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On My 9th Year of Teaching – Looking Back at Year 1 August 19, 2012

Posted by alwaysjan in Teaching.
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This week I’ll go back to school. It will be my 9th year working as a credentialed teacher in a public school.

I took the scenic route to becoming a teacher. I taught art in NYC. I worked as a substitute on and off. I was a District Intern with the Los Angeles Unified School District for 10 months teaching in a modified bilingual classroom. There was no toilet paper. The jello made the kids sick. My own sons were acting up. I quit and sold my blue pocket charts at a yard sale.

Two years later, I tried another alternative program to credentialing and was placed in a classroom of high risk 5th grade students. I didn’t have the experience at that time to deal with them. Every day after school the custodian would push his broom through my classroom and say, “These are bad kids, very bad kids.” The enrollment numbers were down, so I was first to go. After only 15 days in the classroom, I couldn’t leave fast enough as I was done – or more accurately, done in.

Yet, no matter how many times I decided I was DONE with teaching, I always returned. No sooner had I sold those blue pocket charts than I was out buying more. Ultimately, I realized that it’s when I’m in the classroom that I feel most alive.

In 2004, I finally earned my California Teaching Credential. I was 50 years old. What can I say? I’m a late bloomer.

Did you know that half of all teachers leave teaching within the first five years? Looking back, it’s a wonder I even made it through my first year. It’s a year still seared in my memory as no class in pedagogy could have prepared me for what was in store.

It was only the second week of school when the principal came to the door of my classroom. This was not a good sign. Had I filled out the attendance incorrectly? He led me to the office where I met the father of one of my students. The man, head in hands, was weeping.”She was just so stressed,” he kept saying. I wasn’t quite sure what this was about.

It was only the next day that we learned his wife had committed suicide by shooting herself in the garage. And the kids? They were still at home watching TV as he had told them their mother was at work. I’d never felt so at a loss for what to do/say in my life. Several days passed and the boy returned to school. I bought a heart-shaped pillow where he could sometimes rest back in the library when he felt sad.

A new boy, Ezekiel, joined our class. He was adorable and so smart that he’d skipped first grade. He immediately befriended the boy who’d lost his mother. I remember thinking, “This is a good thing” as they were both such bright and kind-hearted boys.

But after Thanksgiving, Ezekiel did not come back to school. Could he have gone on a trip to see relatives I wondered? Then came the call. He’d collapsed at home and was at the hospital on life support. Could the children pray for him? They did – with all the strength their little second-grade hearts could muster.

The next day the principal and I drove to the hospital to see this precious boy. When a child was pushed by us in the hall on a gurney, the principal asked, “Was that him?” I honestly didn’t know. I was used to seeing Ezekiel in his school uniform with those big sparkly eyes. The family was gathered. The mood was somber. He’d just collapsed one evening at home. It all happened in the blink of an eye.

Ezekiel was taken off life support the next day. Crisis counselors from the district descended on my classroom. I’d never felt so at a loss for what to do/say in my life. But the words eventually came to me. We wrote a poem. We talked about how someone is never really gone unless you forget them.

At Ezekiel’s funeral, his first grade teacher was the first to speak. I will never forget what she said.

“Teaching is a dangerous job because you can fall in love with other people’s children.”

That’s the truth. And so begins another year.

Photo Credit: Jan Marshall

The ABCs of ASL May 23, 2010

Posted by alwaysjan in Teaching.
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ASL incorporates finger spelling and signing that is as unique as the person doing it.

I took my students on a field trip last week. The professional storyteller asked how many of the teachers in the room  like to play school when they were growing up. All hands shot up – except mine. She storyteller was genuinely surprised. “You’re the first teacher I’ve met who didn’t play school,” she said. I shrugged, “Teaching is my second career.”  But the damage was done. “One, two three, eyes on me”- the teacher who never played school as a child.

Though I didn’t play school, when I was in the third grade (which just happens to be the grade I teach now), I read Helen Keller’s biography and learned the manual alphabet at the back of the book. My friends and I used it as our secret code in middle school. I still remember standing outside my friend’s classroom and signing some message of major import (everything in middle school is of major import). Years later when I was in Idaho, I met one of my husband’s distant relatives who was deaf. My signing was rusty, but I was able to communicate with this woman. I remember thinking, “This is so COOL!”

I once subbed for a fourth grade class learning to sign “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.”  I only knew how to finger spell words, so this was fun. When you sign “used to,” you throw your hand over your shoulder like you’re getting rid of something.  I loved that.  Later when our friend Leszek became a U.S. citizen, I watched as a woman signed the entire swearing in ceremony at the L.A. Convention Center. It was beautiful to watch. But what does this have to do with teaching?

As a teacher, you get tired of hearing the sound of your own voice. And at some point, your students do too. Signing is a great way to give directions. And I’ve learned that students LOVE to sign. When you sign, students are “all ears.”

Last year I bought two decks of signing cards and a book Signing at School. There’s always several students who spend an inordinate amount of time pouring over this book. That would have been me in third grade. Did you know that knowing ASL qualifies as speaking a foreign language? Just in case you’ve got to get that requirement out of the way.

This year, I have a class heavy on girls, so that means one thing – girl drama. I had to laugh as the other day when the girls were having a go at each other, one of the boys looked at me and signed “Girl Drama!”

I learned to sign “Girl Drama on ASLPro.  You can search for a word or phrase and see it signed.  My only complaint is that some of the signing is a little fast. I need it in s-l-o-w  m-o-t-i-o-n.

I’ve slowly been trying to build my signing vocabulary.  I began with “Sit” “See you later”  and ” I love you.” I’ve graduated to “Follow me” “boys” (which is signed using the motion for the brim of a baseball hat) and “girls” (which mimics a girl tying her bonnet). I teach a cluster of English Language learners, but they love using ASL.

I’ve actually found that watching songs helps because of the repetition of signs.  Recently, through my blog’s Tag Surfer feature, I came across  middle schoolers signing Justin Timberlake’s Apologize on Youtube.  While on Youtube, I stumbled across Apologize signed by ICSTARS, who is hearing. It’s probably the most expressive signing I’ve seen. His signing shows how ASL is not just communication, but art.

Finally, ASL Tutor On-Line is a site where if you have SKYPE, you can be personally be tutored in signing for only $15 an hour.  I’m seriously thinking of expanding my signing vocabulary this summer using this feature. With the projected class size increase next year, I need to know how to sign “You’re standing on my last nerve!”

Walking the Line September 21, 2009

Posted by alwaysjan in Teaching.
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The quickest way from Point A to Point B is a straight line. But trying to get students to walk in a straight line is akin to herding cats. If I had a class pet, it would be a Australian Sheep Herding dog that could nip at my students’ heels to keep them in line. Ah, if only.

Two years ago, a veteran teacher announced she was going to retire. A week before the end of the school year, I heard her admonishing her first graders to walk in a straight line. OMG. Forty years in the classroom, and she was still repeating the same mantra about walking in a straight line on the very last week. Is this what the future holds for me? I’m afraid the answer is YES.

Why is it so important to walk in a straight line? First of all, my school is huge. If students walk all willy nilly, it’s a slippery slope. One minute they’re bunched together. Two seconds later, you’ve got a full-on stampede.

When I taught second grade, I used to say, “If you start talking, we stop walking!” And I/we did. One day we stopped 32 times on the way to lunch. Seriously. It took us 35 minutes to walk to the lunchroom which was visible from our classroom. I felt like a meanie, but when you have to do walk your class to lunch 180 times during the school year, you better get it right from the get go.

One day my students were so noisy in line that I pulled out my lunch and sat on a nearby wall. While they argued and pushed and shoved, I leisurely ate my lunch. “Just because you guys aren’t ready, doesn’t mean I have to wait to eat,” I said, licking my lips. Can you say Dramatic Effect?  I only had to do that once.

I also expect the line leader to set an example. No untied shoes in my line. If your shoelaces look like spaghetti, you have to step out of line to tie them, then go to the back of the line. When you’re in a leadership position, you’ve gotta be ready to roll. Some days the line stretches all the way down the hall. That’s when I say, “Hey, this line goes all the way to Las Vegas. What’s the problem?” The laggards speed up. You’ve got to be close enough to touch the person in front of you on the shoulder. My students know that if they have a problem lining up, they have a guaranteed spot – at the back of the line.

I’m also big on having students walk on the right side of the hall and when going up and down the stairs. I tell my students I’m teaching them to drive. They love to hear that. I also teach them how to do illegal U turns. They love it when I tell them we’re going to turn on a dime.

When my class goes to computer lab, we have to wind our way through those noisy smelly middle schoolers who are changing classes and slamming their locker doors. I’ve mistaken several middle schoolers for parents. I don’t know what these kids are eating, but they’re huge. I warn my students to stick close together because middle schoolers like to eat third graders. One day my students were walking in the hall and heard a middle schooler say, “Boy, I sure am hungry.” I’d never seen my students move so fast. But most important, they were walking in a straight line.

Photo taken at Zinnia in South Pasadena.

Rearranging Deck Chairs on the Titantic aka Classroom Seating August 25, 2009

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Over the summer, I’ve spent a good five minutes thinking about how I want to rearrange my classroom.  I would have spent more time, but when I walk into my classroom after summer vacation, it looks like a scene from the Titanic – after it hit the iceberg.

To refinish the hardwood floors, the custodians move all the furniture to one side of the room, then shift it back to the other, to refinish the other side. It’s a wonder the school isn’t listing.  The only thing that never moves is the monolithic black metal storage cabinet in the corner.

By the time I’ve unstacked all the chairs and tables, and dragged the double wide file cabinet back across the room where it’s supposed to go (putting fresh scuff marks on the refinished floor), my creative energy is spent.  I’m tempted to arrange everything the way it was “before.” Unfortunately, if I’ve had a relaxing vacation it’s hard to remember what “before” looked like. That’s why I take lots of pictures at Open House.  That’s as good as it gets. When I look at the pictures it all comes back to me.  Then I start dragging those bookcases.  If only the wheel had been invented when they designed all that heavy school furniture.

For the first two years, I had my students sit in two inverted F formations ideal for direct instruction.  “One, two, three – All eyes on me!”  Because some idiot bolted the overhead screen to the far right side of the whiteboard, all of the students need to be seated to one side of the room so they can see it. Grrr…

Last year I had students sit at tables.  I’d resisted tables for years as I don’t trust kids when I can’t see their faces.  That’s probably because whenever I go to professional developments and find my back to the presenter, I immediately start doodling or holding up funny signs to see if I can make the people across the table laugh.

That said, the table arrangement worked out pretty well.  I had two tables of six at the back of the room and two tables of four at the front.  I haven’t quite figured out how it’s going to work with increased class sizes this year. I await divine inspiration (and additional desks and tables).

On the first day of school I always let students sit wherever they want.  I can quickly see who shouldn’t be sitting next to who. By the second day, the seats they are a changin’.  As Chinese military strategist Sun-tzu said in 400 B.C., “You’ve got to keep your friends close and your enemies problem students closer.

Before I had my credential, I worked as a substitute, which to my mind is the best possible training for any aspiring teacher.  I remember walking into a middle school classroom and seeing a table full of boys at the back of the class. No teacher in her right mind would put all those boys together.   So I did what any cracker jack sub would do – I lied.

I announced that the teacher had left me a seating chart. (I would have settled for lesson plans!) “I’m going to turn around and count to 30. When I’m done, you better be back in your seat, or I’m going to start writing referrals,” I said.  I turned my back and began counting.  As I heard the frantic game of musical chairs underway, I couldn’t help but smile.

When I turned back around I was greeted by a sea of smiling faces.  My bag of tricks is bottomless. That’s why I’m the teacher.

The Party’s Over June 13, 2009

Posted by alwaysjan in Politics, Teaching.
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The notice was put in the teachers’ mailboxes today (Friday afternoon).  The bottom line – Due to the state of California’s severe budget crisis, the gates of Hell have been thrown open. We’d already been told that class sizes in September were going from 20 to 22.  But today we were informed that class sizes could go to 25, or as high as 31.   Oh, and that there could be layoffs of teachers as late as August 15th. There was no Happy Hour today.   The mood amongst teachers was bewildered, even somber.

My first year of teaching was in 1997, when the state had just reduced the class size in grades K-3 to 20 to 1.  Oh, the stories the veteran teachers could tell – of teaching 35 of those wiggley, “I’ve got to go to the bathroom!” first graders.  And they were still standing (the teachers that is).  I’m afraid that 20 to 1 is all I’ve ever known.  I did a stint of student teaching in the fourth grade where the class size is typically 30+, but those kids are big and can sit in a chair (okay, most of them).  It took me three weeks just to memorize all of their names.

I’m not worried about my job.  This is my fifth year with the district, but other colleagues, who are also my friends, aren’t so lucky.  When the first round of RIFs (Reduction in Force notices) went out on March 15, teachers lower in seniority were put on notice.  In years past, this was always a formality, and they were hired back come September, when the classes filled up.  But these are strange times.

According to the local paper, 160 students at a local Christian school are leaving due to their parents’ own budget crises.  I’m pretty sure those kids will be coming to a school near me,  and it will have the word “public” in in. But, how this will sort itself out is anybody’s guess.

It didn’t help that the news came after a long day of trying to pack up the classroom while keeping the students busy engaged.  I believe I am the only teacher in history to accomplish this without showing the students a movie.   A group of boys constructed an Amazonian forest in a huge cardboard box, while another group of students was busy “stitching” on their burlap flags. Stitching is not to be confused with “sewing,”  which is a girlie pursuit.   I fashioned “needles” out of paperclips and the kids went to town and did a surprisingly good job.  Only later another teacher informed me that there were in fact real big plastic needles the kids could have used.  Oh.  I’m big at reinventing the wheel,

I only mention this because none of these activities would be possible with 30 plus kids in the room.  Someone literally might poke their neighbor’s eye out with that paperclip due to lack of elbow room.  Come September, space in my classroom could be disappearing as rapidly as the rain forest in the Amazon.

This gives a whole new meaning to June Gloom in Southern California.

Photo credit:  The Unruly Birthday Party  by Jan Marshall.

Messy Desks = Messy Minds February 9, 2009

Posted by alwaysjan in Teaching.
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A messy student desk is a manifestation of a messy mind. If that sounds a little Mao-esque, I wasn’t always such a hard liner. At one point I thought of a student’s desk as a manifestation of their individuality – even if that individuality screamed “hoarder.”

Everything changed six years ago. I took over a third grade classroom mid-year when the teacher left to fill an administrative job. It quickly became apparent that 30 minutes of each day was wasted waiting for students to find their book/paper/lunch ticket – in their own bloody desk! “It’s here somewhere,” they’d mumble while rooting through enough papers to encircle the planet.

One day, at wit’s end, I announced it was time to get organized. I had everyone clean everything out of their desks. OMG. Yes, the sweet little girl in the photo above, who was an exceptional student, was one premier pack rat. Her desk was a virtual garbage stuck sans flies. But she had lots of competition. It was then and there that I decided to teach my students how to get organized. While some people are naturally organized (moi), the majority of us aren’t. The good news is that it’s a valuable life skill you can teach your students that will serve them later in life way more than cursed cursive ever will.

It’s taken five years to perfect this system (The Five Year Plan), but my students have embraced it and most importantly, it works. Here’s how I do it. When my third graders receive their books, they put them in their desk one-at-a-time according to a diagram that I post up on the board. It has a line down the middle and the sides are labeled LEFT and RIGHT, as some third graders are still directionally challenged.

Language Arts goes on the left, everything else on the right, but not so fast, sassafras – One at a time. I hold up the anthology. “Anthology!”  I call out and they hold up theirs. When all copies are held aloft, I say, “Put it on the bottom left.” When they’ve done so, my students say, “Check!” We do the left side first and then the right. The chart even shows where things are to be put on the top of their desk, e.g., “Black Unfinished Work Folder on the left.  (Often a black hole of disorganization itself). On top of that is the book they are reading. Then their journal, and finally their bin of school supplies. There’s a drawing for “visual” learners and my ELLS (English Language Learners).

I know some teachers who have their students organize their Homework Folders. Papers on the Left are to be “Left at home” and papers on the Right are “bring right back.” I haven’t had to go that far, but I do print out my the weekly reading log, which includes a letter home to parents, on puke-lime-green paper so students are less likely to lose it. My students will tell you that’s why I chose that color too.

After the first month of school, I can just put up the diagram on Friday when we clean up before Friday Club (that’s another post). I let my students take a 5-minute  bathroom break at 2 p.m. and they return with wet paper towels to scrub down their desk. (It’s all about procedure – I had to even teach them just how wet the towel should be.) All of my students now know what “elbow grease” is, as in “you’ve got to use some elbow grease.”

One more cool thing. My students have three workbooks that are identical, so at the beginning of the year I use a paper punch to punch two holes on the lower right hand corner of one, and punch the shape of a star on another. The third book is plain. My students find this is all rather odd. Then I show them why I’m do this. I ask them to take out their “star” book without looking inside their desk.  There they sit, eyes fixated on me, feeling the corners of their workbooks. When they all miraculously take out the right book, the look on their faces is priceless. You’d have thought I’d just made an elephant disappear. This is a great trick to have your students show a substitute.

I was heartened recently when I read an article in The New York Times called “Giving Disorganized Boys the Tools for Success.” Many teenagers, particularly boys, struggle with school due to a lack of organizational skills. My students are only 8 and 9, but I love to tell them that good habits are as hard to break as bad ones. Yes, someone else said that, but it bears repeating again, and again, and again. And I’ve personally found that girls can be just as disorganized as boys. So there!

Last week one of the boys was busy swabbing his desk when I heard him tell another boy, “I’m using lots of elbow grease.”   He then sighed, “It feels good to get organized.” The other boy nodded. Can you say Nirvana?