Monday, December 19, 2011

I am AmeriCorps and So Can You!

Working with kids can make you feel both old and young. Just ask a kid how old they think you are. I've gotten in the 30s sometimes, and today this conversation occurred with one of my 3rd graders:
Me: Okay, let's read this paragraph together.
Him: How old are you?
Me: 23.
Him: That was unexpected.
Me: Um, how old did you think I was?
Him: 16.
I suppose I shouldn't judge, I also have a terrible concept of age. But I feel like I at the very least look like I've graduated high school.

Shoot, I'm now a year and a half out of college. It feels like it wasn't that long ago, and now I'm applying for grad schools. I submitted an application to the University of Minnesota, for their teaching program, leaving my options open to stay in Minnesota, but I'm also applying to two California schools. So as I'm preparing to go onto my next step in life, who's going to fill my role at my school? Well dear reader, you can!

Here's my plug for the Minnesota Reading Corps:
The application just opened December 15th, and for anyone who has read about my experience and thought, gee, I'd like to do that! Well, you can. Check out  Or, if you'd prefer to work with slightly older kids, and do math, you can always join the Minnesota Math Corps! (Check out Imagine changing a child's life. Now multiply that by the 1,100 tutors the Reading Corps hopes to place all over Minnesota next year. You too can be a part of it all. You too can make a difference.

As long as I'm promoting things, I'd like to share with you an inspiring project that my friend Kate is undertaking. It's called "Walking Walls: A Photographic Journey, for Peace." She's hoping to address the question "What happens to communities and individuals when a political, physical wall divides a land and a people that were once whole?" by traveling the borders in Cyprus, Northern Ireland and Israel. Check it out here.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

I don't care about your color or your creed, I will judge you for no reason.

...But your deeds.

So Tim Minchin is this hilarious comedic musician (see also his bit on the power of language) who has a great song (lyrics linked above) that you can't find him performing anywhere because of copyright. But anyway, it's about context. Which is very important.

Outside of a dog, a book is a man's best friend. Inside of a dog, it's too dark to read. -Groucho Marx

Remember when you were younger and ran into your teacher at a grocery store, and totally didn't recognize them? Or nowadays, if you're walking downtown and walk by someone who is soooo familiar, but you just can't place them? And after the fact you realize you work with them, or went to school with them? Well, that's super common--and I remember learning about the phenomenon in intro psych.

It's interesting when you're on the other side--when the other person is the one who is confused by how familiar you look. I ran into a 2nd grader last year at the Minnesota Zoo, and said hello in passing. And he just stared blankly and almost didn't seem to notice that I said hello. I saw another kid at the Martin Luther King Day festivities-he was in the boy scout procession with some flag, and I also said hello. He kind of looked at me seemingly uncomprehending the situation. If you're so used to seeing someone in a certain place, you don't ever expect to see them in another, so you might just totally miss them in any other situation. It's like the opposite of the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon, where you learn a new word, or meet a new person and then all of a sudden--they're everywhere! You never noticed it before, but it's not because it's occurring more often, but because you now actually have a reason to notice.

Interestingly enough, in both these situations when I saw the students at school the next day, they were overly enthusiastic about the fact that I saw them--They practically shouted at me. Where was this reaction when I actually saw them the day before? Well, now that they had time to process the situation, it was a special event. For all they know I live at the school and have zero life outside. Plus, they also now have friends to whom they can brag.

Although, my students are relatively aware of my life outside of school--Kim visited again, and now I have a whole host of kids who now continually ask about my sister. This was a month ago now, and I still get "Are you the real Miss Amy?" "Where's your twin?" Shoot, the other day I had a kid ask if she was married, or has a boyfriend. (Followed by those same questions about me). So curious. But again, makes you realize how much kids pay attention to the adults in their lives, that my sister was a big enough event in the lives of students who I don't even directly work with that they still comment on it basically daily.

I wonder though, if I move back to California for grad school, how quickly they might forget me. People are adaptable, and I know I have an awful memory--but if I come back to visit, how well might they remember me? Will I have even made a big enough difference in their lives to merit being remembered even years from now--into middle school, or high school? I don't remember many adults from my elementary school outside of my classroom teachers, so I can't expect much. At least I'll remember them. I can only hope I've made a fraction of the impact on their lives that they have on mine. I know that sounds horribly cheesy and/or cliché, but, while it's still a while off, I am dreading saying goodbye.
Now, we're back to the beginning
It's just a feeling and no one knows yet
But just because they can't feel it too
Doesn't mean that you have to forget
Let your memories grow stronger and stronger
'Til they're before your eyes
You'll come back
When they call you
No need to say goodbye.
 -Regina Spektor, The Call

Friday, September 30, 2011

Great Expectations

"Children are likely to live up to what you believe of them." -Lady Bird Johnson

"Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid." -Albert Einstein

Children are incredible perceptive, whether they are fully aware of it or not. And they take their cues from adults, the media, the general public, the government even. It may not be said directly, but some kids are not expected by the adults in their lives to do well in school, or to graduate, or to go to college, or to do much of anything. Which is sad--every kid has enormous potential, but when we separate them, we set them on an expected path for success, mediocracy, or failure--say in tracts in high school (AP/Honors, Vocational, etc.), or segregate schools. Yes, I suppose that's a charged word. But don't try to tell me that students aren't segregated. No, not by the color of their skin necessarily (although that is often the case as it ends up), but mostly socio-economically, based on neighborhood and whether they have the resources for private school, or have the chance to go to a successful charter school. It wouldn't be an issue if everyone were given access to the same resources at schools--then it shouldn't matter as much if your neighborhood happens to be all white, or all hispanic, or all whatever you might be. I suppose this is why some cities do city-wide bussing--but St. Paul just moved back toward a neighborhood school model. (With certain schools--like mine, unique in its arts-integration--keeping city-wide bussing).

But this isn't just on a school-wide level--where some schools, based on population are expected to do better, but on a personal level as well. If a teacher gets it into their head that a student is a low performer, or has poor behavior, you know what? That student will continuously perform well or behave poorly. Kids have a knack for meeting your expectations. It may not be at a conscious level, but a teacher will treat a student differently based on expectations, whether it's slightly less individual attention, or unknowingly giving up early on a kid, the kid will feel it. Recently-ish I came across this article (Thanks Stefani/twitter!) about the Stanford Prison Experiment, which was all very interesting (me being a psych major and all), but maybe not directly education related, until....
"One thing that I thought was interesting about the experiment was whether, if you believe society has assigned you a role, do you then assume the characteristics of that role? I teach at an inner city high school in Oakland. These kids don't have to go through experiments to witness horrible things. But what frustrates my colleagues and me is that we are creating great opportunities for these kids, we offer great support for them, why are they not taking advantage of it? Why are they dropping out of school? Why are they coming to school unprepared? I think a big reason is what the prison study shows—they fall into the role their society has made for them." -Richard Yacco
Yacco summed up what I could probably never put into a nice, succinct, eloquent statement. And touched upon a point that I see so much at school. We do our best to teach our kids to be good people--be nice to others, blah blah blah. And it seems like they get it--that they understand and see where we're coming from, and then the next thing you know, this sweet kid is in the office for hitting another kid.

So what do you do? I don't know, you tell me. I'm just going to pay attention to how I treat my students, and consciously continue to believe in the potential of every last one of them.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Sharing is Caring

My first couple of weeks have been great, mainly because it's refreshing to be back with the kids at school. As much fun as I had in August helping out teachers and being around the school and not having to dress nice, and chatting with staff members, having students in the building reminded me why I am here. And it's so different coming in knowing kids and staff--I feel so much more confident going into this year than I did for the first half of last year. However, I've also had this slow-motion start. For a lot of different reasons, my first couple of weeks have been pretty unstructured and un-busy. This won't be for much longer-I'll start working with kids soon, and it'll all be good. But until then, I've spent some time making little tasks last longer than necessary, and reading up on some online news articles. Which I could argue are mostly education related, and so helps with my professional development, so it's okay that I'm doing this at work. Anyway, I thought I'd make this post a little share-fest, with no overarching theme.
We should take great care not to kill the idealism of the younger generation. [...]  AmeriCorps is not a cure-all for that adversity, but it will give more hope, and research shows some impressive returns for the communities served by AmeriCorps, as well as for the members themselves. For a small living stipend and a scholarship after service is complete, AmeriCorps members meet pressing local and national needs. They invest in their country, and their country invests in them.
Let's think about this for a moment: America needs jobs. America needs to figure out its budget. But what the government wants to cut are programs like AmeriCorps. Well gee, that makes so much sense. Let's cut a program that not only provides jobs, but jobs where the employees are serving in tough areas for not a lot of money. And what is AmeriCorps reminiscent of? The Civilian Conservation Corps, which Franklin Roosevelt successfully started to address unemployment during the Great Depression.

“This push on tests,” he told me, “is missing out on some serious parts of what it means to be a successful human.”  
“All kids this age are having mini-implosions every day,” he said. “I mean, it’s middle school, the worst years of their lives. But the kids who make it are the ones who can tell themselves: ‘I can rise above this little situation. I’m O.K. Tomorrow is a new day.’ ”
“The idea of building grit and building self-control is that you get that through failure,” Randolph explained. “And in most highly academic environments in the United States, no one fails anything.” 
Besides the sweet pictures that go along with this article (seriously, take a second look-they're way cooler than they seem), these ideas of character traits and success fascinated me, psych major that I am. What I think most interested me was the discussion of the difference between the population who attends expensive private schools and KIPP school students. 

When implementing a character curriculum, you could give KIPP students a "character point average," and it would be motivating to work on weaknesses because it's been shown that these traits help get into college. But for the private school kids, character would just become another test to beat. College wouldn't be the same motivation, because there is never any question about whether those kids are going to college. Either way though, character is important. Those who have certain traits--like grit or zest, are more likely to succeed and persevere through the challenges of college.

The application of such research-based strategies to homework is a yet-untapped opportunity to raise student achievement. Science has shown us how to turn homework into a potent catalyst for learning. Our assignment now is to make it happen.
It's frustrating to see that there is so much research out there that helps illuminate how kids best learn, and what works and what doesn't in schools, but that for the most part, policy makers are running in the opposite direction, mostly for monetary reasons. 

The most credible analyses have shown that the chief causes were not demographics or TV watching, but vast curricular changes, especially in the critical early grades. In the decades before the Great Verbal Decline, a content-rich elementary school experience evolved into a content-light, skills-based, test-centered approach.
Verbal scores on the SATs have been declining. Not just verbal scores--today we looked at our MCA test results and everyone in St. Paul declined in math. Reading was mixed. But no one was too close to the 100% NCLB wants for 2014. It's not realistic. Not if the results you demand basically ends up with teaching to tests. Tests that aren't necessarily fair in the first place. And now you're not fostering a love of learning, you're creating an environment where kids don't want to be. It's heartbreaking when every now and then a kid tells me he or she hates school. Yes, we need standards, and objective measures, but we also need kids to graduate--and be literate.

“The real take-home message,” said Peter Ellison, a professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard who was not involved in the study, is that “male parental care is important. It’s important enough that it’s actually shaped the physiology of men. Unfortunately,” Dr. Ellison added, “I think American males have been brainwashed” to believe lower testosterone means that “maybe you’re a wimp, that it’s because you’re not really a man. My hope would be that this kind of research has an impact on the American male. It would make them realize that we’re meant to be active fathers and participate in the care of our offspring.”
 This article is about how fathers, especially those involved in their children's lives show lowered testosterone levels. It reminded me of a conversation I had with a teacher about one of her students last year. T can be a trouble maker, but he'll admit it. He knows right from wrong, he just has poor impulse control. He also looks up to his dad--last year he was almost in tears because his dad said he'd come to this school event, but hadn't shown up. Unfortunately, his dad isn't the role model T needs--seems to care more about his car than his kid. So his testosterone is probably as high as it ever was. It's heartbreaking, because there's so much potential, and so much a teacher can't control. Especially when most teachers are female--boys need strong male role models, and so many just aren't getting them.

Spears and other researchers argue that this sort of decision fatigue is a major — and hitherto ignored — factor in trapping people in poverty. Because their financial situation forces them to make so many trade-offs, they have less willpower to devote to school, work and other activities that might get them into the middle class.
Decision fatigue is an interesting topic that is putting a name to something many of us already experience. The more decisions you make throughout the day, the less will power you'll eventually have. Once you've depleted those energy stores, there are two common responses. One, is impulsive--buy that Cosmopolitan or that pack of gum when checking out at a grocery store. Get some fries on your way home from work. Buy some shoes/books/movies that you don't really need online. Maybe this is why I (and my parents) often go to REI for one thing, and walk out with five. Spend enough time picking out the item we came for, and get distracted by that nice sweater on sale.  The second response is to maintain the status quo--stick with the default choice, or avoid making a choice at all. This is why people who are up for parole are more likely to get it if they're early in the day--once the decision fatigue sinks in, keeping someone in jail is the safer choice, and can be changed later.

And just like anything I post on this blog, there's the connection to education, which stuck out to me. Even though my kids may not be making most of their decisions--there parents are making those tough trade offs for them--the effect of decision fatigue is still going to hurt them. If their parents don't have the energy to focus on education, you lose some support from home, and parental support is a huge factor in success in school.


The main reason I'm sharing this article is for the following quote:
When I asked Bogin to explain Shchedrovitsky, he asked a question. “Does 2 + 2 = 4? No! Because two cats plus two sausages is what? Two cats. Two drops of water plus two drops of water? One drop of water.” 
Bogin is the founder of the New Humanitarian School in Moscow, where the author sent his three kids while he was living in Russia as a NYTimes foreign correspondent. It was interesting to read about the challenges they went through--but also that this school was not like one you might expect from Russia. One small part of the article that struck me the most was the brief discussion of the almost rebellious success of the school, and the government's reaction-or lack thereof.
He had devised a compelling model that could help rescue the education system. But he was ignored [...] “The authorities do not prevent him from working, but they don’t have any use for him either,” Fadeyev said. “They don’t understand that education reform is the only real source for the revitalization of our country.”
And it struck me that maybe, as high and mighty Americans think we are compared to other countries in terms of democracy and freedom and such, maybe we're not that different from Russia in that we're overlooking education. Overlooking what works best for our children in favor of what looks best from the perspective of lawmakers, and in favor of not spending money.

But how do we expect to entice the best and brightest to become teachers when we keep tearing the profession down? We take the people who so desperately want to make a difference that they enter a field where they know that they’ll be overworked and underpaid, and we scapegoat them as the cause of a societywide failure. 
I’m not saying that we shouldn’t seek to reform our education system. We should, and we must. Nor am I saying that all teachers are great teachers. They aren’t. But let’s be honest: No profession is full of peak performers. At least this one is infused with nobility. 
 Well, maybe if we start treating teachers with the respect they deserve, then the best and brightest may stick around. There are some amazing teachers out there--I work alongside many of them--but it's hard when everyone higher on the food chain beats them down and institutes policies that make them put in more work than necessary, you take some of their energy from pursuing their passion, and pour it down the drain of stupid requirements that takes the fun and creativity out of teaching. 

It's heartening to find articles that back up what I'm thinking about--it means that I'm not having these crazy radical thoughts, and that as it turns out I do, in fact, have a grasp on reality. It gives me hope that if others are thinking what I'm thinking, then these ideas should ideally trickle to the top, and change, for the better, can occur.


Well, that may have been longer than intended. (Shocking, I know. I'm always so concise.) Gold stars to anyone who made it this far. I will literally give you a sticker if you read this whole post. One per article you took the time to read. Goodness knows I have enough stickers. A whole drawer full of them at work, just waiting for my kids (or friends) to do a good job. 

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

My New "Job"

"Well," said Pooh, "what I like best," and then he had to stop and think. Because although Eating Honey was a very good thing to do, there was a moment just before you began to eat it which was better than when you were, but he didn't know what it was called." -A.A. Milne

I hated every minute of training, but I said, "Don't quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion." -Muhammad Ali

So last week I had training for my new job. Some things I learned:
  • Minnesota Reading Corps, approaching 800 members, is the largest AmeriCorps organization in the country.
  • Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton, when he speaks, has a repetitive gesturing pattern. (Also, cool that he came and spoke at our training.)
  • John Gomperts is the director of AmeriCorps--he spoke at our training too, and proceeded to skip a line of our pledge (but then fixed it).
  • Target is EVERYWHERE in Minnesota. Every possible event or organization seems to list Target as a sponsor/donor. MRC is no exception.
  • When I keep myself constantly full of caffeinated beverages, I don't fall asleep when I'm bored. (at Carleton, I fell asleep during several classes that were WAY more interesting than training.)
  • Like just about everything I do, there is a huge gender imbalance in the MRC. We had a men's restroom converted into a women's, and there were still long lines at breaks. 
So wait, did I learn anything worthwhile? You know, pertinent to my job? Well, yeah. I learned (slower than I would have liked) the assessments and interventions I'll be using with my students. But not until the second half of day 2 did any real learning happen. Day 1 was just a bunch of introduction stuff, where we went over what we were supposed to have read for "homework." The first half of Day 2 was a bunch of speakers--the governor, some lady from Target, another from the United Way, the director of AmeriCorps, the director of MRC...all basically patting us on the back for taking part in this great organization, blah blah blah, and making some crack about the "sea of red" in the audience--red is the MRC color, and we all had to wear red on day 2. 

Plus, a couple hours that morning was getting to know the coach at our school site, and the other members at our site. But wait, sorry Amy, you're the only one at your site AND have no coach yet! So I spent that time getting more tea, and taking yet another bathroom break. Luckily, I wasn't freaking out, because I didn't have burning questions about my school, given that I've worked there, and have done a year of AmeriCorps.

Things got better from that disappointment of a morning--I actually got a picture of what my time will be like with the students. But, having worked with kids reading, and having done some testing for some teachers last year, I picked up the material pretty fast. So it was useful, but boring and slow. And, to make it better, we had to practice the assessments with each other. Which is totally unrealistic--one, we make the most well behaved kids. And two, it's hard to make mistakes sound natural. I felt like an idiot looking at a b, but saying p. or looking at a q and saying g, so that my partner could practice the error correction procedure. I suppose practice makes perfect, and we might as well not be stumbling over words when we work with kids. 

Really, the best part of training was hanging out with my friend Jessie, and getting whatever they had for snack--one day it was ice cream bars, another cupcakes. Mmmmmm. So take that as you will, I'm just ready for school to start again. 

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Every new beginning comes from some other beginning's end

How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.  -Winnie-the-Pooh

To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of leave the world a better know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded. -Ralph Waldo Emerson

It's the last week of school. Despite being a year-round year (read: longer than usual), it certainly hasn't felt like it. It's bittersweet. While I'll be at the same school next year, it's going to be in a different building, and a few new faces. It's hard to know that a lot of these kids I may never see again. Some kids are changing schools to be closer to home, others are moving. And next week, I have Reading Corps training, so fear not dear reader! My blog will continue.

As I wrap up my year--I just picked up the yearbooks that I designed for the school--and the 6th grade graduation is tomorrow--and I had end of year evaluations with my supervisors (all positive!), and an exit interview in 3 days from my program, I wonder what difference did I make? Did I "get things done for America," as per the Americorps motto? And I would have to answer yes. Yes, I did. Maybe not on a large scale. Maybe I didn't close the achievement gap, but I certainly felt like if I was a necessary part of my school's community. 

I made strides with kids who were below reading or math levels. I became a friend, teacher, sometimes mother-ish figure to my students. Almost every student in the school knows my name. I don't really know why--I barely spent any time in classrooms above the 4th grade, and while I know the name of almost every kid in the school, I certainly don't know all of them. Yet today, as I was chatting with their teacher, a few 4th grade girls came up and gave me hugs. For what? I don't know. But elementary school kids love hugs, I'll tell you that. Even the 5th and 6th graders. They're getting to the age (almost jr. high kids) where they're too cool for adults. Well, that's the front they put up at least. But I would wager that most of them still like being kids. 

Case in point: The 2nd-5th graders went on this skating/funzone field trip on Monday, and a bunch of kids came home with these arcade/vending machine toys--blow up hammers and such. But the most popular toy? Light up pacifiers. What? I didn't get it. This 5th grader who tries to act older than his age (not helped by his parents clearly--listens to Eminem and probably is watching TV/movies that are for more mature audiences than him), comes in after school with a pacifier. Not so tough now, are you?

Still it's amazing how much kids have grown in a year--when I first started putting together the yearbook, just looking at their fall pictures made everyone look like babies compared to how they look now. And realizing how much they've learned throughout the year is incredible. It's also interesting to compare how I was at the beginning of the year to now--I am so much more confident and comfortable in my roll at school--whether with discipline, making copies, or whatever. 

I'm so happy I get to be a part of the same community next year, even with the changes. I've discovered that community is a really important thing for me--it would have been hard to leave the school after just one year. The relationships I've formed would seem a waste to end after just one year. It's why I stayed in Minnesota after graduating from college--having the opportunity to visit Carleton several times this year made graduating easier. It's also why I'm torn as to whether to go to grad school in California or Minnesota. But that's a conversation for another time. Instead, I'm going to make the most of being a part of this community. I feel so lucky. And I'm not the only one. Recently a parent of a 6th grader and an alum brought the teachers treats as a thank you for all the school had done for her kids. And another family made 400 empanadas to sell with concessions for the musical, and also as a treat for the staff. They were so delicious! In addition to families, there were a lot of jr. high and high school kids--alums of the school--who had come back to see the play. 

Basically, even though I make much less than minimum wage, it's totally worth it because I LOVE my job, and just about everything about it. It almost seems wrong that I could be doing something so much less fulfilling, but making so much more money. I guess any job I have after this, no matter how bad the pay, will make me feel rich! At any rate, I'll get by on my little living stipend because I'm so happy with my life.

Related to my last post: Thanks to my friend Michelle for sending me this article to me about the realities of summer learning loss.
"Until our nation addresses summer learning loss, efforts to close the achievement gap will continue to fall short."

Also, another reason to love Matt Damon:

Thursday, June 23, 2011

What Summer Vacation? or, My Case for Year Round Education

The bigger the summer vacation the harder the fall. -Unknown

People don't notice whether it's winter or summer when they're happy. -Anton Chekhov

Everyone else is done with school, but I work through the first week of August. And you know what, I love it.

Today I was eating lunch in the staff lounge, as usual, and the upcoming move and transition to a traditional calendar came up, as it often does. And one teacher mentioned that the district seems to be interested in year round education--might then, in the future, think about having more than the one year round school they'll have next year.

Umm, excuse me district, do you realize that you're changing a perfectly good year round program to a traditional schedule? I know given the budget cuts that those extra months of bussing is expensive, but all of a sudden now you might look into it? Really, I don't get how the administration makes decisions. When it should be, first and foremost, what can I do for the kids, the kids end up last on the list of priorities. So frustrating. We'd best be the first school they convert to year round if that's something they're interested in, that's all I've got to say.

So next year, I'm going to miss having a year round school. Why? I think it's good thing for everyone involved. It works well with the set up of my school--a lot of the summer term is spent on the all-school musical. The only hard thing is that everyone else--older siblings, neighborhood kids etc. are out of school. So kids get antsy, sometimes attendance drops, and there are more kids who roll in late. But that's partially due to the tradition of a summer break. That's all it is really--because that's how it's always been, that's "how it's supposed to be". But why? Adults work year round, and now they have to find childcare on their own while they're at work. So why not just keep the kids in school? Parents don't have to worry about them, and the kids have less time to get themselves into trouble. Plus research doesn't seem to lean one way or the other in favor of year-round education.

It's especially good for students who are of lower economic status, because they're less likely to afford fancy camps or have enrichment at home in terms of educational games, more books, parent support and resources to maintain academic progress at home. So maybe some middle-upper class family may disagree with year round education because they can't take their trip to Europe or whatever, because they think their kid needs that break from school. It's not that you don't get breaks--every ten weeks (or something) you get a 3 week break, 2 of which are optional (and more low key) classes.

But I think the breaks are the best part of a year round schedule! It's good for the staff too--kids and teachers alike can get burnt out. And with more frequent (and shorter) breaks, you can spend more time refreshed for work instead of slowly counting down the days to summer. And there's still a month off in the summer, which is longer than the other breaks.

And it does make sense--there's always that period of review at the beginning of the year. Any kid will lose something over the summer, take a step back in their studies. If there's a shorter break, there's less of a loss. I think it's worth the effort to add air conditioning to some buildings and spend the money on bussing. (I feel like air conditioning is literally the only thing keeping my school from getting to continue as a year round school. And they probably chose our relocation site so that they could take that away from us. I wouldn't put it past them--they did try to shut us down after all.)

Maybe some of my love for year-roundedness is selfish--and works out well for my Americorps program. I get random weeks off that no one else does, and when summer comes I still have regular hours and don't have to scramble to find work to fulfill my hours. Still, I wouldn't make the case if I didn't also think it was beneficial to the students. Ultimately, I'm not working for myself, the school district, the other teachers, or my supervisors. No, I'm working for the kids.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Money Money Money, Must Be Funny, In A Rich Man's World

"If all the rich and all of the church people should send their children to the public schools they would feel bound to concentrate their money on improving these schools until they met the highest ideals." -
Susan B. Anthony

"In recent years, we've become enamored with our own past success. Lulled into complacency by the glitter of our own achievements. We've become accustomed to the title of Military Superpower, forgetting the qualities that got us there. We've become accustomed to our economic dominance in the world, forgetting that it wasn't reckless deals and get rich quick schemes that got us where we are, but hard work and smart ideas, quality products and wise investments." -Barack Obama, Arizona State Commencement Speech, 2009

My dad has been saving articles about education from the NY Times for me. And they're good--but kind of depressing. Being part of a school impacted by budget cuts, I see first hand what's going on on a larger scale. And reading these articles, I see that it's not just St. Paul, or Minnesota, or Davis, or California that are affected. (The elementary school I attended was closed due to budget cuts while I was in college.) It's Levittown, Pennsylvania, or South Bronx, New York. It's *insert almost any city in the US.* I went to a school board meeting last month, and half of it was a budget presentation. And most of the public comments were complaining about budget cuts--everyone had a story, and a program or job that was unfairly shafted with the new proposal. But there's simply not enough money to go around.

Unfortunately, money speaks louder than what research/logic shows is best for kids. Dave Eggers and Nínive Clements Calegari wrote a great article titled "The High Cost of Low Teacher Salaries." The way America values and views the job of teaching affects education. Eggers and Calegari compared how we handle failures in education with failures in the military:
When we don’t get the results we want in our military endeavors, we don’t blame the soldiers. We don’t say, “It’s these lazy soldiers and their bloated benefits plans! That’s why we haven’t done better in Afghanistan!” No, if the results aren’t there, we blame the planners. We blame the generals, the secretary of defense, the Joint Chiefs of Staff. No one contemplates blaming the men and women fighting every day in the trenches for little pay and scant recognition.

And it's true--instead of giving schools extra funding and help so that they can better serve their youth, we take away funding.
There are some wonderful teachers out there who make amazing strides with the children they teach. But these days, it's in spite of the budget (or lack of), and in spite of standardized testing. From another article titled "The Math of Heartbreak," a teacher said "You want to be able to say that the amount of money you have to work with doesn't matter, and you can do the same quality job with less. And we can try to do that, but in what other enterprise is that true?" Unfortunately, money makes the world go round.

Money doesn't buy happiness--but to be happy you still need enough to get by. According to happiness research, there is a correlation between money and happiness--to a point. Once you reach a certain amount of money, your happiness won't increase by getting more. That certain amount though, is the amount to live comfortably. And if you're struggling to get by, as a teacher, how is that going to help your students? The more outside stressors there are, the less energy you're going to have for your kids. And for some of them, you're the last line of defense for a better future, because they're not getting much help in their home life. And instead of empowering kids, the government is telling them they don't care enough about their future to afford everyone a quality education, regardless of color, gender, socioeconomic status, what have you.

Yes, I know the government is having budget issues. And you know what's really going to make a difference? Not cutting the education budget. Because that's an investment in the future. And the amount you're saving now is just pocket change compared to the amount you need to fix the budget. It's like expecting the economy to be fixed because we cut funding for NPR. It's an investment to close the achievement gap--which by slashing the budget we're maintaining--and increasing the gap, and the cycle of poverty. Which it seems that a lot of (rich white male) members of government don't care about, because they're not personally affected by it.

Eggers and Calegari briefly address the money issue:
For those who say, “How do we pay for this?” — well, how are we paying for three concurrent wars? How did we pay for the interstate highway system? Or the bailout of the savings and loans in 1989 and that of the investment banks in 2008? How did we pay for the equally ambitious project of sending Americans to the moon? We had the vision and we had the will and we found a way.

We're AMERICA for goodness sakes. With liberty and justice for all. Those shouldn't just be words, or an ideal. America stands for freedom and equality, but we're not doing a very good job at living up to that. Education has the potential to even the playing field, so to speak. We can do better.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Keep Calm And Carry On

"How great is life today?" -Scott Heinig

People do not die for us immediately, but remain bathed in a sort of aura of life which bears no relation to true immortality but through which they continue to occupy our thoughts in the same way as when they were alive.  It is as though they were traveling abroad.  ~Marcel Proust

Warning: This post is going to be a little less specifically education, and a little more general life issues...but I'll tie it in somehow.

So "Keep calm and carry on" was a little used British propaganda piece from WWII that I am seeing everywhere now. There it was as a poster in the house where I dog sat. A postcard in the window of a track coach's office. Someone's username on some online social network-y site. Some stranger's t-shirt. I don't know whether there's been a resurgence in popularity, or if it's always been around. But I suppose it's decent advice. And in some sense what I already do--I don't think it's in my personality to get super stressed out about anything--especially at work. If I were easily stressed, lunch room duty would kill me. But it's also what helps to get through the day when outside-of-work stressors strike. Which they have.

My roommate said that death often seems to come in threes. Which it kind of has--first someone who graduated college with me went missing and was found dead months later. Then a freshman at my alma mater dies in a car crash. Sure I didn't know either of these people, but I still feel so connected to my alma mater, and the fact that they were so young shook me up a bit. And then I found out that a guy from my 6th grade class (who I also went to Jr. High and High School with) died in a fall. And it's taking it's time to really sink in. I think I saw him once since graduating high school--I ran into him at the gym and we chatted and he was the same cute, friendly, and all around great guy I knew years ago. He's one of those guys you don't really forget.

In the past few years my family's three cats died. And each time I was over here in Minnesota. Which means I never got the same closure as I did back in 3rd grade when we put our old dog to sleep. So I still expect to see a cat when I visit home--even though there are none anymore. Which I think is why I've also had mini crying spells when it suddenly hits me that Scott is gone. Especially when I think about when I knew him best--he was one of the leads in my 6th grade class' musical. And remembering that has increased exponentially since the school I work at is starting to think about and prepare for their summer musical. And the fact that I see the 6th grade classes every day. I hope all of these kids make it past their 22nd year. They're facing more challenges than Scott or I did--most of them are going against the odds--statistically more of them may end up in jail than college, given that my school is mostly students of color and of a lower socio-economic status.

It's been an odd couple of weeks. Everything seems to remind me of Scott. And it's making me think a lot more about death--and about appreciating the people in my life right now. And while it will be less depressing when the memory isn't fresh, I still want to remember him in 10 years. Because while there are a ton of people from high school for whom I couldn't care less about where they ended up (not that I want them dead, it just doesn't matter what they ended up doing with their lives), Scott was going to be one I'd be interested to see at reunions. But here's the thing--No one really close to me has died, and I don't know how I'll react if they do. Let's hope I don't find out for a long time. I can't imagine if I were Scott's family, close friends, or girlfriend. That would be even more awful than it already is.

At least, it seems clear that Scott lived a full life for his 22 years and was very loved. Which is more than some people can say. One of the reasons I worry about the kids I work with is because a lot of their home lives are unpredictable. The Kindergarden teacher with whom I work the most told me that this one girl who has major behavior issues and is also the only one who still can't write her own name, told her about how her mom gets drunk, throws up and passes out. At 5, she really shouldn't be learning the effects of alcohol, but that's her life. How much can one teacher offset the damage that has already been done? Maybe not a lot, but you do what you can. You can't fix everything, but I suppose if you can make a little bit of difference, it can mean the world to someone. The other day I was walking with a first grade class down the hall and a boy grabs my hand and says "I love you Miss Amy." And during lunch, one of his classmates said "I want you to be my mom!" I can't control what their lives outside of school is like, but hopefully I can insert some extra love and happiness into their school life, for the brief window that I am part of their lives. Because life goes on, and all things considered, it is pretty great today--I made some kids smile, helped them read, learn math and got some hugs, and will have a home cooked meal with my close friends/roommates.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Parenting 101

"Children learn to smile from their parents." -Shinichi Suzuki

Teachers get all this flack for how our nation's youth are turning out. Probably it's because it's something you can (try to) quantify. Because it's more within the government's jurisdiction. Possibly because you can't tell a person they're a bad parent or don't have their child's best interests in mind. And there's really no "right way" to parent a child--after that whole Tiger Mom controversy it seems that much more clear that there's not really the perfect way to parent--every method has its pros and cons but each can produce successful children.

There are however, wrong ways to raise a kid, and several of the parents at my school are doing a great job of that. Like playing Call of Duty with their 2nd grader (true story) instead of, I don't know, reading with them? reinforcing how to be kind, share, and use words, not violence? Also by recognizing that their kid is not a perfect angel--and it's not always the other children's faults--their kid needs to learn to take responsibility for their actions.

Parents make a huge difference. I was reading a story with some first graders about dolphins. It starts out saying that they're mammals, just like dogs, or humans. And this boy, J, is just like, no, humans aren't mammals. And I'm like, yes we are. And we just read it. And J's like, no my mom says we're not animals and we were created by God. Whoa, okay. Bringing up God. What do I say to that? I didn't want to discredit his parents. And I didn't have time to talk about it--I had to get going to a different class, but I was just like, that may be so, but it doesn't mean we're not animals. And the other kids in the group were totally agreeing with me. But there was no compromise for J--he wouldn't even listen to what I was saying. On one hand, it's America--freedom of religion! But on the other hand, it's a scientific fact that we're mammals--we have warm blood, and live birth and all that jazz.

This kid has also had some issues getting along with other kids, and his teacher commented that there may be a little bit of a race issue based on the problems he's getting himself into (he's white, there are a ton of students of color at the school). And I know his older brother is often at odds with his classmates. The other day J did something rude to another boy, D (who has his own discipline issues but has potential and can be a total sweetheart. It may have been J who tried to tattle on D for something insignificant), and the teacher asks J to talk it out with D instead of fighting. And J says "Why should I talk to a bully?" And the teacher goes "Excuse me?" (as in, did this really just happen?" And J repeats it. And is immediately sent to time out until he is ready to talk it out and apologize to D. I got the feeling that maybe that was something his parents said--don't talk to bullies. Except that that was about the rudest thing he could have said at that point, in a situation where there was no way D was being a bully.

Some students' parents aren't supportive of the teachers' suggestions or discipline, which makes it very hard for a student to learn decent behavior. Home life is so important. A lot of the children with the worst behavior problems also have the least supportive parents. I don't necessarily know a lot about the families, but I know some of these kids are certainly playing against the odds to be successful.

The 3rd-6th graders are taking the MCA tests, which is a required state-wide test for reading and math. I helped proctor the test for students who are in special ed/ell who have special accommodations for test taking--extra time, reading of the instructions etc. As a result I sat right next to a student and glanced at his test a few times. Some of those questions are not exactly clear--not to mention almost opinion questions for multiple choice. And how can you really expect a 3rd grader to master some of this higher order thinking when they're dealing with neglectful parents, or homelessness or hunger? A lot of these kids have gone through so much just to survive, and when life is a challenge like that, it's hard to take some of what goes on in school seriously.

It makes me think about Maslow's Hierarchy--something I've read about related to education/psychology classes I've taken. The basic idea is that there is a pyramid of needs, and you need to fulfill the bottom before you can move to the upper levels. The bottom includes things like food, shelter and water, and it moves up through levels of relationships with others, and self actualization is at the top. Well, no wonder some of these kids aren't doing well in school. If they aren't getting enough of their basic needs, how can they concentrate on anything else? I guess it's as much a societal issue that set these kids up to be in the situation they're in. This one 3rd grader was offhand telling me about his neighborhood--that there were police on his street, and some man got taken away from that house and at one point the woman who lived there came out of the house and was bleeding. I didn't try to press the issue, but what kind of environment is that for a kid to grow up in? And there's a 6th grader whose dad apparently has a warrant out for his arrest. Another kid's dad is in jail. And nothing the government is doing is helping to end the cycle of poverty--cutting the education budget is going to hurt poor kids more because they don't have the money for private schools, or summer camps etc. Right now it seems like the government is set up to maintain the status quo in terms of wealth and quality education. (And it's clearly not working spectacularly--there was talk about a government shutdown after all).

Ultimately I'm not entirely blaming the parent for the way their kids turn out. They may be incredibly bad parents, but where did they learn it from? Not only that, but sometimes it's more of a time and money thing than bad parenting. I helped a girl out with the previous night's homework once because she didn't understand it--and no one at home had time to help her. I don't think her parents didn't care, but they were probably more focused on working and getting food on the table to be bothered by one homework sheet.

Anyway, I don't want this post to get too long (too late?), so I'll probably return to this topic again, because it's something that I think about a lot--and wonder about with a lot of my students. So I'll leave you with a video my dad recently forwarded to me:

A reminder about where our priorities are and where they should be...
The answer to the question "What do teachers make?"

Thursday, March 31, 2011

All in a Day's Work

You can learn many things from children.  How much patience you have, for instance. -Franklin P. Jones

Sometimes I come home with stories, and it sounds like it's been a bad week. But then I realize, nope, just your average craziness that is my elementary school.

This week, a 2nd grader bit a teacher. A first grader apparently hit a teacher when she tried to make him apologize to another kid for calling her names. And a 4th grader cussed out and flipped off a teacher who was trying to keep him from fighting another kid (who had thrown and hit him with a chunk of ice).

On the lighter side, today I walked a kid down to the bathroom. He comes back out almost immediately because the stall was inexplicably locked, but no one was inside. So I was like, well I don't know if it's locked for a reason, but go ahead and crawl under the stall and find out. He got down to his knees and awkwardly couldn't figure out how to get underneath the stall. So he stands back up and looks really uncomfortable so I said, (sigh) "do you want me to do it?" So I, who is twice this kid's size, crawled under the stall in the boys room and unlocked the door. It's a good thing I don't have huge issues with getting dirty/germs and really just found the whole thing entertaining.

There's a kindergardener who's got the same color red hair as I do--so I've been asked by multiple people if we're related. No joke. But he's wicked smart and also autistic, which makes being a part of the class not always successful. He's obsessed with Star Wars and the Planets (He knows so much about all of them! Probably more than I do!). And his current obsession is Harry Potter. So much so, that he's now writing "Ron" on all of his papers instead of his real name. Sometimes "Ron Weasley," Except that he spells Weasley "Weslay" but hey, he's 5.

The other day in the lunchroom, amidst all the shouting and whiny kids (he's sitting in my seat, she's mean, he hit me, can I go to the bathroom?), these two 5th grade boys start talking to me, and one goes, "Can I call you by your nickname?" So I ask, "what's my nickname?" and they both say "nothing!" and go back to their seats. Now, I have no idea whether some 5th grade boys have some secret nickname for me, or if they were just being smart asses per usual.

All in all, I love my job--never a dull moment with children. Every day is different. And even though I work with some tough kids, the grand majority are wonderful. Shoot, even some of the awful ones have their moments. I'm glad I never have to be worried about being bored at work.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Tell your sister I say "Hi!"

Nothing you do for children is ever wasted. They seem not to notice us, hovering, averting our eyes, and they seldom offer thanks, but what we do for them is never wasted. -Garrison Keillor

There are a couple of questions I get just about daily. Sometimes from the same the kids.

One, as I've mentioned before, is whether I have kids of my own. Which is often followed by whether I'm married, and how old I am, which is then followed by the kids telling me how old their parents are. I'm never sure whether to believe them, especially when they're kindergardeners.

(Yesterday I had a kindergardener tell me he was getting bigger--he was up to his dad's nose! Well, I asked him if his father is taller than me (answer: yes) and then had him stand up. Nope, you're not even up to my chest, much less my nose. Pretty sure you're not up to your dad's nose honey. At least he seemed to get my logic.)

But here's the new one:
Back story: Kim, my seemingly-identical-but-actually-fraternal twin sister visited, and I had her come to the after school program to hand out snack with me, and then come in the next day and read with some first graders. And all the kids freaked out. Seriously, it was as if they had never seen twins before. (And they have--there's a pair of 5th grade boys at my school who are twins.)

Well, we got a lot of "which one's the real Miss Amy?" and some kids giving Kim some hugs that I'm pretty sure made her feel a bit awkward.

Now it's been well over a month and every single day I get a question along the lines of: "When's your sister coming back?" "Where's your sister?" "What's your sister's name?" A couple kids have told me to tell Kim they say Hi. Which I think weirds Kim out, because she doesn't remember them that well, much less their names, and they all want to see her again.

Sometimes kids say to other kids "Did you know she has a twin?" One 5th grader calls me "twin." A couple of kids have jokingly called me Miss Kim or been like, "You're not the real Miss Amy! You're her sister!"

I find the whole thing very entertaining. But it's also a testament to the fact that, even though I've been a part of these kids' lives for half of a year, I'm a big enough influence on their lives that they still remember and are curious about my sister who was a part of their world for only a few hours.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Itchy Itchy Scratchy Scratchy

Children are contemptuous, haughty, irritable, envious, sneaky, selfish, lazy, flighty, timid, liars and hypocrites, quick to laugh and cry, extreme in expressing joy and sorrow, especially about trifles, they'll do anything to avoid pain but they enjoy inflicting it:  little men already.  ~Jean de La Bruyère, Les Caractères, 1688

"It's a wonder I haven't abandoned all my ideals, they seem so absurd and impractical. Yet I cling to them because I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart." -Anne Frank

"Itchy itchy, scratchy scratchy" is from a book my kindergarden class read about tattling. A boy tattled on everyone and got some crazy tongue disease, so he learned only to tell on someone if someone's hurt or sick or hurting you. Well, I'm not sure all of them really got the message. Students are constantly tattling about the smallest issues, and issues that have absolutely nothing to do with them. He did this, she did that. Sometimes you have to pick your battle. They're sitting at the wrong table in the cafeteria? Is this hurting you, no. Are you sitting in the right spot, yes. So don't worry about it. Every kid has an opinion about everything--ask someone who's crying what is wrong and you'll get six different answers.

Sometimes I feel like I can handle anything when I successfully handle a situation. If you work with kindergardeners for example, you can't help but get a little dirty--from getting glitter EVERYWHERE, to pulling a kid up out of the mud, and washing them up. So many crying children. The other day I had a kid whose pants were too big so they kept falling down, and then he fell into the mud and was just bawling. I ended up using a paper clip to connect some belt loops to tighten his pants, as well and getting a bit of mud on myself in the process of getting him back to class and washed up. Today I had to take pens away from a boy who was throwing them at another table in the lunchroom. I've given kids band aids, had a kid throw up in class. I've watched a fight being broken up by some other teachers, and restrained kids myself who were on the verge of making poor decisions. It's amazing how much of a teacher's job--and my job--are not based in instruction, but in building character, and keeping a class under control. There are some kids who ruin a lesson for the entire class--it's so hard for one teacher to try to teach if there is one kid taking up their time and energy. And it's simply not fair to the rest of the kids. But what can you do?

So here's my weakness: discipline. Sometimes I feel like I just have a sign on my back that says "Miss Amy is a pushover, you don't have to listen to her." And it's frustrating--I feel helpless when I have to turn to another teacher or staff member to get a kid under control. Sometimes I feel like maybe I've failed, but it helps to see that it's not just me--a lot of the problem kids won't listen to anyone. And those they do listen to understand and see that it's not me, it's the kid. And I think I've gotten to a point where I'm more comfortable in my role at the school that I'm more successful in keeping kids under control--and I'm not as bothered by my "failures" because it's not that I'm failing-it's that the situation might just be out of my control. (I'm excited to go back to school after another year because I feel like there is so much more I can learn before anyone should trust me with a class of my own.)

So what is the best way to handle students who might be bullying other kids, or swearing, or hitting other kids or being disruptive in class? I clearly don't have an answer. I don't like being overly harsh with kids, but sometimes you have to put your foot down. I always try reasoning with a kid first--what's the right choice to make? would you like it if someone was doing that to you? throwing that pen isn't going to solve anything. How effective is this? Well, there are a lot of kids who are very responsive to adults. And don't have to be told more than twice to sit down, be quiet, stop that. But there are others for whom it really doesn't matter how many times you tell them, they aren't going to listen.

I'd take a muddy, crying kid any day, to a kid hell-bent on annoying/hurting/bugging his/her classmates and won't listen to adults. The school I work in has quite the cohort of students who would probably have been kicked out of another school by now. And I have mixed feelings about this. On one hand, they need to learn that their actions have consequences, and that their behavior is unacceptable and they need to respect everyone else. On the other hand, I'm sure some of these kids have unstable home lives, and other such issues (which is why this is number who-knows-what on the list of schools they've attended), where it's probably beneficial that school remain stable. And maybe by giving them more time in a school than just shipping them off somewhere else where they'll be someone else's problem for a little while, maybe they'll chill out and realize that being in elementary school is a lot more fun when people like you and you follow directions and actually learn some stuff. (Seriously, elementary school should not be as hard as some of these kids make it).

Maybe I'm just being optimistic--I'm a glass-is-half-full and human-nature-is-good kind of person. I can't help but think--and hope--that these kids have a heart somewhere in their little bodies, and really do want to be good, just something, somewhere along the way, went wrong. Maybe it has to do with their home lives. Maybe there is a chemical imbalance. Maybe they're scared, and hide it by being mean. I like what John Steinbeck wrote in East of Eden about people:
"In uncertainty I am certain that underneath their topmost layers of frailty men want to be good and want to be loved. Indeed, most of their vices are attempted shortcuts to love. When a man comes to die, no matter what his talents and influence and genius, if he dies unloved his life must be a failure to him and his dying a cold horror. It seems to me that if you or I must choose between two courses of thought or action, we should remember our dying and try so to live that our death brings no pleasure to the world.
We have only one story. All novels, all poetry, are built on the never-ending contest in ourselves of good and evil. And it occurs to me that evil must constantly re-spawn, while good, while virtue, is immortal. Vice has always a new fresh young face, while virtue is venerable as nothing else in the world is."

So if nothing else, I have my hope in human nature, that something good will come out of a situation that seems to be going no where. They are, after all, just kids.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Teachers: Clearly The Number One Threat To America

All who have meditated on the art of governing mankind have been convinced that the fate of empires depends on the education of youth. ~Aristotle

It'll be a great day when education gets all the money it wants and the Air Force has to hold a bake sale to buy bombers. ~Anonymous

So with all this stuff going down in Wisconsin, and with budget cuts in educations, and ironically named proposals that instead of building "stronger schools and stronger communities" make their decisions based on economics--not based on what's right for the kids, it really makes me wonder what politicians (mainly republicans) are thinking. Because it doesn't actually seem to me like they are.

Moreover, Americans are silly. When polled, they may think that the budget should be the highest priority, but then don't want anything to be cut. Clearly, some sacrifices need to be made. But not in education. Like I've mentioned before, I believe that education is the key to our future. In the long run, it's what's going to get us out of the messes we're in--if we can lower the achievement gap, hopefully that will also help lower the poverty and inequalities we see in America, or send less people to prison (which is a huge expenditure compared to what we spend on our children.) And all of this should hopefully lead to a stronger public who will depend less on welfare and maybe more likely to stimulate the economy.

What's funny is that I often joke that "I clearly don't want to go into education for the money." So it baffles me when anyone claims that teachers get too many benefits/too much money for the job they do--and summer vacation! Aren't teachers notorious for not getting paid enough? We only entrust our children to them every day. Clearly our kids aren't worth the money to take care of our teachers.

"One thing we could do, is not extend the bush tax cuts to the top 2% of the country. That would earn us 700 billion dollars over the next 10 years. Oh, and maybe also we could close some corporate tax loopholes." No, we can't do that. That makes too much sense. We need to get the money from teachers.

Fox news on bankers: Banks create jobs, why do we feel comfortable bashing job creators? "See bankers, unlike teachers, provide a valuable service. And they don't work till 3. Their bell doesn't ring till 4."

I love John Stewart. He's hilarious, and makes some damn good points.

I guess my questions is, do any of these people have kids? Do they value their children's educations AT ALL? Have they ever met a teacher? Shoot, do they even remember going to school--did they? Even if your child goes to some fancy private school, there are still going to be teachers who are dedicated to their jobs. And when you think back to elementary, junior high or high school, isn't there at least one teacher you felt like made a difference? Sure, I've had bad teachers. But more often than not, they've been good.

I personally believe that the English teacher I had in 7th and 9th grade is the sole reason I have decent writing skills whatsoever. My junior high French teacher is probably the reason I tested out of 3 terms of French when entering college. (Yeah, that's right, junior high. I did take French in high school too). And my APUSH teacher junior year of high school was the best teacher I've ever had, and has helped inspire me to want to be a teacher, in addition to being someone I still try to visit whenever I go back to my hometown. (And taking educational psychology--with a specific professor--is what really solidified that thought of becoming a teacher, and turned my beginning-of-senior-year-of-I-still-don't-know-what-I'm-going-to-do-with-my-life-panic into a solid idea of where my passion might be.)

"Around the country, many teachers see demands to cut their income, benefits and say in how schools are run through collective bargaining as attacks not just on their livelihoods, but on their value to society." (NY Times)

And working in an elementary school--not anyone can be a teacher. Believe me. It's not just understanding the material, it's getting a bunch of unruly children to actually sit down and listen for long enough to try to explain it. The teachers I work with are amazing--and put in so many extra hours on lesson planning, grading, and trying to figure out the best way to handle each individual child. No one goes into teaching for the money--they go into teaching because they care about your kids and the value of education. Some bad teachers may not have started out that way--they may have burnt out but kept working because hey, jobs are valuable, and everyone needs a paycheck. They may become disillusioned because the government keeps cutting education budgets, because, hard as they tried, they don't have to means to give each kid the attention they deserve. It's not their fault--it's society's, for slowly abandoning them and undervaluing them, and then blaming them for America's problems. I read an article somewhere that mentioned that America's economy, the last time it was stable/strong was also when the unions were strongest. They aren't perfect, but they aren't the root problem. Yes, teachers need to be held accountable if they are going to abuse their power. But so does everybody else.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Chinese Proverb: It is easy to get a thousand prescriptions but hard to get one single remedy.

Did you know America ranks the lowest in education but the highest in drug use?  It's nice to be number one, but we can fix that.  All we need to do is start the war on education.  If it's anywhere near as successful as our war on drugs, in no time we'll all be hooked on phonics.  ~Leighann Lord

I have mixed feelings about drugs. No, not pot, or cocaine, or anything illegal. I'm talking about the medication that are prescribed to kids with ADHD and other related mental issues. It seems like there are a lot of kids on meds at my school for various reasons. And while I don't get a list or anything of who's on meds, teachers' comments have helped me put together which kids are dealing with what. Sometimes, teachers will make a comment that perhaps a kid should be on meds--there are a lot of kids with behavioral and focus issues at my school. (For some students though, whether or not their parents would be on board with meds, but because of insurance-or lack thereof-or money issues, the students won't always be able to get the help they need.)

The meds do help--sometimes a student will forget, or run out or really any number of reasons and they are noticeably more out of control than usual. So in this case the meds are beneficial; these are smart kids, and when they're more focused they can learn more. And they will not only learn more, but so will their classmates because they won't be as distracting or take up more of the teachers' energy that should be used towards teaching not discipline.

Then again, not only are you starting a habit, however beneficial, that these kids will be dependent on the rest of their lives. And this is where I admit my lack of expertise. I don't know what research is out about ADHD, or any other issue. But I do wonder if meds will mess with the natural development of a child. Whether, in helping them in the present, it will really benefit them in the long run. Not only that, but in some senses you're teaching a kid how to not take personal responsibility. "Oh, it's not my fault, it's because I didn't take my meds today." This cuts both ways--you may not be doing well in class not because you're not smart, but because there's a physical barrier keeping you from reaching that potential. Still, I had a kid justify his behavior because he ran out of meds, and at that point his mom didn't have enough money to get more right then. Well, sure, that's part of it. But it's not helpful to simply justify your behavior--just because you have a condition doesn't exempt you from taking responsibility for your actions.

I wonder too, how much of these students' behaviors are just because they're growing children. Most children, ADHD or not, don't fancy sitting in a desk and doing math for an extended period of time. They get antsy. So are we jumping the gun, prescribing all these meds? Are they a quick fix for an issue that needs to be approached with a larger picture perspective? Is it that because we know more we are able to accurately diagnose more children, or are we over-diagnosing because we have more ways to control behaviors chemically? Or is there something going on in society where more kids are affected by these conditions than in the past?

I was talking with a friend about this issue, and he brought up an interesting point: It almost seems as if children aren't allowed not to be smart. If your kid isn't doing well in school, well, it's not their fault. It's something chemical. But maybe they just learn at a different pace than other kids. Maybe they're just being kids.

Ultimately, I don't know. Which is why I'm excited to go back to school after another year, and see what the research says, and what people whose jobs it is to figure this stuff out think--because this post brings up more questions than answers--but that's the nature of this blog.

Friday, February 18, 2011

It means "which is in danger of speedy disappearance"

"A hundred years from now, it will not matter what kind of car I drove, what kind of house I lived in, how much money I had in the bank...but the world may be a better place because I made a difference in the life of a child." -Forest Witchcraft

"When I ask college students who attended Chicago public schools what they remember most about their elementary and high school days, the details of their answers vary. But one of the first things out of their mouths, almost without fail, is, 'Well, there was this one teacher...'" -Gregory Mitchie

I really like the word ephemeral. Maybe because it reminds me of Le Petit Prince--where the title of this post came from--The Little Prince learns from the geographer that most people would not be interested in his beloved flower. No, the flower is ephemeral--in danger of speedy disappearance. Adults concern themselves with things that are much more permanent. Things like mountains and such. I love The Little Prince, and may quote him again later--I think there's a lot of wisdom in that book, beyond the commonly quoted: 

"Voici mon secret. Il est très simple: on ne voit bien qu'avec le coeur. L'essentiel est invisible pour les yeux."
(Here is my secret. It is very simple: It is only with with heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.)

For now though, I want to talk about the ephemeral nature of teaching, or more so, the ephemeral nature of AmeriCorps positions. 

One reason that Teach for America is not really a solution to the achievement gap, but rather should be a placeholder for real change, is that, while it may be a great growing experience for the teachers, it's not necessarily the best for the children. Not only are the first years notoriously bad, but for teachers to be a part of a students life--much less community--for only two years is doing a disservice to a student for whom school is the most stable part of their lives. At least with a regular teacher, while they may only be a direct part of a student's life for one year, are a presence for however long that student is at the school--and possible after.

My job is similar--it's really just a year long position. But given that I've totally fallen in love with my students--not to mention the school and staff--it's hard to just put in a year and say see ya! So I'm applying for the Reading Corps for next year so I can stay with my school. (Even AmeriCorps is ephemeral--each program undergoes review every three years--if the program isn't working, it loses it's grant money. The program I'm in won't exist in quite the same way next year--so my specific position won't exist.) I'm excited to see how my students react in the next grade. It almost seems wasteful to have created these relationships and then just immediately leave. Especially given that the school is moving locations, it would be helpful to retain as many familiar faces. As I've learned with my kindergardeners, young kids often have trouble breaking from routine--any time there's a substitute, the class becomes WAY more chaotic than it already is. 

In related news, I've decided to not have a favorite student again. I mean, what? I don't have favorite students. Well, I certainly don't act like I do, but it's really only human. However, my two favorite students no longer go to the school I work in. The first, N, moved, and one day I saw him, and then he just never came back. And not like I really know what the story is anyway--no one really ever lets me know if a student no longer attends the school, it just sort of comes up every now and then. The second student, E, switched schools right after the announcement came that the school would close. (Well, it's not closing anymore, but I guess the damage is done.) I don't know why N and E were my favorites. Both of them had some behavior issues--weren't always the best listeners and sometimes didn't have good impulse control if they got angry. But they also for some reason took a liking to me, which helped. N sometimes seemed as if he wouldn't give me the time of day, but then he would randomly give me a hug, and one time asked if I would be here next year, to which I had to say I didn't know, but was touched that he wanted me there. And he'd been there since I believe pre-K, so it came as a surprise for me when one week, he was gone. And made me sad--I don't know if he'll even remember me at this point. Same with E--whenever I'd go into his class he'd want me to come stand by him or help him. And then he wouldn't always do his work or listen well to my direction. But he was so cute and was pretty sensitive for the tough front he put up. And one day, he was gone. 

It's hard--I doubt I'll ever see N or E ever again. Which makes me sad. And I wonder, what will become of them--will they end up in a supportive school? Will they make it to graduation--much less go to college? Will their behavior keep them from succeeding? They were both smart if they actually put some effort into it--especially N. There is so much outside of a teacher's control. And it really bums me out that I only had one--maybe two years with them and even that short amount of time was cut short. So I guess what you have to do is make the most of whatever short amount of time you've got with a student. --you never know when your chance will run out. I had huge soft spots for N and E. Which was maybe unprofessional of me, but what can I say? It's hard enough when you know to say goodbye. But I had no closure--and they were just thrown somewhere new in the middle of the school year--their lives were probably more upset than mine was. And while I hope they remember me, I know they likely won't, and it's probably for the best--it'll make it easier for them to adapt to a new environment. 

So this post is dedicated to E and N--and the other students who've passed through my life far too quickly. And to the hopes that they find success where they don't become a statistic about students of color or low economic status but rather complete their education and find success...

 "On risque de pleurer un peu si l'on s'est laissé apprivoiser" (You risk tears if you let yourself be tamed")  -Antoine de St. Exupéry

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Miss Amy, do you have kids?

"The most effective form of birth control I know is spending the day with my kids." -Jill Bensley

More than once someone's asked if I have kids. In fact, one 3rd grader has called me Mommy, which prompted another to ask if I really was his mom. Same with when a kid gave me a hug. ummm, nope. Some students have asked me multiple times--I guess they forgot. Or didn't realize that there are several steps needed for that status to change, and they would definitely notice if I were to get pregnant. (Kids are way more perceptive than I give them credit for. They may not remember their math, but they often notice small details/changes relating to appearance).

It seems as if kids don't have a great concept of age. Sure, some of them have young parents, so it doesn't seem that far off for me to have kids (even though to me, it is so far off). Not many kids, unless they've already asked me, would probably guess correctly how old I am. I was chatting with some 5th graders after school one time and they went through the kids, married, boyfriend questions, and upon telling them I don't have a boyfriend, one goes "M* is single!" So I say, "dude, I'm 10 years older than you." and M goes "nuh-uh!" And so I ask, "how old are you?" 
"right, so 10 years older." 
"So how old are you?" 
"Um, you can do the math." The older kids have a better concept that I'm closer to their age than to most of the classroom teachers. 

There's this one kindergardener who has red hair, a lot like mine. I've been asked both by students and a couple of faculty if we're related. But nope, kids are a long ways down the road for me. (I'm thinking I need a husband first, although when one 3rd grader came to my defense about not having kids--the follow up to me answering no is often "why not?"--she was like, "well Miss Amy's not married!" and the girl who asked responded that you don't have to be married to have kids. Which is a valid point, and likely more common in the population I work with. Or it's just a trend that's occurring more than it did in the past and is more accepted).

Of course, then there's the question of whether this job makes me want to have kids or never have kids. It's a toss up really. Today I spent the end of my day with a kid who'd been super super naughty all day and had to stay in from recess. He spent the first 10 minutes just bawling, and screaming some. And I'm really not sure he learned from this experience, but we'll find out tomorrow.

Okay, it's not actually a toss up, I know I want kids some day, and they will be way better behaved than some of these little monsters. Shoot, I still love the troublemakers. Who am I kidding? 

*It's probably best that I not use real names. So I'll just go with an initial. Maybe I'll make up names if there's a kid I talk about a lot. We'll see.