Sunday, December 22, 2013


"Why do we do this? Because in the age of iPads and Netflix, we don’t want our kids to lose their sense of wonder and imagination. In a time when the answers to all the world’s questions are a web-search away, we want our kids to experience a little mystery. 

All it takes is some time and energy, creativity, and a few plastic dinosaurs." -These awesome parents

Inspired by a blogpost (see above link), I decided to introduce Dinocember into my classroom. We had a two week dinosaur unit, and I had Thanksgiving break to buy some dinosaurs, and decorate my room. Needless to say, my students LOVED the dinosaurs. I was originally a little nervous about the set up remaining untouched for the benefit of my afternoon kiddos, but I put up some caution tape, and my students only needed a couple of reminders to look, but not touch. They were actually surprisingly respectful, given that they often feel entitled to touch and take anything and everything in my classroom (much to my chagrin).  They came in each day wondering where they would be next, and asking me how they got there (I don't know, they had all night to figure it out). They were sad Monday morning last week, when the dinosaurs had disappeared. 

So, without further ado, I present to you the 10 Days of Dinocember in Room 9B:

Day 1
Lego structure credit: my mom.
 Day 2
My kiddos LOVE playing doctor. This day was a huge hit.
 Day 3
Who doesn't love writing on white boards?
  Day 4
This may have been my favorite, but I also love reading, and love children's lit.
  Day 5
Lincoln Logs house credit: a 3rd grader who was helping out in my room after school.
  Day 6
My after school helpers told me I should be an artist when they saw my drawing. Well, the dinosaurs' drawing.
  Day 7
Making messes, but also raising money for our school! Good work, T-Rex.
  Day 8
Balancing academics and fun, today the dinos did some writing.
  Day 9
Stickers. Stickers everywhere. (Also note our trophy for collecting the most box tops!)
  Day 10
Now I have a year to try to wash the paint off my dinosaurs, for a fresh new Dinocember 2014!

Dinocember was definitely a success--even though it kept me at school a little later than my usual way too late, it was totally worth it. I wish I had a week off in between every unit so I could do something special for every theme. Maybe each year I'll add something new, as I become more comfortable and efficient in my teaching, but for now, Dinocember was enough. 

And now, I have three weeks off for winter vacation, and though that will include a day or two in my classroom working, it will mostly be recharging for a fresh start. Goodness knows I need one to survive this year with some form of sanity left over. Yes, I have never felt more ready for a break, but I will miss my students. (And they may even miss me--I have students say they'll miss me over a weekend, or even on a random mid-week day! Kindergarteners can be darn cute when they choose to be!)

Happy Holidays and Happy New Year to all my dear readers! 

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Turns Out, My Students Love Me

“The soul is healed by being with children.” -Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Stories of a first year teacher: Unconditional Love Edition

A student who can be incredibly defiant, has been caught stealing from me, and gave me major attitude this morning started bawling as I explained what a "Teacher Down Drill" meant.

(ie if something happened to me--I got hurt or fainted, what happens? Two kids run to the office and alert them, and two more run to the nearest classroom for help. The rest of the kids need to remain calm. Judging by the drill, let's hope this NEVER happens because I will die. Realistically, my kids WILL recognize an emergency if it does come around. Anyway, back to today.)

This had happened before--not a Teacher Down, but the bawling and disrupting class and making a small thing into an attention seeking adventure regarding some minor incident, so I pushed through my explanation and got the kids working on practicing the letter "x" (exercising fox).

So then, I am able to turn my attention to my crying friend.

"What's wrong honey?" "

"I don't want anything to happen to you!" Hugs ensue and reassurance that it's just practice, and should hopefully never happen.

heart. melted.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Sometimes, Teaching is a Game of Whack-a-Mole

"The kids who need the most love will ask for it in the most unloving of ways." -unknown

"Teaching is like trying to hold 35 corks underwater at once" -Mark Twain

Sometimes I feel like my classroom is a zoo, especially during the middle of the day when I have all 26 kinders on the rug. I have a little girl who I've caught stealing my things. I had a little boy running with scissors. I have kids who can't keep their hands to themselves, can't sit still for more than 15 seconds, and kids who can't not be making noises...unless I ask them to. I have very few kids who listen well, follow the rules, participate, complete their work, and clean up after themselves. I have some, so I know there's hope for the rest, but they are currently in the minority. It's pretty safe to say that somedays, my kids are driving me absolutely crazy. I love them, but they are little mysteries that I haven't fully solved.

Being both a first-year teacher and a first-year kindergarten teacher, I'm not sure what's normal for 5 year olds 50 days into the school year. I have a sense though, that some of what I'm seeing is normal, and some is decidedly not normal. I have started a clip up/down behavior chart, which occasionally seems like it is working. The problem is I'm still figuring out how to make it work for me, and my teaching style. I had a parent volunteer ask if I had an aide in my room. Umm, just for two half hour blocks during the day. She was surprised--and rightfully so. Extra adults are helpful at any level, but especially in lower grades, when there is so much individual attention needed, because for many of these kids, everything we do is for the first time. And because, well, they're 5.

Sometimes it's easy to figure out why a kid is misbehaving. I have a few little boys who speak little to no English. So it's not surprising that they stop paying attention on the rug. They don't fully comprehend what's going on, so they get distracted. It must be overwhelming to have someone speak to you in English all day, when you only know and speak Spanish at home. For other students, it's not so easy, especially when they won't respond to direct questions about their behavior, or even respond to you calling their name. I worry that my students are going to get hurt, because they refuse to respond to my direction, or respond when I call their name. It is ridiculous how defiant these kids--these 5 year olds!--can be. I know that developmentally speaking, empathy is difficult for them, as is sitting still for a while. But I also know that they can learn how to do this, because some of my kids demonstrate it beautifully. And these kids deserve more--and it's unfair that so much of my energy is spent on a handful of kids being disruptive.

That being said, I still get hugs from kids--even the ones who cultivate so much negative attention. One day I brought the kids out to their parents at the end of the day, and the mom handed me flowers (the picture above is of said flowers). Another day, I had to attend a meeting, and had a sub in my room for an hour--and when I came back, two kids ran up to me to give me a hug. And one of my students likes coming to school--wants to come on Saturdays! I must be doing something right, because my kids seem to like me. It's safe to say that I care about my students, but sometimes I'm not sure that's enough. I want to help them learn, and be ready for first grade. I want to teach them to be good people, to think about and question the world around them, and learn basic reading an math.

But right now, I worry that they're going to fall behind because transitions take so long. Because the kids I need to be paying attention the most are the ones hiding under their desks, or talking to their neighbor when we're learning our letters. Because I often don't feel like a teacher, but more of a babysitter. It's no wonder, as I put together progress reports, that very few of my kids know their letters. It's not because they aren't capable, it's because we all haven't figured out how to act in Kindergarten.

Totally made this arrangement up. Hope it works!
So after a terrible, horrible, no good very bad day (some days are like that), on Friday, I threw up my hands and decided to totally rearrange my room (see the pictures...and note that I have more stuff on the walls!). We'll see what happens on Monday. Maybe a change will be enough to start over with someone in my credential/masters program said today: "It's never too late for a fresh start." So I should probably plan on very little academic work for Monday, and really focus on getting our routines right. Make them do it over and over, until we get it right.

Rug time is so hard! We'll have to add assigned squares.
I am exhausted, all the time. I feel like part of the problem is simply that being a first year teacher is hard, and notoriously not the best, and it's okay that I don't have all my ducks in a row. It doesn't make it any easier on a day to day basis though, because I still have to make it through each day, and I still have 26 real, live, little human beings in my care.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Technology: The Final Frontier

"All adventures, especially those into new territory, are scary." -Sally Ride

"It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity." -Albert Einstein 

Teachers right now are dealing with new territory. It's something I'd been thinking about, and then I saw this Louis CK video being shared all over Facebook.
And he makes a really good point, about empathy in children, and what they are learning is okay behavior. I think this inability to just sit and do nothing is affecting our children's stamina to do things in the classroom, to take their time to complete work neatly, or to just listen and respond to a story. Furthermore, I think that the prevalence of technology makes it really easy for parents to let TV, or ipads or smartphones and the such raise their kids. And who can blame them, if they're holding down two jobs or using all their energy to just get their families basic needs like food, clothing, and shelter? It's also too easy for privileged parents to do this as well. It takes less energy, and we're living in a society of instant gratification and laziness. Sure, it may take less time to placate a child with a tablet, than actually turn it into a learning experience and teach a kid about feelings, and how to problem solve. But taking the easy way out is just going to lead to problems later on...problems that surface in school where students need to start interacting face to face with other students, and they don't have the stimulation of constant technology.

All this technology is new territory--we have never had a generation grow up only knowing the existence of the internet, cell phones, computers, and televisions. Technology is great--it allows for some really neat educational opportunities, and ways of communicating with others that were not previously possible. But there is a time and a place for technology, and we need to not let it take over our lives so much that little kids can't just sit respectfully. I'm going to go out on a limb and make a likely bogus and totally unsupported (to my knowledge) claim: technology is related to--and may be helping to cause-- the rise in ADHD as well as various other behavioral disorders.

We know that listening to a real human being helps young children learn language better than anything recorded in any way. I read somewhere-- not quite sure where-- that many TV shows these days that theoretically have good lessons imbedded in are in fact modeling the wrong behavior to kids. It has to do with screen time--too much time is spent on the conflict before being wrapped up quickly, that children are learning to behave by what they see more of, rather than learning how to actually solve issues. (Similarly, the saying that "all press is good press" is true--candidates whose campaign ads bash the opponent can actually help your opponent. You're giving him screen time, and that, in the long run, means more than the actual content of the ad.) So our students, instead of learning how to interact with others by interacting with others, are receiving non-authentic lessons from videos that model more undesirable behavior than desirable. They are also living in a world where they have constant stimulus--that's not always that valuable.

And we wonder why kids can't sit still, or lack empathy. My advice to parents: limit the TV watching and spend one-on-one time with your kids. Instead of TV, have them write, draw, do puzzles, play with blocks, look at books, and let them use their creativity and imagination. Read to them. Talk to them. Involve them. It doesn't have to take extra time out of your day--point things out when you're driving places. Talk to them in the grocery store. Ask them how their day was. Model kindness and empathy. Reward positive behavior, and provide consequences for poor choices. Have them take responsibility for themselves--cleaning up their own messes, and helping out around the house. Be around as much as you can, and talk about the importance of school. Don't get them a cell phone until it's a necessity, and don't get them a smartphone until much later.

Technology has it's place--but it drives me nuts when I put on a video, and all of a sudden students are quiet and paying attention. These kids are being raised with constant instant gratification and tons of stimuli--too much really. It's sad that they can pay better attention to a screen, then to a real, live human being. That being said, technology can be great, and a good teaching tool. The problem is, we're trying to prepare children for the 21st century using technology from the dark ages. Case in point: my computer on my desk in my classroom has a floppy disc drive. Yup.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

I Seem to Have Misplaced a Copy of My Brain

Those are actual words that came out of my mouth, and it was a true statement in multiple ways. In "Stepping Stones," which is what we call our reading block, we read a book called "My Brain." We send home copies of the books for kids to read for homework, and I was one short. However, on another level I really am losing my brain, as it were...I set stuff down and two seconds later can't find it again. And making it through the day--especially last Thursday and Friday--can be the biggest challenge.

"This business of training little humans for life is a mind-boggling process." -unknown

"The best part of teaching is that it matters. The hardest part of teaching is that every moment matters, every day." -Todd Whitaker

I feel like if I wrote a book, I could title it "Adventures of a First Year Kindergarten Teacher: Stress Eating Dove Chocolates, or How I Lost My Voice and My Mind."
Mind-boggling does not even begin to cover what it means to teach kindergarten. When you're new at a job, it's okay to make mistakes. Everyone does. When you're learning, you learn best when things don't go perfectly. The issue is that the mistakes I make, while they make me a better teacher, affect kids' lives. My mistakes impact someone's kindergarten year. I feel like I should be better prepared, given that I have 3 prior years of experience in schools. Yet here I am, wasting time getting kids to just sit and listen...and then running out of time to get any work done. I keep meaning to create new centers for early finishers, go back to my notes from classes last year and try new things. But I simply have zero extra hours in the day to do that.

I honestly feel a bit like I am failing, both at being an effective teacher, and failing my students. I'm working on progress reports, and I have so many students not on grade level. Some of this is because it's only been 30 days of school, and learning is not always a fast process! Some of this is due to behavior. Some of this is due to language. And some, perhaps most, is likely due to me. I'm still learning, and finding out new things about my school, my responsibilities, and what I need to have in my classroom. I can't look further than a day or two in advance, because I am barely hanging onto my day to day goings-ons.

I feel bad too, writing "N" for growth needed, when I feel like it's my fault. Or, for my ELL students, because it's a language issue, and it's going to be "N" all year. We really need to provide ELL students with bilingual education, because not only is it important that they don't lose their native language, but because literacy in a first language translates to better learning a second. And as for this year, well, it can take 2-3 years to master basic conversational ability in a second language, and 5-7 years to master academic language. So it's okay that my ELL students won't master English skills this year...but they still deserve access to the content, and I feel bad that I can't supplement that with their own language because I don't know Spanish. I worry though, that even though developmentally speaking, I shouldn't expect them to be proficient, because that's unrealistic, that seeing "N"s on all their progress reports will have some psychological effect. So I need to keep this in mind and discuss this with parents at parent-teacher conferences to assuage fears the parents may have.

Good thing I'm ever the optimist, because last week was full of me feeling like a miserable failure. On the bright side, I do know that some of my kids are picking up stuff. We have this alphabet with our curriculum that has a picture intertwined with each letter. We are supposed to go through the alphabet saying each picture name (which has the letter sound ie: apple, bat and ball, caterpillar, dinosaur).
When assessing my kids for progress reports, I asked them to name letters. A few kids could tell me the picture that goes with the letter-- tower, snake--but I got a blank stare when it came to letter names. They're learning what I'm teaching, I suppose. But now I'm practicing the alphabet with letter names and sounds, because otherwise their foundation for letters is going to be random nouns, and that's confusing.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

On Being An Optimist And Spending All My Money

"Teaching is the greatest act of optimism." -Colleen Wilcox

"We expect teachers to reach unattainable goals with inadequate resources. The miracle is this: they often do." -Haim Ginott

With the exception of being a morning person (I'm not), teaching fits me well. I love kids books, school supplies, and I'm a little bit of a hoarder. I believe in the power of education, I assume good intentions, and I think that every kid is capable of learning. It's not always easy to maintain these beliefs. Rather, it's rarely easy, yet every day I have a new chance to try again.

In related news, both Target and Amazon have benefited greatly from my becoming a teacher. While theoretically teachers shouldn't have to buy their own supplies, the reality is that teachers spend a great deal of money--their own money--on school supplies. I certainly have. It's more than just the basics. A lot of the basics are covered either by the school, or rather through parent donations (a result of budget cuts), but if you want to have a decent amount of options for activities or even just putting stuff on the walls, you've got to do a little extra. I have been slowly building up my room, spending money I didn't really have, until my first paycheck came along. It's also been very entertaining to watch my Amazon recommendations shift to kids books and school supplies.

Luckily I didn't have to spend a giant amount on a rug; the school got it for me. It was a very exciting day when it finally arrived. My room finally felt like a kindergarten room! I still have mixed feelings about my desks (I'd rather have tables, or just smaller desks), but hey, I have a sweet rug!

I've got to take pleasure in the little things, like a beautiful rug, and unexpectedly calm moments, because it's easy to get bogged down by everything that is going wrong. The rug didn't really solve behavior issues, because no matter how visual those carpet rectangles are, I have several students (okay, it feels like at least half the class) who cannot for the life of them just stay in one section for longer than 10 seconds. I couldn't have lasted a week in kindergarten if I wasn't optimistic. I have to stay positive, despite constantly feeling like I don't know what I'm doing, or I'm not doing enough for my students. 

So I continue to be as consistent as I can, stick to our routine, and follow through on consequences. Kindergarten is WAY more complicated than anyone, even me, could have expected. I continue to spend more money than I probably should on things for my classroom, from things to help me organize the million things I have to keep track of, to more things (puzzles, prizes, toys, art/school supplies) for my students. Teaching is a huge investment of time and emotion. My weekends are full of prep, and thinking about what I can do differently or what more I can do for my students. There is really no leaving your work at work as a teacher, because the job becomes so personal. 

Yet, I can't imagine doing anything else.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Boys Will Be Boys....We're Just Not Letting Them

"Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children, play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.” -Fred Rogers

“We need to make the schools ready for the kids, not make the kids ready for the schools.” -Carol Copple

Today I came across a piece called Pressure-Cooker Kindergarten, so naturally, being a kindergarten teacher, I clicked on the link. With the difficulties I am currently having with my students and listening and discipline, this article resonated with me. With all the requirements of us to complete during our school day, we had to cut out a recess. Our kids still get a recess at lunch time, but historically they've had another one...and this is not a good thing. 

It's heartening---yet disheartening at the same time--to see that research shows that this emphasis on testing and assessment and strict lessons is not developmentally appropriate for kinders. As the article eloquently puts: "there is a growing disconnect between what the research says is best for children -- a classroom free of pressure -- and what’s actually going on in schools." This is heartening because it means that my gut feelings and discomfort with my current curriculum/requirements are not baseless. Having just spent a year in grad school learning what research shows, and best practices, it becomes disheartening to see so little opportunity to utilize this knowledge.

I personally feel pressured to complete activities, and it is difficult to spend the time my kids so desperately need not only to explore and play, but to learn basic social and school skills. Some of my students--they're 5 years old for goodness sake--are unresponsive to teacher direction. I think we are asking too much from them too soon. What's the rush? We need to let our children be kids, and create supportive environments to grow at developmentally appropriate rates, not force student into sitting at desks for hours, where they are not really learning authentically or laying down strong foundations. (That said, they need the opportunity for meaningful play, not video games, ipads and TVs).

As a first year teacher, it's hard to draw the line between what's wrong with the system, and what I'm still figuring out/learning/currently failing at--I'm still figuring out my teaching style, my ideal management system, and the world of kindergarten, much less how to juggle all the other requirements of being a teacher that falls outside of the school day (and there are a lot). I keep telling myself it's got to get better, but I'm finding it hard to truly develop my own style when so much is dictated by my curriculum. It doesn't always feel authentic because I'm secretly questioning its effectiveness in the way we're using it, and that may come across slightly to my students. 

Parts of our curriculum is being implemented school-wide, and I get that it's important to keep certain things consistent. However, when using a curriculum that was created by someone far away from my school, and used across the country, it's hard to truly put my faith into 100%, because there is no one-size-fits all solution, and we have to change just enough of it to fit our schedule that it loses some of its effectiveness. I think common core standards are good to make sure expectations are the same across the US. However, just because a school is program improvement or "failing" or what have you, doesn't mean the teachers don't know what they're doing. It's more likely that the teachers are not given the freedom to provide the students the education they need, but rather prescribed a system to follow to increase "accountability". Which then creates this downward spiral, where it is very hard to get out of program improvement, and the schools that do well continue to because they have the resources and freedom.

I put "accountability" in quotations because that discussion regarding holding teachers accountable for student proficiency is, quite frankly, ridiculous. No amount of testing is going to hold teachers more accountable than teachers hold themselves. The kind of person who becomes a teacher believes in the power of education and their ability to make a difference, that they hold themselves to a higher standard than any testing ever could, and it kills me when I feel my hands are tied so I can't make the greater difference I believe I could.

I hope that right now my feelings are more a manifestation of my frustrations of my day-to-day teaching, and that as the year progresses, things will get better, and I will see better behavior, and more learning and improving.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Let's take a tour!

"Courage doesn't always roar. Sometimes courage is the quiet voice at the end of the day saying, 'I will try again tomorrow.'" -Mary Anne Radmacher
My room is 9b. The best room to bee.

I have survived five days of five year olds! Just barely--my honeymoon period lasted the first 3 days of school, which were all half days. Now that it's a full week, with whole days, I'm being immersed in the joys of five year old boys thinking constant farting noises is HILARIOUS. Time to go back to rules and routines again...but first, pictures!
Hopefully I'll have a rug soon.
 My classroom really started to come together when I put the alphabet up--then name tags, caddies for supplies, and then, all my curriculum materials.

It looks dark outside the door because I was at school the night before day 1 until 8:45.
 Teachers are hoarders, which is super useful for new teachers. Older teachers, at the beginning of the year, often want to get ride of stuff. So that's where I got the paper cubby shelf (along the wall, to the left in the above picture). The bee hive where I wrote the Welcome Message was left in the staff lounge, up for grabs. My bulletin boards were also left in good condition, so I didn't have to put up new paper or borders. Huzzah!
Student work will go along the right wall, and I have lots of storage and counter space across the back wall.
As more gets added to the wall--such as our sight world caterpillar, or student work,  or various posters, I'll share some more pictures, along with some reflections of the first few weeks of school. Which are HARD.

I have to keep reminding myself that I am many of my students' first introduction to school. (Not to mention MY first year with my own classroom. I am also still learning). That it's all on me to introduce routines and appropriate behavior. The first week of school went just swimmingly. Yesterday and today fell apart a bit. It's my personal opinion that kindergartners are expected to do too much, too soon, which is rushing me past the basic behavior skills they so desperately need. So I'm going to take a deep breath, and start fresh. Tomorrow is a new day.

Monday, July 29, 2013

A Blank Slate

“What I'm mostly good at is sleeping, he once told me in confidence, but he added, I don't see much future in it.” -Brian Andreas

"A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step." -Lao-Tzu

Now that I've signed my paperwork, I shall, amidst preparing lessons, working on my masters, and attempting to maintain a work out/running routine as well as a social life, try to chronicle my first year of teaching via this blog. What better place to start than with the before pictures of my classroom? 

The day I got my key, I had rows of desks that were too big for kindergartners:

I came in the following week to drop off some supplies, and played around with my new, k-sized desks. In an ideal world, for kindergarten, I think I'd prefer tables. Simply arranging desks can be quite the undertaking--mine are the kind with storage in a side-cubby, making the desks long rectangles, which was causing me issues with my long-rectangle shaped room. Trying to find a way where no students back would be towards me at the white board, with enough meandering space was difficult--especially once I decided that I didn't want the desks to be the central focus of the room, as they are for older grades. So I ended up fanning the desks out in a half circle around where my rug (which I don't have yet) will go--and this gathering space can be the center of my classroom:

(I also learned that it's really hard to take a good picture of a classroom with a cellphone, that captures the whole scene. Not pictured is my reading corner and the door.)

My next focus will be what to do with my blank walls--but I'm holding out until I know more about the curriculum I'm using and what my daily schedule will be--I know I'll need a calendar area, and I'll get an alphabet to put up above the white board. It's all got to come together in the next couple of weeks--I'm in the terrified/nervous/excited mode right now. Stay tuned, and when my classroom is all put together for the first day of school (August 14th), I'll share more pictures!

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Is This The Real Life?

"You are what you're going to be when you grow up!" -Jean Porter

"The beginning is always today." -Mary Shelley

This post is to inform you of yet another change in my life-I got a "real" job!...yet never fear dear reader, Miss Amy shall continue to think about education, and let you know exactly what she thinks about it. 

The day has come, on this journey through AmeriCorps, Reading Corps, and student teaching, where I will have my own classroom, full of its own challenges and joys. Today I accepted a job teaching kindergarten in Napa, California, signing up for an hour commute and a LOT of work that will be worth it. 

I have never been one to choose the easy way. When I ran track, instead of sticking with what I knew, I said, sure, I'll try heptathlon. And I learned several new events--hurdles, shot put, javelin, high jump--and in many meets I did terribly. I was the worst shot putter! But I never gave up. When I did AmeriCorps, I had an hour long bus commute--with two transfers that were zero fun in the winter; I didn't make much money, but I loved what I did. So when I went into this interview, with no intention of getting offered, much less accepting, the position, I was shocked when I left and thought, I WANT this job. So here I am, ready for my year of driving, long days, five-year olds, and caffeine.

Though excited, I am also a little terrified. I have been preparing for this moment for three all too short, yet still long, years, and I know I am well prepared with experience, perseverance, and education. However, there is that part of me thinking, who on earth decided to let me have my own classroom? I am being entrusted with precious kindergarteners, some of whom have never been in a school setting before, and some of whom know not a word of English--who in their right mind thinks this is a good idea? A lot of people do I guess--my references did a wonderful job (over)selling me, and maybe I'm too modest. But more than anything, it feels so good to know where I'm going to be and what I'm going to do, and that I am going to continue to do meaningful work, and have a job I am passionate about.

Side note: I guess it's time to finally remember that kindergarten has a "t" and not a "d" in the last syllable.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Congrats Grads!

"When people go through something rough in life, they say, 'I'm taking it one day at a time.' Yes, so is everybody. Because that's how time works." -Hannibal Buress

"When I was 5 years old my mother always told me that happiness was the key to life. When I went to school, they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wrote down 'happy'. They told me I didn't understand the assignment, and I told them they didn't understand life." -John Lennon

The hardest thing about teaching is that one year is not much time at all. And I hate goodbyes. They're hard, and they're sad. Yet the harder the goodbye, I suppose, the more you've gained from that relationship. For kids it's so simple--"Ms. Elson, can you be my teacher next year?"--and I wish it were so easy. Instead, I give the kid a hug goodbye, and hope that perhaps our paths will cross again.

Today, I graduated from UCD's teaching credential program. Graduation is yet another event that encourages reflection--and more goodbyes. I realized that I graduate three years TO THE DAY after I graduated from undergrad. What a happy coincidence! Three years went by so fast. And a lot happened in the last three years--I ran two marathons! I met new people! I became a teacher! I made a difference!

Reason #bazillion why working with kids is amazing: This poem was written by a 5th grader, whose class I was in for a mere 2 weeks. It really doesn't take long to make an impression.

I don't know if it's because I'm a glass-is-half-full kind of person, but I feel like I have been so lucky to have gotten to where I am today on the route that I took--I firmly believe that I could not have been happier at any other college than Carleton. I could not have had a more positive experience at any other site than my lovely St. Paul elementary school. And I could not have found a better fit in terms of grad school, than I did at UCD. Everything happens for a reason, right?

I am not one to believe in fate, or that there's some grand plan for my life, or anyone else's. That said, I think that stuff happens, and it's up to us to give it a reason. To make meaning out of the coincidences that make up life. For example, I did not just jump into a teaching after undergrad, but rather spent 2 years confirming my career goals (and having a blast, living in Minneapolis and working at a fantastic school!) I firmly believe without those years of experience, not only would I have been a horrendous student teacher, but that my particular class could have convinced a different me that teaching was not the right path, even though it could not be any clearer to me that education is my calling.

The takeaway message here is that life is what you make it--and everything happens for the reason that you give it. Life may not always go smoothly--in fact this year had me doubting my teaching abilities and included a lot of tears--but every event can be a learning experience. So here I am, ready to have my own classroom, along with seventy-some other amazing credential students who I am honored to have sat with at graduation.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

It's about perspective

"If a doctor, lawyer, or dentist had 25 people in his office at one time, all of whom had different needs, and some of whom didn't want to be there and were causing trouble, and the doctor, lawyer, or dentist, without assistance, had to treat them all with professional excellence for nine months, then he might have some conception of the classroom teacher's job." -Colman McCarthy in The Washington Post
"First of all, I’ve calculated your earnings by adding your classroom hours, pre- and post-school hours, conferences and phone calls, weekend work, after-hours grading, professional development requirements, lesson planning, team meetings, extracurricular clubs and teams, parent correspondence, district level seminars, and material preparation, and I believe you make approximately 19 cents an hour.
And then people say, yeah but teachers get three months off for summer, and then we all clutch our guts and die laughing because WHATEVER, MAN. Like teachers leave on the last day of school and just show up on the first with a miraculously prepared classroom and a month’s worth of lesson plans. But seriously, thanks for the laugh."
Thank you Jen Hatmaker, for taking some time to appreciate teachers. Sometimes it feels few and far between. And it occurs to me that maybe anyone in policy-making positions should gain the perspective Ms. Hatmaker had--of actually being a teacher.

I've heard people say that everyone should experience working in food service. And I agree--if you did not already have it, it helps to learn basic common sense and decency. It was amazing working in my college dining hall, how rude and clueless people could be. And these weren't random people--these were my peers, people I respected, liked, took classes with, partied with, etc. These were really bright young adults. Like, I know they all can read--yet how many of them blatantly ignored reminders to, for example, place dishes on a tray before sending it down the conveyor belt, lest the plate get stuck and back up the whole process. Not only was there a big mess of piled up trays, dishes, and leftover food, but one of us had to descend into the depths of Mordor to unstick your stupid plate. But enough of my dining hall worker rant.

Point being, similar to why everyone should experience working in a service job to gain a new perspective, everyone should try stepping in a teacher's shoes. Especially anyone in a position of power to make policy decisions about teaching and education. It seems to me that a lot of people making decisions about education come from a very privileged perspective--upper class white males who likely went to ivy leagues and send their children to private schools and are thus wholly disconnected from the plight of most US school children. That being said, I am being totally stereotypical and putting things in black and white. But even so, a lot of decisions made about education seem to be very disconnected with what is best for students. Decisions are made without taking into account the opinions of those in the trenches, as it were. The people who know what is best for our students is not some random guy in DC, but our teachers, who know and work with our students every single day. Like Prop 227 which essentially did away with most bilingual education programs in California--when we know that bilingual education for English Language Learners leads to better educational outcomes. Not only do they get to maintain their first language, but it helps improve their English proficiency! It's really a win-win in every situation, but that's not the way the law was written.

So before you make any decisions or judgements about teachers and education, walk a mile in our shoes. See just what it takes to be a good educator--especially one with limited resources. Then walk down the road and walk a mile in another teacher's shoes because every classroom and every group of kids is different. It complicates matters, but hey, that's reality. There is no one-size-fits-all solution for the education issues facing California and the United States, and the sooner those in power realize that and find a way to give schools the resources they need for ALL children to succeed, who knows, maybe we'll start to climb in those rankings everyone seems to care about.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Learning can be fun!

"Math class is tough." -Barbie Doll (1992)

"To most outsiders, modern mathematics is unknown territory.  Its borders are protected by dense thickets of technical terms; its landscapes are a mass of indecipherable equations and incomprehensible concepts.  Few realize that the world of modern mathematics is rich with vivid images and provocative ideas."  -Ivars Peterson

Currently, I am working on my PACT. Well, currently I am writing this blog post, and procrastinating on my PACT. It is due in a week, and I've spent hours and hours making very little progress during my spring "break." I have re-watched myself teaching this lesson so many times, and believe me, watching videos of yourself teaching should really be reserved for a special level of hell.

The PACT is just another (major) hurdle to clear to get a California teaching credential. It involves video taping lessons, writing lesson plans, and describing what you planned, did, and what students did and learned in excruciating, and incredibly repetitive detail, responding to semi-confusing, jargon-y, overly-complicated prompts. So basically the opposite of what teaching is really about: making subjects accessible to students.

One moment during my teaching of the lessons stuck with me. I taught a learning segment of three lessons on measurement. We made our own rulers, measured objects in both feet and inches, and discussed when it's best to use a yardstick, measuring tape or inch ruler. Most of my students seemed to get it, but mathematical discussion and real problem solving is a huge weakness, and I get the feeling that it's a nation-wide problem in math class, and not just in mine. (And I'm not just randomly speculating--check out this great TED talk on math curriculum). Still, we were using real rulers! Manipulatives! Getting to physically do math!

And at the end of my second lesson, we were packing up and getting backpacks ready to go and one of my students goes "Ms. Elson, aren't we going to do math today?"

This was the best-and worst-thing to hear. The best because it meant that my students were engaged, and having fun--they didn't realize they were learning! But the worst, because there is also this pervasive belief that learning--that learning math--is not fun. That because they were enjoying doing the work, it couldn't possibly have been math.

I think that's why students decide they don't like school--because there is this societal belief that learning and school is hard work which cannot be fun. That having to read or do math can be punishments. That recess and lunch are what students look forward to. It's not all the students' fault--it's the language we all use--parents and teachers in life. Sure, sometimes the only way to get a student to read is if they're required to. But hopefully students realize that just because it's homework doesn't mean they can't enjoy it. We see this everywhere. Everyone looks forward to the weekend. Everyone complains about their job. No one likes to wake up early, Mondays are the worst, LOL I'm looking at cat pictures at work because I'm so bored.

I'm guilty of it too! Classes start tomorrow, and I can't say I'm excited about 2-3 hour evening classes again, plus I dislike homework just as much as my students do. But I still enjoy a lot of my classes, and now that my takeover is over, I enjoy going into school again. I may be terrible at getting out of bed in the morning, but I chose my career because I love working with kids and education is something I'm passionate about. I was also a kid who liked going to school. I have more books than there is space on bookshelves in my room, and I still buy new books despite no time to read them. I still enjoy learning. And sometimes I find myself complaining about work/school, and exaggerating my complaints/relief at it being Friday because that's what everyone else is doing.

I tell my students that yes, learning is hard, and sometimes not all fun and games but it's still important. But maybe it could be fun, if we just reimagined the value we put on things. It's amazing that simply by calling some random activity a game, and making it slightly competitive can get kids excited. If we can simply begin to instill a passion for learning and being curious, we wouldn't need to go to extensive lengths to get kids to read and do math.

For now, it's back to my PACT, a most decisively not fun experience. Though I don't feel like I'm really learning anything, at this point, unlike my second graders, I can see and reason the value of trying, and putting in the work for the benefit of my future.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

If you can...Teach!

“Great teachers will never be able to make up for bad parents, nor should they be expected to.” -Taylor Mali

“Certainly teachers themselves can do a better job of letting the world know how hard their profession is, but frankly, they have real work to do and a lot of it, so they don't have a whole lot of free time on their hands.” -also Taylor Mali

Teaching is hard, and the past two weeks have been two of the hardest of my year, because it was my 2-week solo teaching take over as a student teacher. It was probably good timing, then, for someone in my teaching program to pass along this video:

For my classmates whose takeovers have been going swimmingly, I am happy for them, I really am. I'm in a program with some amazing people, but it's hard to listen to their successes--so Roxanna Elden (from the video) definitely resonated with me. It's so hard not to take things personally and feel like a failure when mine felt like a disaster-despite positive feedback and encouragement from my resident teacher, other teachers at the school, and my supervisor. There was definitely more than one day that ended with me in tears when I got home. That's not to say that I did not learn a lot and that my kids didn't, because we all did. But if I tallied actual learning time, and time it took to settle my students/manage the room, it would not be remotely the tally I'd hope for, despite trying everything I could think of. Students, good or bad, definitely push the envelope with student teachers.

Still, it boggles my mind how rude, disrespectful, and defiant some students--eight year olds!--can be. How the actions of a small group can impact an otherwise lovely group of kids' learning environment. That said, it wasn't a total disaster, and one day shines brighter than the rest. One day was my silver lining, the day that reminded me what learning can look like. That day was the day I took my students on a field trip to the wetlands. My students loved it! One student struggles in school, doesn't pay attention, doodles, plays with scissors/paper/pencils during class, and rarely (though it does happen) gets excited or engaged in his learning. Yet on this day, he looked absolutely giddy the entire day, totally thrilled that he was getting to explore nature and science. And he wasn't the only one.

In fact, all of my students (save one, who had to sit out of one activity for breaking all two of the rules the woman running the program laid out for us) were actively engaged the entire time listening better than they ever do in class. It was good to see what has been a really tough class for me, be successful. Of course, it also showed me that my students need to learn to tap into their curiosity and potential in class--that they are capable of more than what they show me. But that day showed me how teaching can, and should feel: not bogged down by constantly waiting for kids to listen, but hands-on, interactive, and fun.

There needs to be a shift in how students view school, because too many students, even in the younger grades have given up and decided school isn't fun. And once you've decided it's going to be hard and boring, well, it's a self-fulfilling prophecy. Unfortunately many students decide that acting up and getting in trouble is easier than actually learning, and it gets to the point where then they act up because they are way behind, and that's a way to get out of work. And then a teacher ends up being less of a teacher and more of a parent, or a babysitter. It's sad, and it's unfair to the students who are willing and ready to participate, because these troublemakers who have made the choice not to learn, are also choosing to disrupt and take away valuable learning time from students who need and want to be there.

I'm currently overwhelmed by how much a teacher needs to take into account--with English language learners, and the plethora of different cultures in California, much less the rest of America, teachers must be aware of more than just the subject they teach. Teachers need to be aware of where a student comes from, their home culture, their English proficiency, learning style and social abilities.

As one woman discusses about her year teaching in Botswana, "I quit after a year, demoralized by the school’s atmosphere. I found teaching hard work, the hardest job I’ve done, and I would be wrung out at the end of each day [...] So now I say, 'If you can, teach.'"

It's a good thing my supervisor and resident teacher both are supportive, think I'm doing a great job, and I get positive feedback when I feel like I'm totally screwing up. So I guess I'm doing most of the right things. It may not always be pretty, and being a student teacher is different than having your own classroom, but in some little, itty bitty way, I'm making a difference in a world that is making it very hard for a teacher to do so-and in a classroom that is making it very hard for a student teacher. I'm excited for my own future classroom, knowing that, having (just barely) survived my solo teaching, I can, indeed, teach.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Watch Your Mouth

“I, too, sing America.

I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.

I'll be at the table
When company comes.
Nobody'll dare
Say to me,
"Eat in the kitchen,"

They'll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed--

I, too, am America.” 

-Langston Hughes

Recently, thanks to the lovely social media site of twitter, I came across this article by Camika Royal, titled "Please Stop Using the Phrase 'Achievement Gap.'" Given that in many education-centered organizations toss around the term a lot, and that I, during my years of service with AmeriCorps, have also used. I found it a provoking reminder of the power of language. Intentions may be good, but the underlying historical context and implication reinforce the gap we're trying to close. I like that she suggests using the term "opportunity gap," because frankly, that more accurately gets to the root of the problem. (And as with anything on the internet, I am continually failing to learn not to read comment sections-I read half of a comment that struck me as racist and totally missing the point before I remembered. It is amazing how defensive people get when they feel like their power or status quo is being challenged. Royal went on to respond to her critics, in a much more polite way than I may have been able to muster, and reinforce her argument).

What really resonated with me however, was this paragraph near the end:
"Those of us with racially critical lenses notice that education reform seems overly populated by young white women and under-populated by people who share cultural, ethnic, racial, and language similarities with the students we serve. While this has been an issue in education for some time, be clear that, at this moment when education "reform" is all the rage, accomplishing education reform by removing black educators and replacing them with young, white, and inexperienced cultural tourists demonstrates the pathological nature of this concept. When middle-class liberals and other well-meaning white folks grapple with the so-called achievement gap, what they're really asking is, "What’s wrong with them?"
This is a topic that I  have thought about, and mentioned before, about my unease with being middle class, white, and female, working with a majority of students who are not. Just like the majority of teachers in America. It reminds me of how I felt in high school when I joined the Gay-Straight Alliance. As an ally, I was insecure in what I was qualified to say or do, even though I felt strongly about our mission. I cannot pretend to understand what it feels like to come out and fear the responses of family, friends, or strangers, much like I cannot pretend to understand what it is like to not know where my next meal will come from, live in a shelter, or be black. But that does not mean I do not care passionately about my students' educations and the general state of inequality in America. I recognize that our job is not to improve a group of people to live up to this idealized norm of whiteness, but rather to shift a deeply rooted societal bias.

I see how Teach for America sets up corps members to be "cultural tourists" trying to fix the "other." This is one of several reasons I'm not TFA's biggest fan. The organization seems to benefit the teacher, more than it does the student. To me, teaching is, first and foremost, student-centered. That is not to say that AmeriCorps cannot benefit its members. My program allowed me to grow, and not at the expense of students. My students had veteran teachers, so at least if I ended up to be a horrible educator (thankfully I am not), 30 children would not be set back a year. Plus, in many places, with class sizes rising, it seems to be more beneficial to have more adults in the classroom, and more individual support for students, than to throw some enthusiastic yet inexperienced young college grad alone into a challenging classroom.

Perhaps because having been a part of two other AmeriCorps programs and am thus biased, I do not believe that all AmeriCorps programs are as problematic as I see TFA. They tend to be more diverse in age and possibly race, but also may be more likely to hire corps members who are already part of the community. And to me, community is huge. Many corps members are merely passing through a community, but what these communities need are people to work on these educational issues who are truly part of the community and will stay there. I wonder what Royal, a TFA alum, thinks of other AmeriCorps programs like the Minnesota Reading Corps, and if this is a model that is not quite as pathological as TFA. I wonder, because I also wonder where I fit. I know I have a lot to learn, but I believe I do try to view the world with racially critical lenses, and that even though I am white, working with a majority of students who are not, I am not merely a "cultural tourist." Rather, I am in it for the long run, because education is what I am passionate about, and it turns out I'm somewhat good at it. I cannot help that I am privileged simply by being born how I am, but I can act on the knowledge and understanding of what it means to be privileged. I can continue to educate myself, change the rhetoric I use, and work towards a better world. And I want to thank Royal for giving me some food for thought, and a small way to begin a shift towards educational equality.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

A Homecoming of Sorts

"It's not having what you want, it's wanting what you've got." -Sheryl Crow

"Luck is believing you're lucky." -Tennessee Williams

Several years ago I was complaining about a lane assignment for a 200 meter race I was about to run. I enjoy running on the inside lanes, because I like running the curve, but I must have had a number 6 or 7 hip number. My coach heard me and said, "Amy, the lane you're in is the best lane to be in." It never mattered what lane you were assigned, because excelling at a sport is not about what might have been, but about doing your best in every attempt, whether it be lane 2 or lane 8, in rain, wind or sun.

I took her encouragement to heart. I never again complained about my lane assignments, and even half-jokingly repeated my coach's advice back to her whenever I heard her talking to other athletes about lane assignments. And I think this advice applies to more than simply the world of track. It's good advice for life; playing the hand you are dealt and making the most of it.

It seems fitting that two of this week's vocabulary words for my second graders are "memories" and "familiar." I spent last week in Minnesota, and was pleasantly surprised at just how familiar and comfortable everything seemed, from walking to the grocery store, grabbing a drink with a friend, or playing board games in my former roommate's apartment. I also visited the wonderful school I worked in last year. Nearing the end of my winter break, and not looking forward to the intense quarter looming on the horizon, my visit restored enthusiasm to see my current class again, and was a good reminder of why I am taking on the challenge of grad school.

This past week I thought a lot about where I would eventually like to teach, and at what grade. And frankly, I don't have an answer. I'm not going to lie, I would teach at my lovely St. Paul school in a heartbeat. I feel like it's a very special place, and I got to a point where I truly felt a part of the community, and that feeling intensified when I returned last week. But who's to say I wouldn't have felt that way about another school, had I been placed there 2 years ago? I love my students now, I love my Minnesota students, I love the new students in MN with whom I spent two days, and I love those random 4th graders who let me be a part of their classroom family in Vacaville for one day two weeks ago.

But I wasn't placed in any other school. The path I took led me to St. Paul, and I made the most of my two short years there. I can't ask for anything more, and the hugs I got last week were more than enough to make it worthwhile, to know that while I was impacted deeply by my students and school, the feeling was mutual. I guess it's like my track coach's advice: whichever classroom/grade I'm in, that is the absolute best place to be.