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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
So....today 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.
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.
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!).