Wednesday, December 2, 2009

You're A Mean One, Ms. F

I made it to Thanksgiving!

I remember at Institute over the summer that Thanksgiving seemed like an eon away. It was something I didn’t even allow myself to think about because it was so far away. However, I did think about the fact that if I did make it to Thanksgiving, I would be golden. Thanksgiving came, it went, and I’m not any surer of myself than I was in the beginning of October. I mean, yes, I know that I can get through it. But it’s been tough, and I don’t want to have to think of it as “just getting through.” I don’t want to have to trudge on until May. I really hope that what they say is true… that the holiday break is just what you need, that you feel rejuvenated after, and that the kids actually start to truly get it once they get back from their hiatus.

Back in September I prided myself on not feeling as overwhelmed as all my fellow ECE corps members seemed to. Now, I get it. I’m so tired. Behavior is not anywhere near out of control (or the horror stories that I hear from some peers), but it’s drastically different. We have meltdown Monday and terrible Tuesday (as my Para very cleverly dubbed them). Wednesdays I tend to just give up. Also, I’m mean. I’m mean to four-year-olds! I feel myself being that grouchy teacher that you used to hate… and I hate it. But when 1:45 rolls around, the classroom is stifling, there are 4 different conversations going on on the carpet, the boy that sits on the Apple square has gone to the bathroom 7 times in the last ten minutes, and NOBODY seems to understand the concept of above and below (which we spent a whole week’s worth of math lessons on recently). At that moment I can’t be that sunny teacher you see in Matilda.

I think one of the hardest things is the unbelievable running list of “I wish I had done that differently.” From lessons to entire units, there’s so much I want to fix. My list of changes for next year is unending. Which makes me feel like crap about this year, and also very daunted by next year. It’s supposed to be easier your second year, but how can that be when in so many ways I’m going to be restarting, redoing, and fixing what I set in place this year? Behavior charts, the five senses unit, the order in which we learned patterns, the classroom layout. Next year seems scary, and like Year 1 Part II. And I can’t do Year 1 again. Ugh.

The only good thing I can think of… Thanksgiving. Although there’s all that controversy about the “real” first Thanksgiving (just like the hoopla about teaching that Christopher Columbus was simply a good-natured but curious explorer with a “first” for America), this is still a holiday that I can actually teach (unlike Christmas). So we made turkeys and read books on pilgrims with wild abandon. The fact that this is my favorite holiday had nothing to do with the three days worth of social studies and math lessons we spent on Thanksgiving…

Now, this has already become my place to list my fixes for next year. So, here are the newest additions (as always, based on a combination of failed lessons of my own coupled with the sheer genius and 35+ years of experienced advice from the Pre-K teacher next door):
1. fix the rules chart. Keep up the mandatory one from the school, but either make a new one of my own or skip it. With the whole Paths to Pax behavior program and the 3Rs from the school, there is a sense of rules overkill.
2. Put up a big numbers, colors and shapes poster
3. Do a hanging behavior chart rather than the circles on paper plates I have now. Those fall off all the time, and its especially anticlimactic when you go over to the chart, move Student B to “orange” in a huff, and then the whole orange circle clatters to the floor.
4. Post a new daily schedule that is color coded and simpler for students to understand and easier for me to actually make reference to. I get questions alllll the time about what’s happened next.
5. Implement better lit centers (see notes from PD evening at Digital Harbor on October).
6. Do more read-alouds during the day. We are not reading enough. I need more books!
7. Include more motor skills development. These kids don’t get recess. There needs to be more spread out during the day.
8. Staple their homework into their comp books or have some sort of checklist so parents can keep track of kids getting it done and doing it correctly
9. Fix OCR red band and blue band
10. In the beginning, when giving them pieces to paste, give each one an envelope with his or her pre-cut pieces so that they don’t get lost/cut in half by hands that don’t know how to use scissors yet (Yes, I have had to physically teach some kids how to use scissors to cut. That’s an interesting lesson).
11. Have folders within the student folders divided by the MMSR (Maryland Model For School Readiness) topics so that papers can be easily filed and then easily referenced later when I have to bubble in their scores.

MMSR. There’s a whoooooole other thorn in my side. So, yes, all the teachers of older grades have to feel the wrath of Stanford 10s and MSA. But, we little Pre-K’s are not to be left out of the standardized testing mania. We have the MMSR. And, since most of my students can barely hold a pencil, let alone read, I do the bubbling. All the bubbling. That’s 18 names, races, title 1 statuses, previous schoolings, birthdates, and student numbers. Then I rate them on dozens of skills, from social prowess (can empathize with others) to social studies (understands why we have rules), etc. Math, Language Arts, Science, Arts and Physical Education are in there too. What a process that was. We do it in the fall, winter and spring. So, I have two more times to look forward to.

Probably one of the happiest moments of my recent past was this last Sunday. I cried a lot on Sunday. Thanksgiving was good… too good. Sunday hit with too much reality: going back to school on Monday, my favorite holiday being over, a ridiculous project for Johns Hopkins, and a lot of financial worries suddenly coming to the surface. So, after hours of crying, complaining, stressing, I ended up sitting across from Jaren at our little dining room table for 2 at 2 in the afternoon. He had made me tea (bless his soul) when he heard all the crying. Then he swallowed the Polish pudding I had made and we just complained some more. But in a “Well, here we are. Let’s laugh because we’re out of tears” way. We even discussed how the dude flying the hospital helicopter (which lands a few buildings over) had it easy. Now, there’s a job that doesn’t require half the… energy? persistence?… that ours does. I ended up happy, just for a bit, and oddly content (resigned?).

I just want it to be Christmas.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

It's The Middle of November

And I'm more tired than I have ever been or thought I could be. And not just in the sleepy sense. Just exhausted all around. I just want it to be Thanksgiving.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

See My Kids Run Circles Around Spot

I started this blog a few days ago…

I am currently sitting in the library at school while my kids watch a movie. The librarian is gone today, so we have a sub instead. The kids are watching a movie about Spot, as in “See Spot Run.” The thing is, that’s so below my kids. I mean, yes, for independent reading those Spot books are about on-level, and if you look up the movie I’m sure it says that it’s developmentally appropriate for 4 year olds. But my kids are so much smarter than this.

That’s actually something I run into a lot with the whole “pre-kindergarten/4 year-olds” thing. When I tell people you teach pre-kindergarteners, or even clarify that they are 4 years old, I often get the reaction “Oh! They’re babies! You have the babies!” or, “Oh, that must be so easy and fun! Just coloring all day…” First off, HA! (to both parts). Babies they are definitely not. My kids know more about the world than you can imagine. They “cheers” each other with their water glasses at snack time, they congratulate each other on a good job, they know if someone needs help and how to give them advice on doing class work, they (sadly) know who’s in jail in their family and why they are “locked up,” they know to give someone a tissue when they are crying, they know when others are making fun of them, and they have major anxiety about doing a worksheet wrong. We do science experiments, make KWL charts, discuss community leaders and have writer’s workshop. They are bright, brilliant, motivated and can run circles around Spot.

Well, now that that’s out, the rest should be quick…

The good… I had my first formal observation about a week and a half ago. Everyone has one of these and the process is kind of intense. That’s actually something that TFA did NOT prepare us for – all the important evaluation stuff at our own schools. At the beginning of the year we had to fill out an individual development plan listing our goals for the year and how we plan on continuing to develop. Then, we had a pre-observation meeting where the principal and I discussed the lesson she would be observing and some aspects of our class, such as what they are learning long-term and how they are being assessed. All the teachers also got a looooooong list of things that they need to have in their classrooms, like the standards and objectives visible, student work folders readily available, the Maryland State Curriculum and any anecdotal notes. Then, the principal observed me, taking notes on everything from my teaching style and how organized I was with materials beforehand, to how well the classroom is set up and whether lessons are differentiated for students at different levels.

I thought the lesson went pretty well – we reviewed what we knew about pumpkins from a reading earlier in the week, and then opened up pumpkins in two centers. In the first center I helped students use their 5 sense to explore the pumpkins and build up vocabulary while in the other center my educational aide guided the students through predicting how many seeds are in a pumpkin and then counting the actual number. Earlier this week my principal finally went over the lesson with me and basically gave me a stellar review. She said that she was actually excited to do my write-up, that I had the kids well-engaged and expanded on previous knowledge while also pushing them with new knowledge. She said my classroom is really conducive to young learners, including my colorful bulletin boards and the way tables are set up.

I made a comment about how I had a great group of students this year and she countered with this – even though a group of students might be the best in the world, they will only continue to be good with a good teacher, so I shouldn’t discount my part in it. The best thing she said was that she was really glad I had joined the staff. I’ve been feeling so blessed that I could the position I did at such an amazing school with great staff support and students, so hearing that I’m a welcome and needed member was so fulfilling to hear. Basically… yay!

Now for the improvement part. I need to get better at assessments. I feel like the Open Court assessments are both difficult to administer and are sometimes off-point on what it actually being taught. I actually talked with my savior/the veteran Pre-K teacher next door about how Open Court teaches lessons. For example, we’ve started actual lessons on the ABCs this week, like what each letter is, what sound it makes, a word that starts with it, and writing the letter. However, Open Court breezes through one letter a day. Ridiculous. The kids don’t learn anything. I was already concerned myself but then Ms. Best-Pre-K-Teacher-Ever once again blew my mind with her expertise – she doesn’t follow the Open Court curriculum on this part. So, I’m following suit and spending about 4 days on a letter and planning on looping back once we’re done. So, of course, the assessments expect my kids to be 100% good on A through E at the end of this unit, based on a letter-a-day time frame. Further, I feel like when I do have to enter grades, I’m pulling from too many sources. I have an anecdotal notes tracker, the Open Court assessments and then a billion random worksheets and projects that have B, D or P etched into the corner (Beginning, Developing or Proficient). I need a better way to synthesize all this, but I don’t know yet. Basically, Open Court is sucking. Ugh.

One recent thing that I think will be a big improvement – I recently did my Unit 2 plan for Math, Science and Social Studies (it lays out what I should be teaching each week during unit 2 for those subjects). This time, I added a component where I went through and wrote down all the things I’m going to need for each week. For example, I know that for week 18 I need a book on Abe Lincoln, since the kids really react well to books during Social Studies lessons. I plugged all those into my planner. Now, when I settle down to lesson plan each Sunday night I won’t be scrambling to find all those extra resources at the last minute! Again, yay!

Ok, time to go try to find ways to entertain Eric. He’s visiting for the next couple of weeks and I’ve already been a sucky hostess.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Numb is the new deep... in a good way.

Sam, my friend and early childhood teacher/former writer/fellow corps member (that’s a mouthful) said she heard that something happens after Halloween and the kids are never the same. In a bad way. Suddenly they reappear as slightly to severely worse behaved versions of themselves. That’s the most scared I’ve been in regard to Halloween in about a decade.
I think it’s entirely possible and more just a reflection of them losing that last bit of new-teacher, new-class innocence. I blogged a while ago that they were becoming more comfortable. We have reached a whole new level of comfort now. Yes, there are more misbehaviors. But also, their own unique personalities are really coming out. Each one is no longer just a ball of tears and wistful play-dough dreams.
First, there’s George and Weezy. There are 17 kids, only 4 tables, which means that one of the tables has 5 kids crammed into it. And these two are the craziest pair. They fight alllll the time. Yet they only want to play with each other. The boy is the smallest kid in class, and definitely the farthest (furthest? Where is my AP stylebook…) behind academically, but he tries so hard. He’s the baby of the class, and whenever I get tired of students talking over me or some of the more mature ones trying to get each other in trouble, I just look at his baby face, pick him up and he giggles. And the girl (Weezy) is my little miss attitude. She is VERY particular, mostly only talks in a whisper, and is basically a 50-year-old woman in the body of a 4 year old. They argue about who needs more elbow room, and he always tries to sit next to her or hold her hand and she screams “No! I don’t like that!” Then, five seconds later, she’s following him into the blocks area or standing right behind him in line. Sometimes she just flips out and starts crying (perhaps because he put the corner of his paper too close to hers) and he just looks at me with pleading eyes and says, “I want to play with her. But I don’t know how!”
Then, there’s my teacher’s understudy. This little girl used to be the biggest behavior problem. Now she chants the rules all the time, herds the rest of the students, and even makes random teacher calls, such as “You’re going to get moved to orange.” I’ve even heard her mimic me, turning to her table buddy and saying in a familiar singsong voice, “Oh wow. Good job! You did really good on this.” She says she wants to be a teacher. It makes me ecstatic. She’s also been the surprise. We are taught throughout TFA training not to pre-judge students. Our mantra is that every child can and will succeed. I fully believed this about every student, but I can admit that going in I started to feel like the road to success would be just a bit harder for some. Teacher understudy was one of those. Her behavior was terrible and she came into school with far fewer knowledge than many of the others. But somewhere, it just clicked for her. Her behavior has completely turned around. And, she is one of the brightest in class. She comes over to my desk during snack time to remind me of little facts that she has picked up. The other day at lunch she looked up at me, pointed to her eyes and said “Sight!” This is from our unit on the 5 senses not long ago. I just beamed.
I wish I could pinpoint where changes to her, and others, happened. Then I’d know I was a successful teacher. But I don’t know. It just seems like a miraculous gift that they are actually learning things. I guess that’s what keeps me going back, even when I have really rough days, like earlier this week.
Over the weekend one of my best friends, Celeste, finally came out to Baltimore. This was extremely special for a multitude of reasons. When I found out about TFA and moving, I had a lot of fear about my friendship with Celeste going the way of many, normal long-distance friendships (i.e. a card at Christmas and an occasional hi on Facebook). And I got really needy. But Celeste has been completely amazing. She calls me all the time, even when I don’t call her back for several days because I’m bogged down with the madness here. And she’s sent me countless little reminders of her friendship and faith in me – such as “good luck” flowers, and some of my favorite jewelry. She’s so thoughtful, and I just wanted to show her a good time here and make her realize how grateful I am for her always being so persistent and patient in our friendship. When she left on Monday I was the saddest I’ve been in months.
Feeling sad scares the crap out of me. Thankfully, moving here has been a lot easier on my heart than I thought it would be. There’s a lot here to love and a lot to keep me distracted from missing Arizona. But just in general, I tend to run away from feelings. Sad feelings, complicated feelings, even romantic feelings. I’ve been running from them all for about a year (which was the last time that I really felt them in any sort of magnitude. Back then, when Eric was ignoring me and I was breaking up with Derek, I felt them far too much, so now I’m on the other end of the spectrum). I guess we’ll see how this winter fares. Feeeelingssss. Either way, there isn’t much time to be sad. First, because I’m too busy and too focused right now (I have 17 little people counting on my every day). Second, because those 17 little people can make you smile like crazy every day. It’s the little things. Last week during lunch I helped some of the other teachers in the school hang fall-colored leaves and pumpkins down the main hall of our wing. The teacher that made them had a few left over so she let me put them up in my classroom. When the kids came back in and saw the leaves hanging from the ceiling, there was such an uproar you would have thought I’d commissioned da Vinci to paint a mural in our classroom. Oohs and Aahs. And some priceless comments: “I love this! Thank you for doing this for us Ms. F!” and “It’s beeeeeauitful!”
I wish I could make adults happy that easily.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

So much professional development in my eye

I live in a city full of doctors. My building is basically the dorm for the University of Maryland medical campus (down the street) and all my training, whether for TFA or my school, always ends up being on a Hopkins campus. Mom wants me to bring one home. I just want a pair of scrubs. Those things look pretty comfy.

I suck at transitions. Let’s just dive in… One of the biggest recent successes in my class actually came from an idea passed along by the veteran teacher next door (who I would not be making it without). She suggested that with every Scholastic catalog I send home, I pick a monthly “class book” and suggest that parents buy it. That way we can work on reading it and doing projects with it as a class, and over the year students build up their own small library. This is especially important in a low-income area where not all the kids have easy access to age-appropriate, quality literature. The great thing about Scholastic is that every month one of the books only costs $1. And, these are great books. I mean, next month’s is Ezra Jack Keats’ Snowy Day (Keats is an early childhood staple). So, last month I asked the students to buy Apple Trouble. The order finally came in, I labeled their books, and passed them out. And it was glorious. The kids all practiced with holding a book the right way, turning the pages in unison, and running their fingers underneath the text. They were all just stoked about having their own book, and paid more attention during this lesson than I’ve ever seen before. Every time I turned my copy and they turned to the right page as well, they would smile a huge smile and yell “Look Ms. F! I did it!” We’ve now read the book three times as a class and the kids are starting to memorize parts so they can “read along.” We’ve also done work sequencing the events of the story. They love it. I love it. I nearly cried, looking out at a sea of 17 books in 17 laps with 17 grins.

Now, for the things I wish I could do better. And there are a lot. So, there are basically three different types of meetings that I have on a regular basis for improvement. I am CONSTANTLY doing “professional development.” There’s Hopkins classes once a week, TFA content learning teams and management learning teams once a month each, and now TFA and the Baltimore City school district partnered to help out us first years with a bi-monthly meeting. The tone varies for each. Hopkins classes are usually divided between TFAers and just regular people taking classes. I love those nights. My first class I have with Jaren and the other Amanda, and an ’08 corps member who keeps me entertained with his “I barely care” side-comments. Actually, his advice is one of the best I’ve gotten this far. “Just survive. That’s all you have to worry about the first year.” My second class is my weekly dose of feel-good. A common complaint among corps members is that all we get are comments on what we’re doing wrong and what we could be doing more. My seminar teacher is the opposite. She is the first person so far that has said, “You’re doing good. You’re doing the best you can.” Each week she makes us remember the good things we’re doing, and reminds us that yes, first-year teaching is terrible, but it gets better. When she first said that to a room full of TFA early childhood teachers, I looked around and saw the faces of all my friends immediately change. Surprise, at being praised, was the most evident emotion. So, Hopkins, not so bad. The district training and I have a love-hate relationship. I love it because the trainer basically just asks us what we need for two hours and then gives us direct advice. And worksheets. Lots and lots of beautiful, pre-made worksheets. And grading rubrics and assessments and centers ideas and small group ideas. This is glorious because about 40% of the work I do (the work that’s keeping me up until midnight every night of the week) is making worksheets for the kids to do. She also shows us what the teachers at her school are doing. There are 6 pre-k teachers there. The whole place runs like a little, organized country. I leave feeling completely overwhelmed. But also with a million ideas for next year. So, that’s the new plan. Survive now, keep a list of what I’ll do differently next year, and go from there. So, here’s a small list of random things I want to do differently or want to start doing:
1. Have a “parent” board in the classroom where I keep a copy of all the bulletins I send home so parents can re-read them every time they drop off the kid in case they lost them.
2. Add “3 magazines” to the supply list in the beginning of the year. There have been a ton of Open Court lessons where students need to find and cut out specific things (find things that are blue, find a family, etc). It would be a huge investment for me to go buy those magazines now, so I’ll just have parents send them in. However, if you’re reading this and have some child-friendly magazines lying around (i.e. nothing like Cosmo or GQ) please save them for me!
3. Start a lending library. Right now I have one student who asks, on a regular basis, if he can take a book home. It’s interesting actually. He’s Mr. Cool in the class. So serious, never wants to have fun really, just does his thing and hangs out. The only things that get him revved are football and Spiderman. Asking to borrow a book was one of the first times I actually heard him reach out for something or even talk without being prompted.
4. Have a more personal tracking system, for individual goals, such as having a sticker chart for successful work that has a tier for good, better, best (blue star, green star, orange star)
5. Have better alignment between the diagnostic and yearly goals. Some things we aren’t learning until the end of the year, and some things we are learning aren’t represented. I just wanted to get the diagnostic out and administered as early as possible so that I could gauge what knowledge they were coming in with.
6. Small groups! The idea of small groups is a joke right now. First off, the students are not anywhere near being independent enough to work quietly on an assigned task on their own while I pull a small group. Besides, I don’t have small groups at this point yet. This week I’m planning on actually going back and looking at the scores from diagnostics and early work to start grouping students. So, next year, I need to have a more organized way of explaining the idea of small groups, working independently and not constantly running up to me while I’m working with a certain group, and what to do if they finish early by themselves. In that same vein, I need more centers activities that are “take to your seat” and actually have an end product that I can grade, since I will be pulling small groups during centers time.
7. Have a lesson (or 12) on different kinds of feelings. Have posters so that kids can better articulate and at least point to how they’re feeling before they know the word for.
Ok that’s good. These are too long, I know, for anyone to actually read. But at least at the end of the year I’ll have a journal for myself. I’m selfish!

Thursday, October 8, 2009

A perfect Thursday and a perfect excuse

This is how a perfect night goes: I finally end my “workday” at 6:30. That means I’ve been in work mode for about 12 hours. This is typical. But today is Thursday, which means I get to go to dinner with Hilary, Amanda and Nicole. So I rush over to Canton, we end up at a small pizza place and spend the next 1.5 hours talking about TFA and not talking about TFA. I’ve never really had a group of girls, so this is all new and exciting. And perfect. It turns out that cracking up waaaay too loudly about boys we’re dating (and one’s we’re not dating but have to get out of our house by lying about going to church) only gets better when it’s echoed by 3 other girls. On the way home, I stop at the small market to grab a bottle of Rose. After hearing the underage clerk tell me about his Chinese-symbol-for-courage tattoo, I’m pulling out quickly to make it home for Grey’s. And then I see a familiar blue car pull into the market parking lot – Hilary. I put the window down, wave my bottle out, hear her scream back “Me too!” and burst out laughing. She’s my soul friend. On the drive home I put on my favorite radio station (thank you Baltimore) and hear the National, MGMT and my new favorite love song, Devendra’s “Lover.”

I think I’ve said this before, but every day I find another reason to love Baltimore. The leaves are starting to change! I told Eric how a couple of weeks ago I saw some reddish brown on a few young ones near a Target and assumed they just weren’t taking to the soil. Turns out, they’re not dying, I just really have no concept of the east coast. Other reasons to love Baltimore:

1. The history. Oh yeah, your kids sweated out an afternoon at the zoo? My kids went to Fort McHenry. That’s where the battle that inspired the Star Spangled Banner took place. I was all aflutter in the historical significance of those bunkers overgrown with grass. My students just enjoyed rolling in the grass. We don’t get recess outdoors because of the drugs in the area, so they were thrilled with the concept of running outside. One little girl literally dropped to the ground and rolled in a patch of long grass on her back, back and forth.

2. A few afternoons ago I was mad. It was an especially trying day, I was more exhausted than usual, it was raining, and I was stuck in traffic cursing the one-way streets and construction. After screaming at a driver that sheisted to cut me off and getting stuck behind my dozenth red light, I just fumed and laid my head against the car window. Then I actually focused my eyes to look out the window. There, on the corner 20 feet from my car and behind an appropriately dreary black gate, was Edgar Allen Poe’s grave. So cool. The rest of the afternoon got a little better.

Now for some school time. The one thing that has become the most obvious to me in the last few weeks is that you never know when a lesson will bomb and when a lesson will rock. Sometimes the only way that I get through a week is waiting to do a lesson that I’m particularly excited about. It makes planning easier, for sure.

This week I was excited for a lesson on being special and the first letter in everyone’s name. We were finally going to use the “People Paper” that Lakeshore sent to me – construction paper that comes in a dozen skin color shades. Then we would trace our hands on the paper, and put the hand on the ABC wall under the letter our names start with. I was both excited and apprehensive – I knew this skin color thing could turn out badly. I also knew that I wanted my kids to start out knowing that alllllll the colors are equally beautiful. Jaren’s told me about how his 4th graders will make color distinctions and tease each other about being more brown or more red. I want my kids to grow up believing that whatever color they are, it’s just their own special perfect one. The lesson went ok, but not great, and not for the reasons I expected. It’s interesting when a small thing (students talking while I’m talking until I get uber frustrated) can totally derail an otherwise exciting lesson.

On the bright side though, almost all the students came up excitedly to match their hand to a color of construction paper. All except one. He’s probably the lightest of my all-black class. And it never occurred to me that he might already be aware of this in a negative way. That’s why I wanted to do this lesson, to be proactive about being positive about differences. His hand matched the lightest brown, but he vehemently asked for the darkest brown and kept saying, “I’m black!” That’s when I pulled out a piece of actual black construction paper. That helped a bit. It also helped when I talked to him by himself and told him how special he is just the way e is. It’s classes like these that make me wish I could keep my 17 4-year-olds for forever. Be their only teacher and be there to keep them safe from all the teasing and divisions that seem so inevitable in a few short years. I talk to my TFA peers and know exactly how bad it can get even by 3rd grade. That’s why nights like this, with adult conversation, are a breath of fresh air. And now I have the perfect inspiration for getting out of any awkward boy situation. “Um. Can you please go? I need to go to church…”

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

I know my parents are reading this at least...

We discovered on our now weekly Saturday night trek to DC that the new Miley Cyrus song has an uncanny similarity to our recent experiences. By “we” I mean Jaren and Hil, the only two people I feel comfortable sharing the doucheyness of Miley Cyrus with. So, here’s our rendition (please see upcoming blogs for a YouTube link for our soon-to-be-produced video accompaniment):

I hopped off the plane at (BWI)
with a dream and my cardigan (a teacher staple)
welcome to the land of fame excess,
am I gonna fit in?

Jumped in the cab,
Here I am for the first time
Look to the right and I see the (Baltimore) sign (seriously, there’s one on a giant smokestack)
This is all so crazy
Everybody seems so (Unit 1 Ready)

My tummy’s turnin and I'm feelin kinda homesick
Too much pressure and I'm nervous,
That's when the taxi man (Sean) turned on the radio
and a Jay Z song was on
and the Jay Z song was on
and the Jay Z song was on

So I put my hands up
They’re playing my song,
And the butterflies fly away
Noddin’ my head like yea
(Tracking my data) like yea
I got my hands up,
They’re playin my song
I know im gonna be ok
Yea, It's a party in the T-F-A

I also brought up the point that summer institute was the closest thing to study abroad that I’ve experienced. Throw a couple hundred kids into a dorm for 5 weeks, turn their schedules and their life’s purpose upside, and add a crazy bar scene.

Things have definitely calmed down since then, which has actually given me more time to stop and think about what ACTUALLY happened to my life in the last several months. Still, I don’t know. Honestly. I can’t even think of the moment that I actually decided to leave all my family, friends, and the career path and weather patterns I had been bred on for the last decade of my life. I know I discussed TFA with my parents for several days. But there was never that, “Ok. Let’s do it moment.” In fact, I think that moment came a few months before I even got accepted to TFA, and it was completely subconscious. Spring break and visiting Jaren in DC somehow changed EVERYTHING. Arizona no longer fit. Everything about being there felt not right. Jaren and I tried to dissect this the other day as well. The best we could come up with was that it took that last little nudge to get me to realize where I needed to be.

I say last little nudge because I was already walking the cliff for years. Ever since I spent two summers in New York, I had an itch for the east. The thing is, I never REALLY thought I would leave. I walked the cliff, looked down, but didn’t want to jump. I mean, I still can’t believe it. I was the one that stayed when Jaren left. I was the one that was supposed to always stay. To spend every effort making sure we all still got together for a cranium night now and then and to beg/plead/annoy John, Eric and Michael into a continued friendship. When I talked to Celeste and Eric about up and leaving, it was mostly just a really far off dream. But apparently other people saw it more than I did. I remember telling Julie, who I’ve only talked to a few times a year in the last several years, and she was just so “oh. Figures” about the whole thing.

The most I ever thought about leaving was when I used to listen to Augustana’s first CD religiously and Boston would come on. “I think I’ll start a new life. I think I’ll start it over. Where no one knows my name…” I listened to that song again the other day and it all clicked. I did that. I can’t believe I did that. Furthermore, I always thought that when I did leave, it would be because I was mad/running away. It would be the day that Derek finally fully broke my heart, the day it was all just too much, the day the bad stuff in Arizona was worse than the thought of being completely alone in a new place. It’s weird to leave in a non-running manner. There’s less fire in my heart, especially when I think of my friends.

This is getting especially sentimental because I recently had one of the most emo nights of my Baltimore experience thus far. I saw one of my more recent favorite bands, Dear and the Headlights. Besides the fact that the band members themselves are really cool, the whole thing took me back. Back to being editor of SPM, back to driving down Mill Ave in the fall and wondering if Eric would ever speak to me again, back to pear ciders at Casey’s and this odd sense of comfort, back to small bars with tiny stages and a life I don’t know anymore. It’s like when Jaren and I walked into Urban Outfitters the other day and realized we can’t wear any of those clothes any more. I feel old and a little unlike myself (my old self). But also, the most “me” that I’ve felt in years, probably because I’m finally just making decisions based on me. The best analogy of my current state of mind is one Hil made: “I spend all week thinking about other people (our students, our TFA advisors, our JHU advisors, our student’s parent, our school administrations, our students, our students, our students) that when the weekend rolls around, I’m just completely selfish.”

That’s it. Two weeks worth of emo. Oh, and the kids are starting to get more out of control and I need to revisit the Big Goal because they have no idea what’s going on. But we had our first science experiment and our first small group differentiation. Say that again. DIFFERENTIATION. So sexy.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Time to Center Myself

I’m writing this in the parking lot of the education building at Johns Hopkins as I wait for Jaren to finish up his class. I’m in the midst of taking classes at Hopkins (a school I never thought I would attend) for early childhood education (a profession I never thought I’d call my own). I’m still just taking the minimum classes needed for certification, but I’ve been thinking more and more about just getting the masters. If you spoke to me on the phone over the summer, chances are we had at least one conversation about the pros and cons of just going ahead and getting my masters in 2 years. I eventually decided not to, since having a masters in early childhood education just didn’t seem like something I would continue to use. But, it’s been like a little itch in the back of my head that becomes more prominent as the school year progresses. And, way out of left field, a few nights ago my mom asked me if I should perhaps reconsider. This was completely shocking because my parents were definitely in the “no ECE masters” camp when this was all being decided. I mean, if my mom is starting to think it’s something I should do, then I should definitely consider.

The problem with the ECE masters is that it brings up all kinds of difficult questions about the future. Will I keep teaching after my 2 years in the corps? If so, will I stay in early childhood? If not, will I go back to journalism? Where will I live? (curveball there, but something that might change depending on what job I get). Seeing as how I’m currently in a place I never expected to be in, it makes trying to plan more than 1 year in advance seem almost foolish.

So, my classroom:

The GREAT: They are retaining information! Most of them will tell you that an AUTHOR “writes the book.” And the other day one of the little boys’ mom came in early to just chat. She said her son comes home and shares all about what he learned. At that moment, her son (my student) decided to uncharacteristically pipe up (he’s usually quite shy and quiet) and say, “I’m special!” Normally, this would not be a sentence that garnered more than a smile at his cuteness, but I nearly trampled him as I ran over for a big hug. “I’m Special” is the name of our current unit in school. Last week we finished up books of drawings the students made and the title of the book was “I Am Special.” It’s moments like those you realize that a standardized test cannot accurately capture everything the kids learn, but that they are learning just the same.

The bad: centers is a mess. For those of you not up in the Early Childhood lingo, “centers” or “choice time” is a period during the day where students pick an area to “play” in. I put play in quotes because to the un-trained eye, it looks lik the kids are just sitting in a corner playing with blocks, or pretending to make a cake in the kitchen area, or talking to themselves in the library area. However, as I have learned along my TFA/teaching journey (baptism by fire is possibly more appropriate), centers is actually very significant to the development and education of children from Pre-K and even up into a few of the older early elementary grades. Of course, in 1st or 2nd grade you no longer have the play kitchen or the puppets, but it’s nonetheless a time for students to make important choices on where they want to spend about 45 minutes of the day. At this age, they are learning so much through play; in the kitchen area, for example, they practice daily routines and I can introduce specific items (like a newspaper or umbrella) for them to understand using new tools. The teacher has the opportunity to walk around and expand on their learning by asking questions (I see you reading The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Joe. I see you moving your fingers under the words to help you read. What direction do we read in? You’re right! Left to right!)

So back to me. And my centers. They have been crazy. First, the students don’t understand fully that when one center is full, they have to choose another. We have a system where students hang their name next to the name of where they want to play, and there are only a certain number of open slots for each area. Second, it’s barely independent at this time. This is supposed to be a time where they are leading their own learning, but I feel like I’m still doing a lot of monitoring and getting them to stay in the same center and actually do what the center is for (reading in the library, not scooting around on the rug or using the reading pointers as magic wands). Also, before my formal observations start, I need to get a science center together. This seems frightening and possibly traumatically messy. Also, I need ideas of what science 4 year olds can do. This weekend is unfortunately going to be another one full of work. Minus TFA Adventure Day on Sunday. Running, jumping, climbing. There’s a zip line! Pray for me. (You know how I do with physical activity, especially when it involves coordination).

Saturday, September 12, 2009

How I Spent A Romantic Night With Thurgood Marshall

The students are definitely starting to warm up to me. Which is good in some ways: I get random hugs, and then there's one little girl who will tap my shoulder during circle time and say "I love you, Ms. F!" My little heart melts. And I remember how much I loved my teachers: Mrs. Alexander, Ms. Zanger, Mrs. Erickson, Ms. Burgess, Mrs. Stafford, and a handful of others. I hope some student looks back and makes a list like that and includes me in it.

The bad part of the comfort level: they are MORE THAN comfortable breaking rules now. And, they share allllll kinds of information. On Friday I learned that one of my students parents had a fight because the father no longer wants to be around. I know all about who is "locked up" in one of the other kid's family. Its surprising and sad what little eyes and ears pick up.

And I have a new favorite moment in class. There is one little boy that is just crazy about one of the little girls in class. The two of them usually get their clips moved from green to yellow for giggling to each other in the back of the circle instead of listening to the read aloud. And they hold hands or link arms all the time. They've even told their parents about each other, their parents say. My instructional aide and I usually try to hide the laughter. Then, on Friday, the little boy was at the painting station. He ran over to me after a few minutes and said, wide-eyed, that he had painted the little girl. I walk over, and sure enough he's done a pretty amazing job: a circle for her head with two lines coming down (for the braids she wears most days) and two other lines under the circle for legs. Simple. Modern. Adorable. I called the little girl over, and a couple other students followed. She just grinned and the rest of the students were all in an uproar about how great this work of art was. It was a 4-year-old artist reception at a gallery opening. And, the best part, another little boy (who is like a wise old man in a preschooler's body, has the most detailed stories that spill out in a stutter, and wants to become an "animal doctor" even though he's allergic to dogs and cats) marches over, appraises the work and says, "That, that, that's great! I am proud. I am proud of you!" I just smiled through the whole event.

I forgot to mention we had our first visitors last week. John and Michael came out and Jaren and I used it as an excuse to actually see parts of the amazing city we are living in. The star-spangled banner was written down the block from where I live. And I've picked out at least a half dozen neighborhoods I eventually want to move into. One for my mid-20s, one for when I marry my stylish husband and we walk the dog at federal hill and go to the farmer's market on Saturday mornings, one for when I settle down and have a half-dozen babies (Aristotle, Sophocles, Ulysses, Zander, Avalon, Elizabeth). Oh yeah, and we'll be visiting Annapolis on a regular basis. That's where one of my favorite moments of the weekend went down: we were standing in the square in front of the state house at the Thurgood Marshall memorial. Jaren and Michael were hanging on the coattails of Marshall (how apropos), while Sascha held up his iPhone crooning Etta James' "At Last" and John and I slow danced. Sascha also danced/bopped next to us. I was sort of (really) cranky that night, but I loved it. I miss those boys. All that's left now are three dozen roses on my windowsill that I definitely don't deserve after the tantrum/circus I pulled Saturday night. I miss my boys.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Before the Nyquil knocks me out on the living room floor

I'm halfway through week 2. I smell like I just came out of a crayola factory, I tend to wear more finger paint than make-up, and animal crackers sound like a completely reasonable lunch. But at least I'm not thinking about quitting.

It seems like the idea of quitting is sometimes this big cloud that hangs above us all. The greatest blasphemy. At every TFA meeting, and at the one I had with my own program director, they make sure to let us know that part of the aim of the program is retention. And, on the flipside, it seems like we are constantly hearing stories of older corps members that did quit. Or at least seriously thought about it. Jaren and I had a check-in the other day while doing our morning dance in the kitchen (you iron something, you pour some coffee, you grab the rice pudding for our lunch boxes, you grab the keys... no, you grab the keys... do you have the keys? Ef, we forgot the keys). Simply, we each asked the other if we had had any thoughts about quitting (no). And we reminded each other that we're never letting the other one quit.

The whole quitting thing seems silly, because you would never normally enter a new job and sincerely think about if or when you would have THOSE quitting thoughts. You'd just go for it. But here, quitting seems like the plague. Like some virus that could suddenly attack you. I cannot even fathom quitting, but on the other hand, there is sooooo much about the next few years that seems unknown. When am I going to feel it? When will I get hit by those unending blues that every corps member talks about? The ones that make you cry every day and only get better when you come back from winter break? It seems inevitable, but also completely not me.

It seems so not me because things are so good right now. I have a surprisingly well behaved class. And I see them, every day, getting it. Getting what I taught. When two words sound the same, they rhyme. The author of a story writes the words in the book. The best thing by far: my little attitude+allergies princess often says "I can't" when we start an assignment, like draw what you look like, try drawing your name, etc. Today, everyone traced their names and then had a small blank area to try freehand. I was just passing by her table when I hear a surprised intake of breath and she says, "Hey!" She looks up to see I'm watching her and then points to her paper where she has just drawn her first "s." It may be backwards, and it may be in the middle of her name, but she did it. And she was just as surprised as I was. I can't believe I actually got to see that a-ha moment.

The only downside is I'm sick (again). I foresee this year being one unending cold. And the nyquil is making me drowsy so this is going to be a quick entry.

The good: I've been introducing lessons slowly and still spending large chunks of the day on beginning procedures (why do we have rules, what are the rules, let's stand in a line, let's practice freezing) and it's helping. They respond well to the reinforcement and review, especially during the morning circle time when they are sharing. They are also starting to recognize more what their names look like. Many of them are understanding the title, front cover and back cover of a book. We worked through the Color Parade song today and it went from a total catastrophe to a manageable situation (I had to turn off the cd player, sing the song slowly myself, remind a few students what color they were holding, and we repeated like there was nothing more important than colors. In a parade.)

The bad: the kids seem to be fairly well-behaved, but I'm afraid that as they become more comfortable with the classroom and school, it will slip. I'm not sure if I'm enforcing as much as I should be. I also need to be doing the positive reinforcement more. I always forget to reward the most well-behaved ones with a move up to the "blue" on our 5-color behavior chart. Things seem much less organized than I planned: the centers time is a mess, with how they pick a center and how I track their learning during centers time. I am not as far as I need to be with doing diagnostic testing. I need to develop a better morning routine for coming into the class, pulling out their folder and putting their backpack away. Also, we are wasting time during snack time. Math often gets cut short and we haven't moved into small groups yet (partly because of diagnostics).

The best: Field trip on Friday to Fort McHenry! I'm possibly more excited than the kids. And not just because my lesson plans for Friday were cut in half, but because this is actually historically significant and cool. This is why I love Maryland. All of these things and places that matter and have a history. We all know I love history.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

I'm a teacher!

Celeste, the title of this blog is for you. I hope you can imagine the voice I would use to say that. I would follow it up with, "I'm spilling my guts here, MOM!"

Day three of week 1. That seems really small and insignificant when I know that there's at least 170 more school days to go this year. But three days also seems like far more than I thought I would be able to do at 1 a.m. last Sunday night.

I have never, ever, ever felt that scared, unprepared and yet locked in. It was like the moment when you're already in the air. You've already leapt off the diving board, you can't scramble back now, and below the water is looking really, really cold. I've also never felt more alone. After I dropped Jaren off at his school on Monday morning, I was so completely aware of how alone I was. I couldn't even call the people I normally would to make me feel better, because they are either still sleeping, or no longer really talking to me. Sigh.

This is a completely different feeling from Saturday night. Although I spent most of the day going between crying and frustrated screaming at Jaren, with the time before the big First Day dwindling, I nonetheless decided to go to Kait's surprise party. Thank God. It becomes more clear to me every week that I am so lucky to have my fellow corps members. It's comforting when we spend the first few minutes of seeing each other checking in ("Are YOU Unit 1 ready? How's your long-term plan? Is it aligned to the standards? Do you know what the hell is going on here?") and realize that everyone is just as lost but also just as ready to get going. Then there's the traditional dancing (I've danced more this summer than I have in my whole life, and I've loved every second of it). And finally, as everyone starts to leave between midnight and 1 a.m., there iss the best part - "Have a good Monday!" 'We are going to be awesome, we totally have this," "Let me know how Monday goes, but don't worry, it will be great!" There's so much comfort when you know that all of these people are diving into that really cold pool along with you Monday, and, more than everyone you've tried to explain this to over the last 3 months, they know EXACTLY what's happening. They know how crazy, how daring, how important, how scary, how time-consuming, and how fulfilling this mission is.

Jaren and I had our doubts again Monday morning. Here's a picture. Me in my red cardigan, white crochet-neck tank top and seersucker skirt (the perfect first day outfit) nervously slamming dishes into the dishwasher at 6:30 a.m. and scoffing toward Jaren (who is in his button up shirt and tiny bright blue boxer briefs, ironing his pants) "You know?! Only WE would pick this. I couldn't just stay in Arizona and sit behind a desk writing for a newspaper and hating life." Jaren responds, "Of course, we couldn't do it the easy way."

It definitely hasn't been easy these 3 days. I'm exhausted. I'm hoping it gets better and this is just the first week crazies. It's good to hear other people are getting 5 hours of sleep while cutting out endless supplies of nametags and copying unending parent surveys as well. The only good thing: the kids. My 18 amazing 4 year olds who have already surprised me. My favorite little girl (all attitude and allergies) who cracks me up every day. The three boys who took SUCH good care of the baby dolls in the dramatic play center on Tuesday. The little angel who is silent nearly all day except when we ask her to say her name for the class, at which point she says the WHOLE thing, first, middle, last, in a sing-song voice. At the end of the day, I at least get to smile. No matter how badly the whole lesson plan goes.

So, as part of my own assignment, here it is. The good: the kids loved reading No David and started to read along. Good predictive text. They respond better to a lesson when a book is involved that they can connect to, such as No David and our lesson on rules. They understood freezing at an activity when they hear the bell.

The bad: not enough activities planned for the first 2 days. I started to just feel like a drill sergeant. I need to explain things in shorter bits - I include too many directions or unclear monologues. They have no idea what a line is. They can line UP. But it all falls apart as soon as the kids start moving. I need to practice going through the school and find a way for them to stay in the formation. Maybe an assigned place in line?

Saturday, August 29, 2009

I'm supposed to teach what?

Yesterday was the last day for me to set up my classroom before the big day Monday. Which means I was there from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. and still plan on showing up at 7 a.m. on Monday to finish. I left with the worst headache I've had in months and the firm belief that teachers of younger grades have it the hardest. My whole classroom has to be one big welcome center, so that the kids feel at home.

Moreover, I have about five bulletin boards. Have you ever tried to make a bulletin board? There's an unsung art form. It took me at least half an hour to figure out how to find the butcher paper in my school, tear it off that awkward 10-foot metal holder, and then get it to stay and to fit on the cork board. Trim is another half an hour. Jaren did my first round, but the rest looks completely lopsided. Oy.

It's easy to get caught up in all those little things - name tags on cubbies, where to put the crayons, which blocks to put out in the construction center - and put aside the fact that on Monday I have to teach EVERYTHING. As I learned this summer, you could get a kid who will read you the entire "If You Give A Mouse A Cookie," write his name for you and count to 20 backwards... and you can also get the kid that doesn't understand he needs to sit in the circle with the other kids, doesn't know how to hold a crayon, and doesn't know how to ask a question. Actually, that's a popular one. It never, ever, ever occurred to me that some kids simply don't know how to ask a question. Instead, they just say a statement.

Me: "Jane, share with the class what you did this weekend?"
Jane: "I went to the store with my mom."
Me: "That sounds fun. Does anyone have a question for Jane?"
Student 1 raises his hand and is called on: "I like the store!"
Me: "That's nice Joe, but we are asking Jane questions to find out more about what she did. Does anyone else have a QUESTION for Jane?"
Student 2: "My mom takes me to the store!"
Me (inwardly): Oy.

There are actually a million things like that that I didn't think of as an early childhood teacher. Here's a brief rundown:
1. How do you explain the idea of a pattern? A rhyme?
2. How do you turn playing into a lesson?
3. How do you teach a lesson when they can only sit still for about 10 minutes?
4. How do you test their knowledge when they can't write?
5. How do you keep a 4 year old awake from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. without a nap?

Part of this is probably the fact that I barely remember kindergarten, let alone pre-k. I know for me, kindergarten was definitely half-day and definitely a joke. I remember in kindergarten my teacher (who, looking back, was a dead ringer for Ricky Ricardo) stapled his finger one day and had to go to the hospital. That's it! Jaren apparently remembers more. He flipped when he saw the Baby Beluga CD on my counter the other day. We listened to it on the ride home, and I have never seen Jaren so innocently happy. Just a pure smile. He was five again and I felt like, ok, maybe these kids will remember some parts of our year together 20 years from now. So, I better go plan something memorable. Apparently Where the Wild Things Are is a big deal?

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

It's 5 to 6, snap snap

So it’s 9:10 on a Tuesday night and I just got home from driving to three craft stores looking for die-cuts of cars (couldn’t find) and jumbo popsicle sticks (pack of 75). I’m eating a peanut butter and banana sandwich for dinner. I just left my roommate/4-year-old in the kitchen… Jaren has just awoken from a nap and was standing in the kitchen in his underwear eating applesauce. My beautiful MacBook, which worked harder than any computer ever has over the summer, is already ready, playing a CD I got from my CMA (corps member advisor) before leaving Philly. My new playlist includes a lot of “A, A, A for alligator” and “A circle, a circle, everyone draw a circle!” This is just the littlest piece of the whole “my life looks nothing like it used to” theme.

I get online to work while I eat this magnificent feast (a new habit – never do one activity at a time. Eating always means working too) and see that Hilary’s status message is “can’t wait to read the 5 to 6 blog.” So, it’s about time I write it. Even though I am supposed to be nailing down a behavior management plan for the 20 little students that will be running around my classroom in less than a week.

The 5 to 6 hour is what we fondly called the first hour after getting home from teaching summer school in Philly. After the buses dropped us off, it was always the same: Hilary and I got our workout clothes on and grabbed random other people to go to the dining hall for the usual dinner (Captain Crunch, vegan sugar cookies, a couple pickles, a pack of Emergen-C and a “Hey Mama, what’s up? What you want, baby?” from the cafeteria lady in the home-cooked meal aisle). And, like clockwork, Hilary always got reaaaaaaalllllyyyyy fricken goofy between 5 and 6. We all kind of did. Ask most teachers and they will admit to channeling their students once school gets out.

So now, we describe most moments of insanity as the 5 to 6 hour. When you can’t get the right words out, when you’re making more noises than actual words, when you’re tripping over your workout shoes, when you’re about to pee your pants from all the laughing, when you make people repeat what they just said 4 times, when you phonetically segment the name of your hipster date and when you gossip way too loud about the boys walking in front of you, etc. It was such a problem that we made a song to go along with it... (t the tune of the Addams Family) "It's 5 t 6 *snap snap* 5 to 6 *snap snap* 5 to 6, 5 to 6, 5 to 6 *snap snap* It's the 5 to 6 hour, we really need a shower, We're gettin kinda silly, because it's 5 to 6. (refrain) The rest of the song was actually really inappropriate...

And, thus, the title behind the blog. I have a feeling it’s going to be a loooooong goofy, insane year. This will certainly be my 5 to 6 year.

The whole blog thing was really Celeste’s idea. I knew that I was going to have to keep a journal of this year, to keep myself honest and help with the self-reflection. Also I need something more public so everyone back home (I miss you!) can see things and read things even when I can’t talk (because I got 4 hours of sleep due to lesson planning). This is the public journal… the truly bad/embarrassing parts are going in my new beautiful red leather journal (thank you John).

Celeste is walking me through it like I’m going to walk my 4 year olds through using scissors. Baby steps. So, enjoy. Channel your own inner teacher and be patient with me when this blog runs long, runs boring, runs emo, or I get the html code wrong (help! Celeste! Is it the greater than or lesser than sign?). Also, all my J-school readers – cut me some slack. I haven’t written in 3 months! Also hopefully there will be lots of pictures. We like lots and lots of pictures in Pre-K.

A few early pics of the classroom, it's mostly a mess:

And a few early pics of the apartment - my room and the living room/view: