What Now?

The email blasted all the teacher laptops: TESTING IS OVER!!!!  The tubs have been turned in and amazingly enough, I had all the materials that I started with-counted, over and over-and in front of people.  They will all be shipped off to some grading warehouse. I imagine it looks like the one in Reservoir Dogs, but with scantron machines set up in rows, while retired teachers, wearing rubber shoes, scan-in unison. My imagination runs away with me if I don’t have visuals.

I look at my calendar to see that I have five weeks of school left. Seriously?  I see my class, staring back at me as if to say, “What now?”

So if you don’t know, these last weeks of school are “review” weeks. Translated, this could mean movie-watching-a-palooza.  In the ten years I have taught, I have had little to no success in watching a movie in the classroom.  I keep thinking, “I could do this at home, in my pink sweat pants.”  The kids start talking, and soon-no one is watching the movie-except for the ONE kid sprawled out in front of the screen, annoyed with the rest of us.

So, like all other O.C. teachers, I ATTEMPT to plan things that will affect change in the lives of the students.  Because, this is how all this teaching career stuff got started.  But this year seems different.  Did testing suck the life out of me?  Do I still have a pulse? Did the Greg Mortenson news contribute to my creative flatline?  Did I lose my powers like Samantha often did? WHAT IS HAPPENING?!

In our last planning period, we were discussing what academic activities we had planned for the end of the year.  It was my turn. Oh, yah-that.  Things are…forth coming.  Forth coming-a polite phrase to say, “I got nothing, and don’t know when I will have something.”  I mumbled about a time-machine project that I have been tossing around in my brain for years.

I think I want to do more than create an engaging project. I want to do something that is far-reaching-that has a global perspective. At the end of the curriculum, there has to be something more-Oz, Wonderland, Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory?????  What can I do to make the kids continue to love school?  Because, I’m beginning to believe that this is a critical time to sell them on the idea that learning is fun.

So, we are writing a play.  Not world-changing, but not a coma-inducing activity either.  As always, the imagination pouring from my class makes me want to keep going back to work.

We could have done a readers’ theater, or pull a play from somewhere  But, we have been there and done that.  It is tIme to spark those synapses a bit after hours of testing has dulled our  senses.  The end of the year also means that  the phrase “simple activities” is not part of my end-of-the-year-engage-the-kids vernacular.  I’m still working on the Global Project, because it needs to be done. Performing arts, global awareness, and small children…oh the possibilities.

I also know that the 5th grade field trip is looming.  Just think, hundreds of 5th graders, in a narrow cave-a mile under the earth, followed by a river boat ride.  This is what dreams are made of.  You never know who has claustrophobia, until it is too late.

For the next five weeks, I will be embroiled in Odysseus’s and Robin Hood’s journey to Wonderland.  Maybe, I’ll find my mojo somewhere between the tea party and the battle with the Cyclops.

K

Crying Ranting Crawling Twitching

If you teach in Georgia, do you see the cryptic message in the title to this blog?

I see bubble scantrons in my sleep.  I hear the sharpening of the no. 2 pencils while I drive to and from school.  I dream that I lose the testing bucket (that we take with us everywhere we go-even the bathroom).  Our morning conversation starters are, “What was your testing dream last night?”  My most frightening testing dream involved “test detectors” at the entrance of the school. Each teacher had to walk through(without the alarm going off)  on the way in and out. Of course, it was my paranoid, neurotic dream, so the alarm blared when I went through.

I never mean for this blog to be a complaint forum.  So, I’ll save those thoughts for the teachers’ lounge.  This is after we have all been carried out on stretchers, revived, and placed back in our classrooms.  Eventually, the incessant American Idol talk will resume, and our angsty testing woes will be history.

It is best practice to utilize test data  for instructional purposes. I get that. However, I wonder how much emphasis should be put on one test?    If you saw, Waiting for Superman, you know that American students  are deficient in both math and literacy skills.  So, how do students (who PASS nationally normed and criterion-referenced tests) move through school without maintaining age-appropriate literacy and math skills?  Conversely, what about those students who have a rough testing day and don’t do well on the tests? Does anyone ask the teacher for anecdotal records, or observations from the year to refute the test results?

All year, I try to offer a multitude of learning opportunities to my students. We do projects, we work on critical thinking skills, and we study  real literature. But, by April I feel like I’ve sold out, because I’ve mutated into a testing troll. I see myself handing out test packets, and I hear myself discuss test taking strategies.  I don’t recognize me.

I began wondering how it all got started.

The earliest record of standardized testing comes from China, where hopefuls for government jobs had to fill out examinations testing their knowledge of Confucian philosophy and poetry. In the Western world, examiners usually favored giving essays, a tradition stemming from the ancient Greeks’ affinity for the Socratic method. But as the Industrial Revolution (and the progressive movement of the early 1800s that followed) took school-age kids out of the farms and factories and put them behind desks, standardized examinations emerged as an easy way to test large numbers of students quickly.
Read more:

http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,1947019,00.html#ixzz1JiTB65W0         

Think for a moment.  How would the world of standardized testing change if there were assessments on the arts?

We could integrate art history, literature, music, performing arts, and drama into the mix.  We have state standards on all of these subjects, and standardized testing is not going away-so why not sprinkle these elements into the testing recipe? Learning to read and answer questions about a passage or story is essential.  Let’s take this one step further.  What if the tests assessed the understanding of a specific piece of grade-appropriate literature?

Let’s encourage students to think about how the social and political events of the world have impacted the arts.  Think of the Harlem Renaissance, The Great Depression, The Industrial Revolution, the 1920’s,the 1960’s, etc…  People use art, music, and literature to reflect how the world changes.  Elementary students can make these connections, if they are given the opportunity.

We spend the year teaching with a global view in a holistic manner.  I’m wondering why we cannot test students similarly?

The point is to develop the childlike inclination for play and the childlike desire for recognition and to guide the child over to important fields for society. Such a school demands from the teacher that he be a kind of artist in his province. Albert Einstein

I know that I would like my students to think beyond the bubble.  Just sayin…

Our end of the year project is to write a one-act play.  This was my students’ idea-not mine.  How could I possibly say no?  It will be a challenge for all of us.  But I’m hoping my testing troll fades into oblivion.

K

Practice What You Teach…

I am amazed by the brain.  I have researched brain-based learning and Multiple Intelligence Theory. I wrote a  thesis averring that when children know how they learn, their motivation levels for academics increase.

I told my class that when we learn new skills or concepts, our brains create more synapses.  I explained that learning something new can be uncomfortable.  I compared learning to exercising and using new muscles that are first sore, but later become stronger.  I may have possibly imparted great wisdom that day.

The easiest way to conceptualize this is that there are more synapses in the human brain than there are stars in the known universe. Mem­ory and learn ing occur when the neurons and synapses reorganize and strengthen them selves through repeated usage.
http://www.sharpbrains.com/blog/2008/06/05/your-brain-on-trading-101/

I  have said time after time that the MINUTE we feel that we have a hold of this job, the rotation of the earth changes.  All my brain talk seemed silly, since I was the biggest brain hypocrite around. Where were my synapses? Where was my discomfort in the new material that I should be learning? My synapses failed me.  Therefore, I probably shouldn’t talk about  them.

Another fun fact about me is that I have a difficult time with change.  As a child, when my mother would rearrange the furniture-I would become frenzied.  A hair cut may have just put me in therapy.

After school, two weeks ago, names were being called on the intercom.  The buzz was that if your name was called, your grade assignment has changed.  My name was called……

What? Me? Change? Huh?

I walked into the office to see the three administrators smirking just enough to make me more paranoid than usual.

Remember in my last post I wrote, “Last time I checked, I didn’t teach Kindergarten?”  I eat my words.

I will be teaching Kindergarten and first grade gifted.  I will be doing other wonderful things with literacy and 5th grade math as well.

I have wanted to teach gifted for years, so I am thrilled to have this opportunity.  But it all happened so suddenly.

I returned to my room to catch my breath.  I looked at the boo-coos of 5th grade resources staring me down.  The stress of the classroom move smacked me in the head.  The hideout under my desk was looking good.

Last night, I  dreamed that I was being observed while teaching the five and six-year olds. My evaluation said that I the vocabulary I was using was too difficult for them to understand. What do you mean? I can’t discuss the thematic relevance of The Odyssey with first graders?

Something strange happened-the synapses in my brain became audible.   I would have to learn new curriculum, create extension activities for very little people, and for the first time in eight years-not have a home room.  Snap, spark, pow…

In my stupor, I filled out the application for the specialist program in teacher leadership.  It was like the automatic writing that people do when they have been taken over by other entities.  It was too easy.  They can even use my MAT scores for admission! Yes, I skirted the GRE by taking the Millers Analogy Test.

What? Classes begin the third week of  May? Spark, crackle, boom…

Later in the week, I went to drama rehearsal.  Again, Daniel came to help.  Since I am completely directionally challenged, the blocking is a conundrum for me. The synapses fired as I tried to envision stage directions. KABOOM!

I’m grateful for my brain sparks.  I continually research and read educational material, but the sparks had dwindled.  I didn’t follow my own research-based words. I am happy to say that I am incredibly uncomfortable and thrilled to be in a small panic.

See, this is what I get for being a know-it-all about the brain.

K

Superman and Cookies…

 

Watching, Waiting for Superman, in a Comtrex-laden flu haze was a bad idea.  It is a movie that every teacher and parent needs to see.  It is raw, uncomfortable, and rife with debilitating statistics about what children (in the United States) know-or better yet, what they don’t know.  It seems that some people feel that there are children out there, who cannot learn.   One thing that I know for sure (thanks Oprah) is that all children can learn.  Ok, so this is pie-in-the-sky idealism.  What is so wrong having a Mary Poppins educational  philosophy?  Without the hope of teaching all children, we are at risk of becoming like the evil principal in Matilda.

Ms. Truchbull-


I am a realist and I have been faced with extreme challenges in the classroom. The way I saw it, I had two choices, similar to that of Robert Frost and his road dilemma.  I could ignore the problem and say I did all I could.  Or, I could work with the challenge, ask for help, research, plan, teach, re-teach, go back to square one.  When this doesn’t work, I keep going; because something has to work.

Now, I’m not Mary Poppins, and I don’t smile all day while imparting boulders of wisdom.  Many days, I get frustrated and feel like a failure. Some days, the paper work, meetings, and assessments can saturate even the sunniest teacher disposition.  The thing is, teaching is another member of the family.  It follows me around as if it were my shadow.  The educational day does not end at the last bell.  The faces of my class pop into my mind, one-by one, like the old projector slide shows.

The movie discussed how the lower socio-economic districts continually have lower math and reading scores than the more affluent districts.  Some failing high schools are nicknameddrop out factories.

Consider the following statistics cited in the film: the annual cost of prison for an inmate is more than double what is spent on an individual public school student. Eight years after Congress passed the No Child Left Behind act, with the goal of 100 percent proficiency in math and reading, most states hovered between 20 and 30 percent proficiency, and 70 percent of eighth graders could not read at grade level. By 2020, only an estimated 50 million Americans will be qualified to fill 123 million highly skilled, highly paid jobs. Among 30 developed countries, the United States ranks 25th in math and 21st in science.

The end of the movie left me encouraged more than discouraged.  The animated “good teachers” depicted in the movie made me hopeful.  If every teacher in the U.S., took one step beyond what he/she is currently doing to affect change-what would happen?  Again, Mary Poppins seeps in, but without her the cynic would take over, and the kids deserve more than that. Don’t they?

This week at school, I’m teaching plate tectonics and how mountains are formed.  The activity calls for boo-coos of cookies, icing, and graham crackers.

As the mound of sweets slowly rolled by the girl at the check out, she asked me:

“What is all of this for?”

I heard myself explaining how when two plates move together it can result in the formation of a mountain.  I told her that I was doing an activity with the cookies to model the various faults in the earth.

The girl bagging the groceries asked, “What grade do you teach.”

“Fifth grade”, I replied.

“I don’t even remember fifth grade”, she mumbled as she stuffed the grocery bags.

The girl ringing my groceries said, “I wish I could have been in your class.”

I believed her.

So, here it to a new school week, and to all the teacher superheros.

K

One-Room School

I have always been fascinated by the one-room school-house ideology.  In this picture from 1921, the kids are present although some are barefoot and others are hiding.  In the far right corner there is a girl, reading a book.  One glaring difference from a modern-day classroom is the teacher.    First of all, she is seated.  I worked in a county where a teacher would be “written up” if found sitting, disengaged from the class, during instructional time.  The teacher seems to be looking in one direction, while doing some random task with her hands.  There are no books or pencils. I don’t see a five-inch notebook jam-packed with lesson plans. What on earth are they all doing?  Do they do that all day? Did she have a planning period?  Did they have state mandated tests?

I bet there were no fire drills that interrupted the mysterious activities occurring in that photo.  Do you think those kids went home buzzing about all the great things they learned that day?  I wonder if she sent a newsletter home each week, stuffed Friday Folders with graded, weekly classwork, or took ice cream orders? Or, did she just sit in that chair, wear sensible shoes, and watch the door for escapees?

Little House on the Prairie inspired me. I loved the books and I was completely obsessed with the series.  Laura was just spunky enough to keep us all tuned in. The school scenes were my favorite.  When Laura fought with Nellie in the mud, my life was complete.

Or, maybe my obsession was with Pa? I couldn’t keep my eyes off of this man, not even for a minute. Who had a dad who looked like that?  I digress…

In simpler times, did the kids learn less?  Did the teachers get to school early, stay late, and work through the weekends?

Every teacher I know, slides up and down the spectrum of instructional insanity.  The mania leaks out into all aspects of our lives.  I unsuccessfully will myself  not to discuss school with my non-teacher friends.  When I see a child misbehaving in public, I do my best NOT to call him to me and ask, “Are you making the right choice?”

The next phase of my school fixation was the show Fame. I was in high school the entire run of the show.  Did my mom know about this school? Did they do any math? They wore leg warmers, sang in the hallways, and performed perfect impromptu dances without any practice!  Had there been Internet, I would have found my very own FAME school.  I took dance for years. I cannot count how many times I practiced the split roll-over and toe touch.  When I was suckered into representing the cross-country team in the school pageant, I wore a magenta, spandex, unitard and danced to MANHUNT.  I have no pride.

I imagine there was no dancing in the one-room school-house.  Debbie Allen was nowhere to be found talking about “big dreams”.

I don’t think I would be a good teacher in 1921.  I would feel that there should be something “more” to be done or learned. I would have no colleagues to dish with at lunch.  My friends might think that I would create some type of academic compulsion.  Maybe, I would re-arrange the benches and color code the girls’ bows.  I would possibly go a bit crazy and actually talk to the students-even the one hiding in the back.

Hopefully, one hundred years from now, there will still be teachers.   They will study pictures of us teaching in classrooms instead of  in space stations, or in Jetson’s inspired flying communities.  I can only imagine where their history curriculum would begin.

It is good to think of simpler times in education.  More is expected of teachers and students than ever before. I know I make my job more arduous than it needs to be.  What I do in three hours, others do just as efficiently in thirty minutes.  I can’t stop. Each time I attempt to work smarter, I find some task that needs immediate attention, or  a project that needs to be created.  Maybe, I can plan a class song and dance routine….with legwarmers.

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