Thursday, December 17, 2009

Not sure who to blame (ignorance ≠ bliss)

I think I'm losing it. Things were going well, but as usual, I'm teetering on the edge. I'm losing patience with my students in the classroom, but it's really not their fault. There is just not enough time in the day to get things done and I feel like I'm constantly trying to catch my breath. I'm also EXTREMELY frustrated with my students' parents. There is just so much blatant neglect and borderline abuse at all times present in my students' lives. I can't handle it. I'm sick of children coming to school half-dressed in this freezing cold weather when they ALL own jackets. I ask them if they were cold on their way to school and they say "I tried to tell my mom, but she was listening to her ipod."

I'm tired of having students with SERIOUS life-threatening medical conditions and not even having an emergency card or working phone number for them. I'm sick of ALL the phone numbers on the blue cards being disconnected, discontinued, with no voice mailbox, a full voice mailbox, or (no kidding) actually a sex line when I see their parents walking around with brand new iphones. I'm tired of the expensive elaborate mohawks and designs shaved into the heads of kids who NEVER do any homework. I'm tired of having parents come in to yell at me because the school sent them a bill for their child's lunch (SURPRISE: This is from the same parents who NEVER check the communication folder and NEVER filled out their free lunch form in the Fall). I'm tired of food and gum inside homework folders.

Most of all, I'm tired of this helplessness I see constantly. I recently asked parents to write down their child's home address and send in 3 postage stamps so that I can send the letters the children are writing to each other in the mail over the vacation, so they will get their own mail and feel loved by their classmates. I need to ask for the address because it is NEVER the same as the one I have on file. I'm totally irritated at the amount of parents who have simply ignored this request and I'm totally depressed for the parents who can't even write the address correctly. I've seen the word "apartment" as "parmen," or "aparme." I've even seen "New York" spelled incorrectly "New Yrk" or "New Jor" Many do not even know the zip code. Every year, I have to google addresses just to find the zip codes. I've had parents send a single envelope with the stamps stuck to it (as if I can use the stamps after they've been stuck). Some of my friends have suggested that maybe parents are worried about their addressed being out of the catchment area, but that's not the case. The addresses I'm missing are the children I know live on the block of the school. They are the same children who have every announcement and communication I've ever sent still in their communication folder. I refuse to take anything out. I want parents to see the months of notices they have ignored.

It's just so much work for me and I need parents to meet me half way. I realized so many of them are functionally illiterate and I don't know how to even begin to reach them. I don't know how they even function in society. I memorized my address in Kindergarten and even though we moved that summer after Kindergarten, I have never forgotten it. It is amazing to me that so many of my student's parents cannot properly write an address. As a result, my students are just so disconnected from the world and it's so hard to get them to connect.

I guess I need this vacation!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Everyday Math 4.2

Every year I have the same sinking feeling when I assign Everyday Math Home Links 4.2 to my students. The concept is nonstandard measurement and the assignment requires that students use their hands to measure the length and width of their beds. Every year I get the same question, "What if you don't have a bed?"

This year I decided to head off this problem by telling students they can measure something else with their hands: the kitchen table, a sofa, a chair, etc.

Still makes me sad.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

I have ridiculously cute students

In the past when I have told people that I teach first grade, their first response is usually "How cute," to which I smile and secretly think "It's totally not cute" and a montage of disturbing behaviors such as cursing, spitting, peeing on books, biting, and coloring all over your face with a red marker runs through my head. Yesterday I was on the phone with this manager from Fedex (long story, but apparently it is impossible for Fedex to deliver a package to my school between the hours of 7 AM and 6 PM when the building is open without an hour phone conversation and a demand to speak to a manager) who ended up actually helping me with my delivery problem. Anyway, after he helped me, he asked me if the address was a classroom and I said "Yes." Then he said "What do you teach," to which I responded "First grade." "How cute!" he remarked, and I said, "I know, it is really cute" and I actually meant it this time.

Here are a few of the most recent "cute" stories from my classroom (and they won't break your heart).

1. The Iron Chef- I had just finished the mini lesson for our writing workshop on how to use a storyboard to tell your "how-to" with a lot of details and to illustrate those details using pictures and labels (can you tell I'm huge on oral language?). The children are at various stages in their writing and had either started their storyboard or were finishing their web of ideas. I had three students who had finished the web of ideas and were ready for the storyboard, Etai (a Jewish immigrant student from Eastern Europe), Josue (a Mexican immigrant student), and Daniel (a Dominican student). I kept the three boys on the rug while everyone else worked independently and I had them read their web of ideas and choose their favorite idea. Etai chose "How to tie your shoe," Josue chose "How to get a glass of water," and Daniel chose "How to make a sandwich." When I prompted Daniel to add more detail and tell us what kind of a sandwich, a sneaky grin appeared on his face as he said, "Ham...cheese...salami...and KETCHUP!" The two other boys giggled. Josue remarked "Wow Daniel, I think you should be a chef because that is a really good sandwich and you could call it the 'Daniel Special.'" The boys laughed again. Daniel was beaming with pride. I said, "What a great idea Josue, he could call it 'How to make a Daniel special.'" The boys giggled again. "Yeah" interjected Etai, "and he could be on 'Iron Chef America.'" I started laughing and so did the other boys although I don't really think they knew what Etai was talking about. It was just such a delightful conversation.

2. Good Thing I Didn't Use My Karate- I sent Etai and Martin to the bathroom and when they came back, they needed to urgently talk to me about something that happened in the bathroom. Etai began "Ms. Peace, there was this boy in the bathroom from the other class his name is Jordany and he was hitting everyone and punching everyone and he punched me here (points to stomach)." Martin corroborates also pointing to his stomach. I looked at them a little surprised, "Jordany?" I asked, picturing this chubby Dominican boy from the other first grade class who is always impeccably dressed and such a little gentleman. "Yeah," said Etai "and he's really lucky you know, because I know Karate and everything, but I didn't want to use it you know, because I could really hurt him." His tone of voice was dead serious (Keep in mind, these are little ones). "Wow," I exclaimed. I walked the two boys over to the other classroom and asked to see Jordany. He had a very guilty look on his face when he came out. I asked him if he needed to make an apology and he immediately said "Sorry" to the other boys, his eyes welling up with tears. "Sorry for what?" I prompted. "For punching you in the stomach" he said. "Unbelievable Jordany," I said, "You are so lucky that Etai controlled himself. Did you know that Etai knows Karate?" I asked, "No," gulped Jordany. "If he had used his Karate on you, you would have a split lip." Jordany was trembling. "You are lucky this time, but I don't ever want to year that you have punched anyone ever again. Is that clear?" "Yes Ms. Peace," he replied. I sent all three boys back to class. I had to laugh to myself later picturing teeny little Etai using his "Karate moves" on the much larger Jordany.

3. I Love Ms. Peace- After recess yesterday, two of my students enthusiastically announced that they had written a song during recess and wanted to sing it to the class. Aley (a girl from Africa) and Etai (I know, he's in all the stories), got up in front of the class and began singing in unison "I love Ms. Peace, I wish she was my mom, but I already have a mom." Then they took turns singing the lyrics again and gave me a choreographed hug at the part that says "I wish she was my mom." Then they sang it in unison again. Usually the whole "I wish you were my mom thing" makes me sad, but this time it was hilarious. These two children come from very loving homes and have a close relationship with their moms. They had just made a silly little song for me and enjoyed performing it for the class. We all clapped and I gave them each a hug.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Parent teacher activism!

In reflecting on my conversations with parents this past week, I found one particular conference to be so telling of how teachers and parents function within such a dysfunctional system. This conference was for one of my first graders, a child of Mexican immigrant parents and a sibling of a student I had 2 years ago. Both of her parents came to the conference and it was nice to see them again after 2 years. These are the type of parents who chaperone field trips, bring in food for cultural events, and help their children with their homework. Their son did really well in first grade, but their daughter has had a much different experience.

It all started last year when they tried to enroll her in Kindergarten. They were told that they didn't have the proper documentation to enroll the girl and were sent away. The mother returned a couple of hours later with the proper documentation and was turned away again, told that Kindergarten was full (which it actually wasn't). She was told she would have to enroll the girl in another school. The mother pleaded her case, saying that she wanted both children in the same school. Our school secretary laughed and told her to take both children out of the school (This is where I am livid!!!). Thankfully for us, the mother left her son in our program and took her daughter to another neighborhood school where she completed a full year of Kindergarten.

Meanwhile, I had no idea that any of this had happened until the little girl was brought into my classroom a few days after school started. When I saw my previous student's parents picking her up, I assumed she was a cousin, but they said "no," she's Miguel's sister. Just like him, she is like a sponge, absorbing everything that I teach. The only difference is that she came in with a very limited academic foundation from her Kindergarten program at the other school. She has had to have reading intervention just to catch up to where her classmates were in September. She has made great gains, but is still not up to grade level.

It was very hard to explain to her parents that the reason we had to check the "Promotion in doubt" box is because she came ill-prepared from a Kindergarten class they had not wanted her in to begin with. When I asked the parents about her K program, they said that the students were always dancing and that they were unhappy with the academics. They were thrilled when they were able to enroll her at our school for first grade along with her brother who is now in 4th.

Throughout the conference, their third child, another girl, was looking at books in my classroom. I asked them how old she was and they said four years old. I told them, "You can't let the same thing happen to her." I said, "Siblings have to be accepted, it's a rule." (although I'm not sure EXACTLY where it says that, I'm pretty sure it is a rule). She said that she had told that to the school secretary last year and had been turned away rudely. I told her to hold her ground, to REFUSE to leave the office until her child was enrolled this time. I told her to let me know if the same thing happened again and I would do the same. I know if I had been there the first time, this would have never happened. It makes me mad that school employees on power trips can do whatever they want and treat families like crap, and we don't know about it so we can't do anything.

Sunday, November 1, 2009


I have to be honest. I love my class this year. My students are great, the class size in manageable, my colleagues are amazing, but I really can't stand my administration. I have gotten to the point where I can't even be in the same room as any of the administrators. I just have no respect for them and that is a bad place to be as a teacher. I'm afraid that if we are in the same room, I won't be able to hold back and I'll call them out on their BS.

I have more experience than them (and this is only my 5th year), more education, and a much better grasp of the curriculum. I really feel that my administration offers me nothing this year and I can see right through them. They are so full of it I can't even bear it and they do NOTHING for our children. My students do not even know who any of them even are. They think the principal is the woman who is actually our AP, but they don't know her name, they just call her, "The principal lady." No administrator has been to my classroom this year. They have NO IDEA what I am doing with my students, but they keep putting more and more demands on us, demands that have nothing to do with a quality of education. They demand things of us that THEY are accountable for, but they don't even understand them themselves.

This is the first year I haven't finished my reading assessments by report card time and it's because of my administration. They keep wasting our preps with stupid PD given to us by our less than reputable colleagues who need to fill THEIR schedules (my problem? NO!!!).

There is so much miscommunication, I feel like I am totally out of compliance when it comes to the curriculum I am using (even though I LOVE what I am teaching and I know what to teach). They ordered a lot of new stuff this year that came slowly and in pieces and without training. It all just seems like a waste of money. I have boxes of workbooks that belong to programs I can't even use. Some of them are not even for my grade level, but I was told to hold them in my room. All this and we don't even have the math books we need. I have had to photocopy Math Steps this year because we don't have enough.

There have been so many instances in which I have tried to help my administration, but it always turns out bad because they don't follow through and I feel totally used and guilty later for having even been a part of something that turned out so wrong.

I guess I am just dreading the faculty conference tomorrow. I just can't stand to look at any of them. My colleagues also kind of make me mad at these things because they act like sheep just going along with things that make no sense or just arguing about stupid points that have nothing to do with the general incompetence of those in charge. They don't question at all. I guess I'll just go to it and keep my mouth shut and try not to make eye contact.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The New Action Plan for Literacy

As many of my loyal readers know, I have been especially interested in combatting low literacy among my students. It has been a problem for me since I began teaching at my school. Every year, I have to check the "promotion in doubt" box on a majority of my report cards because my students do not progress sufficiently in reading. My class is comprised of a majority ELL population, but the interesting part of the problem is that often times it is not my ELLs (from Spanish or Mixteco-speaking homes) who are at-risk in literacy, but my students come from English speaking or bilingual homes who have either passed the LAB-R or are only classified as ELLs because of low overall language (i.e. they are not strong in Spanish either), not just low levels of English. It is this population that I have found to be most at-risk in my class over the years. Last year was as especially taxing year on me in terms of the academic levels of my students and the effort I put into providing intervention for these students within the regular classroom setting. Despite my efforts, many of my students were promoted to second grade that were reading at level C (they are supposed to be at J). To me, this was completely devastating. A good 50% of my class went to second grade without having learned how to read.
During the past 2 years, one of the interventions I tried was using the Fountas and Pinnell "Phonics" curriculum during extended day to supplement Words Their Way (which was our primary word study program). The first year I used "Phonics," I saw phenomenal results among the 6 students who received the instruction. At one point in the year, my intervention group had surpassed students in my class who were not receiving intervention. Last year, I used it again during extended day, but I only saw my group 3 days a week instead of 4 and I had 10 students instead of 6. The ten students I had were extremely at-risk for "reading failure" and were difficult to manage. Needless to say, I did not see the same results during my second year. I also did not see results from Words Their Way.

This year, as many of you know, my school has decided to implement Fundations as our sole and primary word study program. I read through the teachers guide over the summer and just felt so strongly that I couldn't picture using this program. It seemed so scripted and procedure-oriented. The lessons didn't have clear objectives. I kept an open mind until I was sent to their training (which was confusing at best) and that was when I decided that I just couldn't see using it in my class. It is so scripted that there is almost no room for differentiation. It's like your providing the intervention that 30% of your class actually needs to the whole class. I just can't waste the other 70% of my students' time like that. Also, I found their lessons just plain boring and completely lacking in context (which for ELLs is sooooo important).

So, here is my plan for this year: I am using some of the Fundations materials (which I actually think are excellent) to implement Fountas and Pinnell "Phonics." My students have word study groups which allows me to differentiate on both an individual and group basis. It also provides so much context for the lessons through shared reading poems and literature that I really see my kids mastering the skills and strategies. I have to say that my favorite part of the day is first thing in the morning when I arrive and I prep their notebooks (which I designed!) for the day's word study lesson. My students are doing so well this year with the curriculum. They are so independent in their work and are truly grasping the concepts on a deep level (i.e. no gaps in their learning). I have seen so much progress and it's only November!!! I have kids who came without letter-sound recognition who are tapping out sounds to spell new words on their own. The children who came in with more skills are challenged to go even further. Everyone is so motivated during word study time!!! For my real strugglers, I reinforce the lessons during extended day using supplemental materials such as magnetic letters (I don't have enough for the whole class) to really be secure in their understanding. I am so motivated right now by this program and I wish it were more widely used in the NYC public schools. I tried to share it with my colleagues, but they all decided it was too much prep (which it's really NOT). If I can just get one person to try it, they will see how amazing it is!!!

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Rethinking the environment

Teachers are often complimented on their classroom environments when the room is print-rich, colorful, neat, labeled, and student work is on display with rubrics and standards posted on the same board. For the last four years, I strived to meet this standard of creating a stimulating environment. This year, however, I began to think that perhaps, my classroom might be OVER-stimulating for the children. When you think about it, how can children focus when there are so many colors and bins and print everywhere. Even when I visit other classrooms for meetings, I find that I am often distracted by what is up in the room and I find my eyes wandering around reading their charts, looking at their work, and staring at the projects dangling from the ceiling. How much is too much? At the beginning of the year, especially, it seems like classrooms are way to busy. Shouldn't you be building the environment along with the children?

I recently had the opportunity to visit the classrooms of a well-respected progressive private school and I was shocked by the simplicity of the classrooms. The Kindergarten classroom, for example, was very spare with only a few books on display, plain cork boards lined the walls with student artwork on them. The room was neat and tidy and comfortable. It had a rug area that resembled a living room, a block area, and tables with simple wooden chairs. The classroom door opened up the an outdoor rooftop playground. Everything seemed so natural. The room was painted with earth tones and there was little plastic to be seen. The only print in the room was the labels under the artwork with the students' names. The first letter of each name was in red and the rest of the print was black. It bothered me a bit that it wasn't apparent what the students were studying in each subject area by looking around the room. Even the artwork didn't seem to relate to any content area. I didn't see shared reading charts or big books anywhere, but at the same time, I couldn't help but think that if I even had children of my own, I'd get a job there just so that they could have this type of education.

Now I'm feeling conflicted. I want my students to have the best education possible, but I don't know what is the answer. I want them to be strong readers and to love reading, but am I over saturating the room with print and books, or is that what they need? I have definitely toned down the colors in the room this year. The bulletin boards are blue and green and I have a lot of plants in front of my grand windows. I even painted the long countertop that runs along the back wall with baby blue paint to soften the tone (it was bright green with chipped paint revealing salmon underneath). I can't, however, remove the evidence of what we are learning. I really think that anyone should be able to walk into a classroom and know what the students are learning just by looking around and I think my students need it too. Maybe it's okay at a private school to let students experiment with paint and hang up their work, but I really feel that with my students, I can't afford not to teach them something at every opportunity because they are not have a rich experience in their home life. I would at least have them represent the colors of Fall (connected to our Science unit: Weather and Seasons) or something along those lines if we were doing painting.

Thursday, September 17, 2009


For 3 of the 4 years I have been at my school, I have had many students will chronic bedbug bites. I know, it's totally disgusting and gives people the willies, but I have become so used to seeing it that I don't even pay attention anymore to children covered head to toe in bites. It's like I have this bedbug filter now. I even keep Aveno cooling lotion in the room for kids to put on their bites. Even after bedbugs were found in our school rugs, it didn't phase me. The infestation was the north side of the building after all and my classroom is on the east side. Plus, I never actually saw one crawling on MY rug.

Now I have a student teacher and right away, she asked me about the handful of kids who are covered in bites. She wanted to know if they should go to the nurse, or if they had a contagious disease or an allergy. She was like me 3 years ago: totally concerned about it. After 3 years of this, I have learned a few things about bedbugs.
1. The nurse won't do anything if you send a kid down.
2. Families adamantly deny bedbug infestations and even bring doctor's notes saying that the children have allergies or spider bites when we all know what the real problem is.
3. I have never (knock on wood) actually seen one in my classroom or brought one home with me.
4. When I asked an exterminator if it was possible to bring them home with me he said "technically, yes, but you probably won't." I don't want to gross anyone out, but you have a similar probability of picking them up from someone on the subway as you do in a classroom.

It's kind of a shame, but their existence is normal to me and I'm not that concerned about it anymore. I feel bad for the children because it is really uncomfortable, but ultimately I really can't do anything about it. I do, however, shake my pant legs and brush myself off after leaving the building. Ah, the wonders of teaching in New York!

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Does anyone use Fundations for first grade word study?

If so, do you have an opinion about the program. What setting did you use it (i.e. intervention, small group whole group, etc.)? My school wants to use this program as its sole word study program for the lower grades and after reviewing the materials and the teacher's guide, I can't see myself using it. I'd rather use Fountas and Pinnell's "Phonics," but I was told "No" when I asked if I could use it. Just wondering what everyone else's experiences have been.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Let's all pat ourselves on the back... or not.

So, I was watching the local news today and they were making a big deal about how the city's school report cards are out. Naturally, I went to the DOE website and looked up my school. We got an A. Now as seasoned teacher in the city system, we know that these grades don't necessarily mean a whole lot. It just means that your school's test scores were applied to an ever-changing formula involving AYP (annual yearly progress), minority groups, minority groups in the lowest third percentile, special education students, etc., and out comes a magical letter grade that could mean the difference between getting a pat on the back from the DOE or being punished and told your incompetent and your school is failing. So, you might imagine my relief in finding that my school got an A... that is until I read the fine print. Over 87% of all NYC public schools scored an A. 10% scored a B. C,D, and F had less than 1% each. Wow, we must be the most brilliant system in the whole world! But seriously, are you kidding me? Is this supposed to make me feel better? What about the parents? This is an outright lie and an outrage!!!! Now the higher-ups can sit around in their suits and talk about how great they are and run commercials about how they improved the public schools. It is sickening to me because I know what goes on in a so-called "A" school and we shouldn't be patting ourselves on the back, we should be working even harder because we as a system NEED to do better for our children.

It's starting to happen....again.

Even though we don't officially start here in New York until next week, I started going in to set up my classroom and get things organized. At first, I was actually happy to be back. It's always fun to go in early because lots of other teachers are there and everyone is relaxed. This year the school was especially clean. Even my rug got shampooed!!! There is a fresh coat of paint in all of the hallways and even my door was painted (yes, the one that used to shed paint chips all over the floor every time it closed). It was great catching up with everyone and I was actually happy to see my classroom.

I decided to set up my room differently this year and I have to say I am very pleased with the new layout. I was lucky to have inherited a large (some might say "cavernous") room that gets excellent sunlight through its large windows. I have nicer furniture than most and I'm the only one on my floor that still has the wooden doors on the cabinets that run along the entire wall. I actually went to a hardware store to finally get handles (which have been missing since I moved in) for these doors so I can actually open them this year. I still had 2 of the old ones, so I brought one with me. The guy at the hardware store said that they were probably 80 to 100 years old!!!!

Anyway, that's not really what this post is about. You see, I love setting up my room and getting ready for the children. I'm excited to get this year going, but I already feel this heavy cloud forming above me. I have always been a really hard worker and dedicated to improving my school. I have served on several committees, especially over the last 2 years and have worked really hard to design new programs, bring in outside resources, and more recently, hire staff to fill positions. I served on the hiring committee because I was worried about the future of my school and my students. After the school year had ended, our school hadn't hired anyone for our vacant positions (numbers were in the double digits) and the administration didn't seem in any way concerned about this. A group of teachers, including myself, got together and basically did the administration's job for them during the summer. We made them hand over resumes from open market. We sorted them. We made phone calls. We scheduled interviews. We interviewed them. We followed-up. All the administration had to do was officially hire them and enter them into the system. It worked. We got some really good people and were confident that we had done our best to help our school.

Now the black cloud. Our new hires have started trickling in this past week and I feel responsible for the well-being, even though that is not my job either. I am disturbed that they have no classroom assignments, no materials, and in some cases the curriculum is unclear. Here they are coming in early to try to get the year started off right and we have NOTHING for them. I almost feel guilty that I helped bring them here by serving on the hiring committee. Not that we misrepresented in any way what our school is about, it's just that our administration did not follow through with their part. I keep telling myself, "You are a first grade teacher, this is not your job." Why do I feel personally responsible that our 8th grade teachers have no Spanish as a foreign language curriculum (or that our new administration doesn't even know what Spanish as a foreign language is--- no joke!)? Or that the 7th grade science teacher doesn't know if her schedule will include blocks for labs or if she'll have access to the lab at all? Or that I don't know who the new 4th grade special ed. teacher's CTT partner will be? THIS IS NOT MY JOB!!!! Yet, I'm already feeling incredibly stressed about the whole thing.

I decided not to go in today, to take a day off and not even talk to anyone about school. I went to the laundromat to wash my table cloths and stuffed animals for my classroom and focus on what I can control, providing a quality education to my first graders. I'm going to continue my quest to find cabinet handles that will fit my hundred year old doors, and just relax. Tomorrow I'll continue the set-up and hopefully try to block out everything else. So sad.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Getting ready for a new school year

It's getting to be that time. I finished my summer job this past week and am enjoying a little bit of time off before the big day. Like many other teachers, my new year's resolutions start with the new school year. This year my goal is balance. I want to have a happy and healthy school year for myself and my students and in order to achieve this, I need to plan. Once school starts, my ability to think clearly is often compromised, so I have to start planning for mental and physical health before it all gets crazy. Below are my realistic goals. After four years of teaching in the NYC public schools, I have learned not to overshoot, because you'll just burn out.

1. Cook a healthy meal at least twice a week. I love to cook and I love eating healthy, but once school starts, I can't do it as often, so I think 2 times a week is reasonable. The other days I can put something together like a salad or veggie burger.

2. Bring breakfast, lunch, and snack to school each day. Yes, this is VERY important. It is so easy to eat unhealthy food, especially if your school is in an area where there is not much variety for buying your lunch. Every night before I go to bed (even when I'm too tired), I make myself pack these three meals. I realized the importance of the snack this past year. I was staying late and by the time I'd get home, I would be ravenous and would make a less healthy choice. I also find that getting to school really early and eating breakfast there helps me to focus and relax before the start of the day. You also save money and eat better.

3. No more committees. Over my last 4 years, I have been on countless committees and I am burned out for the time being. I am going to allow myself one study group and a book club, but no more pointless committees. Whenever I do this type of work I either find that I'm doing someone else's job for free, covering for someone else's incompetence, or working towards something that will never happen because the administration will screw it up somehow. So there, when someone asks me to sign up for something, I am going to say "no, thanks."

4. Work stays at work. I will go in early and even stay a little late, but I am not going to bring my work home with me unless it's something easy like making labels for reading baggies while I zone out in front of the TV, or blogging. This also includes the emotional baggage from work. I am going to try to be as aware as possible not to be venting to friends or family. Enough is enough, they are tired of it and they feel helpless when I tell them things, so I need to keep that kind of talk amongst trusted colleagues.

5. Take long walks. In the past, this has helped me immensely. It's free, so you don't have to pay for a gym membership, you get exercise, and you don't feel guilty if you can't do it. At least once a week (twice, when the weather is nice), I try to walk 60 blocks from my school to a subway station on my line. I find that it really clears my head and keeps me physically active. It also relieves the stress of the afternoon commute (since there is no transfer) and I get to see what other New Yorkers are doing. It's cool to see what's going on in the different neighborhoods I encounter across 60 blocks.

6. Get a good night's sleep. This is paramount for a successful year. You must be well-rested to have the patience and mental endurance it takes to care for, manage, and teach a class of children (of any age).

7. Don't neglect non-school friends. Just because my job is insane doesn't mean I have to alienate myself from my friends. I need their support and their perspective, as well as someone unrelated to school to provide a little bit of fun. Whether it's messaging them on facebook, or making relaxing plans (nothing too crazy, we still need our sleep!). I am going to make a big effort this year to be more social in small ways, remembering goal #4 at all times.

8. Don't stress about things that can be made easier with a little bit of money. I am a saver. I don't like to spend money on things that are unnecessary. So much so, that I would find myself stressing out about regular chores. Sometimes sending the laundry out or getting groceries delivered is just worth it. I'm not saying I'm going to do it every week, but I won't beat myself up about it if I just can't handle it.

Sound realistic?

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

A "normal" me

After my first year of teaching in NYC, I took the summer off. I had looked forward to the time off all year and couldn't wait to watch lots of TV, read books, visit the sights, go the the park, just do whatever I wanted. When the time finally came it was amazing at first, but I quickly became bored and lonely. All of my "normal" friends were working, my boyfriend was working, I was the only one who had all this time off. My teacher friends had retreated into their own summer plans and I found myself addicted to Netflix and TV. I went to the park a lot and read, but that was also lonely. That summer was also particularly hot and humid so it was more comfortable for me to just stay at home. The main problem, I realized, was that as a beginning teacher struggling to pay rent in a small studio apartment in an outer borough, I just didn't have the money to do anything exciting and I lacked the enthusiasm to make my own excitement. I couldn't travel, I couldn't even afford to take Amtrak to my mom's house. The summer became a dark and lonely place for me. I remember feeling a sense of relief when the school year started again.

After that summer, I vowed never to have that feeling again. The summer after my second year teaching, I looked for a summer job. I didn't really care what it was, but I wanted something that wouldn't be too hard, and would pay just enough to afford an international vacation. I applied for everything remotely adequate for this on Craigslist and landed the perfect summer job. I won't disclose what exactly it is in order to maintain my anonymity, but it involves minimal amounts of teaching, teenagers (not at-risk), and lots of fun. It doesn't pay a lot and the hours are flexible. I can work more if I want and less if I want. The best part is that I can keep coming back to it every summer and I have for the past 3 years. I have also traveled internationally (for vacation) every year that I have worked there (twice one year).

Even though I am currently working nearly full-time hours at this point, it is so different than teaching in a public school. I truly enjoy my hour-long lunch break in the park. I can relax completely and read a book or listen to my ipod surrounded by people and nature. The workplace is located in a great neighborhood where there are lots of stores, shops, and restaurants. I love window shopping and sampling different foods. I get home after work and never ever stay late and the best part is that I don't bring my work home with me at all. I have no emotional baggage from my day. I feel so free at the end of the work day. I have planted a garden, made dinner almost every night for the past two weeks, read a novel, and visited a museum since summer (and my summer job) began. I have made dinner plans with two different friends this week without even batting an eye. During the school year, going out to dinner was so hard during the week because I was always exhausted. I feel like a normal person again. I feel like me. I wish that I could have this feeling all year long.

Monday, June 22, 2009


I have never had to file a grievance with the union, but now, I'm at the end of my rope. I always saw this process as something that people do when they want to complain or get a U rating which some of them probably deserved, others maybe not etc. I think grievances are widely overused, and I never really thought I would have to file one. I thought if I worked hard, acted professionally, cared about my students, and was dedicated to my job, that this would never come up, that I would be respected by my school's administration. Why does administration think that they can consistently and systematically do things that go against our contract? Tomorrow, for the first time in my career, I am going to file a grievance for something that is so STUPID, unnecessary, and just plain underhanded. It actually makes me feel disgusted that I work at a school where this kind of stuff flies. I think our administration thinks that we are all idiots who have no idea how things SHOULD work. Unfortunately, I cannot disclose what has taken place but I am seriously rethinking whether or not I should come back in the Fall.

Monday, June 15, 2009

No surprises, no excuses

I "tentatively" got first grade once again.  I guess I'm happy about it.  It was my first choice after all, but it means another year at my school.  I'm still going to pack up the room as if I'm moving grades because you never know...

Sunday, June 14, 2009

The dreaded organization sheet

I already know that tomorrow is going to be insane with gossip about the impending publication of next year's organization sheet. There is bound to be scandal. Perhaps the principal will not post it, and everyone will be up in arms about how that goes against our contract. Perhaps there will be no changes at all and people will wonder if the principal will change it last minute. Our principal last year posted a different organization sheet on the last day of school at about 4 PM after people who it affected had already left for the summer. Maybe there will be drastic changes and tears amongst the staff. Excessing and switching of classrooms and grades (oh my!).

While I am fairly certain I will be staying in first grade for next year, part of me is secretly hoping that I will somehow get totally screwed by the organization sheet (not excessed, but something else). This way, I would have a good excuse for finally leaving my school. I know that sounds awful. I don't know how to explain it. I really love my school, but it has been so hard lately to work there. I always wonder if other schools are better.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Thoughts on this year

It's no secret that I have been down at work lately.  I think that part of it is that I take things so personally and internalize the suffering of my students when in reality, I can't change their home lives and I can't make up for years of neglect and abuse.  Two things happened this week that almost brought me to tears.  They may seem ordinary to you, but they are so representative of the suffering of our city's children.

1.  One of my students, Marisol, a girl of indigenous Mexican descent brought a book to school to share with the class.  Sometimes when we are lined up for dismissal I let the kids quickly share something and since this book was so beautiful, I let her share it.  The book was called "Pancakes For Supper," and had beautiful illustrations and interesting characters.  I asked her why she brought it in and she said because it was special, her Pre-K teacher had given it to her. Indeed, inside was a message from her Pre-K teacher.  It said something like "To Marisol on your birthday, may you always enjoy reading, love Ms. ___".  Then I asked her (a level I reader), to tell us the title.  She looked at me with a puzzled look and said "I never read that part before."  Something about the inscription and the fact that this child had never really read the title before made me want to cry.  Her Pre-K teacher had put so much love into this gift and this child treasured it, but didn't understand what it was really for.  Although she could read the title, she never did, it was as if she didn't even know how to interact with this book.  I wished I could sit down with her and read it with her and let her point to the pictures and make comments like little kids do, but I couldn't, I had a whole class standing there with their bookbags on ready to leave.  I can read them stories, but I can't make up for the fact that their parents can't or don't read to them.  

2.  In my classroom, we have been talking about endangered species of animals.  This conversation started with a study of animal diversity in the rain forest habitat.  We spent about three weeks reading different books about the rain forest and making a web of life project.  We also talked about rain forest destruction and how that affects the animals.  This led us to explore other habitats like the arctic, the desert, the mountains, etc.  We made a chart of different habitats and started listing endangered animals from each.  Then we perused our available books for researching endangered species and my class voted on an animal they want to research as our shared writing.  They chose the giant panda.  Today, we got our our chart where we had collected key words and written facts about the giant panda on post-its, a project we have been working on for little over a week.  I also got out the chart with the endangered animals from different habitats.  I asked the students to talk with their partners (as they do EVERY TIME we get out the chart) about what is an endangered animal, what does that mean?  As I made my way around the rug listening in, I found partnerships who had no idea what it meant.  What was so telling though and the reason why I'm even writing this is because I had a visitor in my class, a student from our gifted and talented program was with us because his teacher was absent and they broke up the class.  While some of my students had no idea what we were talking about after so much scaffolding  visual support, even rainforest audio, and charts and everything I can pull out of my bag of tricks, all they could muster as a definition of an endangered animal was, "animal is extinct."  Great, they acquired a vocabulary word, but had no idea how to even use it.  I prompted the child who said this with "the giant panda is extinct like the dinosaurs?"  to which he replied "Yes."  Other kids said "NOOO!"  so I called on someone else to add an idea.  "The can make extinct like the dinosaurs because they dying," said this child.  Okay, I thought, now we're at least getting somewhere.  Then I saw Max, the G&T visitor who didn't even have the months of read aloud, shared reading, shared writing, etc. on the topic had his hand up, so I called on him.  He said something like this:  "Well, endangered means that animals have low numbers like the Cheetah.  There are 15,000 or so cheetah's left and they are dying out because they are being poached by hunters who want to sell their hides."  My mouth gaped open, not because I thought what he said was revolutionary, but the ease in which it rolled off his tongue and the quickness of recall he showed was nothing like anything I EVER see in my classroom and it made me sad.  This child is not a genius nor would I even say gifted or talented.  Yes, he tested into the program, but in talking to him and observing him throughout the day, he just seems like a normal kid whose parents engage him in conversation and encourage him to be curious about the world.  He reminds me of my cousins' children.  Anyway it made me sad, and made me reflect on my teaching.

I've pretty much concluded that I spend almost the entire morning convincing my students that they are not the scum of the earth and that they are valid human beings with ideas and that they don't have to be mean to each other, that kindness is possible.  I even have to trick them into forcing a smile upon entry to my room.  They think that because they move their mouth that they are greeting me with a smile, but with some of them it is so fake, and so devastating.  After I convince them that they are not scum, we can learn a little bit, not a lot because their minds are spinning and their bodies are in constant repetitive motion.  They are more enthralled with the laces of their shoes and pieces of paper that have fallen out of kids' word study notebooks than the topic at hand.  It doesn't really matter what the topic is, many of them are not "with us" in conversation.  I have students that despite excellent attendance have retained very little over this entire academic year.  Some students have not gone up even one reading level.  During my extended day group, I had to repeatedly remind them (I can't believe I had to do this at THIS POINT IN THE YEAR) where their eyes should go when they read.  They always have their eyes on me, looking like scared puppies for my approval, but I want their eyes on the words actually looking at the sounds and trying to make meaning.  

The truth of the matter is I don't know how to make them want to learn.  I try my best to make our work as engaging as possible, and I get validation that what I am doing is interesting and working from many children, but not all of them and not as a whole.  In prepping them for our upcoming trip to the Museum of Natural History, I told them that I don't want to hear empty comments like  "AHHHH T-Rex," or "Whoa!" like I always do.  I want to hear questions and curiosities about the world like "Why are the dinosaurs extinct?" or "How does a blue whale grow to be so big."  When I said this, their interest peaked for a second and then they went back to head bobbing and playing with laces.  

Saturday, June 6, 2009

I know I haven't posted in awhile...

So, let me summarize the past month for everyone. Where to start? Okay, I guess I'll start with being verbally attacked by one of my students' mothers because another school employee (mom's friend) had hit her child and left a mark during school hours while she was on the clock. Natural, you might think, for a mother to be upset that a school employee had assaulted her child. Well, she was not mad about the fact that her friend hit her child, but rather that the school took issue with it. She brought the New York State penal code with her to the school after the principal called her and proceeded yell at us about how you indeed can slap your child with an open hand. Long story short, it was a truly irrational conversation that ended with her asking what the school was going to do to make sure her friend was not in the presence of her daughter because her friend would do it again, it was her "instinct." This, of course, to save her friend from being fired, not to protect her daughter.

What else? Well, the big swine flu cover-up was a big item of gossip among teachers. You see, other schools are actually concerned about swine flu. I know that other teachers have posted about their union reps and APs calling sick children to see what their symptoms are, etc. Well, at my school, no one has been calling or even cares. Teachers have been worried for some time because we have many students sick with "the flu." I know I have sent home a few with fevers and have heard of siblings who are sick, and then there was the rumor that one of our children had a confirmed case of H1N1. NO ACTION WAS TAKEN, and no one was informed, so I figured it was just a rumor, the kid probably had something else. Now it comes out that it was true. We had a confirmed case of H1N1 at our school two weeks ago and no one was informed. As for the other sick kids, a parent of a child with the flu told me that at the hospital, they weren't testing them anymore, just assuming that any child with the flu did have H1N1 and prescribing Tamilflu. At our staff meeting, teachers were up in arms about this. The principal told us "you GUYS need to calm down....etc." talking to us like we were overreacting. It makes me sick! I'm not so worried for myself personally because I am young, healthy, and do not have other medical conditions, but what about the pregnant teachers and the ones who DO have underlying medical conditions. What about our children with severe asthma and other serious medical conditions? Don't their parents have a right to know that this was going around? Everyone should have at least known that H1N1 was running rampant in our school so we could all make an INFORMED decision about whether or not to come to school.

You might think that this is enough for a 3 week update, but there is more. Two of my students' moms got into a physical fight this week as well and the police were summoned to the school. Luckily it happened in the PA room and I didn't witness it, but I am really disgusted by how and why it happened. Apparently one of my students' moms, a Mexican woman from a small town in rural Mexico insulted one of my indigenous Mexican moms from an even more remote area of Mexico calling her a "pig." The indigenous mom, who has always been so involved and helpful at school apparently pushed the other mom, etc. etc. How do we expect our children to get along with each other if this is how their parents behave?

15 days left. I'm emotionally drained and ready for the year to end.

Friday, May 1, 2009

No more complaints

Okay, well not exactly "no more," but I'd say that I have significantly less complaints this week for some reason.  Maybe it's the miracle of the new computer table that magically appeared one day this week, followed by a brand new state-of-the-art Mac desktop computer, which I immediately positioned next to my easel to use for actual TEACHING...  Of course it could also be the new copy machines...yes that is plural, or the notice of a training on smart boards...which I hope is followed by an actual smart board.

Yes folks, the grants were written, approved, and the goods are finally being received.  The one good thing about the new administration is that they apparently DO care about technology and want to drastically change from a NO technology school, to an ALL technology school and I am so THRILLED!  THIS is the kind of CHANGE we need.  I can't wait to do my shared reading on an interactive white board and actually be able to show the children pictures and information from the INTERNET!!!! when we do our upcoming non-fiction unit.  

Now, I have to get used to not complaining.  It was so easy to sigh and say, "well, I could do this, BUT we have no internet at my school so..." or "I can't check my email during the day so..." now I have no more excuses for being out of touch with the world or keeping the students in our little bubble of blissful ignorance.  I have my work cut out for me and I need to get on the ball with this technology and get my kids connected.  I think the first thing will be a class wiki about our science observations with our planting (I went a little crazy this year with the seeds!! We have quite a garden of diverse plants growing).  I am just thrilled right now, I can't even describe how this one thing changes EVERYTHING for me and my first graders.  

This is why things are looking up and why I've changed my mind about leaving.  Things are possible at my school.  I've learned that I need to be patient with the new administration and let them come into their own.  As far as committees go and my whole negative inventory thing from last week, I cheerfully signed up for the "technology committee" this week.  Maybe we will change things.  I feel hopeful once again.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Feeling better about things

It's strange how small things like getting a new copier that works can change your whole outlook on things as a teacher.  I really don't think it was the copier, but something happened this week that changed my mood.  I no longer feel the need to break free from my school and the system immediately.  It'll probably happen somewhere down the road, but I guess I realized I'm not ready now.  Looking around my classroom this past week I just felt a strong urge to stay and to keep working hard.  It would be too painful at this point to leave behind my students, their families, and my colleagues.  Maybe we can weather this administration as we did the last.  

I take my inspiration from the many veteran teachers in the building.  At my school, there is a relatively moderately sized group of teachers who are at retirement age and status right now which is amazing and fortunate, but will also be a huge loss over the next couple of years.  They all seem to be so blissful like nothing can touch them.  I still haven't figured how, but maybe someday I'll reach that point.  Even teachers who have been there for only 10 years already display those characteristics.  It's not uncaring in the least, in fact they are some of the most dedicated teachers in the building.  They also have personal lives: spouses and children.  Somehow they balance everything.  I hope I get there soon.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

I think I have job-related depression

You might not want to read this if you are influenced by negative vibes.

I came to a really disappointing realization over the April break: I need to leave my school or get out of the system entirely. This might seem like a shock (or not) to some of my readers, but I think a lot of people reach a breaking point sometime in their teaching career, especially if you teach in the NYC system. I'm there! In taking inventory of all of the committees I joined, the meetings I attended, the leadership opportunities I went for, the study groups, the collaboration, the planning, etc. that I've done in the last four years, I can honestly say that the fruits of my labor in terms of the betterment of my school as a whole equal to zero, no below zero, it's negative.

Of course, I'm not talking about my students. I never really am when I complain. I love my students and I feel attached to their families and it kills me inside that I feel this urge to leave them. I've seen tons of improvement in my students, and really felt successful as a teacher in the past four years, but it's like working against the tide. I'm tired of fighting. I can't do it alone and everyone seems to be abandoning ship right now (at least mentally) and I think I need to go with them.

I feel hopeless, like nothing will ever change. I was at a baseball game the other day and this group of at-risk adolescents were there taking photographs with the players who sponsored some after school program for them. All I could think was, "I'm so sick of this after school program, charter this, magnet that, SES, NCLB, etc. Why do we need special programs sponsored by philanthropists for only a handful of kids? Why can't we as a society just plain CARE about our children in general? Then we wouldn't need all of this random stuff that puts a band-aid on the real issue."
The one thing that keeps me going is that I really do LOVE teaching. I don't want to stop being a teacher just because the system is corrupt and run like a corporation. I just want to work at a school where children come first and where EVERYONE is on the same page about that. I also think that I need to reduce my commute, maybe work at a school in the neighborhood where I live so that I can stay late and still have a life.
Of course, it would mean leaving my colleagues, which I'm not sure I'm ready to do.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

"The Circle Three" and other reasons why oral language is important

To preface this story, I need to remark that one of the areas of improvement listed on my school's Quality Review was the area of oral language. The reviewers noted that our students were not able to express themselves clearly or speak at length about a topic. With this in mind, my school has tried (not very successfully or systematically) to improve oral language and to target that area through classroom instruction.

Okay, so now here is the story:

Every April, my school offers a Title III after school program for ELLs. It is taught by Bilingual and ESL certified teachers from my school who are paid per session. This is my second year teaching the Title III after school program and it is by far one of my favorite things about springtime at my school. The reason I love Title III so much is because it is an enrichment program for our ELLs. It is a relaxed atmosphere for both the students and teachers. I feel that I get to know my students so much better during this brief time. It is really the only time that we are free to create our own curriculum and use some methods that don't usually jive with our current curriculum. This is where I get to put all of my TESOL training to work with a group of only 12 kids!

I structure the hour and a half sessions in a predictable way and post a schedule for the students so they know what we are doing. We start off with a "meeting." During our meeting, we usually talk about why we are in the Title III program (to learn more English and practice speaking it) and reinforce an atmosphere of safe risk-taking. The meeting followed by "poems and songs" which are part of a thematic-based ESL curriculum (Yes folks, thematic!), then we have "snack and conversation" at my big circle table, followed by a "project" (also from the thematic planning), and then "language experience," which I am really excited about because I am tape-recording a retelling of a wordless book, Follow Carl, and then typing out their language so they can edit what they said and we can essentially write original words to the story.

One of the routines during "snack and conversation" is to name our snack. It is amazing how little vocabulary our students have surrounding what they eat. On the first day of Title III, we all sat around a big circular table and had graham crackers and apple juice. The students could name the apple juice, but no one had any idea what the graham crackers were. We wrote it down on our snack chart and then described the flavor and the texture as sweet and a little bit crunchy. The students then began to eat in silence. This is when I invited the students to engage in a conversation. I asked them what they wanted to talk about. One student, Miguel, wanted to talk about his favorite food from the cafeteria. "Great idea" I said and I asked him to start the conversation. He eagerly said, "My favorite food from the cafeteria is..." long pause. "My favorite food from the cafeteria is... you know, the circle three" and he made a circle with his thumb and index finger to show the size. Many of the kids nodded and said "yeah, the circle three." They all seemed to know what they were talking about. "The circle three?" I asked, "Well, what does it taste like? Is it sweet, is it salty, is it sour?" Miguel thought for awhile and said, "It tastes like McDonald's." The other students nodded again, "Like McDonald's!" they repeated seeming happy with themselves. I thought for a bit about food that they eat that is circular and served in threes. "Oh," I said,"I think I know what you are talking about. You're talking about chicken nuggets." "YEAH!!" they shouted "Chicken nuggets!"

This conversation was so telling, so indicative of the way things work at my school and my students' lives. This is what happens when children are not spoken to outside of the academic arena. They lack basic vocabulary. Almost all of my ELLs were born in the U.S. and even went to PreK, Kindergarten, and now are at the end of First Grade, without being able to identify "chicken nuggets," something they eat at least twice a week. The kids are just given food in the cafeteria with no conversation surrounding what they are even eating. There is no lunch menu posted in the cafeteria and the workers do not even speak to the children. I just wish they would ask each child, "Do you want chicken nuggets or ravioli." Then, at least our students would be forced to communicate what they want and to give it a name.

What is so incredible about this story is that Miguel is a level E reader. Many of my ELLs are at that level or above (FINALLY!!!), but through our conversations, I can clearly that one of the reasons that they are not benchmarking (they should be at level G at this point in the year), is because of their oral language, and it is not just their English language that is preventing them from moving ahead. As many of you know, my students receive instruction in both their native language (Spanish) and in English. They also lack the vocabulary in Spanish. I am actually amazed that a student with such limited vocabulary has been able to reach level E.

So, what to do? Well, I am so thankful to have the opportunity to teach Title III. I think it is so great for my students and for me too! I find that so many of my typically silent students finally speak up. There are two students in my group who I can honestly say that I didn't know what their voices even sounded like until this experience. I mean, yes I had heard their voices before, but not their way of expression or natural conversation. I even had a student who I had previously thought was very limited in all academic areas, crack a joke about not having teeth (she, like many others, had lost all of her front teeth), showing a much more cognitively sophisticated side of herself. I just wish that this program could go all year. Imagine the possibilities of our students receiving enrichment through oral language instead of the substandard SES programs (like Princeton or Kaplan, where corporations get rich off of poor kids) that they get.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Parent-teacher therapy sessions

This past week we had parent-teacher conferences at my school. I always dread the day because it takes so long and it is emotionally draining. We are supposed to schedule the conferences for 10 minutes each and basically do 5 hours of conferences with a "break" in the middle. This never really works out. First of all, I always find myself behind schedule after just the first conference because they take at least 20 minutes each, especially with the group I have this year.

Here is how a typical conference might go: It usually starts out with me talking about the academic progress of the child from September until now. I show examples of work from the beginning of the year and recent work to talk about the progress (or lack thereof in some cases). I then show the parents the report card and in many cases explain why the "Promotion-in-doubt" box has been checked. The parents usually ask questions like "How can I help at home?," in which case I give them concrete examples of how they can support their child. I then explain the parent survey in the green envelope and how their feedback is important and how they need to send it in the mail and send them on their way.

Unfortunately, not all conferences go this way. In many cases, parents become defensive and insist that they have seen progress and that I am mistaken. At this point, I show them examples of books their child is reading and books that are at grade level and explain the difference. Sometimes parents cry and I have to give them the time to explain why their child isn't progressing. Many times it is a story of parents in the process of separating, custody battles in which the parents spend their time at court and not with their children, delinquent teenagers at home, spouses in jail, families torn apart by immigration, homelessness and living in shelters, etc. For many parents, this is the only time where they can talk about these things in a private and confidential place. I feel like their therapist, reaching for the box of tissues, and affirming that life is hard, but that we need to work together for their child. Sometimes I offer gentle suggestions for busy working moms. I might say something like "you don't need to give you full attention to your child when they are doing their homework, just set up a quiet place for them, or have them do it at the kitchen table while you are cooking. Tell them to do everything that they can by themselves first then help them for a few minutes after they have done everything else." Many of them cheer up when they realize that maybe we can do something, but what I can't do is change their lives. I'm always left with a heavy heart.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Can you teach resiliency?

This week, a lot of gossipy, mean-spirited, messed-up crap has gone down amongst my first graders. I've had stealing, punching, hitting, exposing one's private parts, inappropriate touching, nasty words being said, destruction of property-- general mayhem. The main part of the problem is that it is NOT happening in the classroom, but in the cafeteria, during recess, and during my preps... basically them times when I am not personally in control of my students. As I've said before, I maintain a no-nonsense atmosphere in the classroom and I can quickly identify the source of any issues and immediately punish those who started it and give them an opportunity to give a genuine apology. I can make a child cry for their misdeeds (those of us that are teachers know the importance of a child feeling remorse for their actions) and build them back up convincing them that they are a great person despite what they have done all in the matter of 5 minutes and without disturbing the flow of the day or involving other students. The problem is that they are not internalizing standards of behavior or the conflict resolution skills we practice in class. The moment they leave the room all is forgotten. It doesn't help that their punishment for misbehavior is not being able to go out for recess. They sit in our indoor yard watching other students misbehave and enduring a noise level that I am positive has reached the decibel level that can damage their hearing. Then they are led to the cafeteria where again, the noise level is insane and they see other students misbehaving without consequence.

When I finally come to pick them up, the recess aide has nothing but complaints for me and tells me disgusting behaviors that my students have practiced of the the last hour that I now have to explain to parents. I am so tired of this!!!! It makes me almost want to have my children eat in our classroom and take them personally out to play when we are finished, but I can't.

If I were in charge of lunch, we go to the cafeteria and bring our food back upstairs to the classroom. We would all wash the tables, wash our hands, pass out food, napkins, silverware, etc. sit together in a quiet environment and have real conversations. We would identify the food that we are eating and be thankful for it, not destructive and wasteful. The children would clean up. Two kids would walk around with a trash bag collecting from everyone, a handful would once again wash the tables. We would separate the recycling. On our way out to recess, we would deposit our trash in the proper receptacles so as not to attract rodents into our classroom. We wouldn't go to recess in our school yard, but rather walk to the public park that is two blocks away for some real space and nature. Maybe we'd go with another class, so I could have some adult company during this time too. We'd bring frisbees and balls. I'd let the girls bring their dolls without worrying that they'd get stolen or broken. If kids wanted to bring books, they could sit next to a tree and quietly read.

But I can't do all this myself. I too need a break. I have been working so hard and sacrificing every prep in addition to taking them out of after school programs over the past 2 weeks to assess their reading levels, I just don't have the energy to endure all of this. I need support from my administration, but they offer none. As I've said before, we need everyone on board to make our school work and it just feels like no one else is on board.

Now I get to the question in my title. Can you teach resiliency? Obviously, the chaos of their lives is not going to change and even at schools we can't control every moment. I want so badly for my students to make it in this life and be productive members of society. I want them to know how good life can be and that they too can be happy. I want them to know that there are so many possibilities for positive change, but I can't do it all. I've started some conversations with them after lunch to talk about resiliency. We talk about the disrespect and outright disgusting behaviors they see from other students during recess. I tell them, "It doesn't matter what someone else does, you have the power to decide for yourself if it is right or wrong." "You can decide what kind of person you want to be." "You are not your brothers and sisters, you are your own person and you make decisions for yourself." We talk about examples of children making their own decisions, like the brave children who helped desegregate schools. I want to infuse more of this into my curriculum. Although I am conflicted about teaching them such an individualist way of thinking, but I really think that they need it because the collective behavior and thinking they are exposed to is doing a lot of damage both in school and at home. What do you think?

Monday, March 2, 2009

I was almost out the door when...

My boyfriend yelled from the bedroom "wait, you might not have school." "What?" I asked. I had watched the news and listened to 1010 WINS, all of which said that New York City Public Schools are OPEN. I had gotten dressed, straightened my hair, packed my breakfast, lunch, and a snack, and was putting on my boots. So we sat listening again to 1010 WINS and they said OPEN again, but the CBS 2 website said CLOSED. Hmmmm. Tried calling 311. The message said OPEN. It took me about 10 minutes and several phone calls to colleagues who also got mixed messages to confirm the good news. The schools were indeed closed. While I am grateful, you'd think they could announce before 6AM. It is the largest school district in the area. I know a lot of my colleagues were probably already on trains or on the road when the announcement was made and parents need to find childcare. It wasn't a freak storm they didn't see coming. This storm had already left a trail of destruction all along the eastern coast and had been going on since midnight. Just a future suggestion. I'm still happy!

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Where is the VISION?

I haven't posted in a couple of weeks because I went on vacation to a fabulously faraway place where I got to practice my second language and enjoy the pace of a different culture with different priorities. In my travels, I ended up at an art museum. At this art museum, scattered across many galleries, they were showing vintage film footage of different kinds. They had old movies, performances, and documentaries, all without sound. I found myself seated for over an hour watching film footage from a school in the 1950s. I watched as the children began their day and filed into the classrooms with their teachers. They did reading, writing, and math. It all looked so similar to what we do each day. Then the children went out for recess in a simple yard, much like what we have in the NYC public schools. Some played ball, others were play-fighting, again, much like our children.

When it was time to go inside, that's when the similarities stopped. The children lined up to wash their hands. A teacher supervised as they scrubbed with soap and water. Then, the smaller children began setting the tables in the cafeteria. They spread clean table cloths on each table and meticulously placed each fork, spoon, knife, napkin, plate, cup, etc. The older children were in the kitchen cooking. One older boy was slicing fresh bread and plating it for a middle child to take to the tables. The older kids brought the hot food out. When everything was ready, the children took their seats in multi-aged "family" (that's what the subtitles called them) groups of 4 or 5 children. The little ones sat quietly as the older children served each portion equally. Nobody ate until everyone was served. Even the teacher presided over a "family." She looked so joyful as she sat conversing with her little group and eating fresh homemade food.

All I could think was "WOW!!!!" Think about the responsibility and real-life skills these children were learning through this process of setting up a meal and eating together. I can't help but think about my students and how they NEVER have a family meal at their homes in this way. I think about our 5th graders who act out all the time to the point where the police are called to the school. What if they were in charge or serving lunch to my first graders and engaging them in conversation and being role models for them? I bet their attitudes would change. In the video, it seemed like lunchtime was one of the best times of the day for everyone, including the teacher. For us in the NYC public schools, it is a time of total utter chaos for the school aides, and complete disengagement for the teachers as soon as we drop of the children. The cafeteria is a free-for-all with frozen reheated food served on Styrofoam trays, dirty hands fresh from the playground, no manners at all, no appreciation for the food or company, and older kids bullying the younger ones. How far have we really come in the last 60 years? It makes me sad.

I can't change the system myself. We need a VISION from the janitor to the chancellor, everyone needs to be on board with the highest standards for everything they do. If I were an administrator, I wouldn't let anyone set foot in my building who did not share this vision. It is just unthinkable all of the things we have to deal with on a daily basis. Let me list the things that happened this week that undermine everything teachers, students, parents, etc. are trying to accomplish.

1. On Monday (first day back from vacation), I had planned to have a relaxing day and enjoy the students. At 1:45 in the middle of my math lesson, a school aide came into the room. Can I help you? I asked. No response. She just pointed to a list. What do you need? I asked again. Vision, she responded. Okay, but what do you mean? I asked. At this point, I had to get up from my chair, and leave the kids on the rug. The school aide could not express that my children needed to go get their vision and hearing checked. I was speaking to her in her native language too. After about five minutes of me asking what she meant, asking her if she needed the yellow forms for vision and hearing, or if she had a list of kids she needed, she just kept pointing to the paper with the number 203 on it. I asked, do you need room 203 or class 203? No response. I ended up having to call the office. The AP confirmed that my class needed to go get their vision and hearing checked that very minute. I was mad. I had to stop my math lesson and take my class to another room to do this. By 2:20, I told the vision and hearing people that I needed to take my class back to the room to explain the homework and pack up. A woman proceeded to YELL at me in front of the children about how dismissal wasn't until 2:40, so she was keeping them until then and that this class is MANDATED and blah blah blah. I had to defend myself and say, "Well, then you will need to go pack them up and dismiss them yourself because I am finished at 2:40." It was not pretty. I tried to keep my cool. I ended up taking the first six kids who were finished back with me to the classroom and we packed up everyone's homework and laid their stuff out on the tables. The school aide brought the rest of them back at 2:45 and I dismissed them late.
  • I ask: Why couldn't administration have told me that my class was getting their vision and hearing checked so I could have brought them there packed up with all of their stuff, taken out the yellow cards, and canceled my math lesson and math homework?
  • Why do we have a school aide who cannot express the most basic information? (I have another story about her for later).
2. On Tuesday, I was told that I had to go to a full day PD on Wednesday. I did not have enough time to again, change the math homework (which is dependent on the delivery of a math lesson, not from a sub), or tell the parents. I really like to keep my parents informed. Then I had to make a sub plan as well. I was mad because I had already wasted the afternoon on Monday and already had a full day PD planned for Friday. This was too much!!!

3. On Wednesday, I learned that our children's school photos had been taken by a company that was running a scam. All of our parents' money was taken (we're talking about thousands of dollars), and apparently my school has no legal recourse (according to the lovely DOE lawyers). They parents have to sue since they were the ones who were wronged. I want to call 7 on your side or something. This is UNACCEPTABLE. If I were the principal, I would be sending someone to JAIL!!!

4. On Thursday, during my math lesson again, I get a phone call. It is the school aide from the vision and hearing story. She wants to take her granddaughter home (who is in my class). Okay, I say, Is there some sort of an emergency? I have a vested interest in keeping this girl in school and with the structure. "No," she responds, "I have to leave." "Okay" I say, "I'll pack her up and you can come get her." "No, send her down." She says. "Send her down where?" I ask. No response. "What room are you in?" I inquire again. "She knows," she says. Then I said "Well, I don't know, and I'm not sending her. You need to come upstairs, sign her out in the office, and come get her." "What time is it?" She asks. ARE YOU KIDDING ME???? I'm thinking. I politely reply "It's 2:00." "What time is dismissal?" she asks. now I'm getting annoyed. DON'T YOU WORK HERE???? I'm thinking. Then I had to get a little bit rude, "Look, I said, I'm in the middle of a math lesson, I will get her packed up and ready for you when you come upstairs to get her," and I hung up the phone. Of course, she never came upstairs. I ended up dropping the girl off in the late box after extended day because no one came to get her. Side note: My room is on the 2nd floor.

Etc. Do you see what I mean? There is just no VISION. I think this is pretty typical of all schools. They can restructure and charter all they want, but when it comes down to it, we need a VISION and we cannot afford to settle for anything less than the BEST at all levels.

ps. I had a great week with my students. They are learning so much and I'm so proud of them!

Saturday, February 7, 2009

I work at one of THOSE schools... officially

I knew that when my school became "Corrective Action," things would change; and change they did. This week, the heavy hand of "THE SYSTEM" came down on my school. It probably doesn't seem like a big deal to outsiders, but to anyone who works in the public schools, you know that the moment administration feels entitled to tell you what to do, when to do it, and how exactly to do it without any input on your part or that of your colleagues, things are not good.

On Friday, we were informed that we had a mandatory staff meeting during our lunch and were instructed to be prompt (I breathed a sigh of relief for having brought my lunch that day). At the meeting, we were literally barked at by the literacy coach and the assistant principal (the new principal was of course not there, which has become typical) about how we have to give out a new reading log to our students starting Monday. They asked for no input whatsoever and didn't even inquire about how we were currently tracking reading, they just said "This is a non-negotiable." When I raised my hand to ask a question like, "Who designed this?," I was ignored. I didn't actually get to ask it.

Okay, you're probably thinking that this is no big deal. So what? It's just a reading log, but I beg to differ. It's not just a reading log, it's the end of a 10 year legacy of intellectualism, research, and inquiry at my school. Our school was one of those schools that got "turned around" in the mid 1990s. Previously a SURR school where teachers actually had TVs in their classrooms and did their nails on their preps, we became a school of integrity and expemplary teaching. We had connections will universities and continue to prepare student teachers from 4 different institutions. There are reasons why teachers (including myself) CHOSE to work at this school. We have study groups for our teachers and have been the foundation for much of the work of the TC Reading and Writing project. Now, since we didn't meet AYP for two years in a row (which I need to note is DIRECTLY related to the fact that they started testing newly arrived children after 10 months in the country instead of the previous 2 years), we have gone down the drain and our new administration has jumped on the NCLB bandwagon of standardization and corporate structures.

Back to the new reading log. It is a non-negotiable, as I previously mentioned and it sucks. It's so stupid that it makes me angry and embarrased to even send it home. My current reading log (which I have used for 4 years and has 3 different versions for use at different times of the year) requires more comprehension and word work than the new one that requires the children to write just the title and level of the book. This will do nothing for the children who can't even read the title. They'll probably spend all their time copying it (we all know how slow K and 1st graders write), and less time reading. Another aspect that bothers me is that it is double-sided and has over 30 rows. Are they kidding? They really think a 6 year-old will take care of a single piece of paper for a month. My current reading log goes home weekly and often comes back in bad condition after just one week. Another laughable part was that the AP and literacy coach (whose own classroom was a DISASTER when she was a teacher) said that they wanted to make sure that kids were reading at least 25 books at each level before moving up. Are you kidding me? They haven't ordered books in so long, I don't think I HAVE 25 at each level. My E/F bin is currently empty because I have so many kids there right now. They should spend more time worrying about how to get good resources and less time thinking about a dumb and poorly thought-out reading log.

It's just so aggravating. I don't want parents to think that I condone this. I think I might write them a letter explaining that the new Reading Log comes from administration because we all know that administration won't take the time to communicate ANYTHING with the parents.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

The Inauguration- A First Grade Reinactment

Originally, I was really bummed that my school was going to make ZERO attempt to show the inauguration to our children. All I heard was that we have space issues with the other two schools in the building, our internet is not stable enough, and something about a DOE TV channel that I'd never even heard of. Anyway, I couldn't help but feel that my students were being completely shorted of one of the most important moments of history, possibly in their lifetime. I wanted them to have that feeling that I had when my mother called me frantically to watch the TV with her as the Berlin wall was being torn down live. She told me that I probably wouldn't understand it now, but I would realize its importance later. She instructed me never to forget the images I was seeing, and I never did. There is something about seeing it in the moment and experiencing a real moment in time that I wanted my first graders to be a part of. If I could have done it all over, I would have arranged a field trip for that day to watch the inauguration at the University close to our school or another viewing place, but by Tuesday morning, I realized it was too late for that.

I surveyed my options. I could sneak a small TV into my class and set it with rabbit ears, but that would require taking a taxi to school which would be quite a bit of money. Plus, I figured with all that talk of the DOE channel, I probably wasn't allowed to show regular TV to the kids. Option 2 was the radio. I have a radio tape deck in the classroom. I decided that this was my best option. The kids would simply have to practice using their envisioning skills to be a part of the moment. I cut out a big picture of Barack Obama, a picture of the Lincoln Bible, and posted them next to the radio.

All morning, I talked to my class about how important the inauguration of Barack Obama was and several kids had brought newspapers that we also looked at. We talked about what it meant to take the oath of office and what it would sound like. We practiced some of the language, "I do solemnly swear.." and talked about how it was okay not to understand everything but to hear the voices and feel the moment.

After a morning of regular work amidst talk of the inauguration, I took the kids down to lunch. They didn't know they were'nt going to hear it live, but I knew I would have to tape it for them since they would be at recess during the exact time.

When we came back up from recess, the kids were really excited. They sat quietly on the rug and I called for 2 volunteers. One would be the justice holding a homework notebook (our stand-in for the bible), and the other student would be Joe Biden. The child playing Joe Biden had to put one hand on the book and one hand in the air. I played the swearing in of the vice president. When the children heard the announcer say "All rise," they stood up. They were silent as they listened to Joe Biden taking the oath of office.

We then listened to the orchestra piece that was played. The children sat quietly pretending to play violins, cellos, pianos, and clarinets. When it was finished, I called for two more volunteers. One for Justice Roberts, and the other for Barack Obama. I could see visible excitement in their faces as they watched their classmates acting out the oath of office. Again, one child held the homework notebook (that we labeled "Lincoln bible") and the other one put one hand on it and one in the air. We listened as Barack Obama became the next president and the children followed the crowd on the radio chanting "Obama, Obama, Obama," when it was over. I played them a couple of minutes of Obama's speech so they could hear his voice, but faded the volume and turned off the radio when I knew I they were probably lost in the moment.

It turned out to be a meaningful experience for me and the children. I'll never forget where I was that day (with my kids in my classroom). They promised me they would never forget it either.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Illiteracy, still

This past week went pretty well despite the fact that most of my students probably spent their entire vacation with NO STIMULATION at all. As usual, the kids were very out of it and had to be re-introduced to classroom structures. I spent almost 10 minutes one day trying to get my guided reading group to sit in a circle on the rug. They couldn't figure it out on their own (despite the fact that we have been following this SAME structure for 2 MONTHS!) They were back-to-back, in a line, just really awkward with their bodies. Even after I drew a circle on the floor with my finger and showed them, one of them went back to his reading spot (I wanted to scream and pull out all of my hair), but instead, I calmly asked another child to go retrieve him and then I stood them out and pointed to where each one should sit. Okay. Deep breath. I did the guided reading lesson and it went okay.

Administrators don't realize all that we have to do to get our students to read. This year, I have been focusing on reading so much more than in years past because of the needs of my students. With Promotion In Doubt parent-teacher conferences coming up in February, I decided to start the DYO assessments for all 19 out of 26 kids that were PID in October. So far, I have been able to assess 3 kids during extended day. All I can say is that I AM SO DEPRESSED about it. I have worked with these kids in guided reading and strategy groups consistently for 2 months. I have worked with them doing a phonics intervention program during extended day (which takes a LOT of planning), and I have been doing shared reading at least 4 times a day. So far, NONE of the kids have gone up. Two kids stayed at LEVEL B!!!! and one kid (I have to fight back the tears for this one) who reached level C in October, went back down to B. He couldn't recognize the word "In." He kepts saying "A-y-n, A-y-n" and rambled off sounds that made no sense when he was reading. "Are you kidding me?" is all I could think. We have been doing so many comprehension strategies and so little decoding that I can't believe a child in my class would think this kind of "reading" would be okay. We have also been highlighting, writing, and wearing our sight words for months. What is going on with this kid? I just can't fathom how this has happened.

After talking about it with a colleague, I decided to ask the literacy coach to come in during my reading workshop to observe what the kids are doing, and to observe my guided reading lesson. I really want to know what else I can do. I'm hoping that having her come in will also expose the upper levels of school administration to the real issues that are happening in our classrooms. Administration comes to my room and they see me teach and are satisfied. I get complimented for my structures and teaching, but it's not enough. My students need real intervention. Just because a teacher is competent doesn't mean that the children don't need more.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Taking Care Of Business

It always amazes me when I am on vacation how much I actually needed time off. I get so used to the fast pace of the school year that I forget about important things like my certification, my taxes, my student loans, etc. It's not that I neglect to do my duties of keeping up with all of it, but I don't have time to really think about these things and make sure I am doing things properly. For example, everyone at my school got audited in November for our 2006-2007 taxes, don't ask me why, but we all (or almost all of us) owed about $178.00 to the state for our pension. I wrote the check and sent it off without even researching what was going on. Over the vacation, I actually made time to talk to an accountant and find out what was going on.

In terms of my certification, I am working under an initial certificate (which doesn't expire for 2 more years) but I am eligible for my permanent one, it's just a matter of getting the paperwork done and paying online. I have also taken the required courses to get the ESL extension on my license, but I wasn't organized enough to actually apply. Over the break, I registered for the CST-ESOL exam which is the final thing that I need to get the inital ESOL license. I plan to apply for my permanent certificate and the ESL extension together during the April break.

Students loans. I make on-time payments on my student loan each month, but I hadn't figured out if I was eligible for loan forgiveness. When I first got my master's, I was already working at my school and taking graduate classes part-time. I did some research the summer after I graduated, but found that I wasn't eligible for any of the loan forgiveness programs offered by the DOE. What I never realized was that I WAS eligible for FEDERAL loan forgiveness programs. After doing some more research this past week, I found this website (it took a lot of searching!) And after reviewing it and finding that my school qualifies as "low-income," I think that I may in fact be able to get some loans forgiven if I stay at my school for a 5th year. (which I was planning to do anyway). I had to make 2 phone calls to request the proper forms, and as soon as they arrive, I will apply.

Long story short, teachers have a lot on their plate and a lot of personal and professional business to take care of. It is almost impossible to do all of these things while working at school. I would have never been able to make those phone calls or speak to an accountant during the day without a lot of stress. I am so thankful for the time off. I feel so refreshed and ready to start my week tomorrow.