Tales from Summer Break

Summer Break. Those two words have held different meanings for me. As a kid, that meant I could play from morning until dark, and only go inside for food or a bathroom break. As a teenager, that meant sleeping until 1:00, then finally deciding to get a job. As an adult, working in the corporate world, it meant sweating in office wear, and wishing I was one of those teachers who has the summers off.

Well, I’m one of those teachers who has the summer off. Except, that I don’t. It is all my fault. I over book myself with things I love to do. Because, God forbid, I sit still-just for a moment.

I am teaching drama camp at my elementary school. I am also directing Macbeth (for kids) at our local theater. I am taking three electives in grad school, so that I can finally finish the degree.

Drama camp. Within one week, we write a play, learn it, and perform it. Well, the play-writing part is my favorite. Our Gods vs. Monsters play includes a slow motion volleyball tournament to the Rocky soundtrack, Zeus getting miffed at Poseidon for posting cat videos on his INSTAGREEK wall, and a sinister Barbie who is the root of all of the evil in the world, thus inadvertently creating an alliance between the Gods and Monsters. My friend, and drama partner-in-crime (Shannon) decided it would be fun to have the kids mouth the words to Wilson Phillips’ hit song, Hold On. Our inspiration?

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Makes perfect sense, right?

Macbeth Jr. Some may say that things have gone a bit far, but no one stopped me. My friends just keep encouraging my errant behavior. So the kids wanted to have a Star Wars theme. There is a light-saber fight. Lady Macbeth  wears the Princess Leia buns, and she has a full-on tantrum, on the floor, in a tiara and prom dress, when Macbeth begins to waver in his decision to kill King Duncan. The witches play cards, knit, play Sorry, have mini lady Macbeth Barbies (with mini Lady Macbeth tiaras) watch when Duncan becomes a ghost (who, by the way, is wearing a sheet with the eyes cut out). There are narrators who have morphed into the Godfather and his sidekicks. Somehow, the Godfather makes sense in Macbeth. We are Family is the curtain call music. I stopped there-I promise.

Young Adult Literature Class. I have to read 24 books by July 11th. I love to read, but somehow now that someone is telling me to, I am having a difficult time sitting still. I get up and vacuum. Sit down and read. Get up and organize the garage. Sit down and read. Get up and have a snack. Sit down and read. Run on the tread mill. Sit down and read. This is another eye-opening moment for me, since I have spent the last eleven years telling kids to read, with good intentions. But the pressure-oh the pressure!

Physical Science for Teachers. This is a great class, but I am the only non-science specialist elementary teacher in the class. On the first day of class, I just happened to be wearing my DRAMA CLUB shirt. I couldn’t have been more out of my element. Spoutings of ions, surface tension, and Newton’s laws pelted me. One classmate had a physics book handy for reference. I went to my happy place.

Environmental Science. Okay. This is one of the weirdest classes I have ever taken. Our professor is an entomologist. He is particularly interested in the mating habits of bugs. Did you know that some people have pet cockoaches….and they name them? We only have ONE written assignment for the class. We have to CONVINCE our professor that we read a book and visited a landfill and a water treatment plant. If I were in high school, I might feign my way through. But, somehow-I believe he would know. Then there is the inevitable guilt that would follow. So, I will drag my younger daughter a landfill next week. This jaunt will be under the guise of a ‘fun summer field trip’.

This summer also brings bitter-sweet feelings about the passing of time, and of the way a life can swiftly change and become something entirely different.

In a few weeks, my daughter will be moving on and going away to college. There will be a new silence in the house. Her unfilled space will be palpable. I’ll miss her irrational rants, and her incessant foraging in my closet. I’ll miss her odd obsession with baking cupcakes. It was five minutes ago when she was three years old, wearing a princess costume, and holding a magic wand.

So, as my summer passes, like the tesseract, I’ll attempt to see what is in front of me, and enjoy what I can-even if it is in a landfill.

K

Smartie or Dum Dum?

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Did you know there is a FB page for Smarties, Nerds, and Dum Dums? Well, there is.

Did you know that some teachers give out Smarties for correct answers, and Dum Dums for incorrect ones? Well, they do.

First of all, my child psychology professor would send me a reprimand email (as he has done in the past) if he knew I was even considering giving candy for rewards. Those are extrinsic rewards that promote behaviorism. (Think Pavlov’s dogs.) But how can a Twizzler possibly hurt anyone?

We want children to learn for intrinsic reasons. But this is not the point I’m trying to make. The issue for me is that we are telling children they are Dum Dums if they get an answer wrong. I understand that not every teacher gives out name-calling candy. Although, a “Nice Try” or “Did You Study?” candy would be great for high-schoolers.

I’m referring to testing. Yes, it is that time of year again, and I’m on one of my rants. In one of my graduate classes, we learned that high test scores don’t necessarily correlate to future academic or work-force success. Did you ever make A’s in a class because you memorized the information the night before? We all did. The only reason I know anything about the Civil War is because I taught it for three years as a fifth grade teacher. I definitely don’t remember one battle from my college Civil War experience.

One advantage of NCLB is that it has provided us with a decade of  data that validates the fact that American students are below average in reading and math. I like data. So, they get a check for that. Ten states have accepted the NCLB waiver. This is as long as we implement a college and career-ready curriculum.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan said that current law drives down standards, weakens accountability, causes narrowing of the curriculum and labels too many schools as failing. Moreover, the law mandates unworkable remedies at the federal level instead of allowing local educators to make spending decisions.

Behind No Child Left Behind

It took ten years to figure this out. DUH.

Is there a life-size Dum Dum we can give to NCLB?  It would clench a Dum Dum in one hand, and weep into a box of waivers. Following its sloth-like gait, there are hundreds of thousands of students yelling, “Wait! You left me behind!” NCLB randomly tosses waivers in the air, without looking back, as he shuffles away.

Dramatic much? Yup. But, we experimented on a generation of students, and there is nothing we can do about it. Maybe, we can think ahead and put kids first? We should all aspire to be Smarties on this goal.

Giant Peaches and Toilet Plunger Daggers

My opening thought is about PINTEREST. I didn’t want to be on Pinterest until the Pinterest people put me on a waiting list. Then I HAD to be accepted. So, I asked my friend to invite me. I soon realized that it was the same as cutting out pictures of magazines and taping them to my walls in the 80’s. I had the perfect house and John Taylor (from Duran Duran) was smiling from our sunroom. I had collages of my favorite clothes and shoes. I even wrote poetry to accompany my re-assembled life created from magazine pictures. Now, within a matter of seconds, my collage life can be validated with re-pins and likes.

In my Advanced Curriculum and Instruction class, we are studying research-based instructional practices. One of my favorite activities is  making analogies out of math terms. For example circumference is to perimeter as __________ is to__________.

Pinterest is to Drama Club as creating imagery is to imagining creativity. See? I’m still in my existential mode.

I haven’t blogged about drama club lately. Partially, because the year has escaped me. But mostly, because when I think of what needs to be done by May, I shudder in fear.

We are performing Sleeping Beauty, the musical, James and the Giant Peach, and a kids version of Macbeth. I am directing James and Macbeth. One thing we did better this year is to have each play rehearsal on a different day of the week. This way, we can use the pretend stage for blocking. It is hilarious what happens when small people step on stage. They suddenly become animated, their voices change, and the see an imaginary audience sitting in government-issued blue school chairs.

I have blogged before about why teachers continue to show up at work. Today, as I was watching my James and the Giant Peach cast rehearse, I felt incredibly thankful. First of all, Aunt Sponge and Aunt Spiker make me laugh. I don’t mean giggle. They are hysterical and one hundred percent invested. We were in the gym today because the fake stage is prepared for a chorus concert. So, the cast and I were sitting on the floor, leaning against the walls. The girl next to me, put her head on my should for a moment while she read over her script. I looked at the rest of the cast, and they were reading along as the actors were performing. It was just one of those moments that brands itself somewhere in the spirit.

Many children rehearsed without scripts today. If you don’t know this play, it is verbose and lengthy. So, the thought of being of book by the fourth rehearsal is unheard of. But, a couple of the cast were memorized. Unbelievable. These kids are in fourth and fifth grade.

The earthworm will be wearing a crash helmet and clutching a first aid kit. The spider randomly tap-dances. Silk worm is a bit of a narcaleptic and wears a snuggie and a sleeping eye mask. The little old man who brings the magic is played by a remarkable boy. When he rehearsed today, we were silent and amazed. When he finished, the cast clapped.

Now, a giant peach needs to be constructed. The top of it. The outside of it. The inside of it. Maybe, I’ll have a flash of lucid brilliance in the middle of the night.

Macbeth. This cast is equally entertaining.  I told ten-year old Lady Macbeth to act as if she is ‘losing it’ when she hears owls and crickets. I soon realized that ten-year olds don’t have background knowledge of ‘crazy’. And it would be inappropriate for me to feign ‘crazy’,  since it might be too realistic.

The kids are convinced that when King Duncan is ‘taken out’ that we need to use ketchup for blood. I will be using red cloth for a stylized elementary school version of his demise. But, they are obsessed with the ketchup. We cannot have swords in the school-even ones for the play. So, Macbeth will kill Duncan with a toilet bowl plunger. Ghost Banquo is going to be a puppet. It just has to happen.

The witches don’t cackle, but I’m extracting maniacal moments, so I’m good.

This year has been very difficult, for many reasons. Being around children who are excited about everything, can only make a bad day (or year) vaporize.

Here’s to amazing children and playing virtual dress-up.

K

Existentalism in Education

Last week, I presented a chapter from our weekly homework dealing with the philosophy of education. I was flatlining just thinking about dealing with this subject AGAIN. I realized that this subject in every conceivable curriculum for teacher education, because we need to think about how we approach our instruction. We are all influenced by our personal philosophies, whether we acknowledge them or not. I was that kid who wanted to know why were learning what we were learning. I was never the one with  correct answers, a flailing hand in the air, and the gleaming look of love and approval from the teacher.

“Yes, Kim. What is it?”

“How will algebra help me in life? I mean, when do people use algebra?”

“You may get a job that requires you to do algebra.”

“But, I want to be a writer.” ( I was obsessed with the V.C. Andrews series. I was sure she never had to do algebra.)

This is where I would get the silent brush off that made me feel like an outcast, or maybe a burgeoning existentialist.

As  I was presenting, I realized that I was a bit more excited about educational philosophy than the rest of the class. I was having an existential epiphany, and everyone else just wanted me to wrap it up, so they could go home. Again, I was THAT student who wanted to drag everyone through a mental maze of enlightenment. The Scream is usually one of the standard artworks that depicts the idea of existentialism. Although, it was about mental illness, volcanic eruptions, and  mummies, the solitary person with ‘volcanic’ thoughts is alone. I’m going into all of this because we have those children, in our classes, who seem way off track.  But, I believe that they may be so far down the track we started, that we can’t recognize it. BECAUSE WHAT THEY  ARE ASKING WON”T BE ON THE TEST. Just putting that out there.

They have already passed us, and are on to the next big idea. I know this because when I stop and ask the Woody Allens in the class to explain their thinking, I am usually surprised with the depth of their connections.  Then I feel like a big dummy for wanting to do the curriculum race to reach the end of the unit.

There are many philosophies that have influenced how we approach instruction. I learned, very early in my teaching career, that teaching requires metacognition. We need to think about how we think in regard to instruction. You know, the mental dialogue that occurs when we are teaching:

“Did that make sense?”

“Wow, they look like they understand, but the glaze in their eyes says something different.”

“Is this curriculum even developmentally appropriate?”

“I am I all alone?”

Yah, I’ve spent a bit of time, alone, researching. Thus, my existential self is becoming annoyingly vocal. Basically, the existentialist student asks about how what they are learning affects the world around them. These students rarely ask these overreaching questions at appropriate times.

This year, I have had the great opportunity to teach kindergarten through 5th grade. The innate questioning nature wanes as the students get older. I’m not saying, stop everything and address every anecdote that pops into each child’s mind. Remember the Eddie Murphy bit about having a child tell al story? We don’t want to go there. But, sometimes, their existentialism may inspire us to take the content into related, but unique directions.

Sometimes, I ask my class, “Why are we learning this?” If you teach, try this. You will need to sift through the “because it’s on the test” responses.

I completed my presentation with the fact that no educational philosophy is directly rooted in existentialism. I made the joke that there would only be one person teaching to one student who would be wondering why there are so many people in the room. I laughed. But, again I was alone.

If you are in a mood to question your life, here is a link to some though provoking films.

Existential Movies

I have an existential map. It has ‘You are here’ written all over it.
Steven Wright

Happy Thinking..

K

K

All in the Theater

For my tenth birthday, my dad took me to see Annie. I remember loving the play, somewhat for the catchy songs, but mostly because my dad took me. So, when my friend asked me to go to see Annie, I immediately said, yes. We took our girls, made it down town, and waited for the play to begin.

Theater etiquette is important.

Theater Etiquette

I didn’t think about this so vehemently, until tonight. The lights were down, and the play was about to begin. The people in front of us were standing and having a complicated conversation about where to sit. The logistics of the theater seats befuddled them. The teacher in me wanted to help them make a connection between the similarities between movie theater seating and theater seating. They needed context. I could have drawn a nice Venn diagram for a pictorial representation. I guess they were unable to match the numbers on their tickets with the numbers on the seats.

I figured they were a theater troupe planning to perform Annie in their small part of the universe. I won’t elaborate on how ill-advised it is to attempt replicate such a well-known play, because you like the song, The Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow. Just sing it in your car or shower like the rest of the world, and save the twelve people in the audience (who are probably family of the actors) huge amounts of pain.

Sally Struthers plays Ms. Hannigan. For those who may not know who she is, she played in Gloria in All in the Family. She was also the spokesperson for “Feed the Children”. Google her if these references don’t ring bells. For whatever crazy reason, I like her. She is one of the 70’s sit com mavens still around. After the signature songs, and a few chuckles in the first act-the audience checked out.

People don’t understand intermission. It doesn’t mean go to Burger King, eat, and leisurely make your way back to the theater. Because that is what I believe happened to roughly twenty percent of the audience. WHILE THE ACTORS WERE PERFORMING the following events took place:

  • 5 people shuffled in front of us (backsides facing us).
  • Someone near us took flash photos. My nine-year old overheard the conversation about the flash not being on, so the person turned on the flash.
  • Cell phones illuminated the theater. People were texting. They spent $70+ to go to the theater, and they text.
  • Another cadre of late-comers bungled their way through the row in front of us. They fell on each other, into the seats, and laughed.
  • The woman behind me (who wasn’t there for the first act) was reprimanding whomever was behind her. She was saying how RUDE he was being. She was acting as if she were at home, in her barcalounger.
You would think people would show some respect. If not for the people around them, or performing arts- at least for Sally Struthers! Or maybe, the thought of the hundreds of hours it took to put the production together would have been enough to refrain from bad audience behavior.

I spend a lot of time in our community theater. When I work box office, I don’t even let audience members bring water into the theater. My friend told me that was militant. I want people to respect our theater. In my mind, banning water is a start. Our smaller audiences are infinitely more respectful than the hoards of people in the Annie audience.  I know, our audiences are comprised of actors, playwrights, board members, or family of the actors. But audiences have to start somewhere? Right?

We work with elementary-aged children. One of the first things we teach in camps is how to be a good audience member. When my friend and I teach our drama club at school, we don’t tolerate students talking while others perform. It isn’t a matter of being trained to be respectful during a performance (or any other like circumstance). It is the simple idea of respect. As a result, our drama club students are supporting one another by listening, and not talking during rehearsals.

I felt, for a passing moment, that my efforts to promote performing arts were futile. If adults can’t sit through Annie, then how am I to get them to come to a play written by a local playwright? I know, Annie isn’t everyone’s favorite play. But it is nostalgic, and that means something. And if you pay to go, it signifies you want to see the play.

Sitting through a play can be difficult. There is no touch screen to fast-forward to the next act. There is no playlist that lets you pick the songs you want to hear. There is no device to record the play for a later time. There is no app for any of that.

I think my friend was waiting for me to go all teacher on everyone. I wanted to, but then I would be adding to the demise of the theater. Plus, when Annie came out in the red wig and dress; I was transported to my tenth birthday. So, not much really mattered at that point. One note-they could update the wig.

K

Creating Culture

Inspiration. I search for it the same time each year. We learned word derivations in our professional development yesterday. Spirare is a derivative of the Latin word (inspiriare). In Italian, it means to breathe. To be inspired, means to move something forward. Maybe, with a breath and a new perspective, we can find our inspiration.

I remember the premier of  We are the World. My inspiration became an obsession. But seriously, who wasn’t moved by this group of artists?

I was inspired by my nine-year old over the break. On her Santa list, she asked for Santa to provide shoes for all the orphans in the world. Her altruism broke my stride. Especially, since I had been searching for my DSW coupons. I did a bit of research and found the soles4souls organization. This inspired me. I have too many shoes.

http://www.soles4souls.org/

My daughter and her friends were playing the other day. This was their conversation:

“I wish we could just trade things so people wouldn’t worry about having money.”

“Does that mean we wouldn’t go to school?”

“No, we would still go to school to learn how to make the  things we trade.”

I wanted to blog about it, but I had lost my inspiration. So, I turned on the t.v. I realized that I don’t watch t.v. anymore. I don’t even care about The Bachelor. They all break up in the end, so why watch? And after Cloris Leachman’s season on Dancing with the Stars, I stopped caring about them too.

Yesterday was a teacher workday. We prepared for the second half of the school year. I retreated to my subzero classroom and hid in my Inuit coat.

Computer on. Cursor blinking. Blank mind. I put my head on my desk and lapsed into some type of teacher coma. My neighbor walked by to say goodbye and leave for the day. It was one of those days where I felt I had done it all before. I was out of ideas again.

What can I do for the next five months that will change the world?

Finally, I decided that my 1st grade gifted class was going to create a culture. A while ago, I blogged about a global awareness project. One that will change the path of all my students. They will talk about this project at holiday gatherings. It will become a family oral history. At the very least, they might understand that there are other cultures, languages, traditions, and beliefs. We will name our culture. Culture Club? No. That won’t work.

I will need to teach culture before they can create their own. Right? But what can I do to inspire the kids to always think about others? To give without expecting things in return.

This project is under construction. It will be solid by the weekend. A shoe drive will work its way in.

I will also be cleaning out closets.

Have any shoes to donate?

K

Found in A Cyber-Place

The song, Too Much Time on My Hands was playing on the radio as I left my friend’s house. Yes, a Styx song gave me perspective. During this holiday break, I have spent many hours doing human things like reading, writing, and spending time with friends. I even made fried chicken. I have also spent time attempting the triple word-triple letter score on Words With Friends. 

I’ll begin with my enlightening thoughts on WWF. I began playing the game because a persistent friend signed me up so that she could defeat me. There are secret social rules to the game. I have competitive thoughts about my opponents as I am playing. But, when we see each other, we pretend that the word war is a non-event. I have this odd, clandestine relationship with fourteen WWF people. It is a very different relationship than the real ones we have. Face-to face interaction is vastly different from iPad to iPad communication. There are even reminders on Facebook when it’s your turn to play. I will find my way out of this obsession. I’m thinking the two graduate classes for which I so willy-nilly registered will bully WWF out of my life.

Somehow WWF made me think of the T.V. show-Lost in Space. (I don’t try to analyze my connections anymore.) If you are unfamiliar with the show, I suggest that you YouTube a few episodes.

I remember watching the show and thinking that the future would be a great place where we wear noisy, silver jumpsuits. The most interesting part of this picture is that it was someone’s vision of the future. The show was created in the sixties. It was supposed to represent 1997. Well, they were off a tad. Here is Dolce and Gabbana’s futuristic line in 1997.

Notice that in the Lost in Space picture, there are no Apple products. If they did update their walls, I imagine they would be:

“I love Robot. He saved me from giant attack plants.” Will Robinson

“My New Year’s resolution is to have a larger vocabulary. And maybe a new name.” Robot

“O.K. everyone, I need your advice. Should I keep my bangs?” Penny Robinson

But, the Robinsons didn’t blog. They didn’t Tweet, text, or Facebook. They had conversations-with each other.

The education connection is about to happen.

When I took online classes, I imagined my teacher watching Friends reruns and cooking dinner, while grading my assignments. Although I appreciated the absence of the nonsensical prattle, I missed the discussions and the physicality of learning.

If you have ever been in an engaging classroom, you may have noticed that students do odd things as their brain synapses fire. I have seen children bounce, hold up signs, clap their hands, and illustrate the concepts. Conversely, do you remember a class where the drone of the teacher left you passed out on your desk, creating drool puddles? The first thing I notice when I’m teaching is students’ body language. As a result, I am aware of my personal body language, which has been an issue for me in the past. (I tend to make faces.)

We have a program at school where students bring in their technology. This includes iPads, iPods, Tablets, and lap tops. I am excited about the program.  I know how important it is for students to be technologically savvy. But, the thought of the impersonalization that would result from the technology program bothered me. Students were responding to instruction with a blind tapping of letters on various devices.

I am all for the use and expansion of technology. I always have my iPad, iPod, Andriod, and laptop at arms reach.  My ability to tune out my environment with these apparatuses, surprises me.

Who needs to talk when we can send my messages through cyberland? It is a black hole into which we easily fall. The lack of personal connections exacerbates social awkwardness issues. By the time people meet to visit, they already know every minute detail of each other’s lives.

“I got a new car.”

“Yah, I saw the picture on your FB post. Oh, I have this great new Coldplay song I would like to share.”

“Oh, someone posted it on my wall today.”

“Oh, I’ll be right back. I need to go to the bathroom.”

“Didn’t you just Tweet that you went?”

“Yes, actually I did. By the way I received your Evite for the party. I read your blog about your new baby-congrats. I will get back tot your text about our cyber book club meetings.”

“Ok, well it was great catching up.”

It isn’t such a farfetched thought to have students taught by videos. It is a horrendous idea, but one that could happen. I have said the following things to my students:

“I am not a Wii game. I will never be a Wii game.”

“My name isn’t Ms D.S.”

“Bleip, Blong, Brip. Do I sound like one of your games?”

I can use this humor with older students. They understand what I am saying, and they laugh.

Moderation is a great thing. I’ve said this before. Maybe, I’ll get off the computer and go talk to someone.

Happy New Year

K

Forty Three and A White Christmas Tree

Sometimes, this blog veers from the education theme. This shows that I have a life and that I am not fully velcroed to my job. It has been a year since I began this endeavor. This year has been challenging, to say the least. I am dealing with many changes, some of which I have met with success, others became horrible failures. I will say that throughout this turbulent year, I am reminded of my blessings.

I have two beautiful daughters. They keep me on top of things because they are smart, and they question the world. We want our children to be independent, and detached from the storm clouds. I am honored to know them.

I have friends whom I consider family. They listen, console, make me laugh, travel with me, make me holiday meals, and trust me.

I love my job. Working with children humbles me. I say this often. But, I truly mean it. There is no room for pride or ego in front of children. Teaching is about relationships. It is also about the curriculum (and testing) and that will never go away. I spoke to many parents of former students today as I shuffled in and out of holiday parties. I had a few tell me that their children were doing well, but they miss me. Of course, I immediately discarded that notion. But, I thought that the reason they miss me, or the school, or 5th grade in general is because of the safety and trust they felt. It isn’t about the single teacher; it is about the way they felt when they made a mistake, or when they did something really cool. My epiphany today brought me to the big idea of education. Kids don’t leave elementary school with algorithms and impressive lists of literary devices. They leave with either a love of learning or a fear of it.  But that idea can be transferred to any other life experience and at any age.

Last Friday, I was teaching my first grade gifted class about complete circuits. The activity was supposed to be about light and spectrums, but like most Friday science explorations-it went to a very different place.  I was happy to see a tiny motor in the kit I purchased from Hobby Lobby. I attached the battery, the conductors, and a cardboard circle colored with the spectrum of the rainbow. I connected everything, and the motor spun the circle so that the colors blurred to white. There were fifteen children hovering over this tiny motor (and yes, they were in my bubble) squealing WHOAS and AHHS, because the motor worked. So, they requested that we make toy cars. I don’t know how to do this, but I said, “Yes, of course we can make toy cars!” I’ll figure it out. But, they inspired me to learn something new. I couldn’t get that in a cubicle.

The theater has given me a place to find refuge from this year’s remnants. I’m writing again. I performed for the first time in YEARS. Of course, I doubted every ability I ever had the days of the plays. I’ve never felt so sick or nervous. But in a twisted way, I enjoyed every minute.  Drama club is up and running, and we are performing: James and the Giant Peach, Sleeping Beauty (musical), and Macbeth Junior. We are in over our drama-club heads again. How will I create a giant peach? I will save that experience for its own blog post.

I’ll be forty-three in a day. I still round down to forty, so I’m good-for now. But, I see this as the page-turning year. We’ll see.

Last year, I talked about the white Christmas tree with which I was obsessed. It is up and glowing again. For some reason, it looks different.

Maybe, if our lives change, so should the artifacts in our lives? I usually dislike the word ‘artifact’ because it is overused in education discourse. We have to post artifacts to the incredibly horrible on-line portfolio system that rhymes with JIVE TEXT. Shouldn’t an artifact be old?  Or should it be an object that reflects a time and a purpose? Yoda will be here any moment to explain my artifacts to me. They are piled up everywhere. Do they disappear with the dropping of the Peach? We should be so lucky.

Happy Holidays.

K

Love That Writing. Hate That Writing

Two of my favorite books to use for mentor texts in teaching writing are: Love that Dog and Hate that Cat by Sharon Creech. Who, by the way, has written some beautiful children’s novels.

I love these books because they depict a boy’s experiences in writing. He says his teacher, “knows his brain”. This, by far is my favorite quote in any book that I have read to my students. Teaching can be boiled down to an A and B multiple choice answer:

(A)You understand your students’ brains.

(B) You do not understand your students’ brains.

This week, I had a few moments where I knew that my efforts, as a teacher, were not meaningless.

I am working with a precious student who has writer’s block. The debilitating experience that renders the mind void of words. This phenomenon only happens when there is some writing assignment due immediately. She talked to me about her thoughts and feelings about writing. I was floored with her candor. I was also kicking myself for assuming that writing is easy. It isn’t always easy for me, so why would I think it would be for a ten-year old? Again, the humbling smack in the face of teaching knocked me into an educational wasteland.

I had lent her the book, Love That Dog. I asked her what she thought of the book. I received a shoulder shrug. Of course, I asked again. She turned the book over and said, “This says it all”.

The quote on the back of the book read:

” I tried. I can’t do it. My brain is empty.”

So, of course, my eyes welled up-without my permission. Her eyes filled with tears. We stared at each other for a few seconds. I had nothing. Her brain was empty. How did it get that way?

I love writing. I never thought I was particularly good at the craft. But, there are times the words on the page express my inner workings more than my incessant ramblings. I have retreated to writing when all other forms of communication failed me.

In second grade, I was supposed to write a story about my summer. My summer sucked, so I made up a story. I put my brother on a raft, in women’s clothes, on the Chattahoochee River-never to be found. I remember standing in front of the class, making up the entire scenario. The ideas flooded my mind, and I couldn’t stop the madness. When my teacher realized that it was a fictional story, she reprimanded me and sent me to my seat. After that, I rarely spoke. Instead, I wrote.

I have had dark times where writing was my enemy. The words were absent. My thoughts were cliché  and I had nothing worth putting on paper. That is when I hate writing. Where do the words come from? How can my combination of words make any more meaning than someone else’s? I am writing this blog after spending uncountable hours writing essays for my reading class. There are nine. I have completed eight. Even Bon Iver and Cold Play couldn’t pull me from the depths literary Hades.

I contribute the mafia-type diatribe to my math class to my exhaustive writing experience. It went something like this:

“Remember, don’t leave your simplified fractions in the form of an improper fraction.”

“To nameless student: What did you get for number so and so?”

“11/7”

I felt my eye twitch. I closed the door to my room. (Swift yet powerful move). I heard myself discussing fractions as if they were small children whom we were neglecting.

Later that morning, during math:

STUDENT: “I’m confused.”

ME: “What part do we need to review?”

STUDENT: “All of it.”

So, I reviewed it all. I also gave out guilt candy.

Writing is the ambiguous, murky skill that comes from a part of us that is intangible and unquantifiable.  Ask a five-year old to describe a pumpkin and you might get:

“pmkn rng hlwn”

Ask a ten-year old to describe a pumpkin and you might get:

“The blistering orange pumpkin glowed from the front step of my house. It eyes blinked from the flickering candle inside.”

Ask me to describe a pumpkin right now:

“It’s orange and rotting on my doorstep. What more do you want?”

This blog is an attempt for me to come back to reality with my teaching. I have bad days with writing, but I value the craft. I am lucky to know some brilliant writers. I aspire to write something meaningful. But, I really just want the kids to enjoy extracting the words and images from their minds, and carefully placing them on the paper.

A few weeks ago, I was talking to my gifted first grade class. I was talking about my professor and my reading class. They asked me:

“Do you live there?”

“Do you go home?”

“Who is your teacher?”

“Does she live there too?”

Again, the lesson went in a direction that was not anticipated. I encouraged them to write my professor (profecr) letters.

They did.

She wrote back. On college letterhead. With sketches of herself and pictures of her dog.

I brought the typed letters back to the class. We spent time reading them, and talking about what she said. Then the class began writing her letters, independently. Apparently, she hadn’t answered all of their inquires. But, I was happy to see how writing had made its way to my first graders-without them knowing it. My professor is passionate about what she does. She wants us to respect literacy instruction. Really, she wants us to do it right, and not mess up another generation of kids. And, I have fourteen first-graders who think she is Athena. (They relate everything to the gods and goddesses, after our mythology unit.)

I chose this portion of a child’s letter, because it is the same question I have been asking myself since the summer. Also, anyone I know who is in graduate school, for education, has verbalized these same questions. I particularly enjoy how my professor changed her “discourse” to match the level of the student. Oh…I just used a term from class. (I won the fight with the white-out bottle as I covered the names of my student and professor.)

I liken my reading class to running. There is a moment during a long run that you realize that you have over-extended yourself.  This usually occurs when you are half way to your destination. The thought of running further paralyzes the body, while the notions of making it back in one piece-is unfathomable. I’m at the unfathomable stage. I sat down to write my essays for class, the other night. I thought of my student and I typed:

“I can’t do it. My brain is empty. I hate writing.”

My friend who helped me teach playwriting, to my 5th grade class last year, told the kids to write, I don’t know what to write about on their papers when they didn’t know what to write.” The freedom this gave them was amazing. It worked. I am continually reminded of the temperamental nature of writing. This strategy makes it o.k. to having nothing to write about.

My reading class is over in a few weeks. My essays will be done. My odd poster project will be completed. Then I’ll sign up for more classes that will prepare me to be a better teacher. For now, no more peer-reviewed articles. No more essays.

When my brain isn’t empty, I’m going to try to complete two personal writing projects. Or read a book. Or sit and stare at leaves. Maybe, I’ll just be thankful to know that, eventually -I will LOVE THAT WRITING again.

Happy Thanksgiving.

K

Reed This.

I saw the cows who cannot spell as I was driving home from class. You know, the illiterate cows we see daily and just accept into our cultural norm? But somehow, it bothered me more than usual. I think my new label, Literacy Coach, makes me tuned into a multitude of literacy topics and issues.

Now, when I see the cows, I just want to pull over to the side of the road and teach them a few phonics lessons. I would suggest that they write in pencil before marker, and definitely before paint. I would ask: Is standing upright uncomfortable for a cow? Then I wonder if my personification lessons have gone too far.

I also noticed that they spelled EAT correctly. Why? Why not misspell all of the words? Why go half way? Or, two-thirds of the way?

I imagine the advertising team sitting at one of those long shiny tables talking about this great idea:

“Let’s make the cows tell people to eat more chicken.”

“YES! But, cows can’t read or spell. So…I know! We will misspell half of their words, because everyone knows that cows cannot read.”

“Great idea. But, we make them savvy enough to create this entire advertising campaign.”

I looked up the cow controversy. This happened because I was supposed to be doing my homework for grad school.

I didn’t realize the issues reached so many groups. Apparently, the cows do not like gay people. I found that the company supports literacy through giving free books away with the kids’ meals. ?????

Those same kids write in their daily journals about ‘reeding’, eating chikin, and wanting mor fries. No, it is true, I have had students spell like the cows.

Sadly, I didn’t find many articles from disgruntled educators and parents. I’m sure they are out there, but I stopped clicking at the third page. And if the article I’m looking for is to be found on any page other than the first one, it isn’t too important.

I am learning in my reading theory class that literacy has various definitions and criteria, depending on the community and on the culture. But, as I type these words, I have an advantage over many thousands of people, all over the world. I understand words. I speak words. I write words. I recognize words. I love words.

Illiteracy statistics vary. I believe this depends on the researcher’s definition of literacy. According to this map, the U.S. is less than 10% illiterate. For the resources we have in this country, that number is horrendous. I have worked with illiterate parents. They are savvy. They make their way through life, dodging words; but compensating with a myriad of techniques they have learned in order to hide their disability. Yes, I’m saying illiteracy is a disability. It is. I cannot imagine, living my life without understanding the words that saturate each and every experience I have.

This same theme has found me in various scenarios. Yesterday, in class, our professor had piles of children’s picture books for us to look through. We were to find passages that would lead to engaging writing activities.

I am fascinated with Eve Bunting, and I was glad when our group chose that pile of books. She is a topical author who writes picture books that deal with serious issues like: riots, homelessness, the Vietnam war, individualism, divorce, illiteracy, and many other relevant topics. Of course, my obsession with such heavy literature made me overlook a child copying the plot line to Corduroy during a writing conference, in one of my friend’s classrooms. Another humbling experience. Another story. Who has time for bears and kleptomaniac children when there are world issues to tackle?

The Wednesday Surprise, by Eve Bunting is a book about a child meeting with her grandmother each Wednesday. The nature of the meetings are kept secret until there is a birthday celebration for the girl’s father. He is floored when he hears his mother read, and learns that his daughter has been teaching her to read every Wednesday. I imagine in this fictional family, Grandma’s illiteracy was understood. Apparently, it took a small child to help fix this problem, while the parents looked the other way.

Lately, every spare moment of my time is consumed with labeling my “mentor texts”. These are the books I use to introduce writing lessons. It started slowly, then somehow, it has snowballed into stacks of picture and chapter books, piling up and surrounding me. I made bright pink labels for each book.

Some of the categories are:

  • word choice
  • sentence fluency
  • onomatopoeia
  • repetition
  • narrowing the focus
  • rhyme scheme
  • voice
  • conventions
  • figurative language (which can be further categorized, but I had to save myself)
  • developing ideas
  • coined words
By the way, not one of these books uses misspelled words as literary devices.
Another book that deals with illiteracy due to a disability, is written by another wonderful author: Patricia Polacco.

The girl in the story is brought up in a literacy-rich environment. But as she enters school, she finds that she is unable to read as easily as the other kids. She has dyslexia. She begins to hate school because of her reading difficulties, and the kids teasing her. She finally gets a teacher who cares, pays attention, and works with her. We find out that this is Patricia Polacco’s autobiography.

Every time I have read this story to a class, there is always at least one student who relates to the girl’s struggle. It is a powerful book. It reminds me that there is always the probability that there is a child, in my class, memorizing what they need to in order to “seem” literate.

So, what does this have to do with the cows?

I see the cow company using illiteracy as an advertising campaign. We don’t see other disabilities advertised in order to sell a product. What a horrible thought. Illiteracy is covert, the cows are cute, and there is no intended harm. I get that. But, when you have seen people struggle with those same words, it hits home more than it probably should.

Also, as a side note, the cows are everywhere. Ubiquity with the cows is overkill. Maybe, the next campaign could be the cows in school, overcoming their spelling issues. They can even put a smart cow teacher in there for good measure.

I’m not sure if I’m one of those, “EVERYTHING HAPPENS FOR A REASON PEOPLE”, but I’m beginning to think that my hyper-awareness of people’s words can be a good thing. Maybe, the cow comparison is a stretch to some; but they still bother me.

Do you remember learning to read? Probably not, if you don’t have a reading disability.

K