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!