Life On The Other Side

I love the first day of school. I love it as a teacher, anyway. As a kid, I dreaded it because I wasn’t the best student. Especially the year I had to take home economics. I always questioned the name of the class-Home Economics. What does that mean?  We never discussed budgets and money. Sewing and cake decorating for a spatially inept person is torturous. Anyway, the first day of this school year made me feel as if someone forgot to send me my home room students. Are they wandering the halls? Why am I alone in my room? Where is everyone? Am I on isolation island?

I’m a specialist now. I have car duty. I have to be at work early. I smile at people before eight every morning. I touch car handles riddled with unknown microorganisms.

People ask me, “What do you do now?”

“I teach advanced 5th grade math. I teach 1st grade gifted students. I am the half-time literacy coach.”

There are too many sports references in my new job. Literacy Coach-do I wear a helmet shaped like a letter? Do I run by classrooms cheering for people and saying things like:

“You can do it! Keep teaching phonics!”

“NO!!!! What are you thinking? Get back to the kidney table and move the letter tiles to the left!”

“Ok teams, let’s huddle. Each group go READ!!!!! HIYAH!!!”

Before school started, I collaborated with my friend who was also sent to her isolation island from 5th grade. She teaches 4th and 5th grade gifted students. She told me I was panicking. She said she wasn’t used to me being unsure of myself. She left me wondering if I’m having breakdowns noticeable to everyone but me.  I do admit, I questioned if I could even teach anymore. For the first time in ten years, I had absolutely no starting point. I have many weak areas. My dear friends remind me of them all of the time. But, the thing I rely on, the thing I can do in my sleep, or to get to the million dollar level on a game show-is plan lessons and differentiated projects. If stranded on an island, I could create a rubric for survival out of sticks, shells, and fish bones. I had nothing. I was in an emotional frenzy and residing in the desert of instruction. I didn’t know where to start. Literacy schedule? Gifted unit? Math activities?  I decided to organize files and color code things. Even the label maker and laminator didn’t lift my spirits. I was in the middle some odd self-reflective moment, while the moose stared from afar.

I decided to work on my literacy schedule.  I have read numerous books and researched how this job should look. I’m taking teacher leadership classes and extra reading classes. I have done this type of thing in another district, but I discount that experience. I even sent my administration a tentative calendar of what I would be doing. I pulled up Excel to begin the schedule. I began with each teacher’s name, grade level, lunch times, and specials times. The cursor on the spreadsheet blinked and blinked. It was waiting impatiently-oh the pressure. I clicked out of Excel to think “gifted”.

Gifted 1st graders. Gifted 1st graders. I’m teaching gifted 1st graders.

I finally got some perspective. I watched The Illusionist with my nine-year old. I was humbled when she explained the “message” of the movie.

“You see mommy, the magician isn’t doing well. But, the girl thinks he is magic. Isn’t it sad when he said that magicians weren’t real at the end? I feel badly for the girl.”

I felt like the Illusionist.  I lost my footing, and  I thought that  what I was doing wasn’t important anymore. My audience was gone. My students disappeared.

I had to realize that the issue wasn’t the job, but my perception of what my new job is. For me, teaching fifth grade was like being in the midst of the stock exchange. The ringing of the bell, and the madness of the events fueled my work obsession. Of course, falling in love with my students was a huge part of what kept me so determined to make their experiences memorable.

Then I thought again about the movie. Don’t educators feel that when the next best strategy comes our way, we are left alone, on a stage with no one in the audience? I have spoken to teachers who have taught for thirty years, or more. The one thing they all say is, “Everything is comes back around, so I just wait.”  Then my mind flashes to the Illusionist, where there are two people in the audience, politely clapping as the magician does the same old routine. Of course, this scene could be viewed as a teacher only reaching a small population of the classroom. I can see it both ways. I guess, life on the other side has given me some perspective.

I began the gifted unit after my indecision and flurry of color coding projects. I pulled up my backward design template. I was sinking. There need to be fairy tales. I have boys in the class, so I added monsters and mythical creatures. Oh, and we have to have Greek gods and goddesses. We will create a puppet show as a culminating activity. I know! They will pick a fairy tale character, give it a power from one of the gods, then some kid-created villain will turn all the characters into monsters. Somehow, they have to use their powers to escape!  We will have plenty of time for this unit.  After all, I have them for an entire school day. Or do I?  After lunch, recess, specials, and other odd testing, assessments, and school-related activities, they are only with me for less than three full hours.

The day that changed it all for me, was last Friday when I taught my first gifted class. I decided to pick them up in a fairy costume to launch our unit on fairy tales, gods, and monsters. Not one small person questioned the outfit. First grade is a new world. They are small-I mean tiny. Their voices made me think of the little people scene in The Wizard of Oz. They don’t sit still-not even for three seconds. Plus, they fidget, stare, and tell odd and random stories. Eddie Murphy used to do a bit about a kid telling a story. I had fourteen trying to tell me, about the time that….

They were all obsessed with their bags of supplies. I knew I couldn’t get anywhere without organizing their stuff. So, I asked them to unpack the supplies, and put this and that in the caddies.

They were lost on my caddy reference. You know, the plastic things on the tables where we put supplies?

“Ok, let’s put our supplies in the caddies.”

Nothing. Crickets.

“Ok, go ahead and put your supplies in the caddies.”

Brave small person, “I will do that, but first, what are caddies, and where are they?

Note to self-explain all new vocabulary.

The unpacking of their supplies took an inordinate time. Then, they were asking that they label the caddies, since they now had their stuff in them. Ok. Twenty minutes later.

Oh, the pencils weren’t sharp enough. Ten minutes more.

After all of that, I fell into some odd teaching vortex. There were improvisation games, deductive reasoning activities, and collaborative book votes. Huh? The day is over?

All I can say is that I was first-year-teacher annoying. No one wanted me around.

Yesterday, we made magic goo potion, and we created transportation for Cinderella out of random craft materials.  Next week, we will build an anemometer to show the least windy path the coach should take in order to get Cinderella back in time.

Flashes of the goo experience keep popping into my mind. Think glue, Borax, food coloring, water, stirring, and small children. At one point, all thirteen kids were asking me if their goo “was done”. They huddled around me-all of them. Small elf-like hands, waving magic goo, precariously close to my face; obscured my vision for a good twenty minutes. But, the gasps of amazement and delight as the liquid turned to a solid, made the goo storm worth it.

I was even inspired to play “High Hopes” as they worked. Before long, they were all singing about moving the rubber tree plant.

Back to literacy coaching. This has been the part of the job that has made me  flop and flail, like the fish out of water. Someone, please-throw me back in the lake!

But, as I have spent time in many classrooms; I have grown to appreciate this profession in a way that I never had before. I understand the my-classroom microcosm angle. But now, I see teachers planning, teaching, asking questions, improving their craft, being open and inviting to me and my new position. It made me think of Christmas decorations. I have always had this theory that the Christmas lights just magically appear on everyone’s houses. I never see anyone actually putting them up. (Unless they keep them up all year-and I won’t go there). This is not unlike the first day of school, where all the classrooms are magically set up, with everything in place. The teacher, is seemingly rested, waiting for the new year. Her hair is in place, and she is reading inspirational teacher books.

This year, I saw the Christmas lights being put up. All over the school, I saw teachers in the halls, butcher paper being cut, glue guns heating up, copy machines working overtime-and suddenly as if in a blink; everyone was ready.

I realized that part of my problem was that I was fearful that teachers would see me coming, turn out the lights, and tell the kids to be quiet and get into tornado position. But instead, they have welcomed me and my new coach position. GO TEAM! I have seen powerful teaching and dedicated teachers. I have had collegiate discussions about instruction with brilliant people.

But, when the kids believe we are magic, it just boils down to the relationships we foster with them. Like the Illusionist, when we lose faith in our ability to teach, the entire system fails. It isn’t the curriculum, the activities, the bells and whistles of instruction-it is the educator truly believing in him or herself. It also helps when others believe in us as well.


The Endangered Curriculum

I was inspired to write this blog because of a moose mural in my classroom, the Italian Renaissance, and a literacy training I attended. It may all come together at the end. Or it may not.

I have this book called, Endangered Words. It is full of antiquated words that, at one point, were valuable in some vernacular, somewhere. I thought of this book the other day while I was sitting in an eight-hour literacy training.  We began discussing how to teach reading to very little people. The idea that we have the knowledge and ability to teach such a powerful tool, can be overwhelming. Words are broken down into sounds, and then sound-letter correlation is developed. Soon words are recognized and sorted into various structures called sentences. Then, like magic, or some amazing miracle, reading happens. If you have ever had the opportunity to watch a child read his/her first sentence or story (after you have taught the skills) you will experience a lucid moment where you know that you have chosen the right profession. If it does happen to you, keep the memory, because you will need to tap into it for the rest of your teaching career. You may even want to take a picture of the child to post it somewhere in your classroom. So when your project dealing with glitter and liquid glue goes awry, look at the picture and get some perspective.

When I came home from literacy training, I looked through my endangered word book. Some of my favorites are ataraxia “freedom from disturbance of mind or passion; stoical indifference”; bleezed: affected in the eyes as by alcoholic excitement; and logodaedalist: “inventor of words”. I thought of my linguistics classes where I learned about the origin of language and the varied sophistication in vocabulary from language to language. English-speaking people know about 20,000 words, but only use about 2,000. But, who wants to talk to someone who uses words like despiance and kumatage at a dinner party? These are the people from whom you scurry, then run to the corner and secretly Google the words on your Android. Or maybe that’s just me.

So, if words can appear and disappear from our dictionaries and daily usage, so can various components of the curriculum. I knew the world was in a bad place when fishes became an accepted plural form of fish. Just like the word moose-some people actually say meese or mooses. Luckily, I haven’t met a person who has used these irksome, fabricated plurals. But I’ll get back to the moose mural, because it is haunting me. If enough people continuously use a word incorrectly, it becomes part of the lexicon.  Ain’t that something?

During our training, we had a “guess the right answer with a partner” activity. We had moved on to teaching comprehension skills.

The question was:

During a readers’ theater, it is advised to encourage students to bring in props and costumes to enhance their engagement and participation.

Emphatically, YES!  That is a dead give away!  The acceptable response was no. It is not encouraged. Huh? What about our Midsummer Night’s Dream readers’ theater? What about the Macbeth unit we did I just got up, went to the snack table, and got an Almond Joy. The upside of this is that my name was picked twice for the $50 resource books that I REALLY wanted. I didn’t give a shout out to the arts in education, because apparently, it has little to do with reading instruction. And the arts have had no place in the curriculum through time. So why start now? I kept my snarky thoughts to myself, as I am learning they rarely received well in those of situations.  Again, where did the classics go? Did they get buried under the mountain of basal readers? If all it takes is plastic crowns and cardboard castles to encourage kids to show up and read classic works, then why would this be discouraged?

I have discussed how baffled I am that foreign language was taken out of the elementary and schools in our district. There is enough research that supports the efficacy of learning foreign languages for academic purposes. Also, this is crazy, and maybe pushing the envelope a bit, but there are people in the world who speak other languages. Global awareness anyone? I recently read an article, What we Can Learn From Foreign Language Teaching in Other Countries.   Basically, there is an emphasis on language education in other countries. There is also support from the school systems and governments to foster a respect and for language education. The governments also mandate a foreign language curriculum that begins in elementary school; not high school. Of course, this can work its way into how we aren’t globally competitive, since we are a mono-linguistic society. That rant can wait.

The important subjects are those that yield a higher income. Let me paint a fictitious world where the arts are prominent in our curriculum. Let’s just pretend that if someone earns a degree in sculpting or painting, that he or she would earn what is equivalent to um, maybe that of an athlete?  Parents would be signing their kids up for sculpting and painting classes. Instead of, “My child cannot do homework because there is a game”, we would hear, “My child cannot do homework because he/she is completing his sculpture and oil painting to be commissioned for the church down the street.” I’m not saying that sports are not important. I was an active athlete in high school, and I value the talents and determination of gifted athletes. But this is fictitious, like the idea that standardized testing will go away.

How is it that there were so may talented artists back in the time of the Renaissance? I know, only the wealthy families sent their kids to school, and girls got the short end of the education stick  But, artists were vying to be the commissioned artist for whomever, on a whim, needed a sculpture knocked out. My point is that the emphasis was put on ethics, poetry, literature, and art. Therefore, the focus was on refining those skills that were deemed essential and proper. To be a true erudite, one had to be well-versed in all aspects of the arts. I can just imagine the discussions of the mothers of Filippo Brunelleschi and Lorenzo Ghiberti (who competed for the creation Baptistery doors).

“Where do you get your bronze?”

“At the market, it was on sale. You need my coupon?”

“No, we only buy the good stuff.. Maybe that is why Lorenzo, won.”


Soccer moms, sculpture moms-tomato, tomato…

This actually brings me to the moose mural. I changed classrooms, and I really like my new room. It has a courtyard (where I plan on planting a garden with my Kindergarten and 1st grade students). There is a large bathroom/closet where I can store drama club paraphernalia. And there is a nook where I can have kids read, work in small groups, and  I can develop my library. I spent a week unpacking boxes and setting up my room. Check-something accomplished.

The nook has a mural. The mural is of a large moose. I decided that I would paint over it. I bought the paint. The day after I bought the paint, my principal called me:

P: “Don’t paint anything yet. We may need to move you to another room.”

Me: “What? I just unpacked. What? I just bought paint.? What? Are you sure? ”

Panic consumed me. Then I realized that I was having an audible break down, over the phone, with my principal. He says I hung up on him. I don’t remember. Maybe I did. He won’t let it go. I went down to the school and he came to my room. He walked into the nook:

P: “That is a cool moose. You really want to paint over it? I can’t believe you want to paint over it. Kids love that moose.”

I realized that I was having a BGI (Blinding Glimpse of Insight). You see, we are reading the book, Sticks & Stones exposed: The Power of our Words, for our leadership book talk at school. The BGI is a stark realization through various modalities that you are, well…wrong about stuff. The book politely says it is a small bit of understanding about ourselves that we don’t like to face. Yah, it’s a moose mural. But it is really the fact that I was the only one who didn’t like the blasted thing. The eyes..  I didn’t think about the fact that it is appealing to some, and to small children, it will be downright adorable. I keep having to remind myself that I am now in the world of kindergarteners and 1st graders. The connection here is that just because something isn’t valuable or doesn’t serve a purpose to some, it is often thrown out, done away with, or replaced. The moose won.

I have these small tent cards that my students use to let me know how they are progressing in the learning process:

After my breakdown, I put the tent card on my desk-on RED. This says it all. Doesn’t it?

The end result is that my principal decided to let me stay in my room, as long as I kept the moose mural.

My tent card changed:

What exactly has been deleted from our curriculum? Why are we doing it? Have we digressed from honoring and encouraging refined artists to teaching brilliant students who fumble over glue sticks? Moderation is a sound concept. Since society doesn’t honor the arts in education, there is little focus on them. Whenever I show artwork to my students, they are fascinated. Two years ago, a colleague and I created an art exhibit project. Students did research reports on famous artists. Then they used any medium of their choice to re-create the art work. Students used leggos, water colors, sculptures, and multi-media representations. We created a museum of the artwork, with student interpretations of the works. Yes, we are weak in science and math, and I am in no way discounting this fact. But, why can’t kids have it all? What about a thematic unit on art and science? Poetry in math? Dramatic reenactments in social studies? Just some thoughts.

By the way, I filled in the blanks to my analogy from the last post:

Politics is to Education as Aliens are to Cowboys. 

I’ll see the movie, alone, since no one will go with me. I’m sure I’ll find some more unintended education references imbedded within the movie.

In the mean time, I’m hoping to change my tent card one more time: