Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Beyond the classroom, in the fall

My students come from diverse Hispanic countries and have only been in this country a year or more. Often, some of the lessons that most general program classroom teachers would present are out of reach for my students, as they have not lived the experiences that many native-born American children have enjoyed.

A writing activity that I love to do this time of year takes me a few extra periods than it would in the classrooms of my colleagues. I call the activity “My autumn eyes behold”. It can be done at any time of year, but I like to do it in the fall when the changes outside invite so much discussion and inspiration.

However, I work in an inner city school where most of my students live in apartment buildings or 2- and 3- family homes. Most of the trees near my school are scraggly and skinny, held up by string and stakes. The few leaves that manage to hold on, change colors, and fall to the ground are ignored, I think, and become just part of the litter that blows through the street. So, before I ask my students to “describe what you see on an autumn day,” I invite them to join me for a “walk”.

Imagine my students’ amusement when this morning, as it poured rain and thundered furiously outside our window, I announced we would go for a walk. “But we’ll get wet!” and “It’s too cold!” they complained. “We’re going to pretend” I said, as I turned on the LCD projector and shared a slide show (on Power Point) of the most beautiful fall images I could find on Google. I played Aaron Copland’s Rodeo – Four Dance Episodes while we toured golden mountains, trudged through leafy yellow forests, sailed on a crystalline blue river that wove through a toffee-colored canyon, and picked orange and (surprise!) white pumpkins in a field where a scare-crow stood guard.

Accessing prior knowledge is an important part of good teaching. In my case, I often have to create and simulate experiences so that my students may have a bank from which to retrieve information. I cannot assume that they’ve seen the glorious colors of autumn, that they’ve sipped a cup of hot chocolate after raking leaves, or that they’ve jumped in to a pile of leaves and stared up at the sky.

After our “walk”, I asked the students to make a list of all of the things they saw. After a few minutes, we brainstormed a list of the colors we saw. I expected they would say “red, orange, yellow, etc.” as other color words are not yet part of their vocabulary. Next, I provided a list of color words that would broaden their personal word banks, as well as more closely describe what they saw.

Then, I did one of my famous “mini-lessons”; I read Under, Over, by the Clover by Brian P. Cleary. This fun book is about prepositions, which my fourth grade students need exposure to in order to develop proficiency in English. After a shared reading, we created a list of prepositions, and posted those at the board as well.

Finally, I posted the following pattern:

(color) (object) (where you saw it)

I asked my students to develop several of these phrases, using the lists we created. Tomorrow we'll revise, rewrite, and edit as needed. I'll also conference individually with several of the students, and have them tell me about their writing.

This poetry-writing activity is a painless way to facilitate vocabulary and word-order skills.

Monday, October 20, 2008

A funny topping to write about

My fourth graders, who are English Language Learners (ELLs), are accustomed to writing daily in every subject. On most mornings, I post a few journal prompts at the board, from which they may select one to get them started. Every now and then though, between the morning routines and the hundred things that happen simultaneously before first period, I neglect to write a topic at the board.

This morning, one of the boys raised his hand and asked, “Mrs. L? What are the toppings?”

“The toppings?”

“The toppings Miss. What are we supposed to write about today?”

“OH! The toppings! Well let me write them for you right this minute! I’m sorry about that!” I replied, trying to hide my amusement. I approached the board, and wrote the following:

pepperoni
mushrooms
extra cheese
sausage
anchovies

(I couldn’t help myself.)

“That’s for a pizza!” he giggled, as his classmates caught on and laughed.

I then took advantage of that teachable moment to display two words I hadn’t realized might cause some confusion. Toppings and topics sound different to you and me, being native speakers of English. However, for those who are learning this language, these words may be difficult to differentiate.

Once we all got over a case of the giggles, we discussed the different spellings and meanings of these words. For homework, they will write a couple of sentences using each of the words, showing they know the difference between the two.

After 18 years in the classroom, I’m still learning not to take anything for granted, and I’m reminded about how much fun I’m still having

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Los sentidos despiertan

¡Qué rica la vida! La gozo con todo mi ser.

El aroma del primer café de la mañana,
Las hojas caídas del otoño
Y el humo de una chiminea

El amargodulce de mi cafecito
La mantequilla
Y el pan recién salido del horno

El amarillo, el anaranjado, el rojo, y el café que decoran el cielo
El perfíl sonriente de mi hijo
Y las miles de personas alegres en el estadio, animando al equipo

El ritmo de la banda, marchando en la cancha
La gente cantando en una voz
Y el viento haciendo susurrar los árboles

El sol caliente en mi cara
La brisa fría, mi suéter protegedor
Y las frazadas suaves que me cubren al fín del día.

Tantas razones por ser felíz en un día
Entonces…
¿Por qué este dolorcito? Esta lágrima?

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Losing focus

My apologies to the good folks who follow my blog. I've not posted for a bit because my job has taken over my life!

People need to know what teachers are dealing with these days! Who would have thought that an elementary school teacher would be so overwhelmed, so stressed out, and so overworked, that she would have to stay up on several week nights past 11 pm!

After 18 years in this profession, I thought things would become a little easier; with experience, things become second nature, you know? However, administration seems to look for more ways to bring us down, so we're practically crawling and scraping our way across the shiny floors.

Too much to describe here, and I don't wish to sound so terribly negative. But a very sad thing is happening in schools today, at least where I'm at. They are wearing us down. We are becoming tired of fighting the good fight. Morale is low. People smile weakly at each other in the hallways, speedwalking the kids to the next class, rushing to grade-level meetings where we will be told of yet another assessment that will determine what we need to focus on.

Focus. We're not able to focus any longer. There are too many foci at a time, I fear we will only be mediocre in the end.

They tell us the big focus this year is science, to incorporate it in every way possible, especially throughout the literacy block. In fact, we've been told to put aside a lot of the literature, and to use the science text and science leveled readers to teach reading. (Wow.)

At the same time, we are to focus on writing, and vocabulary. Infuse it in all areas.

And test. Benchmark tests. Quarterly tests. On-line tests. State assessments. Friday tests. Just last week I gave my 4th graders a district math test, 53 pages long, that took two days!

I'm not going anywhere. But I feel for the newer teachers who are just coming in to this field, and feeling like they will walk right back out. And I hate seeing so many colleagues becoming resentful and tired.

I feel some of that bitterness growing inside me, so I try my best to talk myself out of it on the drive to work. My kids need to see a cheerful and energetic person in the front of the room. They will get just that. I love my job, I love my kids, I love the art and science of teaching.

But I hate what has happened to school.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Blue jeans for breast cancer awareness

Tomorrow is National Lee Denim Day. Wear your jeans and make a donation to help find a cure for breast cancer.

I'm an eight-year survivor. My grandmother and aunt have also survived. I've lost a coworker to the disease, and several other women I know have been through some kind of scare after finding a lump or receiving the results of a mammogram.

I was 33 when I was diagnosed, and my son was just four. I worked summer school that year. There were many times when, due to scheduling conflicts and my family living far way, I had no place to leave him, so I had to take him along with me after school to the hospital for my daily radiation treatment. Picture me in one of those awful open-backed gowns, asking the ladies in the waiting room to keep an eye on him while I went in to the "chamber". My little boy sat on the floor with his coloring book and crayons and sat patiently, while several kind-hearted women of various ages and different stages of illness watched over him for me. I remember those good, strong women and offer up a good wish for them, wherever they may be.
Please share the Lee National Denim Day link with family, friends, and coworkers - and donate to this urgent cause. May our mothers, sisters, daughters, and girlfriends see a future without breast cancer.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

A place is home when you make it yours

I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.
Yo siempre me había imaginado al Paraíso como una especie de biblioteca.
Jorge Luis Borges

Several months ago, I lost my second home. My favorite bookstore, Borders, was closed down to poor sales. Funny, I thought my little family and I had done our part to keep the place running; we spent almost hundreds there on a monthly basis. Either folks didn't read enough, or another chain was too big to compete with, and my favorite bookstore shut down forever.

That store was our Friday night hang-out. It was where I read and purchased the bulk of my teacher resources and satisfied my ever-growing desire for Hispanic literature. I discovered Indian authors there, and soon began my exploration of writings from other cultures. We discovered all sorts of new music at that store, and spent many contented evenings at the little tables, sipping coffee. My husband was fond of the place as well, as he was always able to satisfy his ever-evolving interests there.

We practically raised our son at this store. In fact, during my pregnancy, I retreated to the bookstore to pore over childbirth and baby-name books, sipping on slushy frozen coffee. When my boy was born, we took his little infant self to the store every week, in a carriage stocked with baby paraphernalia, and spent hours there, while he slept. The bottom of the carriage was ideal for carrying our purchases, which included baby board books, mothering magazines, and more glimpses of the world for me to read.

As our boy grew, so too did his love for books. At one and two, he immediately recognized the place and used his baby words to say he wanted to go to the children’s section. One of my most treasured memories is that of my husband, tall and husky, sitting on the carpeted steps, holding our son in his lap, reading to him, the baby pointing his little finger at the pictures. As he got older, the little guy would calmly sit in his stroller browsing through books he had selected.

Around the age of four or so, my son discovered super heroes, and so ventured to another section of the store. The books there were bigger, and heavier! We have a photo of him, sitting on a small step stool in the comics section, holding a rather large Marvel Comics History book. The intensity and interest in his face remain priceless. My son grew and changed; so too did his taste in books, from reptiles to cowboys, knights and castles to sports, Matt Christopher to Harry Potter. As soon as Friday rolled around, he would ask, “Can we go to the bookstore tonight?”

I took the closing of this treasured place very, very hard. On our last night there, we purchased at a huge discount what would be our last Borders books. My son, now 11, was intrigued by the stacks and stacks of books, toppling over, everything in disarray, folks grabbing and tossing, and the long lines. There was no more scent of coffee brewing, no subtle jazz music playing, and nowhere could you see a soul reading.

In the car, I fell apart. I cried as if someone had left me or died. My boys just sat silently as I sobbed. I stared back in the rear view mirror and lingered at the sight of the lit-up red letters and the large wooden doors as we drove away.

There are other Borders stores a few towns away, and of course Barnes & Noble sits just five minutes from here. But still. It’ll never be the same.