Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Science, or An Unfortunate Lack Thereof

"Everything must be made as simple as possible. But not simpler." -Albert Einstein

"Science never solves a problem without creating ten more." -George Bernard Shaw

Recently (Okay, way back at the beginning of December) I got the opportunity to go to the National Science Teacher's Association regional conference in Long Beach. I got to go on a business trip! Had my flight and hotel booked and paid for! We got more per diem than expected (and took advantage of that)! Of course, I was a little nervous. One, because I'm not a science teacher in the traditional sense. I'm a science teacher in that I teach science--but I teach everything as a kindergarten teacher. I was also nervous because I'd have to be social with some other teachers at my school, with whom I had previously barely exchanged pleasantries. And I'm not very good at being talkative and social at work. There's a reason I work with kids: I can get along well with them. Adults are a challenge.

The second fear was unfounded-- my fellow teachers are pretty cool people. The first fear was actually well founded, but not quite in the way I expected. There were sessions aimed at lower elementary teachers, and there were other lower elementary teachers there. I wonder what some of them thought of the sessions I went to, because I was unimpressed. The best sessions I went to were not applicable to me, but way more interesting. A couple of sessions I felt like I could have presented myself, and I -by no means- consider myself an expert in anything education related. Or in anything, really.

So much of the k-2 sessions were very general, and discussing either how the Next Generation Science Standards mesh with the Common Core, or about what an effective science lesson looks like. They could have been useful sessions as a student teacher, because I, as any teacher worth their salt, already know students are more engaged when things are hands on (duh), and I already know a lot of strategies for ELs, and about incorporating read alouds into science.

There's also this assumption that science teachers are terrified of the NGSS. I didn't go all the way to Long Beach to be reassured about new standards. Same with the Common Core. One, because I'm a new teacher, I'm starting with the new standards--I don't have to get used to some new change. But two, because I don't feel threatened by the standards. I think that it's really more the application of the standards, and not the standards themselves that are so frustrating. But I digress.

I think there are some other assumptions about lower elementary teachers that may actually be rooted in reality, and that may explain the lack of resources for kindergarten teachers who want to teach science. I think there isn't as much quality science being taught in kindergarten because a lot of elementary teachers don't have a strong science background. Because there is a lack of comprehensive knowledge, teachers avoid teaching it where possible, and with such an emphasis on math and reading in lower grades, it's pretty easy to get away with.

What's more, many adults, teachers included, have a wealth of misconceptions about science, that were ingrained at a young age, so when science is taught, it's not always taught well. Even teachers who don't have these misconceptions run the risk of perpetuating them with their students. Many misconceptions start out of truth, simplified into kid-friendly language. Trying to "dumb down" concepts, as it were, can be a dumb thing to do. What would have been great at this conference was a session (or twenty) on how to prevent misconceptions, how to teach complex topics to kindergarteners without creating these misconceptions, and some solid science content for teachers who don't have a comprehensive science background.

It wasn't all a loss though. I came away with some interesting resources, even if it was just a geological poster of California, some rock samples, and some sweet space pictures from NASA. I also came away with more enthusiasm and motivation to teach science, even though it's hard to fit in new things into an already packed day. Even if I don't manage to get organized enough this year, science will be a bit stronger from the beginning of the year next year.

I have to admit, though, that the best thing about Long Beach was wholly unrelated to the conference, but still teaching related. There was this GIANT used bookstore where every book was a dollar. I bought around 30 kids books for my classroom (and some were science books!). I really do have a children's book problem. I could have stayed there much much longer, and bought many more books, but I managed some self restraint.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

How to Teach Resilience to Kindergarteners (Spoiler Alert: the answer isn't here)

"Here’s the thing: I lose sleep because of you.  Every week.

[...] For some, you quit by throwing the day away and not even trying to write a sentence or a fraction because you think it doesn’t matter or you can’t or there’s no point. But it does. What you write is not the main event. The fact that you do take charge of our own fear and doubt in order to write when you are challenged — THAT is the main event.

The main event is not getting a number to tell you you are worthy. The main event is pulling your crap together and making hard choices and sacrifices when things seem impossible.  It is finding hope in the hopeless, courage in the chasm, guts in the grave. [...] What you need to see is that every time you take the easy way out, you are building a habit of quitting. 

[...] You can whine.  You can throw a tantrum.  You can shout and swear and stomp and cry.  And the next day, guess what?  I will be here waiting — smiling and patient — to give you a fresh start. 

Because you are worth it." -This Guy

Before you read any further, click the link and read the blog. It's not a long post and I couldn't agree with it more. I should probably just leave the link and call it a day, but alas, dear reader, you are not so lucky. So buckle up.

First, it's true. I lose sleep over my kiddos. Whether it's thanks to my long commute, too slowly becoming less inefficient prepping for each day, or the constant thoughts running through my mind of what I can do better, what more I can do for my students, what I'm doing wrong....and on and on and on forever, it's safe to say I don't often get enough sleep. Thank goodness for coffee.

So, despite how much of a roller coaster teaching kindergarten is, how terrible I occasionally feel days go, and how frustrated I get with my students, how sub par I feel I am doing,  I will always always always greet them with a smile in the morning. I will always always always ask for a hug or a high five at the end of the day. Because I care about them. I believe in them, and the power of an education. I am optimistic, and hopeful. I became a teacher because I believe that every student can learn. I became a teacher because I wanted a meaningful, rewarding job. Because working with kids is never boring. Because they constantly amaze me...because despite my shortcomings, and despite the challenges piled up against my students, they do learn, and they do grow, and I have to believe that I am somehow a part of that. And because I really do love them, and care for them, no matter how they drive me crazy.

So yes, my students make amazing academic strides throughout the year. But I think back to during my credential year, when one of my professors asked us what we wanted our students to get out of school. And not one of us wrote down academic content. Our goals were aligned not with the common core standards, but with different values--critical thinking, curiosity, perseverance, kindness and so on. At the end of the day, it's resilience and love of learning I want my students to learn. So how do you make this kid-friendly? How can you instill this resilience in a kindergartener?

It's amazing how quickly students give up when things get hard. And then they tell you "it's hard!" as if they'll get a "that's okay you can stop". It's almost funny how surprised and aghast kids can be when they sweat--as if that's a bad thing, as if that means something's wrong with them.

How do you teach students the importance of an education at 5? In an ideal world, this support would come from home. But how can a parent, who doesn't speak English, may not have completed high school, and is working hard just to pay the rent, know how to prepare their child for school? How do you teach a kid resilience in a system where they're already a step behind, whether it be poverty,  language, race, difficult home life or any and all combinations of those? School is hard for an English language learner, as many of my students are, and it is hard from Day 1 of Kindergarten. How do you help a student who may not understand you that it is important to persevere, to not give up, when it is challenging enough just getting them to sit and listen quietly to a story?

I don't have the answers yet. I may never have good answers. All I can do is keep learning, and keep trying. I am the first to admit I am not always a successful teacher. And yet I persevere--I have had the importance of education and hard work instilled in me from a young age, with parents who read to me, provided me with experiences, and made time to talk to me. I was lucky to attend school in my home language, where the barriers between me and learning were very thin.

I'll leave with this video. Every time someone posts a video of slam poetry online I end up watching like 15 more because slam poetry is pretty sweet. This one is a little heartbreaking though, because it touches upon some of the challenges from school districts that make teachers' jobs that much harder beyond the challenges the students walk in the door with. Luckily my school isn't as strict as the one this poet's sister is in, but there is some truth in the pressures I feel to follow pacing, use curriculum materials, and getting them to perform on various assessments when I don't believe it's what my students really need or benefit from.
As I become more confident of a teacher, I think I'll get better at balancing what's required of me and fitting in what my students need without wasting so much time on management. It may never be perfect, but at least I can keep learning, and keep improving. And until then, I'll do my best. At least on my difficult days, I still get some hugs, and even some "I love you Ms. Elson"s. So I'm reaching them somehow.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

May Your Days Be Merry & Bright!

“You live and learn. At any rate, you live.” -Douglas Adams

"The basis of optimism is sheer terror." -Oscar Wilde

I wish I could say that now that I have a year under my belt, I am having a significantly better year than last year. That classroom management is coming more easily, or that I am not spending as late of nights at school. If I did, I'd be lying. Yes, somethings are easier, more familiar, more comfortable, and I am ever so slightly more confident. That being said, this year (and, I anticipate, each year to come) is quite different from the last. 

This year I have all my kiddos all day, instead of an awkward 2 smaller half day groups that overlapped. There are pros and cons. Overall, I'd say it's a good move. But man, 8-3 is a LONG day for a kindergartener. Every day is a new adventure. Sometimes good, sometimes bad.

What hasn't changed is knowing that I am in the right career--My first week of break found me visiting a friend who teaches 6th grade, and spending a day in her classroom. Even on vacation, I often find myself voluntarily---happily--ending up back in a school. I love my job (even when it sounds like I don't).

Even though the days are long, the year has gone by so fast! I was working in my classroom last week, and changed my calendar for when we go back to school (January 5). I switched out 2014 for 2015. I wish I could capitalize numbers. 2015! A lot happened last year--I got my masters! I survived a year of teaching kindergarten! Friends got married! I went to Minnesota a bunch! I ran and biked a lot! I got to go on a "business trip" (ie science teachers conference)! I hit 30,000 miles on my car! I did a lot more stuff that's not coming to mind!  

I'm excited for what 2015 has to bring--like my 5 year Carleton reunion in June! I cannot believe it's been 5 years since graduating. I can't believe It's been 3 years since living in the Twin Cities. I'm a little nervous too--I'm going to need to make a big decision about my job/city/house in the spring if I don't want to continue my long Davis-Napa commute. But for now, I'll relax, because it's winter break, it's almost Christmas, and I'm heading to Bodega Bay for some good family time!

I have not forgotten about you, dear reader, 2015 will also bring you my reflections on the science conference I got to go to, some thoughts on teaching perseverance, and, best of all, a summary of my favorite part of the year: Dinocember/Janusaury (Dinouary?).

Until then, Happy Holidays and Happy New Year!

Monday, November 3, 2014

The Best Laid Plans

"Kids don't remember what you try to teach them. They remember what you are." -Jim Henson

"Teaching kids to count is fine, but teaching kids what counts is best." -Bob Talbert

Everything and anything can be a teachable moment.

As part of our curriculum we have to administer the SOLO assessment (which is an oral vocabulary assessment). I feel like most of what I've done this year is assess, assess, assess. Not sure when they expect me to teach the kids what I'm assessing, but that's a topic for another day.

This year, remembering where my students were weakest last year, I made sure to utilize certain words beyond where they came up in stories or themes. For example, "calendar" was a word my students struggled with last year. This year they did not! I was much more conscious, whenever we wrote the date in the daily message, to have students say, and point to, the calendar, and I said it more as well. Similarly, every day when we went to recess, or returned from recess, I made a point to use the word "gate" in a sentence. "Leo, will you open the gate for me?" "Kayla, can you make sure to close the gate?" "You don't need to touch the gate when you go through" etc. etc. And yet, the word "gate" was the weakest word of the assessment.

So my students may not pick up the vocabulary I'm trying so hard to teach them, but the words that do stick, are often not the ones you'd expect.

Case in point: the occupational therapist leant me a "Me Moves" dvd. There is calming music and various shots of different ages and cultures of people demonstrate the "moves" for students to follow. It involves moving your arms not to fast in various shapes--up and down, in circles, squares, alternating, and then the harder ones where your hands do different things.

It is very very difficult for my students to do anything quietly, and this calming, no-noise-necessary activity is no exception. Whenever the person on the screen would change, someone (and then everyone) felt it necessary to comment, as if we all don't have working eyes. They would shout "grandma!" "baby!" etc. When a person who looked Asian came on the screen, my students decided to shout "China". After failing to shush them, I paused the video, and told them that China is a country, and cannot be used to describe a person. China is a place, Chinese people live in China.

Initially, this shut them up, and we had a bit of productivity. However, now my students, when an Asian is the model on "me moves" they will say "no China, China is a country." No one even needs to try to say "China", they just jump ahead to "China is a country".

I can't get them to learn the word "gate" after saying it, gesturing to it, describing it, and using it a million times, but I say "China is a country" once, and they have that vocab down. Go figure.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

My Students' Lives > Your Right to Own a Gun

"Gun control? We need bullet control! I think every bullet should cost $5000. Because if a bullet cost five thousand dollars, we wouldn't have any innocent bystanders." -Chris Rock

I don't claim to know much about politics, and when I do it's education related. I haven't commented on Sandy Hook, or any of the far too many other school shootings since. Any of which are too many. But I've been thinking about it. And thinking about the right to bear arms, the constitution, and gun regulation. What it boils down to, for me, is that I have to think about what I would do if someone came onto my campus with a gun. I have thought about escape routes, where my kids could hide, if it makes sense to break open my window and have them run, rather than risk a gunman breaking through the opposite window. I have contemplated that I am lucky I have a window that looks out over the sidewalk--that there is another escape besides a window or door back into my campus.

But the thing is, as a teacher, I shouldn't have to think about this. I should be merrily contemplating the best way to engage my students in math, writing, reading, science, art etc. While I have no doubt I would lay down my life for my kids, I don't want to, nor should I have to.

But I have to think about this. Because for some reason a law can be passed quickly because of some idiots to ban Four Loko, and remove the caffeine from this grossish alcoholic beverage, but school shooting upon school shooting can happen, where little kids lose their lives through no fault of their own and nothing, NOTHING, happens. Because people are selfish, and an inflated idea about the constitution and what gun regulation does. I have no problem with people owning guns, learning how to use them safely, and even hunt. For none of that do you need an assault rifle.

Yes, criminals will still get their hands on guns, laws or no. But that is a terrible argument. Criminals get ahold of drugs despite the laws, why don't we legalize all drugs ever?

Yes, but the second amendment! Well, gun regulation still lets you own a gun, chill. But I'm pretty sure my right to LIFE should probably trump your right to own a gun. Just saying. And, just because it's an amendment doesn't mean it's sacred. At one point slavery was written into our laws. Sometimes laws become outdated *cough* gay marriage *cough*, and we should be able to change them. Pretty sure the ability to change laws was also written into our constitution.

Reading this teacher's account of lock down practices reminded me of all of this, and our practicing. Even when it's a drill, my heart is in my throat, panicking that one of my students is in the bathroom, or the door isn't locked even though I'm positive I turned the key.

Last year we had a real lock down. The only information we received was "This is a lock down". A million thoughts went through my mind, along with a jolt of fear. Whoever could be on campus to instigate this? We haven't done a drill--will my students be okay? We were, and it was *just* a mountain lion who'd come down from the hills and was close-ish to our school. I knew it was okay when they told us to resume normal classroom activity--but not to let anyone out until the all clear. (Of course as soon as I said we could talk again but no one could go to the bathroom, 9 hands shot up. "I have to pee!")

Sunday, June 22, 2014

I Survived!

"While we try to teach our children all about life, our children teach us what life is all about." ~Angela Schwindt

I attended 3 graduations this season: My cousin graduated from high school, which was a good excuse for some quality family time and a mini-Arizona vacation. My kindergarteners had a ceremony, complete with songs that would be stuck in my head for weeks, about counting, spelling, months of the year, school and goodbyes. Finally, I had a fancy graduation gown complete with ridiculous sleeves and a hood in celebration of getting my Masters degree. Graduations are joyous affairs, and celebratory occasions, though surviving my first year of teaching felt like more of an accomplishment than my academic one.

Survived is a good way to put it. This year I have wondered whether I'm really cut out to be a teacher--much less a kindergarten teacher. I have felt like I was failing my students, and my school. I felt like I was in over my head, and one step from completely losing it. 
I have also had small moments of success, and overwhelming moments of awe, at how much my students learned and progressed throughout the year--and how much I have learned. I have been floored at the loving reactions from my students, despite whatever happened during the day. I am grateful for a job in which, no matter what challenges I faced the previous day, I am still able to greet the next day with a smile. And I will greet next year's kinders each day with the same, no matter how I feel inside.

I am scared that next year the first grade teachers will be like oh, this student must be from Amy's class. I'm nervous that I can't use being a first-year teacher as an excuse anymore. I'm scared that even though a few people at school commented that I had a challenging group this year, that it was actually an average group, and I'm not sure I'm ready for feeling not in control of my classroom again. 

But I'm also excited to move to full day kindergarten. I'm excited to try again, with so much more knowledge and tools under my belt. I'm excited to be at the same school and see my students react to first grade. I'm excited for a fresh start--with new technology and doing everything just a little bit better this time around.

For now, it is summer. And summer means sleeping, finally cleaning my room, biking, running, traveling, eating, drinking, reading, and much less driving. In many ways, teachers need the breaks more than students do--to recharge for a new year. A burnt out teacher is no fun--when you need to be on every minute of the day, even if you feel off, vacation is essential. Summer vacation is more than just one of the few perks of being a teacher--it is a necessity. 

So happy summer, dear readers! Considering my school starts in mid-August, it will be a short and sweet one.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Play is Academic

"Children need the freedom and time to play. Play is not a luxury. Play is a necessity." -Kay Redfield Jamison

My students surprise me sometimes, at just how academic their play can be, when they seem so resistant to the same stuff during instruction. Some of my kids (most of them really) LOVE to play teacher. And they break out my alphabet cards, write sight words, and have others practice reading. And yet, when I'm reading with them they won't sit still. But they need this time to process what they learn, and to practice. Without play, it's in one ear, and out the other. Kindergarteners need play time, and there is so little time.

Today, my morning kids got some free time as I finished math assessments.

A little boy who started this year with zero English, (and who is absolutely adorable and my I-don't-have-favorites-but-maybe-if-I-had-to-choose-he'd-be-it kinder, who isn't always the best at staying in his seat or attending on the rug, but gets a great big hug at the end of the day and always wants his high-five higher), is making amazing language and academic progress, though he's still below grade level.

He's sitting, alone at his desk, happily building an alphabet block castle. He makes it, and I capture a picture. I check out what other kids are doing and glance back a couple minutes later. He's just sitting at his desk, staring at his tower. He then looks up at me and says, "I'm trying to read it."
He was trying to read a bunch of mostly consonants in his tower--to perhaps very little success, as he is one of my lower readers--but he was engrossed, and as a teacher, that was the highlight of my day.

And it made me realize, while I am exhausted, and excited for summer, I sure am going to miss these children who put me through hell.