Tuesday, November 15, 2011

I've been off dreaming

I'm going to just put it out there. They say that the end of September through to November is the hardest stretch for teachers. I thought it was hard my first year but I'm thinking I may trade that for these past weeks. Last year, I had enormous student turnover and instability. That was limited in many ways to just my classroom. This year, that sense of instability has seeped out into the building as a whole. I don't know the names of all the teachers in my building, in particular those who've been hired to replace those who have already quit. We have substitutes in on a regular basis and some days the substitutes just don't show up.

Morale is incredibly low. If it weren't for dedication to the students, the ones that desperately want and need to be there, I think there would be a mass exodus of teachers from my school at Christmas. Most days, it feels like nothing's working and there's no benefit to being there.

Yesterday, I had a substitute. By all accounts, it was a miserable day in Room 207. As one particular perceptive child put it after our morning meeting, "it sounds like the students took advantage of the substitute" If "taking advantage" means throwing things, refusing to sit down, telling him things that were not true about our routine, then yes, sweetie, that's exactly what happened.

Whenever you have a substitute, you can never be entirely sure what work will get done and what work will fall by the wayside. Most days, I'm just relieved to come back and hear that no one was sent to the office, no one was suspended, and no one had to have the police called on them (all within the realm of possibility). I left a pretty cool activity for them to do related to our reading of"My Brother Martin" about
Martin Luther King based on his "I have a dream" speech. As we're in the process of creating an imaginary settlement on the moon, we're talking about what societies need to be successful and desirable.

Here are the first few dreams that I got from students
-sweet car
-be famous from my realty tv show
-die and be buried looking beautiful
-i have all the lip glos

After reading, I did stop and out my head in my hands. What is this? Is this really the only way I can get them to think? Perhaps they would be better off with someone else in the room.

And then I got to the next chunk.

-- I have a dream that my older brother would treat me with respect
-- I have  dream that my mom would stop yelling at me alot
--I have a dream that the fourth grade would listen to their teachers
--I have a dream that my father would stay on this earth so he could see his kids get older and succeed
--I have a dream that I get old enough to teach my baby sister the right thing
-- I have a dream that my mom could find a job
--I have a dream that I become a great young lady
--I have a dream that everyone in this class gets a degree
--I have a dream that I open my own nail salon and become a successful businesswoman
-- save money to help old people (ELL, so this is a big idea to get across)

Selfless dreams, aiming high but aiming for possible -- that's why I drag my butt out of bed in the morning and force down that nauseous feeling that I'm failing my students.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Here one moment, gone the next...

On Fridays, I make a point of eating lunch with my kids. Normally, I try to avoid the din and air of madness that is the cafeteria, but the kids get so excited about it that I can compromise once a week. This past Friday, I managed to get more kids involved in conversation than ever before. That included Christian, who rarely participates in anything voluntarily.

Why the interest? One of my students has a relative with a local TV show, and she was going to be on it over the weekend to talk about September 11th.

With one or two exceptions, none of my students this year were alive on September 11, 2001. Last year, I had a child whose birthday was September 11th and I didn't have the heart to explain to her why I couldn't work up the same level of enthusiasm about her birthday as 4th graders expect.

The title of this blog makes it clear that I'm from the North. New England. Boston, to be exact. While the events of September 11th had an impact on everyone from around the country, it's been fascinating comparing stories with those who were here in Nashville at the time. I wanted to convey this experience to my students, but without frightening them or confusing them. Because truly, they've all lived in a post-9/11 world. They don't remember a world where few people had cell phones, making it hard to track people down in an emergency. They can't tell you exactly why we're fighting a war, but they know that we're at war.

On September 11, 2001 I was in the 8th grade (a detail I did not share with my students -- they don't need to know how old I actually am). We were in our first period class when someone from the office came to the door and told us to report to our homerooms. My school was very small, so all 60 of us were able to cram into one room, thinking "what is going on?". Another office person came by with a note for a classmate -- as she passed it, she said "your dad's alright" before leaving. Needless, the girl was confused and the rest of us wondered why that message was important enough to pass along and yet we weren't being told what was happening.

And when they told us, no one believed it. Then they turned on the news, and we were confronted with the truth -- this was going to be one of those moments that no matter who you are, where you were from, you would know exactly where you were at the moment you heard about the World Trade Towers falling.

That night, my family ate dinner together as we always did. Except, in rare form, we ate in front of the television, to hear updates and read for names of those who had died. A member of my church was on one of the planes leaving Logan that day. My parents knew others who had been in New York or were on planes bound for California that day. While my father's the poet in the family, my 13-year old self felt compelled to write a poem about that day, which began "Here one moment, gone the next..."

It's hard to explain how life has changed to my 4th graders. They know, like many others, that my brother is a member of the U.S. Military and I am fiercely loyal and proud of him. His deployment date has changed now more times than I can remember, and while I know he feels he should go, each time I hope that they've decided they don't need to send more troops overseas.  Without September 11th, I don't know if my brother would have made the same choice to join the military.

Around the same time 10 years ago, I began to struggle with my faith and with religion. While the arguments go back and forth about how 9/11 is actually tied in with religion, it made a young and confused teenager question how horrible acts could be committed by people who claimed to follow their religious tenets. I'm not just talking about the debates of Islam, but even "Christians" who treated other Americans cruelly based on their own perception of Islam, which more often than not seemed to have been developed without ever actually talking to someone who was Muslim.

While I still struggle with faith in a religious sense, since 9/11 I've put my faith into what I know I can believe in: helping others. I think that's why I've been drawn to education. Issues in education are pervasive, and yet regardless of where you started, people tend to agree on the primary aims: We are here to help the children, as everyone, regardless of birth or upbringing, has a right to a quality education. I wouldn't hear about Teach for America for another 2 years, but I think I would still have felt compelled to serve in some way.

A couple from college was married a year ago today. When they announced their date, the reaction was muted. "Oh" we said behind their backs "what a horrible date to be married." They clearly recognized this, as they included a section on their wedding website that explained that they wanted to remember the day in a positive way. That to them, they remembered the outpouring of patriotism and community togetherness that 9/11 created.

To some people like my students, 9/11 may just be a day that people mark like Memorial Day or Labor Day but fail to make any meaningful connection to. For those of us whose job it is to educate them, I hope we succeed to make them think more about just the 3,000 +lives that were lost on that day, but how it changed the lives of millions, if not billions, of people across the globe. And that for a moment, it wasn't a matter of black/white, rich/poor/, north/south, but rather, bring connected to something bigger and greater than oneself.

Sunday, August 28, 2011


I'd heard that Apple was encouraging people to donate their first generation iPads to Teach For America, but it barely registered on my radar. As a second year corps member, I figured any goodies would be given to the newbies.

But lo and behold, look what landed in my inbox this week from our TFA*Nashville Operations Director:

"What could an iPad do for your classroom and your students? Well, we're asking you to help us answer this question. Because of an extraordinarily generous initiative from Apple, you'll soon be receiving a first generation iPad for your classroom. Apple and its customers have donated iPads through a campaign that has featured Teach For America and our corps members in Apple stores across the country."

To recap: When Apple announced the iPad was coming while I was in college, I'm pretty sure I remember laughing out loud at how ridiculous it was. I had no idea how or why anyone would use this product or want to. When my college roommates dad had one that he brought out on a visit, I tried my darndest not ogle the strange contraption.

So here's my dilemma. While not a complete luddite, my knowledge of what the iPad could do in my classroom is limited. Having cultivated a number of tech-savvy friends over the years and my own proclivity for falling for enginerds, I know I know people who can give me ideas on how to best utilize this technology. If you've got one, shoot me an e-mail or leave a comment.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

And it's begun...

Last year, I was overwhelmed by the number of kids initially in my room (27) and the number of kids that left and arrived over the course of the year.

I've already had my first student leave and it breaks my heart. The school was simply too far away for the family. He left unceremoniously on Thursday last week and I cleaned out his desk this morning.

Today was a grudge day -- kids would not stop talking, not taking consequences well, copier broken, copier fixed, copier out of toner. In essence, the usual added with an unusual level of tired. When I checked my email at the end of the day, I had this waiting for me in my inbox.

Hi Ms. Astronaut:  This is [Sarah], [Jon's] mom just writting to thank you for the help you gave him during the days he was at [your school].  He really enjoyed being with you as a teacher.  You are the first teacher that he have had that called to introduce yourself and being so helpfull.

Thank you I really appreciate how you make him feel at class.  God bless you for your great work.!!!!

Frown? Turned upside down. Here's to hopefully a trend of similar sentiments!

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Keeping up with the Joneses

And we're officially back in business! Metro Nashville schools welcomed back almost 80,000 students on Thursday for the first day of school (albeit a half one at that). The week leading up to it was a blur of faculty meetings and room preparation, so much so that on Wednesday night I felt that familar "uh oh, what's tomorrow going to be like feeling?" that had disappeared over the summer.

Even as a second year teacher, there's a lot to keep track of. We have grown in size yet again! In the 2009-2010 school year, my school had about 260 kids enrolled. Last year, we hovered +/- about 10 from 500 for most of the year. On the first day of school this year, we had 650 students in the building with another 50 or so on the roll but who were not present (many people don't seem to understand that that first half day is so critical). The building itself looks the same, but the people within it look a bit different.

Changes thus far...

  • A new principal. I cannot begin to describe how excited I am to be working under her. I think every conversation we had as a staff managed to find its way back to "How can we best help the students? What do we as teachers need to accomplish this?"
  • An assistant principal! Numbers, not need, determine whether or not a school has an AP. Not only am I glad that responsibilities can be shared, I also have really enjoyed all my interactions with my AP
  • Coaches--Last year, we had a Reading Coach. This year, we have a (new) Reading Coach, a Numeracy Coach, AND three additional Coaches on leave from their schools to come and provide support to the 46 untenured teachers.
  • Inclusion -- this year, I will be co-teaching for 2 hours a day with our ELL teacher. I will also have another hour of the day where an Exceptional Ed teacher will be in the room. For someone who felt really alone in my room last year, the door this year is going to be pretty open with inclusion and 6 official observations.
  • New staff! - We've grown in student enrollment to the point where we have 6 teachers on each grade level. It's been a challenge to try and remember names, faces, and assigned positions as we've welcomed people into the building over the course of the summer. It will be confusing -- we now have several Smiths and confusing number of Joneses working in the building (at least 4...)
I'm a bit nervous about this upcoming year because I know I will be challenged to push myself to make my kids more successful. Adding several experienced teachers to my team has made me really see how much work I have to do to become a better teacher.  However, this year I feel prepped with the tools at my school to make those changes. After a shoddy relationship with my PD this past year, I look forward to a much more effective and supportive relationship with my new MTLD (Talk about overwhelming changes. My school had a ton, and then TFA went and changed things on me!)

I'll save my thoughts on my new kids until I meet all of them on Monday, but here's a preview.

I have a feeling I will very quickly be obsessed with them :)

Monday, July 18, 2011

Extreme Couponing -- Teacher Style

I think it's safe to assume that many teachers were like me when I was little. I'd eagerly look forward to the return to school -- not just to find out who my teacher was or who would be in my classes, but for the back to school shopping. As the daughter of a teacher, I was super lucky. My mom would bring me along for her trips and then we'd go for a special trip just for me.

School supplies are an ongoing concern for teachers. In a low-income school, it just gets even more complicated. What will the kids bring in? Will the kids bring in anything? What are the kids most likely to bring in? What do they absolutely need to have? How much am I willing to spend to make sure my kids have those supplies? Fortunately, MNPS provides some money for teachers to spend. Unfortunately, its nowhere near what they need to cover expenses throughout the year.

The biggest issue in my classroom this past year? PENCILS. By the end of the year, I was able to recognize the look in my students eyes when they didn't have a pencil. I lost track of how many conversations involved pencils. My favorites were always along the lines of "I don't have a pencil because someone stole it". Someone stole it? The pencil you had in your hand 5 minutes ago during our last activity? THAT pencil was stolen?

I consulted with numerous teachers and came to this conclusion: 3rd and 4th graders have the hardest time with pencils. No one has a solution that has worked for every class.

Various pencil techniques tried

  • Communal pencils
    •  They are very possessive of their things. No one wanted to drop off their pencils for fear of not getting the SAME pencil the next day or later on. They would develop the strangest ways of determining which one had been their pencil previously. 
  • Earn a pencil from the classroom store
    • Our school had a school-wide system of "Bear Bucks" which could be spent on a variety of things, ranging from bigger events down to goodies form the class store. The cheapest thing? Pencils. However, students often spent their Bear Bucks on other things
  • Sharpen all pencils in the morning only
    • One of my goals this coming year is to include more purposeful movement. This past year, I had more than a few who would try any possible reason to get up from their seats. They would inevitably have broken pencils even if they sharpened several in the morning as they boys in particular would break their pencil tips off to throw them at each other and get up.  
  • Use individual pencil sharpeners
    • What to do with the pencil shavings? Even with the ones that "catch" the shavings had a tendency to get dumped in the middle of the room. Also, other teachers expressed concern from their own experiences with the kids trying to use the blades on themselves or the other students. 
  • "Ask 3 before me"
    • When kids would ask for pencils, I would tell them to ask a neighbor (or three...). The kids quickly realize which students take good care of their things and which ones do NOT. Unfortunately, the ones that didn't take good care of their pencils also didn't take good care of other people's pencils. 
  • Mechanical pencils
    • At first, I thought this would be the answer. I always used mechanical pencils. What I never did though, was use the lead as a trade commodity. While I'm glad my kinds understand bartering, sharing lead sounds like a simple task, but it's fairly elaborate. And messy. 
  • Golf pencils
    • I bought a gross (144). Instead of being the weird pencils with no erasers, they became the hot new commodity. We went through the entire box in 3 days. 
  • Thick pencils
    • Designed for students learning how to write, my students loved them. These perhaps worked the best. The problems? Expensive, and they don't sharpen on a standard size. And we broke that sharpener.
  • The sharpeners
    • We broke 1 electric, 1 battery powered, and 1 wall mounted pencil sharpener. 
Needless, I'm still figuring out what I'm doing about pencils for this year. But I was super excited to head over to Staples to discover some amazing discounts. I got

250 pencils: $0.25
2500 index cards: $0.25
50 highlighters: $0.25
2 packages of copy paper: $2.00

I finally started to understand the feeling the women on Extreme Couponing have when they score a major deal. I do not have the 60 hours a week or massive storage space to be a serious contender on that show, so I'll just stick to my school supplies. 

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Students? What students?

Although it's taken several weeks, I'm finally relaxed enough to enjoy my summer. After the school year ended, I was still having dreams about not having my copies done and feeling unprepared. While I've had other vacations, this is the first time I don't have to worry about my plans and my students -- the sense of urgency has also taken a vacation.

I had images of the last few days of school being filled with fun and excitement. By the time I was attempting to file assault charges on student on the last full day of school, I was just hoping to make it to the end without further incident. On the last day of school, 5 students were absent. This broke my heart a little, because I had hoped to get to say goodbye to them all. Many of the students will be back next year as we do have a 5th grade, but others will be leaving to start at one of the many charter or magnet school options available to them.

All year, I've wondered about my placement. Initially when I'd applied, I had crossed all my fingers and all my toes to get a high school placement. When I had to choose elementary school or math in Nashville, I struggled with it longer than many of my friends expected -- I'd always hated math, so why would I entertain the idea of teaching it? As much as I love adorable little children, I can't see myself teaching lower elementary. I love content and application of knowledge and given my own experiences with bodily excretions, I think I'll applaud the work of our wonderful lower elementary teachers and watch with careful interest as they make their way up to me.

One of the biggest perks of being a 4th grade teacher didn't hit me until I was at Induction for the 2011 corps members (I'm one of the TTCs which has enabled me to interact with many of the incoming CMs already). I was talking with one of the CMs lucky enough to already have a placement at a new charter school here in town where several of my students will be going next year. As I thought about my kiddos heading onto 5th grade, I realized with few exceptions I know at least one of their teachers in the coming year. Even if we're not in the same building anymore, I felt this surge of happiness in knowing that my kids will be in the hands of capable, enthusiastic teachers who will continue to hold them to high expectations. Needless, I am curious how they transition -- the 2011 CM is getting my highest AND lowest math student, so I am fascinated to see how well they do in 5th grade. I consciously did not tell the CM my kids names, because I want him to have the opportunity to get to know them without my own views of this past year.

As much as I found induction 2.0 rejuvenating, I can say with 100 percent certainty that I am glad I am not back at Institute! Thinking back to this time last year, I was miserable, exhausted, and frustrated with TFA's training. I felt pulled in a thousand different directions. Overwhelmed with information, I still felt underprepared for what I needed.

The biggest reason? Although I arrived in Nashville a little over a year ago, I didn't get to live in Nashville over the summer and enjoy some of the great opportunities that are here. Now that the cicadas are gone, it's actually quite nice to be outside whether taking a walk at Radnor Lake, indulging my inner epicurean, or catching an outdoor movie or Sounds game. Throughout the year when people asked if I would stay in Nashville beyond the TFA commitment, I hemmed and hawed.

Sorry Mom, but now I'm letting myself seriously consider it.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Way Overdue Post

In a nutshell, I have fallen down on all lines of communication. I don't remember the last time that I talked on the phone with my parents, I haven't talked to my brother in over a month on my way to my reunion, and the only real conversation I've had with anyone I reconnected with over reunion was conducted while I simultaneously changed clothes, worked out, and went to the grocery store.

But perhaps its better that the last weeks have been a blur, because I think I would fall into a bad state if I dwelled on some of the details. My teaching has utterly fallen apart and any semblance of management has gone out the window. I actually had a student say "man, why does science have to come in the way of our computer time?" (note: she was supposed to be using the computer to do research for a science project). Numerous people in my life at school and at home have undergone serious tragedies -- including the co-worker who shares my name being part of this. When it feels like everyone else around me is going through difficult stuff, it just makes me feel guilty about my own problems.

Guilt. The word keeps coming up over and over again in my head. I feel guilty of failing my students -- even though my class made 1.3 years of reading growth and my class average is on benchmark in reading for the district, my students are still not passing reading tests. During orientation to TFA last summer and learning about the expectations of "Significant gains" according to TFA, I remember someone asking about the people who fell below limited gains and having the question being dismissed as unlikely. Well, take a look -- here's what it looks like.

I feel guilty about even having my job. A large number of teachers have been displaced across the district, including a wonderful teacher at my school that has had an immensely positive influence on my daily attitude and teaching style. I've inferred and also been pretty much told that being part of TFA is the only reason I didn't get let go. Then I feel guilty, because the question that's been crossing my mind for a while now is for my second year, why should I stay in TFA? Then I feel selfish because its framed in terms of what am I, and subsequently my students, getting from it? How different would my second year look if I stayed at my school but wasn't part of TFA?

Maybe I'm in a unique position, but I'm not surrounded by rah-rah TFA spirit. I feel like its held against me at my school. Several of the people I spend the most time with have already quit or spent most of the year debating it. There are days where I've cursed the mysterious TFA process that placed me here in Nashville instead of back at home where there are friends and family that I miss deeply. I think the nadir was probably when my name was said at the 2nd year's Alumni dinner -- my last name was said to distinguish from another CM who is memorable enough not to have to be referred to by her last name every time. And if that seems like I'm reading too much into it, my name wasn't even pronounced right.

My personal long-term plan has included TFA since 10th grade, ever since I decided I wanted to teach in a low-income school. I knew it would be hard -- I've had numerous friends go into teaching and spent time in some of their classrooms. I loved the idea of teaching elementary school and having a formative influence on my kids.  I get to teach American History, my all time favorite subject. I didn't have to ultimately choose between teaching or working at a museum because of the unique curriculum at my school.

But if happy is what happens when your dreams come true, then why do I feel so unhappy?

Monday, April 4, 2011

Thoughts on a Tennessean article

One of the exciting things about taking a teaching job in Tennessee last year was hearing about all the plans for change and improvement across not only at my school and in my district, but also across the state.

After a crazy day, which ended on a hectic note because of the tornado watch, I came home and settled into my work. One of the ways I procrastinate is by reading the news. While I'm still loyal to my hometown paper and the New York Times, I've also begun reading the Tennessean, the paper here in Nashville. You'd think after a long day of working in education I would start with sections on world peace or politics -- topics that interest people over the age of 10. Nope - I jump right to the education section.

The top article on the Tennessean caught my eye: "Teacher morale hits rock bottom". Well, heck, here I was thinking it was just in my own little first year teaching bubble that it felt rough. The article says very little that hasn't been in the news recently. Some politicians are proposing that tenure procedures change, extending the period of time that teachers would have to work before being eligible. There's also a proposal to get rid of collective bargaining for teachers. A big part of the article discusses people's willingness to join the profession and to stay.

I was dumbfounded to see that for an article that was only posted today, it had already gotten over 150 comments.

The first comment that caught my eye was by someone going by Rumpelstilskin. My response was so loud my roommate asked if everything was ok. To save you the trouble of finding the comment itself, I've posted the comment below:

Well, I can see where teacher morale in the Davidson County public school system could have a morale problem. If you are a bad teacher you are probably going to be found out. If you are a good teacher and see how the Federal government forces you to coddle the underclass bottom feeders and the uneducable then you certainly could have good reason to have a morale problem. Then of course if you are a teacher in the Davidson county public school system because you could not get a job in the private sector you might have a morale problem.

Underclass bottom feeders? UNEDUCABLE? As I have said to several of my students, EXCUSE YOU. 

I appreciated the encouraging comments that I read, where people were defending the hard work that teachers do. Some were teachers, former teachers, people who knew teachers. 

But I keep hearing the same gripes from naysayers.

1. Teacher's get three months vacation each year. Summer break is not a vacation for teachers. I'm still trying to figure out if I can take a week off to go and see my family.  I had 7 days of vacation for fall/spring break and 10 days for winter break. Over those vacation days, I had to write report cards, plan, and submit other documentation. 
2. Lots of people work more than 40 hours a week. My day does not end when I come home. I routinely submit my hours to TFA, and it's usually in the range of 80-90 hours a week. I know that there are other people who work those hours. If I have a day where I can't go to work, I have 20 students dependent on me and a team of other teachers that I support who support me. Not showing up, and not showing up at 100 percent, makes me feel as though I haven't done my job. 
3.Teacher's get paid too much for their work. I can't think of any other career where people are expected to pay for so much out of their own pockets. 

But what makes me saddest? It's that there are people out there that truly believe that there are students we shouldn't even bother to teach. That people believe that student's can't learn. Bottom feeders? That brings up images of the kinds of animals you can't eat when you keep kosher. ANIMALS. Not PEOPLE. 

Friday, March 18, 2011

Feeling Defensive

Coming out of my teacher bubble to interact with adult people sometimes feels like yet another culture shock. Many want to hear the stories. Some, as I've documented here previously, as quite hilarious. However, a majority of them want to hear about the "bad" stuff and how difficult my school is. I always get conflicted when people push for those stories. Sure, I've got some up my sleeve but what kind of picture does it paint? How well does it portray the day-to-day rather than the extremes? To strangers and mere acquaintances, I often find myself being defensive as they share their perceptions of what teaching in a low-income school must be like.

One of the impressive points to many people about my experience is that I'm taking graduate school classes on top of working full-time. It's not so much an admiration of rigor as much as an appreciation of sheer time and will power spent to just keep going. Nashville is home to the top Education school in the country -- however, due to scheduling, it's not where TFAers take classes. For the most part, the classes are fine -- not always inspiring or revolutionary for people already in the classroom.  The reading I'm working on over break is about "What Makes A Great Teacher?"

I find myself feeling riled up and on the defense as I sit in the coffeeshop.

"Classrooms in schools with few economic resources are less pleasant and may send negative messages to children"

Granted, my school recently completed a large renovation so our facilities are quite new. But I've seen many classrooms in schools that haven't been lucky to be renovated and the teachers have done a great job making it a welcoming environment. Even though later on the author concedes that with effort, teachers can create strong learning environments in these facilities, my toes curled at this absolute.

"If the room in which you teach is too crowded, if it is too hot or too cold, or if the air is stale, try to find another space."

What space is the author referring to? Several of my fellow TFAers teach in pods since the school has too many children for the building space. During one episode where my room was the temperature equivalent of Antarctica due to a temporary heating issue, I moved my class to the detention room (not equipped as a classroom). After the miserable experience, my 4th graders voted that they preferred to wear their hats, gloves, and coats until the issue was solved but stay in our room.

Perhaps my response is too much. The authors are well-intentioned and certainly more credentialed than I am. I can't help wondering -- is this book setting them up to see the low-income classroom as many teachers experience it?

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Spring Break Fever

I had to double check the date when I saw I hadn't posted in almost 6 weeks - has it really been that long? In some ways, this quarter has felt like it has dragged on forever. In many other ways, I feel like I'm still scrambling to get things in my life in order. We have a little over a week left of school (since the district decided to convert professional development and spring break days into school days) and I don't want to think about school anymore. Spring break is so close I can almost taste it.

Since you can't actually taste it, I'll just have to be content with the tour de food I've been undertaking this weekend. Many moons ago I mentioned wanting to have more of a social life and people ask me all the time how I like things about Nashville. Well, here's an attempt to share.

On Saturday, a group of us went to Sparkles Cupcake Company, courtesy of Ms. D. You would think that as an elementary school teacher I would be sick of cupcakes. Every time a student has a birthday, I seem to end up with a large sugary confection that resembles a cupcake once you reduce the frosting. And not even just my students -- sometimes it's students from other 4th grades, sometimes it's 5th graders from around the corner, and sometimes I don't recognize the child handing me the cupcake at all.

Am I sick of cupcakes? No. Which is probably why cupcake shops are sprouting up all around the country and even have their own television shows.

Today, my roommates and I went to partake in some Mardi Gras festivities at Belle Meade Plantation. A pale comparison to the real Mardi Gras and FREEZING, but enjoyable nonetheless. It's amazing how excited the small children around me got by the flying plastic beads. I did manage to get the little girl beside me to cheer for the milk truck -- I do love getting kids to drink "white milk". After the parade, we went on a tour of the mansion and tried some of the wines that they make. It was definitely one of the more uniquely Nashville things that I've done.

I've got a backlog of other things I've meant to write up, but I meant it when I said the last few weeks have been crazy. While there have been some high points in that time, there have also been some big lows, and it's just been emotionally draining. I've discovered that when I take me time, I'm happier and thus the students are happier as well. But when I take me time, I feel guilty about it or think about all the work I could be doing, and then I don't enjoy myself as much. Problem? Very much so.

Monday, January 24, 2011

How to get your student's attention in math class

We've been covering data analysis in math class -- an introduction for most of my students to mean, median and mode. We've been practicing with a good deal of word problems: test scores, pennies, stamps, and game scores.

Math class is, unfortunately, in the afternoon. This means that my students often check out and the gap in my math class is much wider than it is in reading. I'll admit it -- sometimes I purposefully throw things in to wake them up. Today, I was trying to come up with a sports team name. Many of my kids are on their own teams, so any of those name aren't an option (the Jaguars score better than that! etc). So I made up a problem about a basketball team -- called the Sabers.

Oooo whee! You'd think I'd just said that I cancelled all the district testing for this week--heck, any testing related to the TCAP. I got almost a bigger reaction than when they realized they'd earned their pizza party for class points.

"Ms. Astronaut! You watch the GAME??!?!?!?!"
"Aw yeah, she watches the GAME!"
"No way, she doesn't watch the game"

After I calmed them down, we continued with the lesson. I then proposed that to find the range, we take Derwin's high score and Jason's low score and --

"Oh My GOD she watches the GAME!!!"
"Man, I love me some Derwin"
"She watches the Game! She watches the Game!"

Yes children. I watch some of the same shows that you do, as disturbing as that is on occasion. We'll add that to the other tv shows I can talk to you about that surprised you (I'd list them, but it's pretty much Disney channel shows. )

It's been a strange transition back to school with my kids since we've had so many snow days. As a New Englander, these days are starting to get a little ridiculous. If it's called the night before, you wake up and look out the window to see just a hint of snow dusting your car. The ice has been a bit of an issue since no one is prepared to deal with it. I keep myself motivated with the small things

-- my kids wanted to know how they could nominate me for Teacher of the Year
--some of them seemed sad when I told them I wasn't one of the options this year
--my kids are finally learning how to be quiet during testing (thankfully, since we've got a lot)
--pretty much all of them responded with a resounding NO! when the word "substitute teacher" was mentioned
--my donors choose project got fully funded! My kids have NO idea that all these wonderful books will soon be on their way!
--One girl's response to the question "What do you think is the President's most important job is?"

Response? To make sure that the world is perfect.

How can you not love that?

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Whoever smelt it...

When I first learned I would be teaching elementary school, my favorite memories turned to 4th grade. I had an absolutely remarkable 4th grade teacher who would go on to be a semi-finalist for my state's teacher of the year award. I remember reading Shadow of a Bull in literature circles, being told my new favorite book was at an 8th grade level, singing along with the girls at recess to the popular songs of the era -- either Spice Girls or Titanic. I remember being bullied and picked on, but for things like being really smart and wearing glasses.

My memory, however, is overall pretty foggy on many of the details. I do remember having a crush on the same boy throughout elementary school. He lived right around the corner and every so often growing up our families would have playdates with all the kids. I tried my hardest to hide that I liked him so using my skills in logic, I was mean to him and said I hated him. I've learned from my girls this is no longer the accepted rationale in 4th grade. Being mean to a boy is so he doesn't think you're easy. Duh.

One thing I have no memory of is how certain bodily functions were dealt with, especially farting. The only thing that sticks out is the phrase "Whoever smelt it, dealt it"

I began to realize this would be an issue in my classroom fairly early on. In the middle of class one day, I had a girl raising her hand, anxiously bouncing up and down in her seat. I let the kids get started on the activity and walked over to her.

"Do you need to go to the bathroom?" I asked (at this point we weren't really supposed to let students leave by themselves) She shook her head quickly."Do you need a drink of water?" I inquired, now curious why she was so agitated.

"No, Ms. Astronaut. I need to go in the hall" she replied. I'd let students step out in the hallway if they needed a minute to cool down, but this girl did not seem upset.

"Why?" I asked.

Her neighbor looked at me and rolled her eyes. "Ms. Astronaut, she's got to toot."

I agreed to let her leave, and as she walked away I turned toward the board and laughed to myself. How ridiculous it seemed that she would get so worked up about farting in class. Little did I know it was the start of a long saga with farting.

I discovered as the year went on that she would not be the only student who would ask for a reprieve to relieve themselves in this way. Finally, each time that laughter would erupt over a noxious smell I would say "Guys, it's not funny. It's natural." Some of my better behaved students have started to echo this phrase whenever a farting incident occurs.

So why am I just writing about this now?

This week, one of my students was having routine flatulence issues. He was clearly embarrassed and it seemed as though something out of the usual had to be going on in his digestive system. We were sitting in a circle on the floor to introduce a math game, in fairly close proximity to one another, when it happened again for the upteenth time that day. One girl almost always leads the charge in laughing and she was not holding back this time. I could see the boy beside looking nervous, worried, and on the verge of tears beside beside me.

So I did what I had to do. I took responsibility for his fart.

After I claimed responsibility for the smell that was quickly dispersing across the carpet, there was silence. Then the ringleader began to laugh even harder. In my most serious teacher voice, I asked her what was so funny.

"But Ms. Astronaut, I ain't never had a teacher fart before!"

As the class erupted into laughter, I couldn't help but smile. Even though my kiddos are in the scary discovering hormones phase, they still are fascinated to learn that their teachers are real people. You own skinny jeans? You have a family? You eat lunch when you're not with them in the lunchroom? You like who [insert almost any popular artist here]?!?

Lesson of the year: Real people can make mistakes. Mini-lesson of the day: Real people fart.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

My kids and the Jonas Brothers

Question: What do the things in the title have in common?

Answer: What was going through my head in LaGuardia as I made my way back home to Nashville after a  well-enjoyed winter break.

What happened: I arrived at my gate in LaGuardia exhausted and hungry. My connection was tight, I'd had to check through security to get from one concourse to the other, and it was right in the middle of dinnertime. I went to the only food place within sight of my gate -- Auntie Annie's Pretzels. While I've been primed by experiences at malls and airports to respond like Pavlov's dog, there can be times when the smell is overpowering. I turned my head away from the counter and the obnoxious family in front of me and lo and behold, I saw him.

One of the Jonas brothers. My brain just sort of shut off for a moment and the only thought that crossed my brain was "My kids are never going to believe this. How can I best tell this story so that I'm cool?"

While my brain processed this challenge, the JoBro continued to walk through the airport. My brain was calling out "Joe! Joe!" but my mouth would not move. Probably a good thing, because I realized by the woman beside him that it was the married JoBro. While no one who knows me would probably believe that I, on occassion, can't speak, this one time I was especially glad -- turns out his name is Kevin, not Joe. Woops.

In essence, however, the thought of my kids overtook my brain. How much [insert name here] would like this toy. [Insert name here] loves this book -- I wonder if he/she's read the next book in the series? Here's a workbook on phonics -- I could really use this with [insert name here]. I did share some of the stories of the past year with friends and family, and I could tell a lot of them were impressed, especially the ones that have taught themselves. I was struck too by the stories I chose to tell and how I felt afterward. Instead of feeling tired, I think I finally had enough of a break to feel motivated and rejuvenated.

So we'll see. Class begins again on Tuesday and I'm introducing some new procedures to tackle some of the issues we had last quarter. I keep hearing over and over again that something magical happens over Winter Break -- I'm keeping my fingers crossed. If not, I can at least take deep breaths,  think of the wonderful time that I had with friends and family, and count down to my reunion in April.