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…”