Sunday, February 6, 2011

Bonding

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What bonds your class together? Families do certain things together that create fond memories and tighten the family ties. These shared experiences are important, and I maintain that they are just as important for a classroom.

When I taught in Wisconsin, I was the only third grade teacher in my small school. If you were there for third grade, you had me -- and you made gecko houses. Every child had a shoe box and a brightly colored rubber gecko. Nothing went to waste in that classroom. The plastic ring from a roll of tape, or the cardboard box from the new roll -- these went into gecko houses. A mother brought us rug samples and books of wallpaper samples. A scrap of wrapping paper made a great television set. Students created elaborate systems for their geckos to safely enter and exit their gecko houses; trap doors and ladders that could be pulled in with a string were very popular.

Younger siblings looked forward to coming to third grade and getting to make their own gecko house, and students graduating from the school at the end of eighth grade still had theirs and still spoke fondly of that experience. Students with limited social skills were able to share in an experience with their peers, even if the limits of their abilities were simply sitting next to another student while they worked on their houses. They didn't mind rainy day recesses or when the weather was too cold (below zero) to go out; it meant they had gecko time.

My current school has no opportunities for creativity, and so unifying experiences are different from those at a school whose mission statement includes educating the whole child. But one shared experience we have had this year is the joy of a purple book.

It's safe to say that a number of my students only read under duress. They are below reading level, and so the books for their reading level (when they leave for reading class) don't match their interest or emotional level. Since I don't teach my homeroom for reading, it's hard to find a time to get them hooked on any book series, such as Magic Tree House. However, the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series has been very popular, even with the low readers.

Therefore, when the latest one came out, two students were able to buy a copy from book orders. I am just as interested in the series, so I got one at the school book fair. When I was finished reading it, I had every interested student put his or her name on a slip of paper, and I drew a name. Each student had two weeks to read it. As the others who had a copy finished theirs, they volunteered to draw names and share their copy as well. As a class, we inhaled that book with the fervor you would associate with the publication of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

Everyone in our class has read at least part of the book. It is something we enjoyed (to varying degrees), and a shared frame of reference. It is something I can use as an example, and students know what I'm talking about.

Those of you who teach reading to your own class, and those of you at middle class schools may not quite understand this. My school has no specials, per se. There is no art. We had OMA in the past, which shrinks to a smaller and smaller amount of time. The OMA teacher has not yet set foot in our classroom this year. We will probably get her in March or April -- and school ends in May. We have a beautiful library that was redone by Target volunteers. We get to check out books maybe once a month, because we are on a bi-weekly schedule, but our time is always pushed back because of a library presentation: Dia de los Muertos, Dr. King, Chinese New Year, things that are not unimportant but prevent the students from checking out books. We have no PE. Instead, we have what is euphemistically called "extended recess," which means the teachers (who are not PE professionals) take the kids outside with balls and jump ropes. There is one computer in my classroom. There are some in the library, which we have as limited access to as we do the books.

Thus, we don't have a lot of shared experiences that involve fun or pleasure. They will certainly not look back at this year and say "Remember in fourth grade, when we did math?" But they will remember drawing names for this book. They will remember that this was something we all did together, and next year when they're divided among the fifth grade teachers, the Diary of a Wimpy Kid will help them connect with their new fellow students.

I do miss the gecko boxes, though.

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Saturday, February 5, 2011

Age

I'm often torn between expanding my students' worlds and maintaining a professional distance.  For most of my educational career, I knew very little about my teachers aside from their names.  I knew my Kindergarten teacher (Mrs. Mullen) had a husband because she was pregnant (this was in 1963-1964).  I knew my 8th grade science teacher (Mr. Benson) had a wife and children because some of the girls babysat for him.  I knew the first names of a handful of teachers over the years, at the most.  There was generally a wall, mine field, and fence with barbed wire between students and teachers when I was growing up. 

It was the same way with all adults, though.  My aunts and uncles and grandparents were mostly people who associated with my parents.  Cousins were for the kids.  I have fond memories, but my aunts and uncles certainly never played with me or listened to me in any way related to my relationships with my nieces and nephew. 

Therefore, in my classroom, I often have to decide for myself where my own line is drawn.  I don't discuss things like the fact that I'm single, anything about my marriage from years ago, or anything personal of that nature.  My students know about my two cats.  The one thing that I have shared with them recently (at this last school) is my age.  I'm 53. 

I don't look like anyone's preconceived notion of 53, nor do I act like it.  I weigh more than I did when I was young and smoking, and I'm more afraid of heights and more cowardly at amusement parks than I was when I was younger.  Otherwise, there's not much that I can't do, except for whatever I couldn't do before. 

I think this is why I let my students know how old I am.  I want them to know that "old" is a relative concept.  I want them to know that they get to choose how they age.  When people talk to them about someone who's "old" -- and younger than I am, I want them to remember and point out that I was 53 and I am certainly not tinting my hair lavendar or sitting in a nursing home playing BINGO.  We like some of the same movies, TV shows, singers, and jokes.  We have been through tragedy together, celebrated together, and complain together.  We enjoy Harry Potter, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, and dragons.  When we do our Tuesday walk/run, I'm right there doing it with them, not watching from the side. 

When I began teaching (and was much younger), there was no way I would have told my students my age.  It was none of their business.  Even now, I let them know that it's not polite to ask a woman her age, because most women are taught by society to be very sensitive about their age.  As they watch their mothers panic about turning thirty, they can look at me and see that it is something their mothers will get over.  They, too, will discover that it really is just a number.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Attendance

I began teaching professionally in 1999.  I have had a lot of time to think about what factors contribute to and interfere with student success.  A huge problem at my school, and in my classroom, is attendance.  More to the point, the problem is the lack of attendance.  For example, I have a student who has been absent six times and late six times in the past month.  Last quarter she was tardy 22 times. 

Our school district web site breaks down attendance data.  Of the absences this school year for my school, 25% are unexcused absences (parents neither call in nor send a note), and an additional 10% are due to planned family trips.  In fact, you can count on at least 5-6 students absent the day before and after a holiday, as if we don't teach on those days.

A typical school day in fourth grade can include adding fractions with unlike denominators; making a complete circuit with a battery, battery holder, bulb, and wires; learning the prefixes re- and un-; learning how to answer Right There Questions (including the concept that questions asking Who aren't looking for Because answers but rather the name of a character or person); learning to write a persuasive essay from a graphic organizer, and a trip to the school library to return and check out books.   That's a lot to miss in one day.  Missing many days, being a part-time elementary student -- these are things that make it impossible to learn and impossible to pass high-stakes tests. 

Please don't think I'm a fan of high-stakes tests.  I'm not.  They're specifically written to create a bell curve, which means they're specifically written so that half of the students fail.  But my job depends on my students passing; if they don't, I'm the one who's considered the failure, not the people who keep them out of school so the kids can do laundry or babysit siblings or take their monthly or semi-monthly vacation.  Why does a child need to miss an entire day of school because a sibling has a morning dentist appointment? 

It is especially critical that my students show up every day ready to learn because most of them weren't prepared for fourth grade to begin with.  Our district and state believe in social promotion.  I have students who aren't proficient in addition and subtraction.  Most of my class entered fourth grade unable to multiply or divide, and reading below grade level.  They need to be at school for every teachable moment, so that they can get caught up.  Staying home should be reserved for a very uncomfortable personal illness, and the missed work should be made up so that the student doesn't fall behind.

Welcome to the Snarkyville News

What is Snarkyville, you ask?  Well, I teach at a rather large elementary school.  The lucky ones work inside the building.  They have central heat and indoor plumbing.  They hang things on hall walls and on doors.  They get a whole lot less exercise than those of us in Snarkyville.

The rest of us are outside in Snarkeyville, which is a collection of "portables."  Yes, I know that portable is an adjective, and I spent my first year wanting to constantly ask "portable what?"  Each portable is one or two classrooms.  Mine is one.  We have a portable for restrooms.  Yesterday there was a coating of ice in the toilets and icicles in the sink instead of running water.  Using the restroom, going to the cafeteria, rare trips to the library -- these all involve going outside and taking a hike.  We have two units that serve as both heaters and coolers.  Some days they serve both functions.  Some days they just make noise.  If you want the room tolerable before the kids arrive, you need to get to school early, turn the units on, and hope for the best.

We have no halls; our "hall walls" are the outside walls of the portables, and hanging things on them is foolish at best.  The last time I decorated my door, someone tried to burn the door down overnight.  It's a different world in Snarkyville!

My classroom:
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Icicle in the portables' restroom sink:
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My burned door that greeted me one morning when I arrived.  It had been decorated when I left.
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