December 31, 2009

Does the grading ever stop?

While I haven't had the pleasure of enjoying a COMPLETELY school-free winter break (see previous posts about what has kept me busy), I had up until now almost completely avoided the bin o' grading sitting on the floor in my office.  Every now and then I'd glance at it or rifle through the papers as if to check if they had miraculously graded themselves, but no such luck.  Today my very good friend Miss R and I spent a happy afternoon of grading, movies, and cookies on my family room floor.  (is it sad that the only time we can spend together must involve grading multi-tasking?)  Anyways, I actually made a huge dent in the grading bin, not to mention had a great time catching up with Miss R and sharing all sorts of ideas for school.  You know what they can take a teacher outta school, but can't take the school outta the teacher... sad, but oh. so. true.

Well, one of the big items I had to grade were my Heroes expository essays.  Yes, those expositories I had them start on in November.  How did I manage to drag them out until winter break?  I have no idea, but somehow it happened.  With them being written over such a looong period of time, I was really dreading grading them, expecting them to be pretty "interesting."  In fact, I was pleasantly surprised!!  Many of even my generally average writers really bared their souls sharing why these special people are their heroes.  Some of their reasons again reminded me of the realities of these children's lives: admiration for parents who manage to get food on the table, gratitude for parents who risked losing their jobs waiting tables to stay home with their sick child, love for fathers who love their child even though their mothers left with the kids years ago...beautiful, and more than one left me with absolute chills. 

Today was one time when I was absolutely proud and just awestruck at more than one of my students.  One described the way his dad cares for those around him, and makes him want to be a good person and care for his family too, just like dad.  So often when I look at these children, I think about how they are all in such a hurry to grow up as fast as possible.  It is refreshing to know that they are still kids who idolize their parents.  And it is even more refreshing to realize that they see how hard their families work for them, and that they value things like integrity, character, and values (though none used QUITE those words... ;)

Well, that was the bright spot in my day of epic grading.  Even though those essays were still a pain, between navigating my rubric and writing a note of comments to each child, many of them reminded me why I teach, and why I love children.  Even fifth graders :)

December 29, 2009

Book Review: Home of the Brave

Wow.  That's all I can say about this book.  Well, almost all...I've never been a person of few words! ;)  Another Battle of the Books pick, Katherine Applegate's Home of the Brave wasn't the first one to fly off the B.O.B. shelf in my classroom.  Most of the students grabbed for Wednesday Wars, Maximum Ride, or Wait til Helen Comes, and I have to admit I was with them.  This was at the bottom of my list of the B.O.B. "to-read's."  However, having read this amazing book in just a couple hours, it is definitely the BEST youth novel I have read in a long time, and I have read some pretty stellar ones lately! 

Written in a beautiful poetic free verse, Applegate spins a tale of a young Sudanese refugee, Kek, who finds himself suddenly dropped into snowy Minnesota.  Kek's story is one we can all relate to: that of an outsider who is conflicted in every possible way, who doesn't seem to fit in, and who desperately wants to find his place in the world, but who isn't sure what that place is.  As Kek learns both English and these strange American customs, readers will laugh and cry along with him.  From putting a set of dishes into the washing machine to breaking down in tears in the grocery store at the sight of so much plentiful food to rejoicing at the idea of free school in which one can sit at one's own desk and chair, Kek's journey is powerfully moving.  Not only is it one that any young person who has ever felt isolated or misunderstood could relate to, but it has the potential to open students' eyes to ideas they may know very little about: poverty, refugees, civil war, prejudices, etc. etc. etc. 

In short, Applegate's story is beautiful and powerful, and as I finished reading it, I was left with one thought: "I want to share this book with every child I can..."  A quick read and well worth it; definitely 5 stars!!

The Reading Record Book, or Why I spent 3 hours at school yesterday on a day off

While there are about a million and a half things I would like to improve on in my teaching, my management, and in the students' learning, one particular thing that I've been struggling with lately is holding the kids accountable for their independent reading.  I think sometimes I just assume all the kids in my class go home in the evenings and curl up with a good book.  HA!  Just because I did that as a child (and still do...) doesn't mean my students do. 

For most of my kids, it's not a challenge getting them to read in school.  They like reading!  But there are a few that I am worried about.  You know, those kids who abandon way more books than they actually finish, who pick out new books but just turn through the pages barely reading, and the ones who read books way below/above their level.  Then there are a few of my good readers who have never ventured out of a particular genre.   Yes, I KNOW you like mysteries, but have you looked in any of the other book bins lately?  I UNDERSTAND you like humor, but let me introduce you to the historical fiction book case... Ultimately, I'd like the kids to all just be held a little more accountable for their reading, and to be aware of what they're reading.  While I've sent home a reading log each week since August, I still only get an average of 5 returned to me.  Sad, but true. 

Enter the Reading Record Book.  Thanks to my friendly Scholastic newsletter emails, I started reading about Beth Newinghams Reading Workshop.  While the workshop itself sounds interesting (...I would NEVER be allowed to use it in my literacy block as long as I'm in this district), what caught my eye was this teacher's Reading Notebook.  Each of her students had a binder that they used to keep track of their reading and respod to the books they read.  Since I'm not using the Workshop, I don't have a use for the response portion, she had downloads of the sheets used for data collection.  They were great!  And, voila!  With a little tweaking and organizing, I created a template for a Reading Record Book that definitely makes sense for me, and that I think will make sense for my students. 

Here's how it goes:  When we get back to school next week, each of my kiddos will be presented with a bound booklet with their name on it.  Inside the front cover is a Genre Overview table listing all the different genres in my classroom library, their definition, and a "code" corresponding with each.  (ex. RF = Realistic Fiction)  Then, there is an Interest Inventory page for students to record some of their favorite authors, genres, and topics.  Ideally, I'd have them fill this out in August, but what can you do. :)  Next, students have a log for them to record books they plan to read and check them off when completed.  I liked this idea, since I love giving/getting book recommendations and I want to encourage the students to be doing this too. 

One very important part of the record book that I'm going to be monitoring is a goal-setting aspect.  I'm going to ask that each student set a personal reading goal for him or herself at the beginning of each month, and reflect on that goal at the end.  Of course, we'll do this together intially at least.  I'm thinking that the goals can be genre-related, simple completion of books, or reading books by a certain author.  I think goal setting is so important to teach, and this seemed like a good place to incorporate it.  So, the kids have a Monthly Goal sheet  in the record book.

The 2 big sections of the book are the monthly reading logs and monthly genre graphs.  The kids will record the books they read in the log, and then at the end of each month, make a simple bar graph so they can look at the genres they've read.  I don't think this will take too much class time, and once I teach them how, it should be a simple end of the month routine.  Then, we will go back and see if we've met the goals.

Of course, since my little darlings are not always the most self-motivated, I will have to throw some incentives in here...first, I'm going to collect the books monthly and give a simple grade based on writing a goal, recording reading, and correctly making a graph.  Then, I'm going to have to give some kind of prize/reward for meeting the monthly goals.  What it will be, I don't know yet, but it better be good to motivate some of my reluctant readers! (or my LAZY little students...yes, I said lazy.  but it's true, if you are not even willing to write down the titles of books you read, I have no sympathy!) 

I am really proud of how the books turned out and have high hopes for them.  I'm sure they will need to be tweaked further, but we'll see how they go!

NOTE: If you would like digital copies of what's in my reading record books, email me at juiceboxesandcrayolas AT blogspot DOT com :)

December 27, 2009

Some big choices

Today I finally started doing a little planning for after break (although the grading is still untouched...) and looking at my lesson plan template, realized that it is sooo close to being January 2010.  Wow, 2010?  When did that happen??  This time last year I was thinking the very same thing about 2009.  2009 had always seemed like that far off in the future year I would eventually graduate from college, and then suddenly, it was here.  Last New Year's I remember thinking that it was the first New Year's when I had absolutely NO IDEA where my life would take me in the next year.  Well, as I sit here typing this in my childhood home at a desk I got when I was about 10, at first it would seem like nothing's changed.  When in reality, soo much has.

Anyways, on that note, with it being both the start of a brand new year and nearly the halfway point of my very first year teaching, I've been doing some thinking about my plans for next year.  When I took this job, I didn't tell a lot of people that I was planning on only staying here for a year before leaving to pursue my life-long dream of service abroad.  But even though I didn't tell everyone, I was fairly certain that that was my plan.  Now that I'm here...things are less clear.  Basically, here's the dilemma:  service abroad is still my dream.  When I think of how amazing it would be to travel to an impoverished country and help improve the schools and train teachers, it feels like the most exciting thing in the world.  But, realistically, when I think about leaving this school...I have second thoughts.

It's not that I love going into work every day and can't imagine every being anywhere else.  On the contrary, while I love teaching and believe this is my life's work, this first year has been incredibly difficult.  It's more that after the hours and hours of blood, sweat, and tears that I have poured into my teaching, my classroom, and my kids these past few months, I cannot imagine leaving and starting over somewhere new.  Everyone told me the first year would be the hardest, and they didn't exaggerate--it has been rough.  But after putting so much effort into building the foundation for my career here, I can't really imagine leaving it behind to start fresh at something else, and then returning to the profession in a few years only to start completely over yet again.  Shouldn't I plant some roots here for while, grow as a teacher, develop a routine?  Shouldn't I hang onto the job I am SO LUCKY to have and learn all I can while I am here?

Shouldn't I.....????

^ A counselor once told me that playing the game of "the shoulds" is a dangerous habit to fall into.  You know, that game where you tell yourself over and over what you "should" and "shouldn't" be doing, thinking, feeling.  Right now, I'm thinking a lot of "shoulds" and "shouldn'ts" when I consider what I should do here.  The reality is, this may not be the right school for me for the rest of my life.  But how can I leave after just 1 year when there is so much I have to learn and to give back in return?

Another reality is that a little part of me keeps thinking that I have somehow taken the "easy way out" and settled for what is comfortable (yet again).  I am comfortable living here and I am comfortable working another year in the suburbs.  This is more "sure" and definitely more comfortable than taking a huge risk to leave and go live in a third world country for awhile.  But the thing I have to remember is that this job and this career really is ANYTHING but the easy way out.  There is nothing about teaching (and certainly nothing about the school I am at) that is easy.  NOTHING.  And this is not just "some job" that I have for now to pay the bills.  This is a career I am passionate about and a career that allows me a very special opporutnity to help children who really need me and to make a difference in my own community right here in the suburbs.  The truth is, you don't need to travel to the third world to find kids who need love and support and good teachers.  The need is right here.  So as much as a little part of me keeps thinking I've "settled," in reality I've done nothing of the kind.  I have a job that is stimulating, challenging, and meaningful.  And whether I leave or stay, I know in my heart that it can't be because of some "should" I am feeling.  There is no "easy option."

What it boils down to is that I am just a little bit confused.  I thought my late nights of soul-searching would end when I graduated college, but it turns out I am still in the middle of a "quarter-life crisis." Sigh... But honestly, I think I will end up staying right here, learning all I can, and making all the difference I can right in my own little community.

A Very Teachery Christmas :)

I think my Christmas presents this year really represent the extent to which teaching has consumed my life.  Highlights among the gifts:
  • Fancy Paper Pro 1 touch stapler (staples 25 sheets!!!!)
  • Fancy 3 hole punch that can punch a WHOLE BUNCH of pages (my current one jams seriously EVERY time I use it)
  • The gigantic pack of flair pens--so I can grade in style :)
  • The gigantic pack of Sharpies 
  • Post-its
  • Children's books
  • Gift card to Lakeshore\
  • A new little name plate for my desk with each letter made from a different photograph
It was a very teachery Christmas in my house :)   New school supplies are so exciting!  However, I can't say the new flairs made me any more excited to dive into the crate of grading I brought home to do over the break...alas.  Maybe tomorrow??  Orrr...maybe not ;)

December 20, 2009

Annnd I'm caught up on sleep...

Let me recap the past 2 days...sleep, sleep, reading, sleep, movie watching, reading, more sleep, more movies...

Today alone I watched 3 movies IN A ROW on the couch while eating caramel corn.  I guess my insomnia/lack of appetite is cured.  The antidote?  Sweet winter break :) 

December 14, 2009

Sharing Books

Last week, I gave one of my very mature students Lois Lowry's The Giver (one of my all-time favorite books).  Nothing makes me smile more as a teacher than recommending my favorite books to children and having them fall as deeply in love with them as I am.  Today, she finished it and wanted to discuss the somewhat unsettling ending with me.  And of course I was happy to find 5 minutes at the end of lunch to kneel by her desk and talk...because I teach for exactly this kind of moment.

December 12, 2009

"Reach for it, work for it, and fight for it."

Hope is not blind optimism. It's not ignoring the enormity of the task ahead, or the roadblocks that stand in our path. It's not sitting on the sidelines or shirking from a fight. Hope is that thing inside us that insists, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that something better awaits us if we have the courage to reach for it, work for it, and fight for it.
Barack Obama

I had a long conversation with the school social worker Friday afternoon, mostly strategizing about handling the student that has consumed so many blog posts.  She also reminded me to be consistently checking my emotions, and focusing on what I need to do at that moment to keep myself from getting too frustrated, too emotional, or just too burned out. 

During the course of this conversation, she told me about her first post-grad job.  She was working in a residential home for disturbed youth (teenagers I believe) and she said that after her first day on the job, she went home to the apartment she had JUST moved into and called her parents, begging them to come pick her up and take her back home.  There were too many things wrong and, as she said, "Of course I insisted that none of them were my fault."  She said her mom calmly told her, "This is what you're going to do.  You're going to get down on your knees and pray.  Then tomorrow, you are going to go to work.  And the next day you're going to go to work.  And you're going to keep going to work." 

After awhile, she realized that it wasn't just them, it was her too.  She had a lot more to learn, and described that job as one of the best learning experiences of her life.  Not only did it give her the tools to deal with countless future occupational challenges, but it gave her the emotional experience and strength to persevere through all the challenges her career would offer. 

So for the next week, I'm going to follow this advice.  I'm going to go into work every day and get down on my knees every night to pray for the strength to keep going.  I am going to remember that I am as much accountable for my actions and emotions as I expect this student to be.  I am going to give myself a fresh start each day, just as I will give him.  And after winter break, I will come back to school and do the same thing every single day.  Because when you something is worth it, you don't give up.

 A few weeks ago, I wrote in a blog post of absolute frustration and despair, "Something, anything has to change here."  Tonight I'm realizing that that something has to be my attitude.  I may not be able to change this child, but if I don't change the way I feel about this situation, I WILL never make it through this year.  Instead, I can accept that, yes, he is going to be disruptive.  But I can ignore disruptions.  Yes, he is going to be disrespectful.  But I can accept and ignore the disrespect and offer back only firmness and positivity.  Yes, he is going to test boundaries.  But I am capable of passing those tests.  Eventually, we will grow and move on. (I emphasize the we here).  For this week, though, this will be enough.

Finally, I am going to remember, "despite all the evidence to the contrary, that something better awaits us if we have the courage to reach for it, work for it, and fight for it."

December 6, 2009


"Everyone has a talent, what is rare is the courage to follow the talent to the dark place where it leads."
-Erica Jong, author

I guess I have to keep telling myself that no one ever said this is easy.  Like one of my favorite books, The Alchemist says, when you are following your personal legend, your life's work, the struggles are greater, but so are the gains.  This is so frustrating because I so desparately want to succeed.  I am so exhausted because I care so much.  This child brings out such rage and saddness in me because I am so emotionally invested in him.  As my principal reminded me the other day, this is not just my job, it is my career and my craft.  This is my life's work, and like Erica Jong said, sometimes following a talent brings you through some struggles.  I guess I just have to accept this as one of the low points, and remember that it's not always going to be like this.

December 3, 2009

To my student who asks me for a hug everyday:

Most every afternoon, you come up to me and say, "Miss Teacher, can I have a hug?"  And I of course smile and say, "Absolutely you can" and squeeze you into a tight hug.  You always smile back and say, "Thanks." I know you appreciate those special hug moments and I am grateful that I am so easily able to give you what you need.  Just a hug.  Your home life is not great.  I know you are lacking so many of the things you need, and I know that adults in your life have let you down.  Many, many times.  Yet you come to me, and when you could be asking so much, all you want is a hug.

What you do not know is that those hugs mean as much to me as they do to you.  What you do not know is that on some days, I need them as much as you do.  Your hugs are not the quick, "How's it going" kind, but those tight squeeze ones that you can tell the hugger never wants to let go.  The hugs that make you think, "Wow, that was a good hug."  When I am exhausted, or stressed, or losing my patience, they remind me for that split second why I teach.  They remind me why I am here, and why I will come back again tomorrow.  Your hugs say with so much more intensity than words, "Miss Teacher, you are my teacher.  I need you.  I need so much, but right now, I just need you to be here for me and take this moment to remind me that you care."  They bring me away from the hectic classroom for just a moment and bring me to that place inside me that whispers, "This is your life's work.  Don't give up."

So, my student, my answer tomorrow will be, "Yes, of course you can have a hug."  Thank you so much for asking.

let me teach like the first snow, falling

Undivided attention
By Taylor Mali

A grand piano wrapped in quilted pads by movers,
tied up with canvas straps - like classical music's
birthday gift to the insane -
is gently nudged without its legs
out an eighth-floor window on 62nd street.
It dangles in April air from the neck of the movers' crane,
Chopin-shiny black lacquer squares
and dirty white crisscross patterns hanging like the second-to-last
note of a concerto played on the edge of the seat,
the edge of tears, the edge of eight stories up going over, and
I'm trying to teach math in the building across the street.
Who can teach when there are such lessons to be learned?
All the greatest common factors are delivered by
long-necked cranes and flatbed trucks
or come through everything, even air.
Like snow.
See, snow falls for the first time every year, and every year
my students rush to the window
as if snow were more interesting than math,
which, of course, it is.
So please.
Let me teach like a Steinway,
spinning slowly in April air,
so almost-falling, so hinderingly
dangling from the neck of the movers' crane.
So on the edge of losing everything.
Let me teach like the first snow, falling.
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