Educational Mountains

So, here is how a mountain is formed.

The first basic thing you have to understand is that the earth’s crust is made up of gigantic plates. These plates will create a fault line wherever they meet another plate. When these fault lines start pressing against each other, then they will push the land upwards in one way or another. When this land reaches up into the sky, you have a mountain.

Twenty-six fifth graders modeling convergent, divergent, and transform faults with icing, cookies, and graham crackers made my heart sing.  Of course, there were the few who dipped their entire hands in the icing and showed me with looks of pride and glory.  I only had to remind those children that the last time I checked, I didn’t teach kindergarten.  I was rejoicing in the fact that the sugar comas would happen after they all went home.

My Earth science lesson vaulted me into literary metaphors and educational symbolism.

It is truly amazing how a mountain is formed. I have seen mountains my entire life, but I never wondered how they were created until I began teaching 5th grade. We can consider the fact that we don’t witness the mountains being created as we never know the exact moment that learning occurs.

We use a variety of idioms and adages with the word “mountain”.

  • A mountain to climb
  • If Mohammed will not go to the mountain, the mountain must come to Mohammed.
  • Make a mountain out of a molehill
  • Move mountains
This week, I believe (with the help of some wonderful friends) I climbed some elementary school mountains.  I’m still climbing, the rocks are rough, and I have lost my footing many times.  I’m good, as long as I don’t look down, or gaze at how much more I have to go.
  • Seventy-two children are cast in three separate productions.
  • The three productions had successful first reads.
  • My friend Daniel did not go screaming from the elementary school, after I discussed that the “slanty‘ words are italics.
  • Daniel still stuck around while I mimed, slanty, with my hands-multiple times.
  • Twenty-six children are prepared for the writing test on Wednesday.
  • Eighteen children know that there are two cups in a pint.
  • Those eighteen children are now pronouncing pint with a long i so that it doesn’t rhyme with “mint”.
  • The same eighteen children learned about capacity with measuring cups and food coloring.  (I have never been so happy to have a sink in my classroom).
  • A student left a note on my desk, “You are the best math teacher, ever.”
  • I created a boy/girl line-up system that simultaneously quiets the line and disgruntles the kids.
  • I made it to specials on time-every day.
  • I made it to work on time-every day.
  • I had lunch count in by 8:30 every day.
  • I successfully explained why it is necessary to wear shoes, at recess, while playing football.
  • I also explained that shoes don’t randomly fall off of ones feet.
  • I finally got the idea across that, gravity works all of the time.  Therefore, catapulting out of the desk will ALWAYS result in a booming racket that diverts everyone’s attention.
  • They all understood the theme to Pandora’s Box.

Although we have many mountains to climb, there Ain’t no Mountain High Enough to prevent Mohammed from coming to the mountain.

On another note, Drama Club updates are coming.  Aladdin, Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Cinderella (The World’s Favorite Fairy Tale) are off to a great start.

Cheers to the weekend

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

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