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Mixed blessings

December 3, 2011 Leave a comment

Last year’s student H and I had a very close relationship.  She came to the country knowing almost no English but was determined to control every aspect of her day through sheer force of will.  She demanded a great deal of my energy and focus, but she repaid it with enormous progress and affection.  I worried a lot about sending her on to second grade – not because she might struggle academically, but because as much as I love her, she’s an easy child to get fed up with.  I think she ended up with the most patient of the second grade teachers, but she’s independent enough now that she doesn’t need to have the same incredibly focused relationship with her teacher anymore.  In addition, the two students she most enjoyed moved over the summer, and I think that remarkable force of will of hers has made it hard to make new friends.  As a result, she’s feeling a little lonely this year.  She stops by my room each day after school to talk, and is usually in a decent mood, but last Monday she was very down.  “I have bad day.  I very sad, but I no can talk about it.  My dad waiting, I tell you tomorrow.”  I called out after her to write me a note that night to tell me about it.  This is what I got the next day:

On one hand, this letter breaks my heart.  I hate that she ever feels sad, and I don’t want her to be wishing for the past.  On the other hand, I know she’s a strong, resilient child and that this will be a temporary low.  And I read her letter, written in controlled handwriting, regular letter format, and (mostly) conventional spelling, and I can’t help but celebrate.  Sixteen months ago she didn’t know a single English letter.  Now look at what she’s able to do.  She is, truly, a remarkable child, and while I’m sad that she’s sad right now, I feel confident that she’s going to take the world by storm.

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Plugging the holes

May 19, 2011 Leave a comment

With my kids about to move on to 2nd grade I’m busy figuring out what holes need to be filled before they go.  My primary goal in this is admittedly self-centered: I don’t want to get a bad reputation among the 2nd grade team.  My fear is that I’ll have done such a bad job in something that all my kids will be markedly deficient, and when the 2nd grade team meets next year they’ll say something like “Nicole can’t write to save her life, do you think she needs to be referred for Special Education evaluation?  Oh, wait, she had Miss R. last year.  None of her kids can write. [Teachers nod and/or sigh in agreement.]”

To forestall this possible outcome I’m basically throwing out the curriculum for the last 5 weeks of school and focusing exclusively on the things I think my class is worst at.  This includes handwriting, writing, editing, and (for many of them) explaining their math problem-solving beyond “I thinked it in my head.”  Today we spent the morning hitting editing hard, then spent the afternoon writing math story problems and explaining how we figured out the answers.

I was pleasantly shocked by the quality of their story problems once I reminded them how to write them.  I was less impressed with their editing skills, but we’ll keep working on it.  And while they don’t know it yet, next week I’m starting spelling tests (I still need a good bribe for strong performance – suggestions welcome), with a focus on the high-frequency words I know they can read easily but they they misspell ALL THE TIME.

I’m heartened that they are all at or very, very close to the 1st grade reading benchmark, and if they don’t screw up the end-of-year math assessment with careless errors I might just finish the year looking like a decidedly non-sucky first-year teacher.  So if I can just deal with the few remaining glaring holes in my teaching, my first year might not have been a disaster for my students.

So far

May 5, 2011 Leave a comment

We were making booklets in math today about what time we do things during the school day.  H was labeling one of her illustrations with the word “teacher,” but wasn’t sure how to spell it.  We sounded it out together until the “-er” ending.

Me: “Er.  Er.  What letters make that sound?”
H: “Um…R-E!”
Me: “Almost!  E-R, actually.”
H: “Oh!  I so…how you say?…I so close!”

The math specialist overheard the conversation and started laughing, then commented on how blown away she is by how much H communicates now, both orally and in writing.  I know H has come so far since the beginning of the year, but it’s nice to hear someone else confirm it.

Walking into the wind

March 5, 2011 1 comment

One of my students has dominated our classroom all year with her energy, volume, and constant need for attention.  She is bright, articulate, highly capable, and a great conversation partner one-on-one, but has a very hard time being one of 15-19 other children in the room.  She recently moved and the change in our classroom has been dramatic:

  • The first day after her move, the class finally got a big star in music (something they’ve been trying and failing to do since September).
  • The second day, I picked them up from P.E. and was told, “We didn’t get in trouble at all!!”
  • The third day, we finally reached our class-wide behavior goal and earned a free-choice celebration.
  • The fourth day my instructional coach visited and commented on how much quieter and less on edge my students were.
  • And the fifth day, another teacher told me she was amazed by how well my class was walking in the hall all week – what had I done to create such a dramatic change?

For me, it is as though I spent all year walking into a gale-strength headwind…and the wind suddenly stopped.  I’m standing a little taller, getting places a little faster, and feeling way less tired at the end of each day.  And my students are benefiting, too.  For the first time all year, writing workshop is actually a quiet time, and the amount and quality of writing they’re creating is reflecting the better working conditions.  In addition, with volume and behavior under control, I can actually have high-value teaching conferences with students about their writing without being constantly disrupted by classroom management needs.  Most importantly, all of the students whose behavior needed my attention all year but whom I just couldn’t get to when this one student was taking up so much of my time – these students are starting to get what they need and that is allowing the whole classroom to settle down even more.

Teachers say it all the time: one student can change everything.  While I honestly miss my girl who moved (and appreciate that email allows us to keep in touch), I am incredibly grateful to have these coming months without her to reshape our classroom community and give the rest of the students the attention they so need and deserve.

Writing conference

February 12, 2011 Leave a comment

I read the long, detailed, imaginative draft of a student’s fairy tale yesterday, and while I enjoyed the story (and his obvious pride in it), I shook my head at his spelling. “Samuel,” I said, “do you remember when you and I did the spelling words at my desk?” (He nodded yes.) “Well, that showed me that you’re one of the very best spellers in our classroom. Do you think you used your best spelling in this story?” Samuel gave a knowing grin, shook his head, and agreed – without arguing! – to go back through and check his words so that it would be easier for readers to read his story.  Sometimes I forget how much further they can go with a little push.

Philip Pullman, I’m not impressed

May 9, 2010 Leave a comment

I read Philip Pullman’s The Shadow of the North this evening. Or rather, I read most of it. I stopped reading after Pullman started killing off main characters for fun.

Even with several hours to calm down, I am still deeply offended by Pullman’s hubris. He seems to think that the plot of his mystery is engrossing enough that I will keep reading it even as he gets rid of the characters that form the novel’s heart. I think he badly misjudged the quality of his plot. The mystery was thin and boring from the start of the book. The only reason to keep reading was for the rich cast of characters he created. I was surprised and disappointed when he allowed the heroine’s dog to die, but I gave him the benefit of the doubt since it seemed to bring the heroine and her long-time love interest together. I felt betrayed, however, by his casual killing off of this same love interest just a few scenes later. Bizarrely, Pullman continues unblinkingly with the story, having the heroine move mechanically through the process of catching the bad guy while she’s numbed by grief. Few plots are strong enough to withstand the deaths of two important characters. In the case of The Shadow of the North, I had no interest in continuing to invest in the remaining characters when I knew the author had so little regard for their lives.

The only reason I can fathom for killing off the second character is to set up Pullman’s third book in the trilogy, in which the surviving heroine and her fatherless daughter are “set upon by dark forces.” Since Pullman has shown that he is happy to let dogs and lovers die, I’m not sure why he thinks the reader should trust him with the life of a toddler. I will not be reading the next book in the trilogy – in fact, I may not be reading any of Pullman’s other books. When an author cares more about his ego and his sequels than he does about the characters or the reader, I stop reading.

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This we believe

April 28, 2010 Leave a comment

For the final discussion session in one of my courses, the 15 students in the section had the option of sharing our This I Believe statements with the rest of the group.  Since class would have ended immediately if no one decided to share, at first we didn’t have any volunteers.  But then one person said she wanted to share her statement – and it was great.  She spoke movingly about rediscovering her passion for teaching and demonstrated more depth in the two pages of text than I’ve seen from her in two years of classes.  After that, volunteers came steadily.  Not every statement was beautifully written or perfectly articulated, but they all showed a lot of heart and thought.  I so often hear only about what my classmates don’t like and don’t want to do; hearing them present impassioned defenses of their core educational beliefs showed me another, much more impressive side of them.  I enjoyed, too, the camaraderie that developed as we shared.  Murmurs of “that was great,” or “wow,” followed many of the speakers, and people offered reassurance and encouragement to two girls who were hesitant to share.  We’ve spent most of our Masters program in classes with 50 or more students; on this final day of our final required class, we finally created some of the community we’ve been lacking.  Afterwards, our TA told us to remember this class session and the passion, idealism, and commitment we expressed.  After some days in the classroom, he said, we’ll lose our sense of direction or forget why we wanted to become teachers.  During those days, we need to pull out our This I Believe essays and think back to the ideas we shared this evening.  We know what our vision for education is, and shared experiences like that tonight help us recommit to it.

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