mayoría de los recursos que tenemos en español son traducciones de textos originalmente escritos en inglés. Primero, las traducciones son muy malas y suben el nivel de lectura del libro dos o tres niveles porque usan un español muy alto. Segundo, el español que hablan los niños es lenguaje social, no es lenguaje académico y para muchos niños es muy difícil leer el lenguaje académico que encuentran en los libros. Tercero, cada país tiene sus regionalismos y vocabulario distinto. Hay como 8 palabras distintas para "cerdo." También, la gente asume de que los niños con apellidos latinos o recién llegados de países hispanoparlantes hablan el español. Tenemos muchos niños de centro y sudamérica que hablan idiomas indígenas (como es el caso en mi salón) y para ellos el español es el segundo idioma y el inglés será el tercero.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Goals goals goals

I can't believe that a whole week has passed since I last posted. This past week was one of the busiest ones of the entire year. So much happened!!!! I was at school until 8PM every night for a committee, a district meeting, the SLT, Parent-teacher conferences, and we even had the first grade parents visiting our rooms on Friday morning. I really tried to pump myself up last weekend and I made a huge pot of homemade chicken soup. It worked. Somehow, I got through this week virtually unscathed both physically and emotionally.

That's not what I really wanted to post about though. We have been told by our administration that we need to come up with our own professional goals and to help our students set their own goals in all subject areas. At first, I was really annoyed that they were saying this with the upcoming parent teacher conferences and all of the stuff I had to do, but I have to say that really thinking about my goals has given me a little push to do better (not that I'm not doing everything that I possibly can each day!!!), but somehow this process got me doing more. I decided that my goal for this year was to send all of my first graders to second grade reading at least close to the June benchmark (level I). Believe me, from past experience, and based on where my kids are right now, this is no easy feat. I have a room full of B and C readers and it is November. I had to tell those 19 out of 26 parents at parent-teacher conferences that their children are promotion in doubt and that they need more support at home. We will do our best at school, but the parents need to provide the basics at home: a quiet place to do homework, a homework routine, take their children to the public library---I even gave them the forms to fill out for a library card and the addresses of libraries in the area. Even the parents who don't read or write can do these things to support their children (they will need support filling out the form, I should make sure they get that help). They all promised to do their part and understood the importance of literacy for their children.

Okay, now to my part. For the past couple of years, I have been working with small groups in reading within the reading workshop. I have done guided reading and strategy lessons, but I haven't been consistent and I haven't used a structure that is predictable to my children. For all of these years, I have attended calendar days at TC and we have had staff developers at our school, and we have had support for planning for small groups, but there was one big missing key--- how to make it sustainable and functional within the classroom structure. You see, TC teaches you to group kids fluidly, which is great. It's true, not all B readers need the same thing, and not all kids are using the same strategies. This idea of fluid grouping was the factor that prevented me from implementing any sort of consistent group work. I was always stressed out about what I would teach, who would be in the group, how I would take notes, which guided reading book was perfect for teaching that skill, how I could confer too, etc.

This year, I just decided, "F--- it!" My kids aren't reading, they're not moving up levels, I am going to make a groups chart (that is not fluid), and I am going to do guided reading with one group each day according to the chart. They will be grouped according to reading level, and THAT'S IT!!!! Also, that guided reading library that I had been hoarding because I didn't know now to catalogue or level the books came out. I dumped all of the books onto a big table and sat there for two hours leveling them and organizing them into leveled bins. It's amazing that after 3 and a half years teaching first grade, I can level books like a machine. I'm pretty confident that I can accurately level at least A-H books myself.

So, I put the chart up with the groups, and we did a shared reading of the chart so the kids could see what color group they were (I labeled them by colors). I told them that I would meet with one group each day and that they would get to read some of these new books (as opposed to the nasty old ones that populate my classroom library). After the oooohs and ahhhhs were over, I did the mini-lesson, and just as I had instructed, the red group stayed on the rug. They made a little circle and put their baggies behind them. I took out the leveled book that I had just organized at their instructional level and I did a guided reading group. I didn't worry about if I was doing it right or not and I didn't pressure myself to teach sight words or this or that. I had changed my whole view of it. I gave the students what I thought they would need to read the book and a little more.

For example, one of the D level books we read had the word "Takes" in it a lot. So before we read the book we talked about a word that they know "cake" and how if they can read cake they can read a tricky work that they will see in the book. I put the word "take" on my little white board and they all blurted out "take." Then we added the "s" and got "takes." I asked if anyone could find the word "takes" on the page, and the lowest of the group pointed to it. When they were reading, a couple of kids forgot our good work and said "tacks." All I had to do was point to the chart and they remembered "takes."

Anyway, this week I met with five groups and I have to say that this is more than I ever did before. I took a step back and somehow brushed off all of that pressure and TC ickyness, and really looked at the big picture. I still don't have time to confer (and that's okay), when they are in those small groups, I am working so closely with each one, that I can confer with a couple of them right there. The other kids are still not reading, but that's okay too. As we cycle through these guided reading groups and as they get more of those scaffolded books in their baggies, I really think that their stamina will improve.

This is like my little mini inquiry for the year. I'm very curious how this will impact their reading if at all.

Friday, November 14, 2008


The little boy I was so worried about yesterday came to school this morning with a bright smile and said that he spent the day with his mom because he had an appointment yesterday. He even located his sweater later in the afternoon. I'm relieved that nothing was wrong.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

This post is a little bit all over the place....

As a 4th year teacher in the New York City public schools, I feel secure in my ability to manage and teach a class of 26 first graders. This doesn't mean, however, that we aren't teetering on the edge of total chaos at all moments. It's as if the children are just waiting to riot or just implode sometimes. From the moment I pick them up in the cafeteria each morning, I can see it in their faces.... so many long faces so early in the morning. They have heavy glazed-over eyes. It is a deep sadness brought on by unimaginable circumstances that I will never fully understand. So much of teaching is intuition. Like right now, I'm completely beside myself with worry about one of my students because I just have a feeling that something is terribly wrong. Yesterday he lost his sweater and when his mother came to pick him up from an afterschool program, they came back upstairs to my classroom to look for it. He didn't leave it in my room. I suggested that they check the cafeteria or the office. I could tell that the mom was steamed. I guess it was the second sweater he had misplaced. He has seemed pretty down for the past week and I was meaning to pull him aside and talk to him about it, but I didn't get a chance with everything else that is always going on (like kids peeing on your rug while packing up to dismiss at kidding that actually happened). Anyway, he didn't come to school today and I'm just really worried about it. I have seen it before. You tell a parent that their child has been misbehaving and the kid doesn't come to school for the next week. It's obvious. I hope he's back tomorrow and that it was nothing and I can see that smile that he used to bring earlier this year.

Back to the chaos. It really concerns me that my students get completely out of control if there is someone other than me in front of them. Even with my student teacher, I can't step away from the rug for a moment without the kids turning malicious and completely obnoxious. When I take them to recess they are completely out of control. We calmly walk down to the cafeteria and I seat them with their partners in neat rows. They are nice and calm. The moment I hand over control to the school aide, they get totally crazy (and it's totally unfair, they have a great school aide, a truly wonderful person). I can't stand picking them up from recess because I find out that they have been catapulting food from their forks in the cafeteria, three kids are at the nurse because someone bashed their heads into the floor (then I have to explain that to parents), and that they ended up not being allowed to play. I take the hands of the ones who are in tears and ignore them at the same time as we make our way up the stairs. The kids know, I will not talk to anyone about recess until we are safe in our room and everyone is on their rug spot and their hands are raised. Then I open the floor to apologies only. After everyone has apologized to the wronged parties, then they can give compliments to each other. We do this routine every day in an effort to get them to start thinking about appreciating each other and making better decisions when it comes to how to treat your classmates.

Even the prep teachers struggle with my group. I have to refocus them after any prep and clean the room (it is usually a disaster zone after a prep). My strict discipline and attention to structure and routine really helps my students when they are with me, but how can I empower them to make those same decisions when I am not there? They act crazy with their parents, so that is not a route to take. It's about them. I always tell my students that they have the power to decide what kind of a person they want to be. They always choose to be a good friend and an honest person when confronted with the choice, but I want to see them doing it on their own, internalizing these values.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

The Evolution Of A Teacher

Everyone says that it takes 5 years to be a really good teacher. I think this is absolutely true and motivates me to keep going to reach that milestone. Technically, I have been teaching for 5 years, but I spent my first two years teaching at a private school abroad. I don't count those years because they weren't even half as demanding as what I am facing in the New York City public schools and I didn't have my teaching degree at the time. Those two years gave me some experience planning curriculum and pacing lessons, but I didn't go "deep" into teaching. I have taught for 3 full years in the NYC public schools and am well into my 4th. The following outlines my struggles and accomplishments in each stage of teaching.

First year-- Management:

As a first year teacher, management is usually the most pressing issue. I remember a time when my first graders were violent, overly emotional, and always asking to go to the nurse. I remember when the physical set-up of the room created dangerous blind spots where kids would hide to carry out their misdeeds. I remember kids punching each other during my mini-lessons, throwing tantrums on the floor and kicking me, and interrupting lessons to say "I hate you" over and over like a broken record. One time, I called the students to the rug and asked them softly to make a circle. When I looked around the circle, one kid was covering his face and crying, when he pulled his hands away, they were covered in blood. One of the bullies in the room had kicked him in the face on purpose. I remember thinking that the kids were really disturbed and getting too involved in trying to solve all of their problems. I thought that their emotional state made it impossible for them to learn and I felt bad for them. I made it a point to visit other teachers during my preps, teachers that I really respected and admired for the environment in their classes. After seeing similar kids in other rooms I realized that the issues I was facing were up to me to solve by firming up my structures and routines.

I started with the classroom environment. I knew I had to open up the space. Those little nooks I created with the furniture that I had envisioned as quiet reading spaces for my students had to go. Even the barriers around the rug had to go as well. I needed a room with no blindspots. I had to be able to see everything that was going on at all times. One Friday after school, I stayed really late and I rearranged my entire classroom.

When the kids returned on Monday, I introduced them to the new environment and to the new rules. I remember telling them, "When I tell you to do something, there will be no backtalk, all you will say is 'Yes Ms. Peace' and you will do as you are told." I told them "I will ask you nicely the first time, but the second time, I will not be nice anymore." This kind of strict management wasn't my style, but it was a matter of safety. The kids listened and started doing as they were told. I stopped feeding into their problems and distanced myself from them in a way, and it worked. Their behavior improved and their learning improved as well. Over time, we were able to recreate our classroom community and even do fun projects together. I will never forget how relieved I felt when the last day of school finally came. I remember thinking that I couldn't take back my first year of teaching, but things would be different from Day 1 the next year.

Second Year: Basic Core Curriculum:

I had an especially challenging class my 2nd year of teaching including an emotionally disturbed child who was dangerously violent as well as a child functioning at the level of a 2 year old who would threaten to pee on books during my lessons. In addition, there was a lot of construction in the building that year and we all had to leave every day at 4:00 PM only to encounter a mess from the construction workers in our rooms each morning. I think this was one of the most challenging years that I will ever have as a teacher (hopefully), but because my structures and routines lent to solid management, I was able to handle it.

With the management down, the second year of teaching is where I really got a grasp of the basic core curriculum. I had been through the curricular calendar in all subjects for a full school year and started my second year with plenty of ideas of how I could improve my teaching in Reading, Writing, Word Study, and Math. I had solid mini-lessons in Reading and Writing and was conferring with students in both areas. I got really good at adapting Everyday Mathematics to the meet the needs of my students. I still use materials that I created during my second year. Science and Social Studies were still very fuzzy for me. I would try to integrate them through Read Aloud or Shared Reading, but I wasn't very good at either of those components of literacy.

Third year: Science and Social Studies. Intervention. Leadership.

With management in place and a good grasp of the core curriculum, I was able to focus more attention to Science and Social Studies. I integrated social studies by using related texts for shared reading and read aloud. Everything just seemed to flow together so smoothly my third year. The kids were making the connections too. It was a truly amazing year, one of the best I think I'll ever have as a teacher. My students were bright, motivated, and had exceptional social skills that year. They were readers and writers from day one and they absorbed everything like a sponge. I had two really neat kids in the room who brought the level of learning up through their conversation and general motivation to learn. All of the other kids wanted to be like them.

My kids were doing science experiments and social studies projects. They were reading and writing with incredible stamina. I was able not only to confer with them, but also to start pulling small groups in Reading, Writing, and Math. This was the first time in my teaching career that I was able to consistently work with small groups. Although I had had some training with strategy groups and guided reading groups, I didn't feel strong in my small group work. I was also unprepared. My guided reading library was pathetic and I hadn't really analyzed the books to pinpoint areas of possible struggle or teaching points.

During the extended day time I started teaching the Fountas and Pinnell "Phonics" curriculum as an intervention for my small group of students (we were already using Words Their Way with the whole group). Going through the lessons of another quality year-long curriculum was extremely helpful in working with small groups, but I certainly wasn't by any means an expert. I was consistent, however, in delivering each lesson. I wanted to see how the kids would progress with this program. After following it for a whole year, I saw major improvements in my small extended day group. They even surpassed the students that were not identified for intervention. I also had amassed a large stockpile of little baggies full of words and pictures. I had catalogued each lesson to keep for the next year.

Outside of the classroom, I got more involved in committees and took on more leadership roles. I had earned respect over the past two years for being a hard worker and for being dedicated to the students and in light of high turnover this year, I was one of the more experienced members of my grade level and among staff.

Fourth Year: Bringing it all together. Small Group Work.

Although I am only a couple of months into my fourth year, I have definitely noticed that my lessons seem to flow seamlessly into one another. I don't seem to run out of time anymore and know exactly what to do with extra minutes. Shared reading comes naturally, and Read Aloud happens every day and for the first time I am doing shared writing and language experience with my students. While my students need a lot of support this year, I feel better equipped to help them. We started Words Their Way and Fountas and Pinnell "Phonics" on day 1. Their reading stamina is still too low to pull a guided reading group during that time, so I have been working it into my extended day and added a lot more shared reading support throughout the day.

My goal for this year is to get my small group and intervention work to feel as seamless as everything else. I want to catalogue my guided reading library since I was able to order a lot of new sets of books from a grant that we got last year. I want to get my reading groups firmly in place and functioning regularly. I want my class to be a place where the children are thinking and making connections. I want them to feel that learning is fun and stimulating and that they have access to everything we do in the classroom. I want them to feel the confidence to achieve and to be responsible for their own learning. I want them to take pride in their work and to feel good about trying their best rather than trying to be perfect. I want them to take risks and to feel safe doing so. I want first grade to be one of the best years of their lives.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

A Sweet Story

For the past few days, I been talking about the upcoming election with my students. When we first started our conversation, none of the students knew who the current president was. Even when I prompted them with "George..." they didn't respond (usually someone at least says "George Washington." So I had a lot of work cut out for me. I showed them pictures of George W. Bush along with John McCain and Barack Obama. We talked about how voting is a very important thing to do and that they should ask their parents to go into the booth with them when they vote so they can see it for themselves. On Monday morning, the voting booths were already delivered to the school and were pushed against our gymnasium wall. I took a few minutes to take the class over to them to look at them and talk about how we would pull the lever and choose the next president.

This morning, during our morning meeting, I asked the children if anyone had talked to their parents about who won the election, if anyone knew who would be the next president. Many hands shot up. I called on Robert, one of my few African-American students (the rest are hispanic). With pride, he said "Rock Obama." (so cute!) I said "That's right, Barack Obama" and I had all of the children practice the pronunciation of his name. After Robert said that, the kid in front of him, Aaron, turned around and silently pointed all around Robert's face and to his arms with a questioning look as if to ask, "The one with your skin color?" Robert nodded with a huge pride-filled smile and Aaron turned back around and uttered a barely audible "Yes!" complete with a satisfied expression and a fist motion. This was just an innocent moment between kids trying to make sense of the world. I happened to catch it out of the corner of my eye as I called on another student who had begun to talk about how they celebrated throughout the neighborhood all night long. I was so touched and so proud in that moment that Robert could be beeming with such pride and see himself in the next president of the United States.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Ripping my hair out: PART II

My complaints are usually aimed at my school's administration or at the "system" itself, but recently, I have found myself very frustrated with my class. As a teacher I feel that I am doing more than ever to meet their needs, but I'm not getting the results I used to in years past. As I mentioned in a previous post, Backflips and Sirens, I feel like I need to sound sirens and do backflips to get some of the children's attention.

Halloween was a perfect example of this. In the morning, we did shared reading all about Halloween. We read "The Ghost And The Sausage," "Five Little Pumpkins" (complete with lights out at the appropriate time). Then we all gathered on a circle on the floor for the long awaited pumpkin carving (November is our writing unit for "How-tos" so pumpkin carving is the perfect seasonal introduction to this type of procedural writing). The children directed me as I carved off the top and passed it around the circle for all to touch and smell. Then we sketched shapes for the face. I scooped out the insides to loosen them and we passed the pumpkin around the circle so everyone got to scoop out some of the fruit and seeds. Then they watched as I carved out the eyes popping each one out as as the OOOOOOed and AWWWWWed. For most of my kids this is the only place where they will see something like this. We talked a lot about how the pumpkin looked, smelled, felt, etc.

Finally I finished carving the mouth complete with two teeth and we put a light inside. We closed all of the curtains and marveled at our jack-o-lantern. Then I took out my big book "A Dark Dark Wood" and I read it once through completely scaring the crap out of the kids at the end. They laughed and giggled and demanded "again, again!!" So we read it several times through, with the kids raising their voices at the end to scream "A Ghost!" It was so much fun. But, I couldn't help but notice that several kids were not interacting at all with our shared reading. They were startled and even laughed at the end, but they were not able to read along the 2nd, 3rd, or even 4th time we read it. One was pulling at the elastic on his sock. Another had his body turned away, and yet another was tugging at shoe laces. Everyone else had their eyes on the book wanting so badly to read it themselves.

After the story, we had a few minutes before lunch. I told the kids that at the end of the day, we would have a raffle for the jack-o-lantern that we made. We talked about how we would put all of their names into a basket and pick one lucky kid to take it home. I showed them the shopping bag that they would carry it in. I asked the kids if they would take it back to school on Monday, and they all replied "Nooooo, you keep it at home." Then we talked about how three of my pumpkins that I had had for the past couple of weeks had rotted and I had to throw them away. We talked about how the pumpkin came from a plant and could rot just like other fruits and vegetables. We concluded that they could enjoy the jack-o-lantern at home for a few days and then whoever won it would have to eventually throw it out. The conversation was very interactive and elaborate.

Finally the end of the day came and it was time to raffle the jack-o-lantern. The kids watched as I folded cards with each of their names on them and placed them into a basket. I mixed up the names and closed my eyes. Kids had their fingers crossed and excited looks on their faces. Some even whispered, "I hope it's me." I pulled out the name and showed it to the kids. They called "Kevin!" and cheered and clapped for Kevin. Kevin, who is one of my sock-pullers, and is generally checked out at all times looked confused and didn't have ANY idea what was happening. Kids were saying "Kevin, go get your pumpkin." I motioned to him and he stood up, still looking completely bewildered. I said, "Congratulations Kevin," and gave him the bag. I told him how lucky he was to take the jack-o-lantern home. He put it on the hook with his bookbag and all the kids congratulated him. I couldn't help but thinking "I should have chosen someone else." He didn't seem understand what was happening at all.

I was trying to figure out what it was. He is a native English speaker (one of the few in the class). He is generally bright and capable, but doesn't work up to his capacity. He is often distracted. He sometimes says comments that do not make much sense or are not applicable. It seems that he speaks before thinking it over. The year I had his brother in my class, we had a costume party for Halloween that year and he wore a ninja costume, so I know there is no objection to Halloween on the part of the family.

Anyway, to sum it up, I felt disappointed. All of this effort to make a really special day for the kids and Kevin had no idea what was happening. I wished that I had rigged the drawing to give the jack-o-lantern to a more deserving kid. My disappointment was emphasized today when Kevin came back to school with the jack-o-lantern still in the bag. He handed it to me with his homework. When I asked him why he didn't leave it at home, he said that he had left it in the cafeteria on Friday while at his after school program. He walked off to change his book after I checked his homework and never inquired about the pumpkin again. I threw it away after school today. What a waste!

Thursday, October 30, 2008

My floor didn't get mopped at all last year.

And I have yet to see it mopped this year. GROSS!!!

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Just Breathe

That's what I keep telling myself at least.  I'm finishing up the DYO literacy assessments which, as predicted, have taken me 6 weeks of sacrificing my preps (the ones that are not eaten up by meetings).  I left some of the lower kids until the end of this time span to give them some time to improve, which makes me even more depressed by the results.  My class has 26 first grade children.  The reading benchmark for this time of year was level D (I've heard that TC changed it to E).  I officially have 3 children reading level "G" or above, 2 children at "E,"  2 at "C," and everyone else, I MEAN EVERYONE ELSE, is reading at level B (actually, there are 2 As).  That makes 19 children who are PROMOTION IN DOUBT on my report cards.  I want to curl up in a corner and cry about the world being a totally unfair place.  I had a girl today (who indeed did go to Kindergarten) miss the sight word "I" on the assessment.  It's the one word they write over and over again in Kindergarten.  "I like cats, I like dogs."  "I go to the park...etc."  

P.S. Someone shredded toilet paper all over my rug during our shared reading about pumpkins.   What is more entertaining around Halloween than songs like "Five Little Pumpkins?"  I even had my student teacher turn off the lights when the thunder claps so they could feel the full effect.  I guess toilet paper is more interesting.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Field Trip!

I'm feeling less frustrated today.  I took the kids on a field trip on Friday and it really helped me to enjoy them and spend some time getting to know them in a more relaxed atmosphere.  The trip went very smoothly.  I got two very capable parent chaperones (be careful who you pick to accompany your class) to go with us and we had great weather.  Everybody paid, brought in a signed permission slip, and no one forgot their lunch. (Can you believe it?!?!)

It always amazes me when I see how the kids react to going on a field trip.  The things that really interest them are not always what we expect.  For example, while we were waiting outside the school for our bus to pick us up, I was pointing up to a tree where the leaves had turned yellow and I was asking the kids about the changes we have studied in the Fall.  While we were talking, an airplane flew high in the sky overhead.  The kids started saying that it was a rocket.  "Look at the rocket" they kept saying over and over again.  Then another kid said, "It's not a rocket, it's a jet." (Thank you smart kid!!!)  and they were all like a chorus repeating over and over again "Look at the jet, look at the jet, look at the jet."  It was like a broken record.  

Then the bus pulled up.  For most of the kids, especially new arrivals to the country, the yellow school bus might as well be an amusement park ride.  They've seen it on TV, but they've probably never ridden it themselves.  They are so excited to climb up onto the bus and sit down with their partner and buckle their seat belt.  Then when the bus moves, they clap and squeal and I have to remind them that the driver needs to concentrate.  

Finally we arrive at the destination and all they can think about is eating their lunch.  For them, bringing a bag lunch is a novelty.  I always have to remind them before we leave that we are not eating our lunch on the bus or when we get there.  The teacher will tell them when it is time to eat.  We see a few exhibits, spend about 10 seconds at each place, and tour large museums and zoos in record time.  Then it's time for lunch.  That's when I get to see who eats junk and who eats healthy food.   It's amazing the direct correlation between Doritos, blue "juice," and low academics.  It's always the kids with the sandwich and apple who are more awake and aware at school.  

On the bus ride home, about 1/3 or the class falls asleep and I have to gently wake them upon arrival.  Then we go into the classroom and resettle into school life.  Sometimes we just sit on the rug and listen to songs while I send them all to the bathroom and to drink water.  Sometimes we do a project about the trip, it really depends on how worn out we all are.  The trip on Friday was pretty tiring so we just relaxed for the last 20 minutes before they had to go to the library prep. and then it was time for dismissal.  

On Monday, we'll do some shared writing about the trip and just keep trucking along with literacy.  I know that experiences like field trips can make all of the difference for kids in their writing especially.  I hope this helps them make those connections that are so necessary to be literate.  

P.S. I tipped the driver $10.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Backflips and sirens

Seriously.  I wanted to pull all of my hair out today.  My class is not a behavior problem by any means, but they are just so "low" as we teachers sometimes say.  It's not just low skills (which is a HUGE problem this year), it's a complete lack of attention in addition to beginning pre-k level skills (I teach 1st grade).  Their heads bob and twirl.  They play with little pieces of scrap paper that end up strewn all over the rug.  More recently, a whole group of them have begun to rip the elastic strings out of their socks.  Their eyes don't seem to focus.  When we do shared reading, they look at ME if they are paying attention at all.  I always say, "eyes on the words, not on me!"  They make mistakes when we drill the alphabet, and cannot identify all the letters let alone basic sight words (like "a" or "I").  As we are kicking off a new reading intervention program, the administration actually looked at student assessments for the first time EVER and concluded that our kids need a LOT!  DUH!  How many years have we been saying this?  

Anyway, we decided that we need to really focus on making them aware of basic sight words (since a large majority are currently unable to pass list 1 which is mid- kindergarten level on our sight word assessment).  So, we decided that we the teachers would wear sight words on our shirts.  I wore the word "the" today.  This is a word that has been tripping up my little ones on their assessments along with "in," "is," "it," and you can forget about "here," nobody knows that one (except for my little group of 3 kids who read at level K... which is light years away).  So, I'm wearing this word all day and we're talking about it every chance we get.  The kids are noticing it for the first time ( I know, how many times have we written it and read it, etc?!!!!!) in print around the classroom.  We did a shared reading of a kid's story that I put on chart paper.  I covered up all of the parts where "the" appears with a post it.  Then I had kids come up and write "t-h-e" on the post-its.  Then we re-read it again and again (imagine the bobbing heads and sock play).  Then we read the B level big book "Going to school," which we have read for shared reading so many times that some kids have memorized it and listened for "the."  Long story short, when I asked them how we spell "the" at the end of the day and pointed to the card on my shirt, I got "h-t-a" from a kid (which is fine, not everyone gets it I know), but the fact that most of the kids didn't respond or gasp or anything or even realize that it wasn't right shows me that they are just not CONNECTING!!!!  Thinking about getting them to the level I benchmark or even getting them to have half a chance of ever being literate is a huge burden.  I don't know how I am going to do this considering I have 26 kids in the class.  Out of those 26, 3 are grade level or above, 5 have potential to really progress soon, and the rest are head-bobbers and sock-players.  I feel like I could do backflips and let off sirens and still, I would get nothing.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008


I forgot about one of the other strange duties teachers perform in their jobs. We are a thermostat.. literally. We control the temperature in our classrooms by taking that huge stick that opens the windows to open them wide when the heat first starts blasting, crack them as the morning wears on, and shut them almost completely after lunch. It's a ritual that is totally automatic for me at this point in my career and I am really good at it.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

In good company

My mind has been racing about my school lately. I'm not sure I can really describe the feeling, but it is a deep love for everything about it: the children, the families, the staff, even the building itself. With this in mind, you can imagine my elation when I read the New York Times today and discovered the article, "A Builder of Dreams, In Brick and Mortar," by Jim Dwyer and saw photographs of school buildings so eerily similar to mine that I was compelled to read the article right away. The article tells the story of Charles B. J. Snyder, an architect and superintendent of school buildings from the late 1800s well into the 1900s. Snyder believed that schools should be impressive and humane places for children to grow and learn. He designed his buildings specifically for immigrant and poor children throughout the city. These buildings dominated neighborhoods with their elaborate facades and beautiful design. His designs were not only aesthetically pleasing but also safe and innovative for their time. He envisioned safe play spaces for children, large windows that would let in ample light, and his trademark "H" design that shelters many classrooms from street noise. He built them with fireproof materials and interlocking staircases to facilitate swift evacuation. He was one of the first architects to design schools as public spaces. He built auditoriums with separate entrances so that school events and workshops for parents could be held after hours without having to open the whole building. He built spaces for displaying art and for public gatherings. Jacob Riis even wrote that Snyder had built "palaces" for the people.

After reading the article, I quickly looked up my school to confirm that he had designed it, and indeed he had. I feel honored to teach in one of his buildings. In fact, I always knew there was something special about the physical structure of the school. My classroom gets fresh air, is flooded with light from giant windows, and gets little street noise. My classroom is also huge with unbelievably high ceilings. It really is a palace for my children. When they draw the building in their stories, it always looks like a castle.

THIS is the kind of vision that we need! Our schools are for the children, their families, and the community. They should be the pride of the neighborhood. Safe, clean, and intellectually stimulating for all who enter. Thinking about Snyder and Riis and the vision they had for empowering the poor and disadvantaged, I am thoroughly inspired. My school serves the same population it was built for, just in another time and with immigrants from different parts of the world. We need to do all we can as teachers to make our classrooms those magical places for our children.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Would you send your own child to your school?

I have a colleague who has two children. One is in Kindergarten at our school and one is a baby. She is really struggling with what to do next year. So far, she has been lucky because her daughter has a great Kindergarten teacher and the class is pretty calm, but what about next year? She won't be able to hand pick her child's teacher each year. I always think about that myself. If I had children, would I send them to my school? My answer is "No" and "Yes." I say no because of all the chaos and lack of resources. I want my own children to have computers in their classrooms, music, art, dance, etc. My school has none of this or is limited. I also say no because of the violence all around (cops were called to the school TWICE today), the class time wasted dealing with discipline, etc. On the other hand, I say yes because I think there are some great teachers in my school that any child would be lucky to have. It is so dependent on the teacher. I always use this as a standard for myself. Would I put my own child in my class? Would I want my own child spending their day in MY classroom? I strive to make the answer YES because I know my student's parents must be thinking the same thing.

Monday, October 13, 2008

You never know

Thanks to everyone who commented on my last post.  It really helps to know that others understand the constant chaos and demands in a NYC public school.  We did the presentation on Friday morning and it was well-received by one out of the three administrators, but who knows? 

Administrators often say one thing and then turn around and do another.  It's really a shame to say this, but in my experience you really cannot trust administrators, no matter how great they may come off at first.  I am trying to be supportive of administration, an advocate for my students, a collaborative colleague, and a hard worker.  I felt respected by the last administration for having these qualities and I'm hoping the new administration will feel the same way.  I am willing to work with them, but I will (at any cost) stand up for my students and for what I feel is right.  

The principal came by my room on Friday and told me that she liked the presentation we did.  She then continued to ask me questions about how we implement the things we had presented into our classroom.  I showed her some examples, but I told her that if she really wants to understand how this all works, she needs to come in and see it for herself.  She needs to know our children and see how they function in our classrooms.  Hopefully she will take me up on this offer.  

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Everything to lose

I am going to try to explain this situation without exposing too many details that may identify my school.  It is a critical situation that is so typical of the politics of education these days.  It is an example of top-down decision making, fear-based tactics, and a complete denial of academic research and real hard data.

Here is the story.  My school, like many in New York City, has many different programs.  Without naming my particular program, I can say that it was founded based upon sound academic research, and has been very successful in educating our language minority students.  In fact, students (almost 100% ELLs upon entry to K) in this particular program have repeatedly out-performed their peers in other programs in ELA (the state English Language Arts Exam) and are on-par with their peers in Math.  In addition, the good practices we use in our program were cited in both School Quality Reviews.  The case study we presented to the reviewer was based upon a child in our program backed by academic research of the practices we used.  The case study was one of the highlights of the review.  I might add that the quality reviewer, being from England, had never seen a program like ours in action and took a particular interest in understanding it.

The program has been around for over a decade and is one of the reasons why we have maintained our population of students.  Enrollment is overwhelmingly higher in grades K and 1 for this particular program than for our regular general education classrooms.  We also have extremely good teacher retention in this program.  In fact, it is the ONLY reason I am still at my school.  Over the last 3 years, since I have been in the school, we have maintained a high level of rigor and collaboration in this program despite a systematic loss of support for our teaching.  In essence, the teachers have been holding the school on their shoulders for 3 years.  

What happened?  Well, we have had a change in administration.  At first, we felt hopeful that maybe our program would be recognized for what it is and given more support by the new administration, but that has not been the case.  Instead, the administration has come out of NOWHERE with no data and no research and wants to essentially shut down our practices mid-year because of a personal feeling.  Our administrators feel, based on their own personal experience as language minority students themselves, that our practices do not work, even though they were not fortunate to have been in a program like ours.  They have not consulted our test scores (which show drastically different results), and have not even communicated with teachers.  They have not talked to parents who have had several children pass through our program.  They have not taken the time to even understand what we do and why we do it.  They have never spent time in our classrooms and I believe they have no idea how it even works.  They have no sense that if they get rid of this program, they will be losing ALL of the teachers that are dedicated to it along with a large population of students (including the indigenous mexican families).  They also have no clue about the history of the program, how hard it was to fight for and maintain it over the years.  If they get rid of it, they will NEVER get it back.  

Who loses?  The children.  

We as teachers will be fine.  We're all highly qualified.  Many have published in academic journals.  Others have presented at state and national conferences.  We will find jobs at other schools that have the program that we believe in.  We will never stop dedicating ourselves to the immigrant and language minority children.

The children will lose the consistency of a K-5 program that requires a commitment from families.  They will most likely switch schools which will mean that they will be separated from their friends and peers.  The professionalism in the school will take a nose dive if 20 teachers leave all at once.  

What are we going to do about it?  Well, we have scheduled an emergency meeting for all of the teachers in our program and have invited the administration (well, more like insisted that they be there).  In 40 minutes, we will have to teach them about our program.  Today is Yom Kippur.  I should be fasting and atoning for my sins, but instead, I am at home pulling out 5 and 10 year-old books from my masters degree, finding the parts which I think my administration might understand, scouring the online databases for more recent data and research, meeting with a colleague at a Starbucks to put this together so that we can advocate for ourselves and for the children at 7:30 AM tomorrow.   What other job requires you to educate your bosses like this?  THEY should be the ones who are up-to-date on the latest research.  

Okay, I have work to do!  I'll let you know how it goes.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Tipping in the public schools

This was a total shock for me when I started teaching in the NYC public schools.  I had no idea about tipping.  Being from out of state, I had never tipped a mail carrier, a newspaper delivery person, or my landlord for that matter, but I quickly learned that in New York City, these people expect to be tipped during the holidays.  This crazy tipping is also common in the public schools.  Teachers tip janitors, recess aides, secretaries, etc. during the holiday season.  We also tip the bus drivers that take us on field trips.  It's pretty incredible considering that all of these people are CITY employees, but it's just the way things are done here.  How much do we tip you might be wondering?  Well, I usually go in on the janitor's tip with my grade level (we give a $50 gift card to our regular janitor only).  I tip my recess aide $25.  The secretaries get $10 gift cards each to Starbucks.   The bus drivers get $10 cash from me and whoever I'm sharing the bus with on that particular trip.  It really adds up.  

Monday, October 6, 2008

Rumors and Gossip

After a full day of dealing with kids and trying to help them with their social problems through character education, I have little patience for adults with poor social skills.  This week, a very close colleague of mine is experiencing an important milestone in her life.  In order to honor her in this time, another close colleague and I organized a small surprise dinner for her on Friday at a restaurant near the school.  We invited only close friends and colleagues because that's what she would have wanted (and did want).  I sent the invitation discretely via evite and made a point to mention that it would be a "small gathering."  I thought the fact that the invitees could see the list of other guests (and the list was small) as well as the fact that I specifically said it would be a small gathering,  would send the message home to people that this is not open to the whole school.   In addition, it was a surprise and I told people to stay quiet about it, not to mention the fact that it was at a restaurant and not at the school.  

Anyway, needless to say,  people found out.  NOBODY came up to me and said, "Hey I hear your honoring our colleague, I'd love to help out or contribute," or "It would be important for me to share this moment with her."  NO, none of that.  They didn't even congratulate her and most had no idea about this big milestone.  Instead, they started gossiping about "who was invited and who wasn't."  It became this popularity thing and now everyone thinks that I am stuck up and exclusive.  The secretaries especially are upset and have (I believe) purposely been rude to me this week.  It is a really bad thing to be on your school secretaries bad side.  I guess I'll get them Starbucks cards at the holidays.  It usually appeases them until the end of the year.

Anyway, needless to say, the dinner was amazing and my colleague was touched and surprised.  It was a truly beautiful moment that I will never forget.  I do not regret not inviting the negative gossipy people, I wish they would just stop talking about it.  It's a waste of my energy and takes away from this special time for my colleague.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Illiteracy and homework help

For those readers who are not familiar with the New York City public schools, we are really BIG on homework. I know districts outside of the city who do not begin sending homework until 3rd grade- not the case in the city. My students take home three assignments each night. They read the book in their baggie and fill out a Reading Log with a really simple task for each day. Since they are almost all ELLs I have them write 5 words from their book one day and draw a picture of their favorite part the next. They do one of these activities for every day of the week. It is very simple and follows the same format every week. They change their books every two days. I change the activities to be a bit more challenging in January and again in March. They also do an activity in their homework notebook. It is usually phonics related and reinforces our work in word study. I send a science or social studies activity on occasion in the notebook instead of phonics. Everyday before we pack up, we do the homework together on the board as practice so they know exactly what to do when they go home. I also tell the parents that I basically teach them how to do the homework each day so there is no excuse for saying "I don't know." Most of my students are able to do their homework by themselves. I designed it this way so that parents could provide the structure (i.e. time, a place to do it, and to check that it was done) without actually being required to help their children. I know that most of my children's parents do not speak English at all AND are illiterate in their first language. The third piece of homework is where we run into a lot of trouble-- Math. Each day the children take home Everyday Math Home Links, the homework book provided by the Everyday Math program. Each lesson has a corresponding homework assignment. If I teach lesson 2.1, then the children do the homework for 2.1.

There are several problems with Everyday Math Home Links and the Everyday Math program in general.
  • To start off, it is not designed for children with low skills. I have children in my class who cannot count to 20, cannot accurately count out 10 objects (including their own fingers), and cannot write their numbers. The program is designed for children with grade level skills and above. If you actually analyze the majority of activities that correspond to the lessons, they are so far above the state standard for the grade, it is no wonder our children can't do them. To their credit, they did add a small section at the bottom of the homework assignments to practice basic skills.
  • The second issue is that often the homework assignment does not necessarily correspond to the lesson that was taught in the classroom (although the latest addition has improved slightly in this respect). I have to spend 20 additional minutes teaching the children how to do their homework.
  • The third issue is that Everyday Math is so different from the way many of my students' parents learned math that they are unfamiliar with the vocabulary and the structure of the program.
  • The fourth issue is the "spiral" format of the curriculum. You jump from one concept to the next "exposing" them to a wide range of concepts that then get revisited later. The children never feel successful during this "exposure" and don't get enough practice with basic skills.
  • The fifth problem (I feel like I'm going on forever!) is that the homework assignments are very dependent on parents READING the instructions. If most of your children's parents are illiterate, how are they supposed to manage this?
The result: Many students either do not do their homework at all, someone else does it for them, or they do it so painfully wrong that it doesn't seem worth it. For example, an activity made to reinforce basic skills (usually an add-on at the bottom of the actual homework assignment) might look like this:

Count back by 1s.

_10_ _____ _____ _____ __6__ ______ _____

This is what I get from the kids:

__10__ __11___ ___12___ ___13___ ___6___ ___7___ ____8___

You can only imagine what the actual homework assignment looked like if this is how the basic skills part came out. I really think that Everyday Math NEEDS to rethink how it designs curriculum and homework. They need to really think about parents who CANNOT help their children.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Teachers are people too!

This is a cute little anecdote from my day. On Thursdays, I take a graduate class at the university close to my school. I usually have to rush out the door with the children to get there on time. Today, when we were cleaning up from our extended day activity, the kids noticed that I was wearing my jacket and a backpack. "Look," they said, "Ms. Peace has a backpack." They were obviously very impressed. I said, "Yes, I have my backpack on because I have to go to school." One of the students asked, "To teach school or to go to to school, like go to school?" I told them that I was a student and I said, "Do you want to see my book?" "Yes," they all replied in unison. I pulled a giant textbook on English Grammar (I'm working towards an ESL extension) out of my bag and showed them a few pages. "OOOOOOOOHHHHHH" they said marvelling at the size of the book and the minuscule print. I honestly think that some of them have never seen a book like that before.

Slowing the pace

The beggining of the school year is always a whirlwind of activity, assessment, structures, and routines. We try our best in first grade to start of the year with rigor. The kids are reading and writing from day 1. This past month I feel that I have been rushing my students a little bit too much trying to fit all components of our literacy program into the morning periods. Of course, sometimes they need to be rushed, like when they are cutting out the pictures for Words Their Way (I find cutting to largely be a waste of time) and I get upset if they are not cutting the pictures in strips, lining them up, and cutting four at a time like I showed them (they can actually do that!). Other times, like during Writing and Reading especially, I feel that we need to take our time. When they are rushed, I think we waste more time because I have to stop for management constantly. I also think I lose many of my ELLs when I speak too quickly. I decided to slow things down. From the first instructions of the day (what to take out of your bookbag), I spoke slowly and clearly. During the morning meeting I carefully did some shared reading with them and took time to reflect on the new month of October. My writing workshop was the same. I really took my time speaking and what I noticed was more engagement among the students. I didn't have to stop once during my writing workshop minilesson for management. When they went back to their tables, they were more focused than ever before. We even got to fit in a share at the end. We did an interactive read aloud after writing and then off to lunch.

Despite the fact that I slowed our pace today, I definitely noticed that we were able to get more done than usual. I think there is something to be said for using your time delicately and trying to work with the pacing of the children. When we are in a hurry and stressed out, that energy trickles down to the children and they call out, act up, and tune out as a reaction.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

NYC public schools DO NOT RECYCLE!!!

It's true. Not even paper. Someone once told me it's because the janitors' contract protects them against having to dispose of different types of garbage. I guess recycling is collected on a different day or something. It's really unbelievable especially since we should be preparing our students to be conscientious global citizens. This leads me to think that perhaps all city offices and institutions are also negligent on recycling.

Little Known Facts

I have started this new label to share all of those little subtleties an outsider might not know about the New York City public schools.


The reading training I had last week really impacted me.  Before we started the training we looked at statistics of illiteracy in America.  So much of it I already knew, but it's always shocking to hear it again...that 1 in 5 high school graduates cannot read their own diploma, that 80% of single mothers are illiterate, etc. etc. etc.  My assistant principal (the same one who yelled at me in front of the kids earlier this year, but who I now REALLY respect and like) started talking about all of the different kinds of diplomas the NYC public schools were literally handing out to high school "graduates;" diplomas that won't even serve to let them sign up for the Armed Services, apply for community college, let alone get a job.  I had no idea there were so many "grades" of diplomas out there.  I thought there was a general one and a Regents one, but no, there are so many new ones.  

Then we started talking about the children at our school, the struggling readers.  You know, the ones who get stuck in level B, C, and D for the entirety of first grade.  I have to admit, I have seen MANY students like this.  In fact, despite my best efforts (and BELIEVE me, I have REALLY tried and will continue to do so for as long as I can), I would say that a firm majority of my students do not benchmark level I at the end of first grade.  Most of them end up at around level F.   Add on summer loss, and they show up for second grade reading level E.  There are a lot of factors that contribute to this.  Almost 100% of my students are beginning or intermediate ELLs.  Most of my students have parents that are functionally illiterate.  Okay, so two strikes against them....BUT... they come to school every day.   As my Assistant Principal said, "If a child comes to school every day, there is NO reason why they should not learn to read."  It's true! They deserve the support they need to read on grade level.  

For the past 3 years at my school, we have not had ANY reading intervention for the lower grades.  Seriously, NOTHING.  No passport, no reading recovery, not even AIS.  None of the K-2 teachers have AIS. In fact, I didn't even know what AIS was my first year because I had never been serviced and I have still NEVER had AIS in my room.  And I tried to get my kids reading.  I had strategy groups, ESL groups (I'm bilingual certified, so my students do not receive additional ESL pullout), and guided reading groups.  We had our "Just Right Baggies" and our mixed level bins and a print-rich environment.  We did "Words Their Way" which I adapted for ESL, Fountas and Pinnell "Phonics," etc.  We did shared reading, interactive writing, shared writing, etc. Read aloud with "stop and jot," accountable talk, and whole class conversations.  I was doing everything I had been taught to do, but it wasn't working for everyone.  Of course I have seen kids go from not being able to write their own name to reading level H by the end of the year, but it's not all kids.  We have usually 5 or 6 real strugglers (levels B, C, D, and E), 10 who progress but still end up below grade level (levels F, G, and H) , and about 5 or 6 who benchmark or exceed the benchmark (levels I, J, K, L).   This is unacceptable, especially knowing that statistics show much higher high school drop out rates for students who did not read at grade level by the end of first grade.  

The trainer from the reading program really honed in on what we as teachers already know.  All teachers are important and can make a serious impact, but some grades have higher stakes (not like testing, but for life).  First grade is one of those "make it or break it" years statistically speaking.  First grade teachers are some of the most important people in a school.   She also admitted that Balanced Literacy is great for the kids who progress, but it does very little for the strugglers.  That's why I always see that group of 5 or 6 who seemingly make little or no progress throughout the year.  They need intensive one-to-one instruction.  I really can't wait to get this program up and running.  I would be so ecstatic at the end of the year if I could send everyone to second grade reading on grade level (or at least close!).  

Sunday, September 28, 2008

The Sub Folder

The Substitute Folder- Very important for ALL teachers (especially new ones). As I mentioned in my previous post, sometimes teachers are not informed until the last minute that they will be out of the room (or the building) for the day attending professional development. Sometimes you get sick with no warning and have to call in or leave early. It is very important for all teachers to prepare an EMERGENCY FOLDER for a substitute teacher.

What should you put in the folder?

1. Your daily/weekly schedule

2. A class list (including a break-up list with child and teacher assignments in case there is no substitute assigned)

3. An overview of the flow of the day and routines you use with the kids. I structure mine like most substitute plans, but leave out the prep. Always leave information as to where to pick them up, where to take them at lunch, who is your school aide, etc.

4. Lists and charts- A line partner list, table spot and rug spot map.

5. EASY activities. You never know who your sub will be. A lot of schools (like mine) have very capable regular subs, but sometimes substitute from SubCentral shows up and might be incapable of doing ANYTHING (sorry to all the excellent subs, but I'm sure you've seen it too!). You can stick to all your regular subjects, but make them userfriendly.

Examples (Keep in mind, this is first grade):

  • Morning Meeting- Most subs can write a morning message and read it with the children. This helps them to introduce themselves to the kids. I also tell them to let the children circle sight words. They can also change the day on the calendar and review our web of the Fall season with the children.

  • Word Study- Do NOT have your sub do your normal program (ours is Words Their Way). I usually keep paper with a big box for a picture and a single line. Since this is for the emergency folder, I do not focus the words on the sounds we are studying, but instead write the name of an animal on each sheet (one per child). You can put them together later (post sub) to make a "Book of Animals" for the class to read. The sub can read all the words with the kids, though.

  • Read Aloud/ Literature Response- I usually leave a simple book for the substitute to read aloud like "Ms. Nelson is Missing," or "The Carrot Seed" in the folder. I instruct the sub to read it aloud to the class and then I include paper with a big box and some lines at the bottom to write about their favorite part.

  • Reading- The sub can just pass out the "Just-right baggies" and tell the children to read quietly for 15 minutes using the timer.

  • Writing- I usually leave simple paper and tell the sub to let them write a "snow story" or something of high interest. Usually their writing is crap when their is a sub, so I don't let them use their real writing folders on these days.

  • Reading (after lunch)- I always have mixed level bins of books in the room too. I tell the sub to put one bin at each table and to let the kids read from their books for 25 minutes after lunch.

  • Math- I leave copies from the Everyday Math Math Masters book of simple addition problems or the connect the dots by 1s and 5s. The sub can also count with them using the number chart and practice simple addition together. There are a lot of simple math worksheets available online as well.

  • PREP- Give them a little job to do during their prep. I usually ask them to sharpen all of the pencils and clean the tables. This helps me out for when I come back.

  • Extended Day- Don't forget this part. I usually leave a simple project (like making bookmarks) for this time. They can read their Just-Right books again if they finish early. The kids are tired and the sub is too.

6. Dismissal Procedures (including a list of kids who go to afterschool)

Professional Development

It was 3:30 on Tuesday afternoon when I found the memo in my box saying that I would be attending professional development for a reading program on Thursday and Friday at 9AM in the school (no end time was listed). Annoyed that I hadn't been told with fair warning, but thankful I had been told at least a day in advance (sometimes you find out via a sub showing up at your door and you have no idea why you have a sub), I immediately began organizing the week's homework so I could send it all out with the kids on Wednesday and could avoid any substitute interaction with the homework (which is usually disastrous). All I could think was "I hope this is worth it."

You see, part of being a teacher is having the opportunity of professional development (PD). Another part is being forced to partake in PD that you don't necessarily want, need, or will do anything for your children. The Dept. of Ed. WASTES hundreds of thousands of dollars each year on useless PD. Like the time all FIRST GRADE teachers from my district gathered at a school for the election day PD. After spending the first hour opening boxes upon boxes of books and teachers guides that went along with this program, we were introduced to a year-long science program for THIRD GRADE (I know, not even our grade). It was the teachers (of course) who even noticed that the boxes were labeled "THIRD GRADE." The best part was that this particular curriculum spent an entire year covering "sound" which is only a small part of the third grade scope and sequence and covered nothing else. We didn't even get to take home the teacher's guides to at least give to the third grade teachers at our school. I felt bad about this because we had taken them out of the shrink wrap to follow the workshop. I'm sure those books ended up in a dumpster. We were promised that grade-level materials would be delivered to our schools. Guess what... we never got it. All I could think was that some bozo had the job of organizing the election day PD and probably had a budget of $40,000 or so and had no clue about what to do so he paid some company from Oklahoma (I kid you not) to come in and teach us something. This is how we WASTE money in the NYC public schools.

With all this talk of budget cuts I am often disgusted at how publishing companies and curriculum designers get rich off of these huge contracts with the NYC public schools. Like Everyday Math--- does it even work? Is it appropriate for our students? They make millions of dollars off of our kids. OUR KIDS, who have everything to lose if a program doesn't serve them. Or KAPLAN!!!! People would be shocked to know that our fourth graders are all given (excuse me, PURCHASED by the dept. of ed) a copy of KAPLAN test prep for their high stakes 4th grade test. Some people might think, "Oh, how great, they get a book to help them." NO!!!! Look who gets RICH off of NCLB-- KAPLAN! By the time we realize these programs are flawed, we move on to the next flavor of the month and spend millions of dollars on an entirely new curriculum, training, and materials. That's how it feels. I have been trained on so many programs that we don't use, can't use, or have become outdated.

This was my mentality going in to the PD this past week. I feel pretty bad for the facilitator, because I can honestly say that a majority of us were feeling this way when we walked into the cramped Literacy Coach's office on Thursday morning. I am happy to report that the program I trained for last week turned out to be something I truly believe in and something that will provide REAL intervention for our struggling readers in first grade.... but it is dependent on administration. This program requires one-on-one tutoring and it will ONLY work if the administrators schedule the time properly. We'll see. Hopefully it won't be another wasted PD.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

A Legacy

Every morning when I open up the closets for the children, I take a moment to imagine all the years my room has served as a place of learning. The building is nearing a century old and (I believe) the closets are the only original feature still in tact. Today and older woman knocked on the door of my classroom. She had gone to the school as a child and had attended first grade in my very classroom. She looked around and marvelled at the fact that the children were happy, working together, their little voices buzzing about. She told me that when she had been a child, there was one rule of first grade: No Talking!. I laughed. I can't honestly imagine a first grade classroom without talking. "The kids have to talk!" I said, "They're still acquiring language." She giggled and continued by saying that the children used to be seated in rows and that the desks filled the room from wall to wall. She also added that many famous people have attended my school. This surprised me a bit. I had imagined that perhaps over the years some students may have achieved some level of success, but what she said next floored me. She gave the name of an EXTREMELY famous historical author and said that he had attended my school. Unfortunately, I can't give the name here since my school came up when I googled it along with his name, but I can tell you that the very fact that this person passed through these hallways, perhaps sat at a desk in my classroom, fills me with a sense of importance. One day my students may be influential and inspiring to a whole generation the way this person was. I think I may print out his picture and show it to the students tomorrow. Although they won't know who he is, they will feel the importance and history housed in our crumbling building.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Peace in the classroom

Today was one of those tough days at my school that you just can't get out of your head.  My students were fine and I was fine all day...well, sort of.  You see, their little faces didn't come in with smiles this morning.  They were tired and sad (the deep kind of sad).  I had to wrangle them in, build them up, and at the same time impose strict order.  Yeah, there was a lot of imposing order today.  It's amazing how when one kid has a breakdown, others follow.  After lunch a sweet little girl got a nosebleed.  Not a big deal, but I had to attend to her for a moment.  Forget it!!! Everyone else started acting up.  All of the sudden, nobody seemed to remember their line partner.  One partner hit another, and upon our approach to the classroom, one of my kids fake collapsed.  I was so angry.  I sat them all on the rug and had them drill the alphabet with my student teacher (that is a whole other issue) and attended to the bleeding girl.  Then I totally reemed them out.  Not in a corporal punishment sort of way, but a strong way and in a low voice. In a quiet voice, I said "How dare you!"  and then I looked around.  They were scared and silent.  "Your lovely classmate has a medical EMERGENCY (I love being dramatic) and you can't do anything to help?  I can't help a BLEEDING child?"  "What?  I need to be staring at you so you'll behave, so you won't HIT your line partner?"  Of course, they all answered "No."  "Thank you!" I replied.  "I want each an every one of you to apologize to your line partner for not acting in kindness and for not helping your fellow classmates to follow the rules."  They all turned and apologized, even the ones who weren't guilty.  "And next time, when it is time to line up, I want to see you greet your partner with friendship and a pleasant expression.  Who can show me that?"  This is where they fell right into my scheme.   The partners who had hit each other raised their hands.  The came up to the front of the class and smiled at each other and held hands.  A cute first grade teaching moment in social skills.  Ahhh!

But that's not why I'm blogging today.  It's not so much the violence itself that comes out in first grade, it's the foundation of a violent future.  I have to work so hard every day to convince the children that they are better than that, that they had the power to work it out without violence and that kindness conquers all.  I have to teach them a polite way to speak to each other.  I have to directly teach them how to think of others.  I have to constantly compliment excellent examples of friendship and kindness.  

Today, at my school, a teacher in the upper grades was taken away in an ambulance.  She was trying to break up a fight and was seriously injured herself.  Even though her students were never mine, I still feel the burden of my students future reflected in incidents such as these.  I can't tell you how DEVASTATING it is to see the police walk by my classroom on their way to the office twice or three times a week sometimes.  It makes me want to curl up in a ball and cry for the world, cry for the children in my room who have to see this, for the children in the classroom where the incident occurred, and for the teachers who have no choice but to try harder against all odds.  

Friday, September 19, 2008


I'm not sure what has changed for me. As in my last post, I feel like I'm floating on a cloud right now. I have the kids completely into their routine. We have been able to get through all academic periods without a hitch. They have smiles on their faces, and they are trying their best. You could have literally heard a pin drop in the room today when I was doing some oral storytelling about a small moment and when it was their turn to tell their partner a special time in their lives, the room came alive with stories about birthday parties, falling down and getting hurt, when they got their chihuahua puppy, when their grandmother died, and when they got lost in the supermarket. It's like the weight has been lifted somehow. Maybe it's the fact that this is my fourth year teaching in the system and teaching first grade and I've mastered the classroom management piece and the curriculum. I have all my systems up and running. I had a great week with my students and at school in general. Curriculum night was great. Although I was competing with the sound of small children and babies all around, I had so many parents show up it was truly heartwarming. The indigenous Mexican moms spent some time afterwards asking about the progress of their children. I could see the pride in their faces when I told them how their children were progressing. I had about 17 parents last night and another 10 this morning for our Friday morning visits. I am thrilled with their involvement. Although I know that for many kids, it is a long road ahead, I am excited for this year. I am in love with my class and my school (can you believe it?). One thing that I am so grateful for is that all of the parents were positive. From the indigenous Mexican moms who had little formal education to the college professor parents of two of my students, everyone was positive. And, to top it all off.... THE COPIER WORKS!!!! I made all of my copies for next week after school today.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Smooth Sailing

I have to say that despite the chaos, this week as been been very uneventful for me.  Of course, there is craziness all around, but somehow, I've managed to avoid it almost entirely.  After I decided that it would be impossible for me to turn in all of our assessments on time (the due date is tomorrow), and I decided I simply wouldn't turn them in until I had finished them, I have been feeling pretty good.  

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Rudy Giuliani on Sunday morning political show- Sex Ed. for K

I have to comment. I was watching Fox News Sunday or maybe another Sunday morning political show...not sure, I was flipping channels... but anyway they were interviewing Rudy Giuliani. They asked him about a negative campaign ad run by John McCain accusing Obama of sponsoring a bill to teach Kindergartners about sex. Giuliani defended McCain and seconded the accusation. I wanted to explode!!!! I have been teaching the HIV/AIDS curriculum for two years now to first graders and I have to say that it is NECESSARY!!!! WE DON'T TEACH KIDS ABOUT SEX AT ALL!!!! in the lower grades. It's all about germs and how germs enter the body. It also talks about different diseases including HIV and categorizes them as highly contagious, contagious, and not contagious, and how to keep your body safe (i.e. DON'T TOUCH ANYONE ELSE'S BLOOD). This is the type of education many children are NOT receiving at home. I have seen kids touching each other's bloody wounds and it always horrifies me that they don't know better. I make a point to show the children my latex gloves and to emphasize that we need to keep our bodies safe.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

A Teacher's Many Hats

Other people know that being a teacher is hard, but they don't know exactly why. They might think "kids are obnoxious," or "you have to be too patient," but they don't know the gritty details... so for those of you who were wondering, here they are.

1. Triage Nurse- From the time you pick up your class in the morning, several children are usually already complaining about various ailments and you need to figure out which ones are real and which ones are fake, which ones require the nurse, a call home, or a little TLC in the classroom, and which ones are totally ridiculous. An experienced classroom teacher in his or her role as triage nurse can do the following:

  • Spot a case of pink-eye from 30 feet away.

  • Distinguish between bed bug bites, allergic reactions, and infectious disease.

  • Know who is actually going to throw up and who is faking.

  • See a fever in a child's eyes.

  • Administer treatment of a "drink of water" for ailments such as headaches, sore throats, and stomachaches.

  • Administer the treatment of a "saltine" to children complaining of stomachaches from being hungry.

  • Bandage microscopic paper cuts that you're not sure even exist with mini-bandaids.

  • Use the "is your finger going to fall off?" measure to determine who goes to the nurse and who stays in class.

  • Knows when ice is actually needed.

2. Janitor- For the record, I have already had to clean up urine this week from a child who peed his pants with no warning. He didn't even ask to go to the bathroom. As a teacher in an urban public school, the reality is that you can't rely on the janitorial staff to show up when called. You need to be equipped for the following:

  • blood (on tile, rug, or fabric)

  • urine (on tile, rug, or fabric)

  • juice that spilled in a bookbag and is leaking all over the floor and on another child's jacket.

  • cockroaches

  • mice (and their feces)

  • ketchup (that kids hoarded from lunch and then exploded all over their pocket or something else).

  • spilled milk- it smells if you don't get it all out.

*** I leave vomit for the janitors, but it's a good idea to have scotch tape and some extra chairs handy to cordon off a vomit area and some air freshener so everyone doesn't vomit. Last time I had vomit in the room it took the janitors 45 minutes to respond.

3. Mediator- Kids fight. They do. They often have poor social skills and low self-esteem and get in nasty fights even in the lower grades. As a teacher you need to not only break up the fight, but simultaneously teach them a new social skill to avoid future fights and build up their self-esteem all the while administering stern consequences for their actions. It is a delicate balancing act.

4. Social Worker- Kids and their families need help and sometimes you are the only one who can help them to fill out the forms for services or tell them where to take their children to the doctor for free or how to get their child glasses.

5. ACS worker- While teachers do not work for Child Services, we are often the ones who end up having to decide whether or not to call. As mandated reporters we are REQUIRED by law to report abuse or neglect and could be held accountable if anything happens to a child after we have suspected abuse. As a side note, I am told by children almost weekly that their parents hit them. It is a sensitive matter how to deal with each case and whether or not to call it in. Teachers have to work fast if they notice an injury such as a burn or bruise on a child. We ask the children what happened and I usually have another teacher get the story as well so we can compare answers (in my experience, I have learned that administration cannot be trusted to do this!!!!!). We have to notice patterns of bruising. We have to be delicate with children. We have to be delicate and stern with the parents. I have had to tell them "You need to bathe your child" "You need to clean his/her uniform" "You need to get your child to school in time to eat breakfast." We bear the brunt of parent rage if ACS has indeed been called even if it was by a neighbor or the school nurse. We are often interviewed by ACS workers (who to their credit have HELPED many of my students. None of their visits have resulted in a removal of a child from their home in my experience). In one case, the ACS worker had the abuser (an unwelcome and intimidating relative the family was having a hard time getting rid of) removed from the home and got new bunkbeds for the kids who were sleeping head to toe with their siblings.

6. Full-time secretary- The paperwork and administrative tasks that teachers are responsible could staff a FULL-TIME SECRETARY!!!! I'm not kidding. I really think I have enough to do to employ someone else full time.

7. Teacher- The best part!

Getting yelled at in front of the children

I almost forgot to mention a very defining moment for me, one that inspired me to stay at my school and fight for what is right. On Thursday morning I was walking downstairs to pick up my class at the beginning of the day when I see these two girls who are in my class race past me and round the corner towards my classroom. The kids are not supposed to be loose in the building like that, they are supposed to be at the pick-up spot in the gym downstairs, so I walked back after them and told them they needed to come with me and that they should wait downstairs. This set me back 1 minute which made me worried because other teachers had told me that they had been yelled at by the Assistant Principal for being one minute late. I took the opportunity to connect with the little girls a little bit since I don't have time for that when everyone in the classroom. We walked hand-in-hand and I told them how proud I was that they had made new friends this year (one of the girls was new to the school). As we approached my class in the gym, the Assistant Principal pounced. "Do you know what time it is?" she screeched. "Yes I'm sorry, I said, I had to redirect these two young ladies." "I don't care," she snapped "You better be here on time, you're wasting instructional time." "Thank you," I replied and kept walking towards my class. I had been prepared by the teachers yesterday and I felt like I had this armor on... like whatever the AP did couldn't hurt me. On my way out with my class, I warned two more teachers who were even later than me so they could prepare their armor too.

WASTING INSTRUCTIONAL TIME!!!! It's so laughable. I totally agree that punctuality is important and that we absolutely should try our best to take advantage of every minute of instruction, but the fact that she accused ME of this was so hilarious. The administration and lack of control REGULARLY wastes our instructional time. How many times has the fire bell been PULLED this year? (2 so far). I remember last year, they used to keep us in early morning committee meetings for so long my kids were waiting in the gym for over 40 minutes for me. How much time have I wasted trying to use the photocopier that will never work? How much instruction has been lost since the copier hasn't worked? (As a side note, it is currently working...hooray!) I get to school 50 minutes to an hour early every day and I stay probably an average of 2 hours extra each day and I'm being accused of wasting time. I do all that precisely NOT to waste time. I do it so that everything is ready for the children and all of the paper work is finished so I can sacrifice all of my preps to assess them and she dares accuse ME!!!. Well, I have news for her. I feel empowered. As an elected member of our schools School Leadership Team, I have decided to join the C-30 committee for the process of hiring our new principal (and I know she SOOOO wants it). She had better change her tone because I will NOT be spoken down to like that, especially not in front of the children.

A similar thing happened to me two years ago. I had forgotten to sign the attendence book for teachers one day because I had gotten to school so early that the book wasn't even out and it slipped my mind to do it before I picked up the kids. The principal asked me to start clocking in with a timecard. This was a principal with a lot of power, a very intimidating person. I was so angered that I said "No, I have NEVER been late, so there is no reason for me to clock in. I simply forgot to sign once. It won't happen again." She looked at me dumbfounded, turned around and walked back to her office. She never bothered me again about petty things. You have to stand up for yourself. You are the best advocate for all teachers, students, and parents. Even if you are not tenured (as I wasn't at the time), you have to otherwise they will walk all over you. Good hard-working teachers are a hot commodity and administration knows that. Why do you think my class and the class of my team member and favorite colleague in first grade are overpopulated this year when other first grade classes have numbers so low they are in danger of being collapsed? They tried to send some of my kids over to the other class, but the parents weren't having it. And you know what, I don't blame the parents. I will try my best to meet their expectations and they deserve it and their children deserve it.