What? Theater Arts in Elementary School?

I have done it.  I have stepped over the edge of reason in my job.  I thought I had reached this summit last year when a colleague and I organized a re-enactment of the Civil War for the entire fifth grade to perform.  We put Scarlett O’Hara in the midst of the battle scenes for a twisted take on the entire event.  She even flirted with Lincoln, thanks to my other theater friend who helped write the script.

Now, another colleague, the artistic director from The Shakespeare Studio, and I are the co-teachers of drama club at our school.  We have seventy-five kids who eagerly attend.  So, we have decided to have three performances in May. (I’ll get back to this).

I have learned a few things about trying to trail-blaze something like theater arts in elementary school.  First of all, theater kids are always just plain, cool.  I don’t care what age they are.  They have this inherent knack for understanding the global view of the world.  Many of these kids can be “restless” in the classroom, so they desperately  need the outlet.

There are no drama clubs in elementary school.  That is the other thing I learned.

If you have ever directed 26 kids in a play, you know that theater has to be a burning passion in your soul.  Or you are a psychotic overachiever.

I also learned that kids dig Shakespeare.  Witnessing kids of all academic propensities recite and understand Shakespeare, humbled me beyond recognition.

Our school has a faux stage.  One year, the teachers ate lunch up there, with the curtains closed .  The entire year, I dreamed I was on the stage eating when suddenly the curtains opened to a cafeteria of a million children watching me eat.  I bless the day we were given our very own room to microwave, vent and hide. Set building on a faux stage should be a competition on the Amazing Race.

Back to Drama Club.  We have seventy-five kids.  Did I mention we have seventy-five kids in our drama club? My colleague and I are a bit like Lucy and Ethel on a good day. Think of the episode where Lucy and Ethel are working at the chocolate factory.

We have three performances looming.  Our idea is to do one musical, one “straight” show, and one work by Shakespeare.   Thank goodness our Shakespeare guru has shown up in our hour of need.  I cannot say how many, “What are you thinking?” comments we get.

I learned that plays and royalties are expensive.  Musicals are outrageous..don’t get me started on anything Disney.   There are contracts to sign and papers to fill out.  We have to decide how much we will charge and how many will attend.  We need a rehearsal schedule, costuming, set materials, and builders.

Last week, during our improvisation practice, a group of kids became a giant JENGA game.  They collaborated and improvised so well, that the entire room knew what they were doing.  One Jenga piece would be pulled by a player while the kid-tower stayed in place.  They left us all speechless with their unbelievable creativity.

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Foreign language, art, music, and theater arts are deemed disposable subjects.  I won’t get on my drama box about how important these subjects are.  We all know that deleting these options from the curriculum is a travesty.  Enough said.

I have seen theater arts change how children perceive themselves.  Under-the-radar students suddenly become confident and capable.  I have yet to find a child not find a role in a theater arts project; tech, lights, costuming, etc…  I can pull up the standards that connect to all of this.  I can even put them in a spread sheet.  But then my Excel obsession would resume, and my loved ones would shun me.

I’ll keep the updates coming about our performances.  Until then, we will JENGA and know that it is all “vale la pena”.  (Worth it all!)

Smile next time you see a theater kid.

K

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Anyone…Anyone…?

From time to time, as teachers, we question the efficacy of the skills we are mandated to teach.

The other day, I was teaching, modeling the multiplication of fractions. As I was teaching and noting how the lesson sinking like the Titanic, time stopped, and I developed a new level of Dante’s Inferno.  The level where we teach the same difficult skill over and over for all of eternity.  I did tell my class that at no point in time, in a job interview, would they be asked to do this.  Some thought it was funny. Others told me they were not interviewing for a job.  One or two asked me to explain it again.

Teachers do interesting things when a lesson is bombing.  We speak louder, as if that will make it all better.  We teach it slower and possibly become more animated.  We find unconventional ways of  showing the skill, like singing Ain’t no Mountain High Enough, or having them create human math formations on the floor. Sometimes, we stop, confer with the teacher next door.  She isn’t there because she is checking with her teaching neighbor across the hall.

We search for the lone child, peeking from the rubble and haze, who understands.  He gives us a thumbs up.  The clouds part and we have a glimmer of hope and continue to teach.

Anyone?

My colleagues and I practice this skill for hours before teaching it, (every year).

Before math, we huddle in the hallway and high-five each other.

The teachers understand the skill.  Now, let’s step into the shoes of a ten-year old.  How will they understand the skill?  We pull the squares apart and explain which direction the lines are going. We use colored pencils, transparencies, candy, dances, songs, juggling, bribery….

I have become an expert at this skill. If I had to solve one of these problems in order to save the world, we would be in good hands.

The thing is, I have the cutest, most hard-working class in the world.  They try their hardest to understand.  They attempt the problems with the great tenacity.  I walk around and look at their papers.  I see a distorted version of the skill I just taught.  Some are close and others have created their own math.

Suddenly, I feel like the bad economics teacher from Ferris Bueler.  The self depreciating voice begins.  Maybe, all the kids in the other classes got the models right the first time.  Now they have time to study the theory of relativity while their teacher sings, The Sound of Music, and sews them matching outfits.

Then I ponder the other things in my life that I wish I could do:

  • fold a fitted sheet
  • parallel park
  • change the T.V. from Wii to DVD then back to cable
  • give myself a pedicure and with it not looking like I was blind-folded
  • use a glue gun properly
  • cut paper ( or anything) evenly
  • drive well
  • make hand-crafted gifts
  • sing

After my pity party, I re-group and realize that there are some skills need to be revisited.  I learned this when I taught 3rd grade.  I bless all of the 3rd grade teachers in the world. Not only because my 3rd grader has an AMAZING teacher, but also because it is rife with difficult skills to teach.  Try teaching long division and elapsed time to a group of 3rd graders. These skills alone could make a teacher consider other job possibilities and scramble to refill much-needed prescriptions. My own child told me she doesn’t need to learn how to tell time because everyone tells her where she needs to be and at what time.

Since I am not the queen of the curriculum, I do my best to find ways to teach these types of skills with some effectiveness.  I trust that there is some research out there that explains why children need to learn the skills we may deem…uh…well….strange, odd, or inappropriately difficult.

I haven’t changed much from my disgruntled teenage years.  I questioned the curriculum then as I  do now.  How will this help me in my life?

Challenging skills make us work toward success.  If it were all easy, we would be complacent in our lives.  Or, we would be rolling under our desks and causing havoc every where we go.

This being said, I am teaching the modeling of the division of fractions next week.  Friday, after school, I prepared and imagined how this will go:

“You have a chocolate bar.  It is divided into 8 parts.  You and three friends share it equally.  What fraction of the candy does each of you get?”

“Does it matter? I would just eat the candy, besides we shouldn’t eat after each other.”

“Why can’t we just give the friends their own candy bars?”

“Huh?”

“I remember a time when my friend wouldn’t share with me. We were playing video games and she wouldn’t let me take a turn.”

“I don’t like candy bars.”

“How big is the bar, because I may not want that much.”

“I’m allergic to chocolate.”

On my way to the store to buy a boatload of candy bars, my magical iPod shuffle played, I Will Survive.

K

The Oxford Comma Bugs Me

Teaching fifth grade means that I must prepare twenty-six children to write as if they were prolific and published authors.  The writing test is coming.  I hear its heavy, rubber boots stomping down the hallway.  This test looms over me and follows me around.  It flicks me in the head and taps me on the shoulder.  It waits under my bed to wake me in the middle of the night.   Pure writing comes from that magical place in our brains that knits the imagination into the written word.  The results are cable-knit stories, beautifully crafted from brilliant minds.

I will digress to explain that the knitting metaphors are inspired by my neighbor and dear friend.  She knits like a crazy woman-very impressive.  She can knit in any given situation.  I have seen her knit and carry on a conversation during pedicures and while watching T.V.  I think she can knit and juggle eggs simultaneously.  I realized that the gift of writing is just as fluid as her skill with those knitting needles.

It is a sick moment when watching my friend knit makes me obsess over my writing instruction.

I love when children can describe an event with velvet words and small pieces of their hearts splattered on the page.  There is nothing more sublime than an entire class writing with the world blocked out.  The cadence of pencils scraping on paper is calming.   This point in writing instruction has proven to be my “happy place”.  I scan the dimly lit room.  I see small heads feverishly looking up words in their thesauri.  They highlight, use editing marks, and discuss plausibility and wording.  I hear angels singing.  Somewhere, someone is playing a harp.

Teaching writing is a purely subjective arena in education.   I have been in as many writing seminars as years I have been alive.  Each presenter has contradicting ideas of what effective writing looks like. I am expected to bring back sage words of writing advice to the staff.  But, it seems that all I can muster is to encourage teachers to do what feels right.

The non-negotiable area of instruction is GRAMMAR.  I have always been an avid writer.  The grammar part is just a hindrance to me.  In college, I remember being shocked out of my mind when my mythology professor gave me A’s for my essays.  In my confusion and delirium, I brought him my writing to make sure he had not made a mistake.  He told me my grammar was fine.  I kept wondering, “What about the commas, comma splices, and (EGADS) the elusive semicolon?”

At the ripe old age of forty-two, I realize that one reason I majored in Italian is because of the wisp of the wind grammar rules.  I could write an entire essay discussing the neurotic psychosis of Dante without using any punctuation!   I hit pay dirt!!

Back in the eighties, in high school-a conjunction TOOK THE PLACE of a comma.  (Notice, I used a comma and a hyphen-for emphasis.)   Now, we teach students to put a comma before the conjunction ALL OF THE TIME. The comma can be redundant when paired with a conjunction.  Yes, so this blog is specific and grammar laden.  Sorry, but it is just bugging me.

What is the ‘Oxford comma’?

The ‘Oxford comma’ is an optional comma before the word ‘and’ at the end of a list:

We sell books, videos, and magazines.

It’s known as the Oxford comma because it was traditionally used by printers, readers, and editors at Oxford University Press.  Not all writers and publishers use it, but it can clarify the meaning of a sentence when the items in a list are not single words:

These items are available in black and white, red and yellow, and blue and green.

I am in the midst of writing some essays to submit to the county.  I work with one teacher who is a published author and another teacher who taught A.P. English. I owned up to being a literary masochist, and I have asked both people to edit my essays.  There is nothing more humbling and unnerving than giving a raw piece of writing to someone to edit.  I shuddered and possibly blacked out as I pushed the SEND button to the first person.  She was kind and did a wonderful job of giving me scholarly suggestions.  She let me know that I had omitted many commas.  I knew this.  I skipped over the commas as if they were optional.  I laugh in the face of the commas!

I haven’t sent the essays to my A.P. friend.  I believe I need to drink chamomile tea and do two hours of Yoga before this happens.  She will red-pen it like a seventies teacher with a tight bun and polyester pants.  I have waited because I found a split infinitive in my essay today. I bet there are others hiding from me.   I don’t want her to see my split infinitives and dangling modifiers!!  I feel so exposed.

When I teach writing, I try to make the writing experience somewhat pleasurable.  I know grammar is important and I will succumb to the mafia comma rules.  I will even teach them to my class.  There may be a moment when I encourage them to assess whether the comma is necessary.  I believe this is considered literary license.

My students are smart.  One of my biggest pet peeves is beginning a sentence with “and”.  Well, C.S. Lewis and Tolkien do it!  And that is what you get when your 5th grade class is well read. Humph!

Until the test, I will focus on keeping their hearts in the writing while jumping through the grammar hoops.

I will teach writing, love my students and they will be fine.  (NO COMMA!)

K

Survival in Suburbia

Have you seen or read the Alone in the Wilderness story? It is about Dick Proenneke who retired in 1967 and decided to build a log cabin in Alaska.  He lived alone in the log cabin for 30 years.  His only companionship was the wildlife thumping and scurrying by each day and frigid night.  My smallest child watched the entire PBS special last year.  She was amazed by the fact that he never went to the grocery store.  From time to time, he sent his friend, Babe, to procure some food items and building materials.  Other than that, he lived off of the land.

As day three of the official Georgia “snow-in” begins, I think of Dick in his cabin.  What would he do if he were stuck in Suburbia?

I thought of the pictures of the grocery section of Target my friend posted on FB:

Apparently, there was a mad rush for bananas, onions, and all bread (except for pumpernickel and rye).  I guess in our fear of starvation, we can’t ignore our taste preferences.  It also made me wonder if there is some amazing recipe that calls for those ingredients.  Banana and onion casserole with a breaded topping?

Yes, I spent much time at the grocery store on Sunday afternoon.  I could not find bananas.  I don’t even like bananas.  But as soon as I saw there were none, it became a quest of some sort.   When I began asking around, no one I knew was able to find bananas.  But, someone has to have them!

I remember when my mother-in-law lived with us.  She had a banana obsession.  She would easily buy two huge bunches so we wouldn’t run out.  One bunch was green and the other would have to be ripe and ready to eat.  My theory is that the elderly community has bought them all.  That is the only hypothesis that makes sense.  See, I have all of this time on my hands and I must have answers!

My teacher friends and I are now complacent in the potential of having to make up 5 days.   The roads keep icing over and the temperatures won’t give us a good chance of a thaw until Friday afternoon.  So what do we do?  I got an email from, The Avenue, our local outside mall.  It told me they were closed so basically, I can’t go shopping.  My gym emailed me and encouraged my  not to drive on the icy roads. Nothing. We do nothing.

The most resourceful nothing-doers are the teenagers.  I’m amazed at the ready-made adventures they create on a mere moment’s notice.  They sled, walk, take pictures, download 42 movies on Netflix (and watch them all), and make every conceivable sweet, baked item left in the house.  I am waiting for them to find the Halloween cupcake mix that sits lonely and unloved in our pantry.  I believe they could all survive on a remote island with only a Dance Party Wii game and cheese and crackers to keep them alive.  They don’t even need to shower while they are stuck in suburbia.

The even smaller people must be dragged in from the wilderness.  They have this Dick Proenneke-like tenacity to build the perfect snow walls, houses, etc…  I thought my neighbor’s child was  fending off a grizzly yesterday as she searched for sticks and other natural building materials.  They tried with all of their might to sled on a trash can lid.  I took one step outside, felt the wind whipping in my face and went back in.

I believe my unease has been in the uncertainty of the days.  So, like Dick, I’ll take each day as it comes.  The snow will thaw and we will be back to our routines.   I’m learning that each minute in our lives cannot be planned.  When I let the stress and worry go, life happens.  Suddenly the impromptu pizza parties and neighborly visits occur!  Unplanned fun…what a thought.

When my control freak rears her nosy little head, I ignore her.  She isn’t happy when I do this. I tell her not to worry, she will have plenty to do next week.

Enjoy the day.

K

Should We Stay or Will it Snow?

When the iPhone Doppler radar is passed around  the teacher’s lounge, the snow day discussions officially commence.  We talk about what days we will have to make up for the potential snow day. Some of us want the day off, others are vehemently opposed.  Either way, I cannot help but feel a twinge of excitement in anticipation of seeing our landscape blanketed it the white stuff.

Living in Georgia in the Winter is tricky. The weather is random and the snow predictions become amusing by February.  This past Christmas, we had a wintry postcard scene outside our windows.  Years ago, we had a mini-blizzard in March.  Then mother nature wields her leafy wand and we are suddenly hit with a warm front, days after freezing temperatures hold us hostage in our homes.

The days preceding the incoming storm create a flurry of excitement. (Sorry, I couldn’t help myself.)   Facebook friends post the weather updates. People comment on what they think will happen. Everyone learns how to read the Doppler Radars. Are we teal? Does that mean we will get ice, freezing, rain, or snow?  We add the weather app to our phones so we can be updated minute by minute.

The Northerners scoff at our snow talk. I know this because my family is from New Jersey and New York.  I believe that in New Jersey, small children and animals must be obscured by the multiple feet of snow before they cancel school.

It is also interesting when they cancel school here.  When my friend Jen and I worked in DeKalb, we carpooled to work. On a day that school should have actually been cancelled, we found ourselves skidding our way to work over 25 miles of ice. I believe we bonded that morning. It was almost as if we were trapped in a scene from Julie of the Wolves.

We had to rely on each other’s skill and ingenuity to survive.  That day, my heart stopped pounding around lunch time.  If you don’t know me, you should understand that I hate driving. Some may say that I’m not a good driver.  My sense of direction is fodder for good laughs and I have absolutely no depth perception.  So driving over ice and snow is enough to put me in therapy.

There have been other “snow days” that school had been cancelled and I was at DSW by 12.

The night before the predicted snow storms are the most exciting. We refresh the home page on the county website an inordinate amount of times.   We text each other and make predictions. Oh what fun!

Our principal told us yesterday to keep our “snow lists” handy. We have a chain of staff members we call to alert that school has been cancelled.  Then there are those who just like to call because the words, “school is cancelled” just sound so profound.  Those same people almost sound disappointed when you already know.

If the snow day comes, all parents are mandated to frolic in the snow with small children and over-excited teenagers.  The obligatory snow “person” must be made.  As a teacher, I think of the curriculum pacing and how much the snow day will affect my teaching. One unexpected day off can change the series of events in a classroom.  It is almost like Back to the Future when one altered plan or decision changes history for all those involved. Of course, this can cause much strife in the life of the  “O.C.”  teachers (who plan each and every minute of the day.)  I am one of those crazy people, but that is a discussion for another blog.

We wait for the snow to thaw and for our snow people to escape into thin air. There is nothing more sad than a once portly snow person turning into an emaciated version of its former self. Especially when the dirt mixed in becomes visible. The stick arms fall off and the surprised mouth diminishes.

If the snow day doesn’t come, we come to school as if the snow frenzy was a figment of ALL our imaginations.  The hub bub dies down and we resume our day and ignore the wistful dream of a snowy wonderland.  We may even teach a lesson on weather and how to read a Doppler Radar.

K

I am Rocky, Hear me Roar…

I love the shuffle option on my Ipod. Somehow, it decided that the theme to Rocky followed by I am Woman Hear me Roar would be a good combo. Yes, I know this is hokey. There are some days we need something to motivate us.

Watch how Rocky begins his morning jog. His Italian-American hair flowing in the wind. His snug gray sweat suit keeping him warm. Notice how his sweatshirt stays tucked into his pants, amazing, simply amazing. People calling his name as he passes his neighborhood. Suddenly, the entire city is following him and cheering him on as he approaches the steps. Children have left school and it seems that everyone left their houses and jobs to follow him. I also believe time stopped. What about the steps? Can he do it? YES!!!  Rocky does it!

Rocky is one of my favorite movies.  One of the reasons I love it is because Sylvester Stallone wrote the script. He then insisted on starring in the movie. This underdog of a movie and screen writer became a small part our  cinematic history. What motivated him in 1976 to do this? (Note, I am referring to the first Rocky movie, only). Was there a teacher who encouraged him along the way? Hmmm…..

Teachers hold the key to motivating students to take that extra step (pun intended). When I am teaching something difficult and it seems like I am getting NOWHERE, and the tile floor is sucking me in; I go to my mental Rocky clip. That ONE child needs all of us cheering her on. She leads the way as we follow behind calling her name!

Ok-So another Italian-American reference. TEACH:TONY DANZA. I was sucked into this show. My favorite episode is where he makes all the kids sanitize their hands. He even promises extra credit if they keep their sanitizer bottles by the end of the semester. Now, this is motivation! He cries quite a bit and makes me feel validated  for a few minutes. He teaches some things incorrectly. He doesn’t follow the rules because they don’t make sense. He was called to the front office because he didn’t sign in correctly.  There were many times, I turned my head and cringed a bit. However, I kept watching because he kept showing up. He continually self-reflected  and sought out help.

Today, I was motivated all day. I was motivated to sing in the car with my kids. I was motivated to clean out my closet and donate purses and shoes. I was even motivated to sit at my computer and write this blog. I began thinking and wondering what is the spirit of motivation? More specifically, what does that mean in education?

When I wrote my thesis, I attempted to quantify student motivation. I was told that motivation could not be measured in numbers. I did it anyway. The work was accepted and noticed. We all know when kids are motivated in our classrooms. They work independently. They ask for guidance not answers. They evaluate their work and feel a sense of pride and accomplishment. Rocky? YES!!!

I often think of that one teacher who motivated me. I had to write a response to a story we read about the Vikings. I decided to write it from the Vikings’ perspective. How they were tired, hungry, and rank. That teacher asked me to “read the essay to the class”. She encouraged me to refine my writing because I had “something”. She noticed me. SHE NOTICED ME! From that day forward, I wrote and shared on a regular basis. The high-school invisibility cloak was removed.

Last night, I spent a wonderful evening with dear friends. We rang in the New Year and talked to all hours of the morning. I was encouraged to made lasagna! I  learned that too much flour in white sauce is bad.

The White Tree is packed away and has begun  the annual holiday decor hibernation.   The remnants of the festivities are packed neatly in boxes. The crazy fiber optic tree is gone from our window.

I am ready for this year. I’m motivated to run my steps.

Happy New Year.

K