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.