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Red Ribbon Week October 13, 2009

Posted by alwaysjan in Teaching.
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The first year I taught at my school, I was informed that my class needed to make a poster for Red Ribbon Week. Red Ribbon what? Something about “Saying no” to drugs.

I was used to the DARE program that my sons attended in middle school. Never mind that by high school all the stoners wore their DARE t-shirts proudly.

The teacher in the classroom next to me had an adorable “Bugs Not Drugs” poster outside her door. I so love bugs, but THAT idea was taken. A first grade classroom had “Hugs not Drugs” featuring little children with outstretched hands. Can you say insufferably cute? So what was I going to do? One student in my class loved pugs….no, I don’t think so.

When I worked as substitute, I used to take pictures of interesting bulletin boards or make notes when I saw cool stuff. I rummaged around and found a poem I’d seen in a high school classroom. I reread it and thought third graders could relate to it as well, as it’s all about peer pressure. It’s called Jellybeans Up Your Nose.

Not only did my third graders so “get it,” but they made a great poster and won the poster competition. When we talk about drugs in third grade, most kids think cigarettes. There are a few kids who confide that their parents drink beer. One boy confessed that his mother drank something called a Bloody Mary, not to be confused with the specter that haunts school bathrooms. I tell students that when it comes to alcohol, it’s all about moderation, so they don’t go home and give their parents a hard time. But I have  students whose lives have been torn apart by drugs and are all too familiar with crack cocaine and syringes. It makes for one very interesting conversation.

My students loved drawing pictures of the children with Xs for eyes and anime princesses with cigarettes dangling from their lips.

Jellybeans Up Your Nose

Johnny stuck jellybeans up his nose,
That’s a pretty dumb thing to do.
But the other kids said, “Hey Johnny’s real cool!
Let’s put beans in our noses too.”

Well, a kid can’t breathe with beans up his nose,
‘Cause they get all stuck inside.
So Johnny and the kids, well, I hate to say it,
But they coughed and they choked and they died.

That’s a pretty grim tale, I must admit,
And it may not all be true.
Still when somebody cool does something dumb.
You don’t have to do it too.

The origin of Red Ribbon Week is actually a pretty grim tale itself. To find out all about it, go to Red Ribbon Week on Wikipedia. It’s an interesting read. And it’s all true.

Being a G-Rated Teacher Sucks October 3, 2009

Posted by alwaysjan in Teaching.
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Dr House

Third grade teachers don’t ever to go to the bathroom, and we certainly don’t swear. On some days I feel like Mary Poppins, when at heart I’m really Dr. House. But high school is a whole different ball game. When my son, Ian, walked into his art class on the first day of school, his teacher, Ms. Thurber, didn’t mince words. She’d been there, done that, and had the t-shirt to prove it.

She informed the class, “I don’t care who is gay, or who you think is gay. Just don’t carve it on the tables.”  She continued, “And if you feel like writing a note that says,  ‘F&ck Ms. Thurber,’ you can throw it over there on that pile with all the others.”

In a Dr. House vs. Ms. Thurber match-up, my money would be on the old girl. You gotta love a teacher who tells it like it is, but then I teach third grade. Would anyone like a spoonful of sugar?

Photo Credit:  Dr. House by sweetxandxbitter on flickr.

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.

Teachers Talking Trash September 5, 2009

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When you become a teacher, after you’re sworn in and take a vow of poverty, you’re given a list of items to immediately begin hoarding. Paper towel rolls, styrofoam meat trays, yarn, buttons, anything shiny.  These items are no longer trash, but “treasures.”  Yes, the photo is taken from a flyer teachers received.  The trash treasure was coming to us!  Of course by the time I saw this, the “Treasure Truck” had already come and gone.  Not to worry.  We teachers are a resourceful lot.

On the way to see Louis, my trainer, today I saw gold a dumpster.  I casually walked by to check out the merchandise.  Pay dirt! The local furniture store had thrown out piles of upholstery fabric samples.  Each piece was on a miniature hanger, and my first thought was, “What could I use these teeny tiny hangers for?  To hang up little books?”  Fortunately, that thought passed.  I blame it on the heat.  It was over 100 degrees, but there I stood stocking up like a squirrel preparing for winter.  There was just too much to take in.  So now I’m waiting for the sun to set, so I can go back under the cover of darkness for all those vinyl flooring samples.  They’ve got to be good for…something!

Last week after our class for our masters degree, my friend Teresa (who lives and breathes art) and I both spotted three bags of shredded documents sitting out in the hall.  We couldn’t believe someone hadn’t already taken them.  We convinced Erin, who’s in our cohort, to be our cohort in crime. With the bags slung over our backs like Santa, we made our way down the 180 steps to the parking lot below.  More than once, Erin asked, “And why do you guys need these again?”

My bag is currently sitting on my living room couch.  Oh, the possibilities! My husband just shakes his head.  He once watched me climb into a dumpster in New York City to retrieve a cache of heavy duty cardboard rolls. Then there was that dinner we went to where I collected the mussel shells off everyone’s plates.  That was for an art project.  I had to soak those babies for three days in a bucket of vinegar to get rid of the stink.

Hey, it sure would stink if some other enterprising hoarder teacher beat me to those vinyl flooring samples.  The sun has set.  It’s time.

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

Posted by alwaysjan in Teaching.
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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.

Swine Flu in a Classroom Near You August 9, 2009

Posted by alwaysjan in Health, Teaching.
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I’ve read three articles in as many days advising schools how to handle an outbreak of the swine flu.  I had my pig Maisie do some research, and she’s reported back with her findings:  Although it might not be on your initial class roster, it seems the swine flu is set to enter your classroom this fall.

Federal officials at the Center for Disease Control (CDC) are recommending that schools be closed as a last resort.  The New York Times has all the news that’s fit to print, so if you want to check out more stats, acronyms, and some recommendations, click on that link.  You can also check out flu.gov.

Fortunately, the initial panic about the swine flue as a pandemic that could potentially kill millions has subsided.  But the swine flu is still no laughing matter. Over one million Americans have been infected so far.  If you’re a teacher, you’re already accustomed to being on the front lines.  Or should I say the first in line to get “what’s going round.”  Children have an uncanny ability to sneeze, cough, hack, spew, vomit…  Okay, I could go on, but you get the picture.  To date, the flu aka H1N1 has been mild and has not mutated – yet.  (Cue scary music.)

I, for one, am marshaling all my resources.  All teachers are issued a first-aid kit at the start of the year.  The first year I kept looking for this “kit.”  I finally realized it’s a Ziploc bag containing a pair of latex gloves, some band-aids, and a few cotton balls thrown in for good measure.

The CDC suggested that schools might want to issue masks to personnel. Sounds good, but I’d settle for kleenex.  Last year, my students were reduced to blowing their noses on art tissue paper.  Hey, it works.  But when I tore off a piece of bright green tissue paper and handed it to my new student from Korea, I was shocked when I saw the dye had rubbed off on his upper lip.  He had a bright green Charlie Chaplin mustache that wouldn’t wash off. So, kleenex would be good.

It was also suggested that teachers could move students’ desks father apart. Now, my students don’t have individual desks.  They sit at tables for two, and now that my class size has been upped from 20 to 24, I’m still trying to figure out where to put THOSE kids.  My cup may runneth over, but the space in my classroom does not.  The CDC recommends that schools might want to offer web-based instruction for students out sick.  Can you hear me laughing hysterically?

One final note.  My pig Maisie wanted to make sure I mentioned the CDC said “People cannot become infected by eating pork or pork products. Cooking pork to an internal temperature of 160 degrees Farenheit kills the virus as well as other bacteria.”  Maisie doesn’t actually recommend EVER cooking pork.

She also wants you to know she’s never been sick a day in her life.  Okay, there was that time she ate five pounds of butter set aside for Christmas baking.  But that would upset your tummy too.  On a more positive note, Maisie smelled like a butter cookie for a week.

The Digital Natives Are Restless July 22, 2009

Posted by alwaysjan in Food for Thought, Techology.
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American Gothic

When I arrived at my friend Cathy’s house in Kansas City, the first order of business was to log onto their wifi account. Cathy had a password written down, but it wasn’t working, so she called her 23-year-old son. Matt rattled it off over the phone. Twenty plus letters and numbers. “This isn’t a password – it’s the nuclear launch code,” Cathy mused. Once I was back on-line, my DT’s (Digital Tremors) subsided. Whew.

That got me thinking about how everything has changed due to technology. On the flight back to the Midwest, the plane couldn’t take off. “There are still electronic devices on in rows 15, 32, and 34,”  the flight attendant announced. So we waited. Another announcement. Finally, we taxied.

I give my parents, who are in their 80s, a pass on technology. My dad bought a computer years ago and has so many security programs installed to prevent identity theft that every time you press a key a security alert pops up about possible suspicious activity. Talk about killing the creative muse.

Both my parents have cell phones, but I don’t bother to call them because they’re usually turned off. And my parents never figured out how to retrieve messages. I have to admit that it wasn’t until we ditched our landline, that I was forced to figure out all of those features on my cell phone. And I’m still figuring out how to shoot an independent film on it.

While I was visiting my parents, my brother was there along with his daughter, Allison, and her friend, Jeff, both who just graduated from college. For them technology is second nature. Missed the last episode of True Blood? Jeff downloaded it for me and emailed it to my Dropbox so I could watch it on my computer.

Jeff carried his iPhone with him and set it on the table during meals. Sitting at Runza Hut, we got talking about whether the exquisite and highly addictive Runza (a doughy mound filled with ground beef and cabbage) was of Polish or German origin. Jeff googled it. Turned out it’s German/Russian. So there! Meanwhile, my phone kept dinging. “I keep hearing something,” my mother said looking around. It was yet another incoming text message on my phone. Sometimes technology can be too much of a good thing.

Because my parents Wifi connection was spotty, I was worried I’d have to cruise the neighborhood hoping to piggyback on someone else’s wireless. Jeff informed me this is called War Driving. I googled the Urban Dictionary just to make sure. Who knew?

My parents were most impressed with how you can go to Google Maps and see a 360-degree street view of your home. And all of this on an iPhone! When my mother asked how we could look inside the houses, I bit my tongue. Then my dad asked how much an IHOP costs. There’s a learning curve here and at this late stage in their lives, it’s a steep a hill to climb. No, make that a mountain.

Last summer, I read an interesting article called Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants by Marc Prensky that explains how those who’ve grown up with technology, the digital natives, actually think and process information differently than the rest of us. Whether you teach kids, have one, or were ever one yourself, it’s a fascinating read.

The Homework Myth July 6, 2009

Posted by alwaysjan in Teaching.
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I’m beginning to question the whole “homework reinforces learning and teaches responsibility” crap argument. Recently, I stumbled upon a Q&A with Alfie Kohn, author of The Homework Myth, that was published in the American School Board Journal.

Okay, I’ve still got to do my homework on homework (as in, buy and read the book), but according to the interview, there are NO studies that show that assigning homework in elementary school (grades K-3) improves achievement.  I know what you’re thinking.  At least it promotes self-discipline, right?  But according to Kohn, there’s no scientific evidence to prove this is true either.  Hey, is that my pig that just flew by?

I’ve always assigned homework.  Your reading log must be signed by a parent every night.  “I don’t care if your parent is passed out on the couch,” I’ve been known to say.  “It’s your responsibility to put a pen in their hand and move it around!”  Students who come to school without a parent signature are benched for morning recess.  Okay, it’s only 15 minutes, and they can still use the bathroom, but it’s the thought that counts.  I’ve had students weeping over the loss of that 10 minutes of runaround time.  We spend maybe 15 minutes a day correcting homework and another ten minutes talking about the homework that’s to be done that night.  It adds up.

For the record, I’ve spent two years designing and fine turning homework that incorporates the week’s spelling and vocabulary words, and English Language Conventions (read Skills) that we’re studying that week.  But I’m not sure this homework actually helps the kids who need help the most.

I’ve taught a cluster of English Language Learners (ELLs) for the past two years.  The other half of my students are English speakers, and last year I even had one boy who read at a 7th grade level.  They’re all over the spectrum. In a perfect world, I’d be differentiating homework.  But to be honest, I don’t have the time.  I could ask my student from Mexico to practice her English sight words every night, but there’s no one at home who speaks English. And when I looked at the homework one of my Korean students turned in, I could see his father had translated it word by word and then written the spelling sentences for him.

I’m hearing more and more that it’s not “practice makes perfect,” but “perfect practice makes perfect.”  So how does homework promote that?   Or should it?  Do students really need to work a second shift?

I do remember one homework assignment that yielded results.  Our vocabulary word was “exist” and I had students ask their parents (or whoever was in charge) about things we have now that didn’t “exist” when their parents were in the third grade.  Oh, the list we made!  Cell phones, iPods, Invisalign braces –  the list went on and on.  Of course, one girl’s father told her toilets didn’t exist, but I chalked that up to him growing up in rural Mexico (or maybe he just didn’t understand the question).

I also sent students home with plastic straws and paperclips and had them construct right, isosceles, and obtuse triangles, which they had to “hand in” the next morning by sorting them into the correct piles.  If only homework was always that interesting.

Once my students got the hang of Accelerated Reading (AR), I let them take home books from the class library so they could  take the on-line quiz the next day.  Talk about motivated readers!  And my students can alphabetize their spelling words and draw a line between a vocabulary word and its meaning, but still…

I’ve only had a few parents over the years who asked for more homework. They tend to congregate in the GATE clusters.  When parents do ask for more, I tell them their child would be better off watching the Discovery Channel or baking a cake.  Some look relieved.  Others are confused.

The week my students took THE TEST (the one that will determine who’s getting left behind), teachers were told not to assign homework.

A collective sigh of relief echoed through the hallways.  No dashing down to copy homework only to find the copier was broken.  No dashing down to find the copier had been commandeered by one of those upper grade teachers, who are always in the midst of printing out 35+ packets.  Waiting to use the copier is a lot like standing in line at a Methadone clinic waiting for my fix turn.  Fifty some teachers, two copiers.  You can do the math.  If life was fair, there’d be a technician chained to the copier 24/7.

To avoid this, I have all the homework on my computer at home and print it out on Sundays.  Did I mention that Sunday has become my least favorite day of the week?

In my master’s program, we had to pick a topic to do an Action Research project on over the next year.  My cohort’s topic is…homework!  No sooner had we decided on our topic than our district revamped its homework policy. The new guidelines cite the importance of daily homework to “reinforce learning” and report that “homework promotes responsibility.”

Okay, the jury’s still out, but it should be interesting to see what our research reveals.  In the meantime, if you don’t have that parent signature on your reading log, you’re benched.

Playground Posse June 22, 2009

Posted by alwaysjan in Teaching.
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As a “highly qualified teacher” it’s only fitting that I’m expected to do Yard Duty for 15 minutes twice a week. (Andy Warhol had the math wrong – It’s 15 minutes of fame 2 times a week for an entire school year!) This job is just too important to be left to amateurs, although my posse includes minimum wage employees.  

This year we got to “choose” the days we wanted had to do yard duty along with the times.  I signed up to do the “before school” shift, not because I’m an early morning person, but to get it out of the way.  

I lucked out and got assigned to the climber and back basketball court. Whew!  I managed to dodge the most dreaded of all Yard Duty assignments – Supervising the restrooms. That’s where the real action is.  But assignments change each year, so I’m not counting my chickens.

When I’m on yard duty, I’m basically back on Sixth Grade Safety Patrol. Throw in a little Mall Cop and the LAPD’s “to protect and to serve” motto. You get the picture.  A lot of school districts hire people just do to Yard Duty aka Playground Supervision, but not my district.  This is not a job that just anyone can do. 

Case in point.  When my husband was in art school, he got a lunchtime job working as a Playground Aide at the local public school.  He was fired after two weeks when he kicked a kid in the butt, after the kid spit on him.  Unlike my husband, I take pride in my ability to maintain a cool demeanor when spittle is dribbling down my face.  A police officer once told me, “I couldn’t do the job that you do – not without my gun.”  That’s why us teachers get paid the big bucks.

Monday Morning.  “Hey you!”  I yell.  “It’s Monday.  First graders only on the climber!”   “But I AM in first grade,” the boy protests.  I look him over.  This kid is HUGE.  Freakishly huge.  But several other first graders assure me he is indeed in first grade.  Geez Louise.   When Tyrano-boy runs across the bridge, the entire structure shudders.  I decide to keep an eye on him.  “I’m watching you,” I say, just to let him know I’m nobody’s fool.

I spend an inordinate amount of time standing at the bottom of the slide repeating the mantra.  “We don’t go UP the slide, we go DOWN it.”  I say this so often and to the same kids, that someone suggested we just have a recorded message.  Hey, I came up with an even better idea.  You know those metal spikes that puncture your tires when you drive the wrong way? 

I also do a lot of conflict resolution which usually culminates with rock, paper, scissors or an insincere, “I’m sorry.”  Every day it’s the same kids who get in trouble.  Hmmm, I wonder.

And there’s always a small group of junkies students who huddle under the climber snarfing Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.  NPR did a great segment called Kids Love Hot Cheetos But Schools Hate Them.  We teachers know the signs.  Red encrusted lips and the insatiable need to drink water.

At my old school,  I was on Yard Duty on day when I got a report of illicit activity in the girls restroom.  I slipped into the girl’s restroom and could hear the telltale rustling of the bag in the last stall.  There I found three Latino girls standing on the toilet sharing a Family Size bag of Hot Cheetos. “You are so busted!” I said.  I like to use that line of Kevin Spacey’s from American Beauty.  In fact, I like it so much, I actually look for opportunities to use it.

Wednesday Morning. “Hey you!” I yell. “It’s Wednesday. Third graders only on the climber!”  Since I teach third grade, I can easily sort these kids out. Third graders have typically graduated from Flamin’ Hot Cheetos to cell phones.  

Personally, I don’t have a problem with kids having cell phones, as long as they keep them in their backpacks.   But kids seem to have this need to show their phone to friends.  They Show and someone Tells.  That’s when I step in. “Oh, you are so busted!” I announce, as I confiscate the phone.  What they don’t know, is that when I walk away, I can’t help but smile.  Hey, I’m nobody’s fool.

C is for Chaos June 19, 2009

Posted by alwaysjan in Politics.
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The writing is on the wall, but can you read it?



When I got up this morning (Ahhh, first day of summer vacation) my husband was reading the newspaper.  “It seems like it’s on the verge of exploding,” he said.  I thought he was talking about my school district. Turned out he was talking about Iran.  

What a colossal mess the state of California has made.  And who’s going to pick it up? Us. The people. And teachers, of course.  We’re good at picking up messes (primarily messy parenting).  

Friday, after teachers had packed up their classrooms for summer vacation, emails arrived from our union.  The RIFs (Reduction in Force notices) keep a comin’.  Bottom line: Thirty-four MORE elementary teachers in the district are to be RIF’d.  Also included in the cuts are a smattering of English, History, and PE teachers at the high school level.  

My district isn’t huge, so that’s a lotta people.  People who have children. People who have rent and mortgages to pay.  People who are still paying off their student loans so that they could become a teacher.  An updated seniority list is to be released next Wednesday, so everyone’s on edge.  It reminds me of the classic movie Lifeboat.  Supplies are running low and everyone’s looking to see who’s going to be thrown overboard next. (What’s that scent you’re wearing?  “Chum?”)  The sharks are circling.

For the record, my job is not in jeopardy, but those of many of my colleagues and friends are.  It’s not like the students are going anywhere.  If anything, we’re starting to see a slow exodus of students arriving from private school whose parents can no longer foot that bill. 

I always tell people that when it comes to school, I expect chaos, so I’m never disappointed.  That said, I’m disappointed.  In the state.   In the city. In my district.  I don’t have enough fingers to point.  

We’re not the only district in trouble.  The Los Angeles Times ran a story today about how teachers in that district have “accepted a new contract that includes no pay raise for last year, this year or next year, but will allow them to take formal contract grievances public.” According to the story, “more than 2,500 UTLA members could be laid off as of July 1.”  Ouch!

Freezing salaries opens yet another can of worms.  I start a master’s program (along with two other teachers, one who’s been RIF’d) next week. I’ve already paid $1400 for the first quarter’s tuition.  I don’t mind telling you that I’m getting my master’s for the salary bump. If salaries are frozen, where does that leave teachers like me?  

This is not a script with a happy ending  – Not for those teachers laid off, or for those left to manage herds of children come September. 

My son Taylor forwarded me the following email.  Food for thought.

In a small town in the United States, the place looks almost totally deserted. It is tough times, everybody is in debt, and everybody lives on credit.
Suddenly, a rich tourist comes to town.
He enters the town’s only hotel, lays a 100 dollar bill on the reception counter as a deposit, and goes to inspect the rooms upstairs in order to pick one.
The hotel proprietor takes the 100 dollar bill and runs to pay his debt to the butcher.
The butcher takes the 100 dollar bill, and runs to pay his debt to the pig farmer.
The pig farmer runs to pay his debt to the supplier of his feed and fuel.
The supplier of feed and fuel takes the 100 dollar bill and runs to pay his debt to the town’s prostitute that in these hard times, gave her “services” on credit.
The hooker runs to the hotel, and pays off her debt with the 100 dollar bill to the hotel proprietor to pay for the rooms that she rented when she brought her clients there.
The hotel proprietor then lays the 100 dollar bill back on the counter so that the rich tourist will not suspect anything.

At that moment, the tourist comes down after inspecting the rooms, and takes back his 100 dollar bill, saying that he did not like any of the rooms, and leaves town.
No one earned anything. However, the whole town is now without debt, and looks to the future with a lot of optimism.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how the United States Government and the State of California are doing business today.

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.

One Bad Apple May 30, 2009

Posted by alwaysjan in Teaching.
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The Los Angeles Times recently ran a story about how difficult it is to get rid of teachers, who’ve been deemed, for one reason or another, to be incompetent, but have tenure. Yes, I have tenure, and yes, the first two years I taught,  I made sure I flew under the radar and didn’t make any waves because I wanted that tenure.  That said, I’m a damn good teacher.  

Actually, the majority of the teachers I’ve worked with, and work with now are good, if not excellent, teachers.  Here’s the bottom line.  Teaching is TOO much work (without commensurate pay), to do this job unless you’re passionate about children and education.  (Being a Bleeding Heart or a Masochist can also take you far in this profession.)  But there are those who should hang up their spurs and ride off into the sunset.  I don’t pretend to have the answer to this problem, but I do have a story.  So, I give you Exhibit A (or shall I say Exhibit B, as in burnout).

I was in the Los Angeles Unified School District’s (LAUSD – Yes, it sounds like LOST and how appropriate is that?) Intern program back in 1997 when California was implementing class size reduction.  Teachers were in short supply, so anyone with a pulse was fair game. After six weeks of intensive training in classroom management, I was ready to be dropped behind enemy lines into a classroom.

My mission – Take over  a modified bilingual class (3 English speakers and 17 Spanish speakers) mid-year.   The teacher, “Dr. B ,” was moving to an administrative post at the school.  I was to observe him for three days (Think – Sitting at the foot of the master.)  Then the class would be MINE.  I was nervous, but excited.  I brought along paper to take notes, as I had so much to learn.  I needn’t have bothered.

Dr. B took immediately took a shine to me.  You should know that when you’re the only adult in a classroom all day, any contact with someone over three feet tall is a cause for celebration.   He pulled up a chair for me to sit in, then sat down beside me.  I thought I was going to see him in action, but he rarely got out of the chair.  There we sat side by side for three days – Sort of like a road trip only there were 20 others along for the ride whose final destination was supposed to be Knowledge.

Dr. B assigned the students a lot of seat work.  Copy this.  Copy that. Recopy this.  Recopy that.  This freed him up to regale me with stories about how he’d worked as a mercenary in Central America. Oh, the stories I could tell you!  I hadn’t realized until then that being a killer for hire was actually a career option.

These were obviously Dr. B’s glory days and he still played the part.   He drove an old Jeep and walked around the campus with an Australian outback hat that made him look like a deranged Teddy Roosevelt (sans monocle).  His hobby was hunting wild boar. When I mentioned I had a pet pig, I saw a glint in his eye.  I have to admit that I actually enjoyed talking to Dr. B.  But, what did I learn from the master?

When it was time for lunch, Dr B would tell the class a good 15-20 minutes ahead of time to get ready. He’d have them line up, but then tell them they were too noisy and needed to return to their seats. “We’ll just have to try that again,” he’d say and then have them line up again.  “Still too noisy. Let’s try that one more time.”

That’s when he turned to me, and HONEST TO GOD, said,  “A really good way to kill time is to draw out the transitions.”  I didn’t blink.  Then he rose from his chair and we walked the students to lunch.

Eventually, I dropped out of the District Intern program and left the school. Last I heard, Dr. B’s job as an administrator had been phased out.  So, he returned to the classroom.   And there he sits.

Photo Credit:  Mercenary by kojman47 on Flickr.

Teaching Sex Ed May 1, 2009

Posted by alwaysjan in Teaching.
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“Are you comfortable teaching Sex Ed?”  My interview for a long-term sub job as a 6th grade Math and Science teacher was going extremely well when this question stopped me in my tracks.  I really needed the job.  I really needed the money. “No problem,” I said without a moment’s hesitation.

Middle School is a DMZ between elementary school and High School. Nothing prepared me for Middle School, except my own miserable experience in Junior High.  And just referring to it as Junior High dates me. To be honest, I was less intimidated about teaching Sex Ed than teaching math.  The principal informed me that the regular teacher had fallen off a desk while hanging a project up from the ceiling and was out on disability. (Later, I learned there was more to it than that, but that’s between you and me.)

I taught one period of math followed by one period of science with the same students twice a day.  The good part was I got to keep the good students for TWO whole periods.  The bad part was I got to keep the bad students for TWO whole periods.   The class was pretty much equally divided between Asians (mainly Chinese) and Latinos (mostly Mexican).  I had my token white student, who had Asperger Syndrome, and could rattle off the box office take for every Batman movie.  And there was one African American girl named Princess.  Don’t get me wrong.  There were some really wonderful kids, whose parents couldn’t afford to send them to private school.  And there were some really not so wonderful kids, who already had two strikes against them.  Once the hormones kick in, sometimes it’s hard to tell one from the other.

If you’re like Middle Schoolers, you’re already getting restless.  “When is she going to start talking about the good stuff?”  Penis. Vagina.  I just threw those in to keep your interest.

During Period 4,  I taught Intervention Math for students who were more than two years below grade level.  This class included two Gypsy boys, who’d moved to California from Chicago when their father was released from prison.  They had never been to school, spoke Bulgarian, and were still learning their ABC’s.  I had another student, Eddie, who was prime gang recruitment fodder.  Yeah, it was grim.  If things got really bad, I could call Ed, the behavior aide, who wore mirrored wraparound sunglasses, and would escort the “offender” from the classroom.  Round up the usual suspects.

After the first month, two girls told me someone had written something bad about me in a book.  “Does it rhyme with witch?” I asked.  They exchanged looks and seemed disappointed that I wasn’t more shocked.  So, I was less than thrilled at the prospect of teaching these same kids Sex Ed.

Oh, I forgot to mention one small detail.  In the class next door, there was a 6th grader who was pregnant. Yes, the girl (and she was a girl) was 12.  The father was 19 and the girl’s mother planned to raise the child as her own. (Think “She’s my sister!/She’s my daughter!” from Chinatown)  The girl’s belly was already showing, and some of the girls wanted to have a baby shower. Suddenly, teaching Sex Ed seemed way more important than teaching the kids to calculate the radius of a circle.

There didn’t seem to be an actual curriculum for Sex Ed.  There was just talk about The Film.  And about the all important Money Shot, where the animated penis gets an erection.  But, I had yet to see The Film, so I had no idea what to expect.  Another veteran teacher, who’d taught Sex Ed for years, told me she liked to break the ice by writing PENIS and VAGINA in huge letters on the board.  But, I was a sub.  I really needed the money.  I did not plan to write PENIS or VAGINA in huge letters on the board.

There were two Chinese American girls, who sat at the back of the classroom.  Compared to some of the other students, who were 12 going on 21, they were almost childlike and sat two stuffed bears on their desks each day.  I couldn’t help but notice on the day we were to discuss Sex Ed, they’d made blindfolds out of Kleenex and covered the bears’ eyes.

Day 1 -The atmosphere in the classroom crackled with anticipation.  I thought we’d start by talking about where our attitudes and information about sex come from.  We made a list: Parents, friends, TV, movies, music, music videos, religion, and books (including comic books with those busty vixens who ride shotgun to the superheroes).  So far, so good.  I was actually surprised at how easy this was for me.

Finally, it was time for The Film.  We should have just fast-fowarded to the “penis rising” shot as the kids were so eager to see the rumored launch, they weren’t paying attention to anything else.   The star of the show finally made its appearance.  The animation wasn’t top notch and the tip of the penis wasn’t even in the shot.  It was like watching a bulldozer slowly lift a load of …?

After the film, students (some who were still flustered) were to write out questions.  All students received a piece of paper and had to fold it it up, even if it was blank, and drop it into a bag.  That way no one would know who asked the question.  I read the first question, “Do people sweat when they have sex?”  The class let out out a collective groan and looked at the boy with Asperger’s, who they knew had asked THAT question.  “Well, sex is physical, so it is possible you’re going to sweat,”  I answered.  Okay, one down.  I grabbed some more questions.

“Is having sex really like warm apple pie?” “Why do women like to be handcuffed to beds for sex?”  “What’s a dildo?” “Will drinking Mountain Dew prevent you from getting pregnant?”  “What’s rape?” “What makes people gay?”

Holy sh*t!  Some of the questions seemed incredibly vulgar, but I came to realize that these were the only words the kids knew. Some questions were so graphic, I couldn’t read them aloud, but had to paraphrase them, or just toss them in the trash.  When it came to sex, these kids knew Everything and Nothing.  They’d watched sex acts on TV and in movies, but totally out of the context of a loving, committed relationship.

This is what I remember saying:

Because I don’t like apple pie and didn’t see the movie American Pie, that analogy is lost on me.  I do like cherry pie though, so sex could be like cherry pie.

Sex without love is just sex.  It’s like brushing your teeth only you can get pregnant.

I’ve never known any girl who said, “Boy, I wish I’d had sex earlier.”   But I’ve known plenty (including my son’s friend who lost her virginity at 11 when she got drunk at a party) who said, “I sure wish I would have waited so it would have been special.”

If you were a sailor and went off to sea, would you rather your wife keep herself company with a carved replica of “yourself,” or have sex with another guy?

Rape doesn’t have as much to do with sex, as it has to do with violence.  It’s a way for someone to use the act of sex to humiliate another person.

A good recipe for date rape usually includes alcohol.

The bell rang.  But, it was like the students didn’t want to leave.  Sex Ed was two days long, so we had  another day of Q&A.  As the kids filed out the door, I looked over and saw several boys combing through the trash hoping to nab one of the reject questions.   Eddie, the wannabe gang banger, offered to bring one of his condoms the next day, but I told him that wouldn’t be necessary.

Day 2 – The students couldn’t wait to get into class and pick up where we’d left off.

“Handcuffs?” Well, maybe some people find that exciting, but that’s all about make believe (It’s not like I was going to introduce them to S&M), and some people like fantasy more than others.  Just like when you’re a kid and you dress up and pretend you’re someone else.  Remember how you’d pretend to arrest someone and haul them off to jail?  They nodded.  I drew a line on the board.  At one end it said Some People (handcuffs) and at the other end was Most People (masturbation).  Think of it as a Sex Ed graphic organizer.

“Mountain Dew as birth control?”  I recognized the handwriting on that question.  It belonged to a girl who was the top student in the class.  The girl who won the DARE poster contest.  I’d ridden with her in the back of a police car over to the Civic Center when she received the award.   If she thought Mountain Dew might prevent pregnancy, they were all doomed.   “When I was your age, it was Coca-Cola, and that’s just as silly as Mountain Dew,” I said.  “The only way to be 100 percent sure you don’t get pregnant, is not to have sex.”

“What makes people gay?”   What the kids didn’t know (and what I didn’t tell them), was that my own son had come out as gay three weeks earlier, so this was a subject close to my heart.  I told them 10 percent of the population is gay.  Let’s see, that would mean that 3 students in the class could possibly be gay.  But I didn’t go THERE.   Children can be cruel and quick to point fingers.  But, here’s what I did say.

“If one day a year, all of the people who were gay had orange eyes, you’d be amazed at how many people you know have orange eyes. People you know, people you respect, even people you love.   But many of them are afraid to tell you.  They’re afraid that you won’t understand that this is the way they were born.

I was getting ready to pass the bag again when Princess raised her hand. “Can’t we just ask you the questions?” she said, and I realized she was speaking for the whole class.  I nodded.

For the next half hour, students raised their hands and asked me questions that I can’t share with you.  Because what happened was between me and my students.  I answered each question as honestly as I could.   As a parent, I kept in mind what I would want a caring adult to tell my child.

It was almost time for the bell to ring.  There was time for one more question, and this time I got to ask it.  “How many of you would feel comfortable talking to your parents about the stuff we talked about?  The students’ incredulous looks told me what I already knew.  I reminded students that their parents knew a thing or two about sex (after all, THEY were here), and that parents often feel awkward talking about sex too.  As the students flew out the door, I saw the pregnant 6th grader walk past.  I’d like to think that had it been a year earlier…

“Are you comfortable teaching Sex Ed?”   Yes!  I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

Photo Credit:  May is Sex Month on YouthCast by Youthcast1 on Flickr.

Kvetching About Testing April 11, 2009

Posted by alwaysjan in Teaching.
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My favorite book about high stakes testing. The cafeteria serves students salmon because it's good for their brains. Available on Amazon.

Spring has sprung, and as teachers know, April showers bring May flowers testing. Yes, it will soon be time for The TEST.  For students in California, it’s the CST.  High stakes testing that will determine our school’s API (Academic Performance Index), an academic Scarlet Letter that we’ll have to wear in public for an entire year.  Public stoning is a possibility, though for most of us, it’s more about self-flagellation.  Yes, it’s “No Child Left Behind” (or only a few children and hopefully one of them is not yours).  

All of the learning and teachable moments that I’ve shared with my students since September pale in comparison with their performance on The Test.  It is the ultimate trump card and though I’ve taught my students every test-taking strategy on the planet (at least on mine), in the end they’re flying solo.  Unlike in Second Grade, where teachers can read the directions aloud, in Third Grade, students read the directions by themselves.  (Despite all my admonitions, I cross my fingers that they’ll bother to read the directions!)

We have only three more weeks to “prepare” our students for testing.  On our first day back from Spring Break, we’re spending part of our Professional Development day making motivational posters to inspire students.  This is the closest I’ll ever come to being a cheerleader.  Rah rah. 

I don’t believe for a minute that all this emphasis on testing is a reliable indicator of what children have actually learned or are capable of.  Yes, testing provides a measure of accountability, which is necessary, but really! Even my principal, at a recent staff meeting, worried out loud that all this emphasis on test results could lead to “unethical behavior,” or as one teacher shouted out, “You mean, teachers might cheat!”  

The temptation to cheat is a legitimate concern.  Especially with talk about putting students’ test scores in a teacher’s record (as in, “This will go down on your permanent record.”)  Then there’s that talk about financially rewarding teachers based on their students’ test scores. If that were the case, who’d want to teach my class? (Many students who are chronically playing “catch up” because they’re learning English.)

My students have come so far since September, but like a proud mother, I might be a tad biased. Our school librarian still laughs every time she remembers how my new boy from Korea turned to me when checking out a book and asked, “What’s my last name?”  Should I be worried?  Hell, yes! It might say “Miracle Worker” on my coffee cup, but it’s my students who move in mysterious ways (which might explain why they so frequently fall out of their chairs).

A week of testing awaits in May, and once the “offices” (manilla folders stapled together to discourage wandering eyes) go up, I can only cross my fingers, and look to the heavens.  I’m still hoping that April showers WILL bring May flowers.  

Friday Club March 25, 2009

Posted by alwaysjan in Teaching.
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The first year I taught I realized I needed to find a way to reward students who work hard and complete their homework each week. “Friday Club” was born.  Unlike Fight Club, (“the first rule of Fight Club is – Do not to talk about Fight Club“), EVERYBODY talks about Friday Club.  It’s the place to be a quarter ’til three on a Friday afternoon. Are you in?

I lay out the membership qualifications for Friday Club in a letter home to parents on Week 1.  A student cannot participate in Friday Club if 1) I’ve had to call home because of their behavior; 2) another teacher or staff member talked to me about the student’s behavior; 3) A student has incomplete homework that was not completed on the bench, or 4) a student has unfinished classwork or has not met their AR reading weekly point goal.

I let all students participate the first week (even those with less than stellar behavior), as I want them so all see how much fun it is.  But after that first fight (er, Friday), the gloves are off.  I write “Friday Club” on the board with the universal NO symbol over it, and if you mess up during the week that’s where your name goes.

So what do kids DO during Friday Club?  In years past, I’ve had two computers with two versions of “I Spy” on them.  I set the timer for 10 minutes so two kids can play at a time and then rotate. For my English Language Learners, just trying to locate the “tong-goo” is a challenge. When they invariably ask me what it is, I ask them to stick out their tongues. When they do, I say, “That’s your “ton-goo.” They never make THAT mistake again.

Students can draw on the whiteboard, but if it gets out of hand, I set a limit. They love to take turns playing “teacher” and mimic everything I do. If you want to see what your teaching looks like, just sit back and watch your students do the most amazing impression of you. (And you thought they weren’t paying attention!)

I’ve got a bin of board games.  The two mancala boards are the hands-down favorites. Students are also allowed to bring board games or puzzles to share.

This year I’ve got a group of boys who love to play with the math pattern blocks. I’d like to think they’re solving complex mathematical problems, but I know they’re really building forts and dungeons. There’s usually a couple of chess masters who sit locked in a mental battle while all this activity swirls round them.

And there are always those artsy craftsy girls who are happy to just glue beads and bend pipe cleaners to make butterflies.  If I’m lucky, I’ve got one student who can do origami and teach it to the rest. I’ve cut squares of newsprint so they can practice. I’ve got lots of “How to…” books that kids love to go through – How to make hand shadows, puppets, draw monsters…

Last year I had two boys who designed elaborate marble chutes using paper towel tubes. I took to dragging in boxes for them which they fashioned into half-pipes and jumps. I liked to think they were destined to be engineers or architects, but then I’m prone to optimism.

I’ve always let one child walk around and pass out ONE red licorice whip. This is the first year my students have been so sweet, I haven’t bothered to break the seal on the licorice. (But, I’ve seen the students coming up from the second grade, so I’m already stockpiling licorice.)

Some days, with all the direct instruction, I feel like I’m teaching junior college. What I love about Friday Club is my kids get to act like kids. And that 30-minutes gives me time to clean up and prepare for Monday, or just go around and talk to kids one-on-one – something that’s often hard to do during the regular school day.

I used to have the kids who weren’t in Friday Club sit at their desk and write standards, e.g.,” I will do my personal best.” (No one is allowed to “distract” them). Sometimes I had them write the standards in cursive as that seemed less draconian. (And yes, some kids can write standards until the cows come home and they’ll still misbehave and be writing the same old standards the following week.)

This year I’ve had a terrific class, so when a kid sits Friday Club out, I have them write me a letter about what’s going on in their life or they can tell me their plan for improving their behavior. (I’m big on telling kids you’ve got to have a plan, or you plan to fail.)

I have a student who missed Friday Club a while back. He hadn’t been returning his homework and when he did, it was sloppily done. I told him to write me a letter. He wrote he was upset since his dad left. (I found out his father had been deported). Knowing this, I was able to sit and talk to him. I’ve found that the kids who aren’t eligible for Friday Club are often the very ones who need someone to talk to.

During Friday Club, some of my former students invariably stop by. They’re supposed to be en route to the bathroom, but I know they’re taking a trip down Memory Lane. “Ah, Friday Club,” they say wistfully. There’s always a collective groan when I tell students it’s time to start cleaning up. When I ding the bell, the kids have to clean up EVERYTHING. (One of my students loves to tell visitors, “Ms. M is a horrible maid – Just ask her husband!”)

But I’ve got to get my students out the door cause I’ve got my own Friday Club to go to. It’s called Happy Hour.

Art Smarts #1 March 19, 2009

Posted by alwaysjan in Art Education.
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Close-up of art by 8-year-old artist








Black construction paper.  White glue.  Chalk.  It’s that easy.  (Okay, I used pastels instead of chalk, which aren’t that cheap, but you can get a lot of mileage out of a couple of boxes). I’d seen the fantastic artwork done by second graders displayed in the hall using this process.  That art was simpler – a straight line, a curvy line, and a zigzag line, with the shapes colored in between.  Wonderfully abstract images.  Some of my third graders had already “been there, done that,” so I upped the ante.  Since we’ve studying fractions, I had them fold their paper into fourths.  (I’m big on killing one bird with two stones -better yet, pummel that bird with as many standards (er, I mean stones) as you can lay your hands on.

The directions were to draw a geometric shape (a triangle) in 1/4, an organic design in 1/4, and a spiral in 1/4. The last quarter was free choice (that always elicits a cheer). No drawing in pencil first either.  I drew a couple of examples on the board then turned my students loose.

Glue on paper before it's dried

Glue on paper before it's dried

The biggest problem was even though I’d checked the Elmer’s glue bottles, half of them were clogged.  I spent a fair amount of time bending paperclips to try and get the glue flowing.  Note to self.  Next time, have a student test all of the bottles ahead of time!  A few students were a little heavy-handed when it came to squeezing the glue, but overall it went quite smoothly.

I showed students how to carry their papers over to the floor like a tray of cookies, or else the glue would start running.  I hoped that if we laid the papers in front of my big fan, the glue might dry while we were at lunch. Wishful thinking.  This is a 2-day project.

I cordoned off the “drying” area with rope.  One student remarked it was like having an art gallery in our classroom. The children proceeded to crowd the rope to get a better view of their art.   Yes, it did look like a gallery – on the floor and laid out over several chairs.  When one boy decided he was going to be the museum “guard,” I sent them all back to their seats.





By the next day, the white glue had dried so that it was clear.  I gave a quick lesson in how to use the pastels.  Don’t use them like crayons; use the sides. Each table got a paper plate of various colors and  I suggested they complete 1/4 then walk around to see what other students were doing.  There’s always a couple of “Class Artists” who are only to happy to share their expertise.




Trouble Shooting:  1) There’s always those kids who just use the same old colors on the school rug-red, blue, yellow, and green.  I suggested they experiment with blending colors or working with only cool colors and then using one warm color.

2) A couple of kids paid no attention to the raised glue lines.  They just wanted to color in big areas and viewed the lines as “speed bumps.”   I had to get them to slow down and work within the lines.


Considering it was the first time I taught the lesson, I thought the results were stunning.  When the pastel goes over the glue, it takes on almost a metallic or jewel-tone look.  Ooooh!  Ahhhhh!

Cursing Cursive March 16, 2009

Posted by alwaysjan in Teaching.
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Millennial Generation Seen As Increasingly Cursive Illiterate” was the headline story in the NEA’s The Opening Bell on Jan 5th. One teacher lamented that cursive is “almost being forced out” of the elementary curriculum due to “the priorities of No Child Left Behind.” My reaction? Boo hoo.

I teach third grade – Ground Zero for teaching cursive. The first week of school, I have my students complete a variety of assignments that go into a Time Capsule (okay, it’s just a decorated paper towel roll with tissue paper glued on the ends).  About Me. My Favorite Things. My Best Friend. You get the picture. Then I have them write, “In third grade we learn how to write in cursive.” There’s always that one kid who already knows cursive, but the rest, after some moaning and groaning, just make something up.  It usually looks like they wrote with their foot.

In May, I have my students write the same sentence again. At Open House, they get to open their Time Capsule and see how much smarter they’ve become (this has only backfired twice). Students laugh hysterically when they put the two samples of their cursive side by side.

Recently I ran across my own report card from 6th grade and was surprised to see that I’d received  a grade in Penmanship, with subcategories for letter size and formation, Slant, Spacing, and Neatness!  I had a check on Slant, but received an “I” for “Improved” two quarters later. Whew! But that was BC  – before Computers. Almost everything I write now (aside from the grocery list) is on the computer. I’m honest with my students. I only use cursive to sign my name, and then I challenge them to try and read my signature.

I’ve got two students this year that are still printing letters using “The Claw” technique. They literally grip that stub of a pencil in their crab claw. Now this was something that was supposed to have been addressed in first grade, so I have to set them straight. No matter how brilliant they are, if they apply for a job and fill out the application using “The Claw,” they’re going to be shown the door. So I’ve got some kids still learning how to hold a pencil.

Not that teaching cursive isn’t a teacher’s dream. Put on some classical music and watch the kids zone out as they write an entire row of double “l’s.” In a soothing voice, I coo, “take that letter all the way up to the belt line” or “remember, it’s like each letter is a breaking wave” (adding whooshing and swooshing sounds is optional). For that smarty pants who already knows cursive, I have a satchel filled with calligraphy markers and a How to Write Calligraphy book. (I’d like to think I’m giving them a head start on the art of forging historical documents.)

I’d much rather have my students perfecting their keyboarding skills in computer lab. My students take Accelerated Reader tests on-line and some can take 15 minutes just to type in the title of the book.  Most of the research for their projects is now done on-line.  If they’re going to have to learn cursive, they should at least be able to fashion their own quill pen.

My friend Kristina said her third grade teacher had her class write the same sentence over and over. “The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy sleeping bear.” This single sentence has ALL the letters in the alphabet in it. Yep, I checked. It’s a big improvement over the last sentence I had my students write, “Writing in cursive is obsolete!”

Another teacher (who writes in cursive and prides herself on not having a computer) took issue. “I’ll have you know that I’m taking a night class in French and my teacher writes everything in cursive.” Leave it to the French. I rest my case.


Butt, Naked? March 8, 2009

Posted by alwaysjan in Health, Teaching.
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Nothing prepared my third grade girls, or me for that matter, for a walk through the women’s locker room at a nearby local aquatic center. No, there wasn’t anything titillating. Tits, yes, but nothing titillating. It was strictly R-rated – “R” as in  Real. Real people. Real bodies. Real scary – as in adult naked women, who bore no resemblance to Hannah Montana, toweling off. The horror!

First, some back story. Our entire third grade was given the opportunity to participate in the center’s “Olympic Challenge.” Four weeks of swimming lessons, four days a week, at the most gorgeous aquatic center imaginable. Swimming doesn’t get any better than this.

But to get to that gorgeous pool, you have to go through the locker room. Now, I never liked locker rooms when I was a kid. In middle school, I was so skinny that I could hide INSIDE my locker to avoid the dreaded gang shower. Luckily, the swim lessons were provided by young hard-bodied instructors. Us teachers got to sit pool side warming a bench – fully clothed, ostensibly “grading papers.”

No sooner had we marked our territory with the our grade books, than a wide-eyed boy emerged from the men’s locker room. “There’s a naked man in there!” he announced, as though he’d just seen an alien. Yeah, the boys have their own issues.

The teacher I partnered with has spent a lot of time in Europe and is married to a European. She gave me the impression they actually have a hard time keeping clothes on those fun-loving Europeans. But reading The Emperor Who Had No Clothes two weeks earlier was the closest my class had come to discussing nudity. We’d decided that the Emperor was wearing his “birthday suit,” though some kids later wrote that he was “butt naked.” (I don’t have a problem with the word “butt,” unless it’s preceded by the word “big.”)

I told my students to hurry up and change. They had no reason to linger in the locker room. “It’s not like you’re at Starbucks,” I told them. The first week was the worst. My Korean girls opened all the lockers and then draped towels between them so as to make small private dressing rooms. At least, that’s what I was told. I only set foot in the locker room once and the collective scream that went up sent me scurrying outside.

The first day, kids had to try on a swim suit (which they got to keep). Several of my bigger girls had to try on more than one to get just the right fit. One girl, who can look me eye to eye, sat pool-side the first week because she was “coming down with a cold.” After a few days, the swim instructor told me she needed try on a suit so she’d be ready to swim. The instructor then handed me three suits.

The girl hunkered down in a bathroom stall and I had to talk her through trying on each suit. Lots of grunting and groaning followed by, “Oops!  I think I have it on backwards.”  I offered to take a look, but she was horrified at the prospect. I finally convinced her this was okay, but first I had put on my dark glasses and keep my eyes shut as I’d promised. I groped around and fiddled with the straps. Then I was granted a quick look. “Hmmm.  I think the straps cut into your back,” I said, reaching for the next size up.

I groused as I heard the girl’s elbows knock against the sides of the stall, “You could have at least chosen a handicapped stall!” At last, we found a suit that covered the subject. I was exhausted. I had no idea that being a “highly, qualified teacher” involved THIS. The icing on the cake was when the girl’s family went out of town the next week – for the duration of swimming. Hmmm… But then what do I know?

When it was first announced that students would be swimming, my Muslim girl’s mother took me aside. She was concerned that her daughter be dressed “modestly.” I assured her I’d figure something out. That night I found myself googling “Muslim swim wear.” Oh dear. Snappy music came up with a woman riding a jet ski wearing what appeared to be a beekeeper’s suit. So not! Later, I found myself at Target checking out board shorts for girls. In the end, my student wore board shorts and a matching top, and yes, the other students knew why. It was no big deal. My student had never been in a pool before, so when she jumped off the diving board on the last day, I was ecstatic.

It was easier for the boys, although the bigger boys (those who wear “Husky-sized” pants), were plagued by an even more embarrassing issue – man boobs. Most of these boys were used to swimming in a t-shirt, so having it all out there for the world to see was humiliating. They walked around with their arms folded over their chest which made them look like they were chronically cold.

Each day we took the swimsuits back to school and hung them up to dry. When I noticed that one of my boys was always the first ready to swim, I realized he was taking his suit home and wearing it under his pants to school each day. Yeah, that would have been me, so I said nothing.

The first day, one of the instructors said the last boy out of the locker room would have to do the “chicken dance” in front of the girls, and vice-versa. This got the kids moving at warp speed. It is possible the “chicken dance” is just an urban legend, because I never actually saw it performed.

I never got around to grading any of those papers, what with taking photos of my students and passing out towels and all. But I had plenty of time to check out the other people at the pool. Not a lot of hotties swim during school hours. Like I said – “R” rated. We were sitting there one day when a guy walked by, his trunks clinging for dear life to his back side. The other teacher turned to me and said just what I was thinking – “crack kills.” We both burst out laughing.

Remember, last one out has to do the “chicken dance!”

Photo Credit:  Chicken Dance by babka_babka on Flickr.

Masters of the Universe March 4, 2009

Posted by alwaysjan in Life, Teaching.
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When I told my husband I was thinking of going back to school to get my Master’s degree, he said, “You know I’ll support you.”  That’s when I said, “Actually, it’s because I’m worried that you won’t be able to support me (us) that I’m thinking of doing this in the first place.” Ouch!  But it’s true.  It all comes down to numb3rs.  If I get a Master’s degree, my salary will bump over two columns.  No small potatoes given the state of the economy.

As a teacher, I’m already performing brain surgery on a daily basis, so it’s about time that I start making the big bucks.  But here’s the catch.  The one-year program I’m appying for is in Education Administration (as in I’ll have my Preliminary Administrative credential when I finish).  Me as an administrator?  That’s like letting the inmates run the asylum.  But what’s a 50 Something to do?  

The price is right.  I can pay for the cost of the program in a year.  After that it’s all gravy. Not a big serving, but gravy none the less.  I’ve applied with three of my friends from school and if the planets align and 20 people sign up for the program, I’ll be going to class two nights a week just across the street from my school.  If the planets align.  Otherwise, it’s the dreaded schlep up the HILL to the local college two nights a week.  

I actually went on-line and checked out other programs.  I figured if I’m going to get an M.A., why not get one in something I’m really interested in – like forensics, or storytelling, or anything that doesn’t end with -tion?  Too expensive.  Several teachers said they were interested in getting their Administrative Credential so they could understand how administrators think. I suggested, if that was the case, they should enroll in Abnormal Psychology. (I don’t know why people don’t take me seriously.) 

The application is due this week.  I had to write a 500-word essay about why I want to be an administrator. I already have a B.A., but fell back on my B.S. to pull this one off.  It’s the first time I’ve accessed the “Word Count” feature under “Tools” that tells you how many words you’ve written – and how many you have to go.  It’s like pulling teeth very slowly, o-n-e  t-o-o-t-h  a-t  a  t-i-m-e.

But here’s the good news. Two people wrote personal letters of recommendation for me and my friend and colleague wrote the most awesome letter. Not only am I a stellar human being, but my students LOVE me. She wrote that, so it’s gotta be true.  >blush< 

So I soldier on, hoping to add a few letters of the alphabet after my name. Who knew that lifelong learning was such a _________ (rhymes with rich).

Valentine’s Day Massacre February 16, 2009

Posted by alwaysjan in Holidays, Teaching.
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I often ask my third graders if smart people can do stupid things (and yes, I use the “S” word).  In September, when I first ask my students this question, they answer with a resounding “No!”  Obviously, they have yet to get to know me.  I set them straight.  Smart people do make stupid mistakes because we’re all human.  This is their first inkling that I (their teacher) am actually human.  I then proceed to explain that smart people (like myself) learn from their mistakes so we can get busy making new ones.  

This said, I did something really stupid last Thursday when my class celebrated Valentine’s Day.  No sooner had my students walked in the classroom than I was deluged with chocolates and cards.  One girl handed me a single red rose.  It was wrapped tightly in plastic with lipstick kisses printed on it and secured at the bottom with a tiny gold-colored cone that looked like the tip off of cupid’s arrow.  My first thought was, “I better get this rose in some water.”   Never mind that I don’t have bud vase.  I would commandeer some kid’s water bottle.

I tried to pull the rose out of its golden cone, but it was secured tightly.  So I got my big TEACHER scissors and proceeded to cut this annoying gold thing off so I could remove the plastic.  Once the rose was laid bare on my desk, I couldn’t help but wonder what that shiny silver circle was glued to a leaf. That tore off easily enough, but then there was that glue on the leaves. That’s when I noticed some pesky wires that I’d severed when I cut off the cone.  I took a closer look and realized the rose was fake.

Now, there were two explanations:  1) The rose was actually a high-tech explosive device and I’d successfully disarmed it, and in doing so saved the lives of my entire class (making me the hero), or 2)  The wires that I’d severed had another, less sinister purpose.  I traced the wires and found they led to a small bulb hidden in the center of the rose. Damn!  So the answer was 2 (making me the goat).  We hadn’t been in class ten minutes and I’d already trashed one of my gifts.  I decided to come clean.

I called the girl over to my desk and explained how when I saw how beautiful the rose was, I was compelled to cut off the plastic so I could put it in water, and it was only then I realized it was a “special” rose.  My face was a red as the rose, but here’s how I saved my very red face.  I told my student that now I could slip the rose through the button hole in my jacket and wear it as a corsage.  I demonstrated and she seemed pleased.  I bundled up all the wires inside my jacket so I didn’t look like a suicide bomber, but throughout the day I looked down to see them dangling.  Oops.   

I asked my student if she knew that the rose was “special” when she gave it to me.  She nodded.  Yeah, that figures.  It was unusually hot last Thursday, but I never took off my jacket.   I wanted my student to remember how much I loved my “special” rose corsage.