Thursday, February 25, 2010

From Snowpocalypse to Kiss Catastrophe

I’ve said it before for different reasons, but I’ll say it again – I am a very lucky first year teacher. This time I’m saying that because of the apocalyptic weather. While everyone else was griping about the End Days-style snow, I was praying for more to come. I basically got another winter break. And so did my kids. With the strange two-hour delays and all that, some kids weren’t in school for two weeks. On the one hand, this of course sucks because we missed out on 2 weeks of learning time. On the other hand, I got some much needed rest. Especially considering I’ve been perpetually sick since about November.

We’re back in the swing of things now. But there is one really important thing I learned during the snow and the strange scheduling… if I had only 10 kids every day, we would be doing some really cool lessons.

When the district calls a two-hour delay, only about half my students show up. And we had three such blissful days last week. Don’t gt me wrong, I absolutely love all 19 of my students. But a smaller class size just naturally gives us more options. My favorite thing about it was that I finally got to pull out some of the fancypants math and language arts games and puzzles that I got from Lakeshore at the beginning of the year. It’s mostly impossible to do anything in a big group with those, but it was glorious seeing the kids do them in small groups. I was impressed that I saw them transfer knowledge from our typical lesson structure to a more abstract game (like a puzzle where matching pieces were pictures with the same beginning sound).

This just makes me wish I had more small group time in my class. I’m still not really sure how to accomplish this, but at our last CLT meeting our CLT leader gave me a new perspective. I’ve always thought that I would have to first teach the kids a million little things to keep them occupied while I met with a small group and taught them a new lesson. See, it’s nearly impossible to keep a group of Pre-Ks occupied without significant supervision unless you’ve explicitly taught them something to stay busy with. Even games have to be taught, the rules explained, and the whole thing practiced a few times. I just had no idea how I would teach all these little busy activities in order to then have time to meet with one group and teach them the “core” lesson of the day.

After CLT I realized that what I need to do is a large group lesson teaching EVERYONE a core activity. Then, while my para supervises most of the class, I could pull aside a small group and have them do a new smaller activity. And once we’ve done a few rounds of this, I could have another small, unsupervised group doing a pre-learned activity. I think this is better. I think this may actually work next year.

Next year. Because right now I’m tired. Yes, we’ve had a lot of time off, but I think more than anything it just gave me a perspective of what I should and should not be worrying about. I’m more content saying things like “Well, maybe next year” rather than spending every waking minute of my time outside school making and preparing things for students to do in school.

Another mini success – I’ve realized that my kids are really great at sounding out (at least the beginning sounds of words). We made a list during a social studies lesson on maps the other day and they were correctly identifying the first letter in almost every word we listed. However, I don’t know how to get them to transfer this knowledge to their own writing. When we write stories, they just write a random stream of letters. This is developmentally appropriate for this time frame and also a big move from where we were in the beginning of the year when they didn’t even know what letters were or what we used them for. Still, I want to push them to that next step and I just don’t know. Does it just happen naturally one day? I’ve been giving them a lot of examples. Every time I write something in front of them I go through the process of sounding out. Do I need to be more explicit? Probably.

So all in all, I'm praying for more snow. I actually enjoy it. I love snow. I guess I was meant for the east coast? I think I've mentioned this before, but one of my favorite things about the east is my new radio station, WTMD. They basically play every song in my iTunes. It's definitely a more hipstery (gasp!) radio station, but I love it. And now, it can really do no wrong. The other day, while waiting for Jaren outside the library, they played Kiss Catastrophe by the Damnwells. The Damnwells is a band I saw the first time I saw my other favorite band, Augustana, when they were still playing small shows at the Big Fish Pub. This was freshman year of college, back when figuring out I had my own favorite lesser known bands and going to their shows was the newest and coolest thing ever. I fell in love with the Damnwells that night and bought their CD the next day. So, once again, it felt like someone at WTMD was playing a sequence of songs just for me. Sigh.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

All The Tantrum Throwers (all the tantrum throwers)

This one is going to shorter and less dramatic than the last hopefully…

We got a new student! So far she won’t speak, only taps me, knows how to figure out which group of objects has “more” and is stubborn as all get out. Today was a big moment for me. I knew my class was special in the beginning of the year when everyone else was complaining at our Management Leadership Team meetings about tantrums, chair throwing, rolling around on the carpet, etc while I just sat in my chair thinking how awesome it was that my kids let me get through a lesson. AND they raise their hands. Well, the beauty of my situation has worn off as I’ve become more comfortable with them. As I mentioned before, I feel frustrated a lot and I don’t know if I’m being too nit-picky. They’ve also become more comfortable, so I find myself repeating directions, rules and moving clips more often. Today was a wake-up call though.

What I thought of as initial shyness by the new student turned into a strong sense of fear when I asked her, toward the end of the day, to come down to the carpet and she flatly refused. I mean, my kids were nervous the first few days, but they followed directions. We also had a new student join the class about 2 months ago. She also quickly got into our routine, and, at the very least, followed transitions from carpet to table. Not so with the newest one. When I took her hand to take her to the carpet she gave me the “stiff as a board” act. Later, when my aide made her come to the carpet she started screaming and crying. I think the most telling part of this was that I wasn’t even the least shocked person in the room… the other students were. They have NEVER acted anywhere near that. They just stared. And, in my eyes, they seemed so old and wise. It definitely made me look at my class in new eyes. They are so smart! They have never given me half the trouble the new student amounted to in the first day.

My concern now is getting her behavior on track. She seems to know a lot already, which is great since it won’t be a hurdle. But I don’t want her behavior to turn into an obstacle, or, even more frightening, to be a distraction or provocation for the rest of the class. I’m hoping that it’s just the first few days. If not, I’m going to be calling my fellow TFAers.

Another quick moment of pride (and something they don’t test for but definitely shows my students’ growth): they are giving compliments like “I like how you share in centers” and “I like that you take care of the toys in centers” and “I like how you walked to your seat.” These are AMAZING considering they didn’t know what a compliment was coming into class. We pick a kid of the day each day (as part of the PATHS to Pax behavior program my school has adopted) and then compliment them at the end. It’s a great opportunity for lessons on being nice (and I should actually take more advantage of this time). The compliments had to be modeled first, and then they were the typical “I like your shirt” (we all wear the same yellow shirts as part of our uniform). But they think about it now. And they notice each other’s actions. And they understand complimenting someone on something they do well or are supposed to do well, rather than the superficial. I’m so proud.

To end: yesterday I heard two girls humming Beyonce’s Single Ladies. I assume it’s because it was a part of the new chipmunks movie that EVERYONE is obsessed with. Well, I asked if that was what they were singing and they looked afraid, like I caught them drawing on the table or something. So, to fix it, I started singing a few lines (mostly just the “All the single ladies” part) and they flipped. Soon half the class was listening and clapping. At least some of my work gets applause?

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Working for An Audience of One

I remember thinking back in August/September that if I made it to December and winter break then I would know I was ok and that I could do this.

I also remember that I never, ever once thought about quitting. Even in mid-October when it seemed like every JHU class we had was filled with people asking when this would possibly get better.

And, as it turns out, driving to the airport in Phoenix to come home to Baltimore was both the first time I thought about quitting, and the moment that I really didn’t know if I could make it to May 2010, let alone May 2011.

I’ve had two weeks back under my belt now, though. So that’s two weeks of perspective in the form of winter break, and two weeks to calm down and remember why I am here (and, at one point, loved it here).

The second hardest part about winter break (we’ll talk about the first later) was realizing/remembering what it’s like to have a life. To go to movies and just live hour to hour, without a planner. To read or cook or do whatever I wanted, just because I wanted. To have fun instead of planning in a brief moment of it. It made coming back feel even more like returning to the trenches. But it also propelled me a bit. I can’t give up my life for 2 years. I need to make some changes. Thankfully, I spent a good 30 minute gchat with Celeste (fit it in during quiet time, that says a lot about my schedule already) going over where to cut some things out, what to simplify, and how to cook/freeze chicken (the last part is just a bonus, but part of the new, bigger picture Amanda’s Taking Her Life Back plan).

Jaren and I have had about 3 dozen analytical conversations spread across the last handful of mornings since we got back. It’s how we get eachother to “power through” these first hard days. They mostly cover why are we here/how do we reconcile all we want out of life while giving just about everything we have to our current jobs. Here’s something I realized that I think makes it a little tougher to get up at 6:15 on Monday morning after 2 weeks off. I can’t take an easy Monday back. I can’t have a sucky, slow Tuesday. I can’t sneak into the bathroom every 15 minutes just to break away on a particularly hard Thursday. We’re supposed to give 100 percent 100 percent of the time. I mean, that’s what these kids deserve. And I want to give my students that. But it’s extremely daunting on a 23-degree morning when all you want is your family and friends that you desperately miss and for the sun to come out for just a second before you go into your job.

This also goes for getting sick. At most jobs it’s ok to get a sick day. We have to power through them. Everything is a catastrophe.

The cool thing about coming back is seeing that, miracle of miracles, you must have taught something well last semester because the kids remember some of it. That first Monday, my brilliant/always off the wall student reminded Trish that her name started with a T. He remembered how someone else’s name is spelled, and we haven’t even practiced spelling names in months. 15 out of 17 students can spell their names now (started the year with 3). And they can all create a rhyming word. They remember things I don’t even remember teaching them, like how to split words into sound parts (eyeball… eye… ball). Segmenting. Let’s use the teacher term (jeez).

Coming back also reminded me of how far we have to go, or at least the gap between the students that are excelling and those that need reinforcement. Name writing and number writing is a problem still, but we are practicing hardcore. Making sets too, which is disappointing because we spent two long, hard weeks on that before break.

Another good gauge of how far you are/how far you have to go is talking to other teachers. Thankfully, I have an immediate bank of these thanks to TFA. We had our first CLT meeting this week, and while we spent most of it making literacy center activities, everyone also spent a lot of time playing the “How far are you in English/Math/Social Studies” game. My conclusion – we need to learn more sight words.

I feel like part of the problem has been feeling like I’m living two lives, or like I can’t have a balance. I’ve been thinking about this blog for about a week and a half, for instance. And since it’s supposed to be about me teaching, I of course wrote down a million things that have happened in the classroom to write about. But now there’s this little selfish person inside me that’s yelling to stop ignoring what’s going on in my life outside my classroom. It seemed uncomfortable to spend this whole entry just talking about school when I’ve had a lot of big things happening outside of it (hence this back and forth, half school version that came out). It’s especially difficult when these other things are weighing on my mind… like the aforementioned FIRST hardest part about winter break…

I came back from break doubting a lot of the friendships I had back home, which is especially tough when I spent the last two weeks before break mentally psyching myself up to see my friends. I had all these visions of telling everyone what I was doing, making them laugh about how one little girl couldn’t spell her name but desperately wanted to so she spewed out a random stream of letters instead. I imagined finally seeing my friends, people I’ve known for nearly a decade, finally being really proud of me. Needless to say, I’ve grown up amongst a group of geniuses who can spout out math and science formulas like I can spout out the lyrics to Interventions and Lullabies, people who are on their way to grad school or are already finished with their masters. This would finally be my contribution to our friendly hall of fame. I didn’t really get to do that.

Instead, I came back feeling like a one woman wrecking ball. I managed to piss off nearly everyone, pretty much by accident, mostly because I don’t know how to appropriately tell people that my feelings are hurt.

So, it’s hard coming back to a life you’re proud of but that no one knows about, and leaving a group of people you’ve spent hours bragging about and now realize didn’t really notice you were gone. I guess that’s the whole thing about moving. I moved here to close one gap in my heart (being apart from my best friend and soul mate, Jaren) and in turn ripped a bunch of new ones in its place. This time I don’t know how to fix it though.

So, that was the emo elephant in my room (head) that needed to get written. Now, I’m gonna put a wee bandaid on and focus on the big things coming up: lessons on more versus less, my birthday, learning about numbers 11 to 20, Celeste’s bridal shower (people are going to judge my party planning/maid of honor abilities), my birthday, Spring Break, but before then, my birthday.

Speaking of soulmates, Jaren has decided to “give you New York” for this birthday of mine. I guess this is what it feels like when the master plan finally plays out… a little proud, a lot heartbroken, a little fate and a lot of accepting change while looking forward to the new. The new YORK that is.