Tuesday, December 23, 2014

May Your Days Be Merry & Bright!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until then, Happy Holidays and Happy New Year!

Monday, November 3, 2014

The Best Laid Plans

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

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

Everything and anything can be a teachable moment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

My Students' Lives > Your Right to Own a Gun

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, June 22, 2014

I Survived!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Play is Academic

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, March 21, 2014

What You Say vs. What You Mean

“Recognizing power in another does not diminish your own.” -Joss Whedon

Jon Stewart's The Daily Show inspired this post. Because let's be real--I don't watch Fox News, though I may often have strong feelings about what goes on there.

(2014: A Waste Odyssey continues to expose some ridiculous hypocrisy) 

Here's the thing about food stamps, and Fox News' reaction. What really irks me is how people talk about how food stamps are used. Yes, maybe there are some abuses of the system. But there are abuses of the system at every level--from corporations, down to low income Americans. What else is new? And yes, perhaps buying expensive seafood is not the wisest choice on food stamps--given that there is a lot of other food you're going to need each month aside from fancy salmon.

That being said, all I hear when the morons anchors on Fox News are outraged that someone can buy organic salmon from some upscale market in some fancy pants section of New York is that they don't think poor people deserve good food. That they aren't worth enough to consume such delicacies. That they should be buying cheap, poor quality food, not because it's what they can afford but because that's what these sub-human beings are worth. It took me a while to pinpoint what was bothering me, and the second time I saw the Daily Show clip I figured it out. These anchors are just SO aghast that you could buy organic salmon with food stamps. Well, why couldn't you?

Their reaction is infuriating. When I did AmeriCorps I made very little money. I knew this going in--my job was a service to my country and community, and it was very much a living stipend--a wage to cover the costs of living so that I could give a year (or two) of service without starving or freezing to death. Because of how much I made, I qualified for food stamps, and took advantage of this. Why? Maybe I could have gotten by without it. If I ran out of money, my parents could have probably bailed me out--I had a safety net below the safety net I was using. But I wanted to both live independently, and eat well. So I got food stamps and could afford to buy organic produce if I wanted. I could afford to buy brand name food if I so chose, and buy higher quality this and that. And I realized, no wonder there is an obesity epidemic in America that coincides all too closely with poverty. Because it is hard to eat healthy and cheap. It is cheaper to buy a lot of crap. And this is the reality that a lot of students I work with deal with--I work in Title 1 schools, which means a good percentage of kids are on free/reduced lunch, which means many of my families are lower socioeconomically--and some may not even know where their next meal is coming from. I want my kids eating healthy, and making good choices--and I want my kids to have the resources to do this. And quite frankly, that they don't, is not their fault. It is the system they were born into, a system that makes it very hard to make your way up in. Does that mean they don't deserve nice things? Absolutely not. Maybe if we paid people a decent wage for all jobs this wouldn't be an issue. Maybe if everyone had the same access to education--that all schools had the resources they need for success--this wouldn't be an issue because no one would need food stamps, because everyone would truly have equal opportunity for success.

So screw you Fox News, and anyone who thinks the statistic that 99.6% of poor people have refrigerators tells us anything worthwhile about the state of poverty in America. Poor people deserve to eat well, and healthy, and keep their food fresh, just as you do. They deserve basic appliances. They deserve a little bit of luxury in their lives. And you know what, no one deserves to be poor. Just because you're below the poverty line doesn't mean you're worth anything less as a person. If you are appalled that someone can buy lobster with food stamps, keep it to yourself. And let these hardworking, struggling Americans treat themselves every once in a while.

At any rate, those buying crazy things with food stamps not only are mostly within the law, but are very likely outliers. The reason you can buy these things, is that it's none of our business what people do with food stamps once they get them. Yes, there may be smart choices to make the most of the money you get, but that's for those individuals to deal with.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Thy Children Ever True

O Carleton, our alma mater,
We hail the maize and blue.
Thy name is ever dearest, 
Thy children ever true.
O Carleton, our alma mater
To thee we sing our praise.
To thee we FIGHT,
To thee we pledge
The strength of all our days.

This is a departure from my usual posts, but tonight I was torn between an emotional upheaval, and focusing on the data entry for school (it had to be in by midnight, no exception), plus prepping for my masters poster presentation for tomorrow. I glanced at twitter and facebook before entering data about what graphemes my students have mastered in the most non-user friendly data entry system ever when several posts by former Carleton classmates and friends caused me to pause.

Carleton was, and is, one of the closest and most meaningful communities of which I have ever been a part. I cannot even begin to describe the impact Carleton has been in shaping my life, and continuing to influence my life 4 years after graduation. February has been heartbreaking for the extended Carleton community in many ways. A wonderful, artistic, lively girl with whom I had the pleasure of running track with one season passed away because of a failed medical procedure. Three boys (class of 2015) just lost their lives in a car accident. The outpouring of support from the Carleton community just on social media, from those who knew those who died-and did not know at all, has been overwhelming. It reminds me--though I don't need, nor wish for a reminder in this tragic fashion, how lucky I am to be a part of the Carleton community. It always makes me sad that it is often in tragedy which brings out the best in people. I am thankful and touched in the ways it does, but we must try to keep up the connection and support alive and at the forefront when everything is rosy. And I feel a little guilty--that my life will continue on, relatively normal despite these tragedies. It's true I did not know these 3 boys, and no one would likely think any less of me had I not commented on these events or for carrying on as usual, but it's still hard to process and react to. As is any needless death--or even an expected death.

 A few months ago my grandfather passed away from Alzheimer's. A couple of weeks ago, a 3 year old in Napa lost his (her?) life, and lived in my school's neighborhood. A year or two ago, one of my students' younger sister passed away. Back in 5th grade we had kindergarten buddies and we read with them and did activities with them, and the following year I found out that the girl I was partnered with drowned in a public pool. Death is unavoidable, and while it is a part of life, it leaves a mark. It leaves a hole that can never quite be filled. I learned during my comps project (my comprehensive exercise, ie my senior thesis for my non-Carl readers) that there is a set-point of happiness theory, where, for example, if you win the lottery you experience a happiness boost. However, within two years you fall back to whatever your "set point" was before winning (some proof that money doesn't buy happiness). Only consistent effort--volunteering, exercising, counting your blessings, etc. can maintain a happiness boost. But it takes work. It's like one good workout won't lose you those extra pounds, or give you a six pack. Constant effort does. Nothing can change your set point, but for a few exceptions, one being that people who lose a spouse experience a decline in happiness, and never fully recover. So I'm not just being philosophical--death really does impact us greatly.

I'm looking forward to the point where the school I am teaching becomes like Carleton--when teachers collect money for a former colleague and I know this colleague. When I know the families, and when we talk about alumni, I know who we're talking about. I have been lucky this year to have been hired at a school that has a very strong, collaborative community. I still feel like a little bit of an outsider--but with time, that can fade, and while no community will impact me in the way that Carleton has (and continues to), I am drawn to close-knit communities. (I just mis-typed close-knit as close-knight. A Carleton freudian slip, for sure--Go Knights!)

Tonight, my thoughts are with Carleton.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Fake It Till You Make It

“I’m going to tell you a secret about everyone else’s job: No one knows what they’re doing. Deep down, everyone is just faking it until they figure it out. And you will, too, because you are awesome and everyone else sucks.” -April Ludgate, Parks and Recreation

"I've read a lot of books, so I know bunches of stuff that sounds like it could be true.” -Brian Andreas

Time for a little honesty here. Something I try not to let on to my students' parents, or my principal, the other teachers at my school, interviewers, the panel reviewing my masters inquiry project, guys I'm trying to impress, or least of all my students: I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT I'M DOING.

I'm not trying to brag--writing cover letters is painful for me because I feel so un-genuine talking myself up, but here it is: I will have a masters of education very shortly, in which I have thus far received full credit on every assignment. I did extremely well (4.0) in my credential program. I have never failed a class, was in the top 10% of my high school class, graduated cum laude from undergrad, and consider myself decently intelligent. I am passionate about my job and the importance of education. I should be nailing this teaching thing, right?

It's terrifying to find yourself in uncharted waters, in a position that you want, that you chose to be in, that is surprisingly out of your comfort zone. I know that next year I will be a much better teacher. More confident from day one, and actually have an idea of what to expect. I will have a better idea of the end goal, which will help me know what, when I run out of time, I can cut from my schedule. I will have a better idea of how to teach--and reteach--and set clear expectations from the beginning. I still won't be perfect, I will still question my choices, and face challenging students. But I will have a little fuller of a toolbox to pull from.

But I still have to make it through this year and get hired back. I still have my group of kinders who need all the help and attention I can muster to be prepared for 1st grade. I still feel miles behind the other teachers at my school, who seem to effortlessly control their classes, and demand the behavior that I'm trying so hard for my children to exhibit. They seem to know what to do, and what to say to parents, peers, and administration. I feel like I'm just stumbling through, one day at a time, hoping not to do something too stupid. I have a long ways to go. I know it's not fair (to quote something I saw on pinterest) to compare my Chapter 1 with someone else's Chapter 20, but it's hard not to. I often have to take a deep breath and remind myself of this. And I luckily have a lot of supportive friends and family who are so patient in letting me vent and reassuring me that I'm probably doing okay.

And in light of all this, here's a primer for those of you with teacher friends: 12 things you should never ever say to teachers. I know you mean well, but my goodness do most of these ring true. If I've learned anything this year, is that teaching is ever so challenging, rewarding, and never what you assume it to be.

Friday, February 14, 2014

This is Why I Teach

"There are lives I can imagine without children but none of them have the same laughter and noise." -Brian Andreas

"Children make your life important". -Erma Bombeck

There are a lot of small moments in teaching that remind me why I teach. I feel like I complain and vent a lot about my experience--it's easier to think of what's not going well, and my perceived failures. I don't feel like a successful teacher a lot. It's good to remind myself of things I actually get right.

Our current theme is "Words and Roads Take Us Places." It's about communication and transportation. How fitting then, that I got a letter this week from one of my students from last year. If there's one thing I know my second graders last year learned, was how to write a friendly letter. Every week they would write a letter to my resident teacher or me in a journal, and we would write back. It was such a great way to build a relationship with the students, and allow students to write and grow at their own pace (woo differentiation!)

My masters inquiry is about emergent writing. Research backs up the need for writing to be meaningful and authentic in order to engage students and promote growth, and I realize that those friendly letter journals were perfect. Letters were tangible, and they got something in return. The more they put in, the more they got back. Three of my students wrote letters this year and gave them to my resident teacher, and she passed them along to me. I returned the favor, and my resident teacher gave those students an addressed, stamped envelope so that they could mail their letters this time.

I LOVE snail mail, and if there's anything that's better than getting mail, it's getting a handwritten letter from a student. I haven't had the opportunity to visit them this year, because I have yet to have a day off when they don't, but the second I do (spring break, I believe), you can bet I'll be visiting. That my students remember me--the student teacher--and think highly enough of me to write a letter a year later, means the world to me. It reinforces the notion that what I'm doing makes a difference, and makes an impact.

Finally, Happy Valentine's Day! There is no better profession to be in than teaching when it comes to Valentine's Day, because you are never without a Valentine, or 30. 

A rose can say "I love you",
orchids can enthrall,
but a weed bouquet in a chubby fist,
yes, that says it all.

-Author Unknown

Sunday, February 2, 2014

100 Days Smarter

“Look at children. Of course they may quarrel, but generally speaking they do not harbor ill feelings as much or as long as adults do. Most adults have the advantage of education over children, but what is the use of an education if they show a big smile while hiding negative feelings deep inside? Children dont usually act in such a manner. If they feel angry with someone, they express it, and then it is finished. They can still play with that person the following day.” -Dalai Lama XIV

I have been teaching for 100 days! It's a big day in kindergarten, the 100th day. In my class we have been adding one piece of a 100-piece puzzle to the board each day--and today the puzzle was finished. Just about every single activity we did today- read-alouds, math, writing, snack-had to do with the number 100. And with the excitement of it being a special day, meant that there was more buy-in from the kids. Really a lovely way to end the week.
100 Days, 100 Snacks
It's good to end things on a high note and remember the positives. One of my students told me, for the second time this week, that I am the best teacher ever. It's sweet, and possibly nice that these kiddos don't have perspective or other teachers to compare me to, so yeah, I may be the best. But still, it's important to realize that my kindergarteners view what goes on in class very differently than I do.

I suppose this is the upside to my dilemma of attempting logic with my kindergarteners. I haven't quite cracked the kindergarten code--classroom management is HARD, and trying to explain WHY my students should behave appropriately is often lost on them because I'm using logic and talking about long term consequences, and effects of behavior on others, when developmentally speaking, these students are still egotistic and unable to process certain logic the way older students are. Most of the time this is something I gripe about, but it also means that my students interpret what goes on in class differently from me. That when I end a day thinking, man, that was tough and kind of terrible, they leave, happy. They give me a high five, or a hug, or tell me they love me.

It's my students who simultaneously make me question whether I really should be a teacher, challenge me daily, and cause me great amounts of stress, while they remind me of why I'm a teacher, why I'd rather have no other job, and why I'm passionate about what I do. Yes, my students are 100 days smarter, but hey, so am I. And as much as I complain and question, I love my students. And amazingly enough, I believe they love me too, and that's what makes it all worthwhile.

Here's to tomorrow, day 101. And to many day 100s to come.

If there's something strange in your neighborhood...

Youth is wasted on the young. -George Bernard Shaw

Teaching kindergarten is easily the hardest thing I've ever done in my life. I've thought a lot about what grade may be the right fit for me. On one hand, I love working with the younger kids--they are so loving and their drama is relatively straightforward. On the other hand, the content you get to explore with older kids, especially in literature and social studies topics would be so much fun and interesting to explore. Once you've passed that learning to read stage, and are reading to learn, you can do so much more, and a wealth of opportunities open up for activities and discussions you can have. 

Older kids also have both more cultural capital and a higher likelihood of understanding and appreciating puns and references. So, in the spirit of brevity and levity, here's a little anecdote from my teaching that's on the lighter side:

I have a couple of students who I have had to send to other classrooms or the office to take a break, or finish work in an environment removed from the stimulation, comfort, and distraction in my classroom. One day, I reach the end of my rope, and walk to the phone. The kids know what this means, and one little boy (the boy who most often needs the break), asks, "Who you gonna call?"

I couldn't resist. The wording was perfect. The answer is yes. Yes I did respond with "Ghostbusters".

He was confused, I said never mind, and moved on, but was secretly mildly disappointed that no one was around who could appreciate the awesomeness of that moment.