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Playing Musical Chairs April 18, 2010

Posted by alwaysjan in Teaching.
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Student art in the style of Miro. I believe the girl really did poke her eye out! Or maybe it was just her annoying neighbor.

It’s that time of year.   With all the yakking and smacking (gum, rubber bands, and pencils that is), I need to move some kids around. But my students sit at tables for two, so anytime I move one kid, it has a domino effect.

It’s also that time of year when students learn to write a persuasive letter. So if a student wants to switch seats, they have to persuade me. Over Spring Break, I ran across letters students had written in years past, which cracked me up. I gave them a few tips on how to be tactful, and was pleasantly surprised at the results. Please bear in mind some are English Language Learners. The names have been changed to protect the guilty.

Dear Ms. M,

May I change seats please? Because Ricardo steal my pen and every day Ricardo say “Can I have your pencil?” and “Can I use your sharpener?” I want seats by Anthony.  Because Anthony he can help me, and I can ask to him. Most important Anthony has own pencil.

Dear Ms. M,

I would like to change seats please.  The person next to me talk to much and they are very bossy. That is why I want to move. The person is N and she tells people to do this and do that.  She’s telling me what to do write now. If you move me then I will work harder and help people in need.

Dear Ms. M,

May I change seats please.  The person sitting next to me talks all the time so it is hard for me to focus when you are talking about all the really important stuff.  He is also a big boy so he takes up a lot of leg room.

All three students got to change seats. But then they got to learn an English idiom – The grass is always greener.

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.

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.

Kvetching About Testing April 11, 2009

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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.  

Falling Down the Rabbit Hole November 16, 2008

Posted by alwaysjan in Holidays, Life, Teaching.
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During the school year, those nearest and dearest to me know that I disappear down the rabbit hole. I have the best of intentions – but isn’t that what the Road to Hell is paved with?  Between pushing all that paperwork around (without the benefit of a forklift) and being on-call to perform brain surgery daily (and according to NCLB, isn’t that what teachers are expected to do?), sometimes I’m hard pressed to know what day it is.

As a result, members of my family have abandoned all hope of receiving birthday cards. I don’t know how much a stamp costs anymore.  My parents don’t count  e-cards as real cards so I’ve been known to call them and have my entire class of third graders shout, “Happy Birthday!”  And my parents, who are increasingly hard of hearing, have been known to hang up thinking it’s a prank call.  Hey, I tried.

November is the worst month, what with the first report cards due and Parent/Teacher Conferences to schedule (and reschedule) and Thanksgiving. Every year I have my students write a paragraph about what they know about Thanksgiving.  Some don’t get past the date.  You have to understand that many of my students are not native born and Thanksgiving is an exotic concept when you’re from Korea, Pakistan or Bosnia. Most kids write a grocery list; turkey, mashed potatoes, and cranberry sauce.  Last year one student wrote that Thanksgiving had something to do with Indians hunting buffalo wings.

But by Thanksgiving break, my students will be on a first name basis with Squanto and know that three women/girls did all that cooking for the first Thanksgiving, while the men played games.  (No snide aside here as my husband does most of the cooking).

Next week my students will take home an adorable turkey made from a tie-dyed coffee filter.  They’ll know what a “wattle” is and have written a paragraph about all of the things they’re grateful for that’s stapled to the back.  And what about me? The day before Thanksgiving I have my last Parent/Teacher conference scheduled.  As I drive home, I can finally start calculating how big a turkey I need to buy.  Long lines and over-sized turkeys await.  But I’m thankful that my students now know why THEY should be thankful.

December gets worser (Sorry, I slipped into 3rd grade mode when they’re still figuring out those slippery superlatives).  As I read about winter festivals throughout the world, my students crank out adorable holiday crafts.  Late at night, you’ll find me on-line ordering gifts to be delivered to my family in the Midwest.  I do put some thought into this.  Should I pay an extra $4 for a computer generated gift card? It’s a far cry from the day when I handmade gifts or at least bought them with my own two hands and packed them.  At some point, the ritual of shuffling my gifts along with my feet in the line at UPS lost its allure.  So while my students’ parents are oohing and ahhing (or so I’d like to think) as they unwrap those handmade treasures, my own family will have to settle for something that I personally added “to the basket.”

So don’t wait by your mailbox and expect anything from me.  From September till the end of June, I’ve fallen down the rabbit hole.

My Spanish es Muy Malo November 9, 2008

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I blame Senorita Cuadrado.  She was the fiery dyed redhead from Cuba who was hired to teach Spanish at my middle school.  How she ended up in Omaha, Nebraska, I’ll never know.  This was post Cuban Missile Crisis and I believe it’s possible Senorita Cuadrado’s mercurial temper had something to do with THAT international incident.  What I do remember is one day she poured glue in a boy’s hair, then threw his books out the second story window. 

So Is it any wonder that when I got to high school, I opted to study French? Of course, once we moved into conjugating verbs, my love for French was finis.  Fast forward two decades to New York City.  I’m riding on the subway when I realize I can actually read the ad in Spanish for Preparation H. Okay, I admit that “preparacion para los problemas con hemorroides,” is a no-brainer, but it made me wonder.  Could I have possibly retained some Spanish?    

Two trips to Mexico later, I’d still only managed to add Cuanto questa? (How much does it cost?) and hormigas (ants) to my vocabulario.  And how many times can you slip hormigas into casual conversation?

When I applied for a teaching job in 1997 with the Los Angeles Unified School District, the principal asked if I spoke Spanish.  I took a deep breath and said, “La pluma esta encima de la mesa”  (the pen is on top of the table) and was hired on the spot.  It also helped that I had a pulse (class size reduction had just gone into effect and any warm body would do).  I taught a second grade Modified Bilingual class of 20 students, only three whom were native English speakers.  My Spanish-speaking aide, who was supposed to work with the 17 Spanish speakers, was a chronic no-show so I was teaching a solas.

My godsend was a new student from Mexico City.  Anna Lucia Gonzales was a fluent reader in Spanish, who didn’t hesitate to correct me whenever I made a mistake.  Never mind that she was six years old and only came up to my waist.  I called her  “La Pequena Maestra” (The Little Teacher) and we taught each other.  She learned faster than I did, so I was the one who enthusiastically told parents, “Me gusta cerveza!” (I like beer), when what I meant to say was, “Me gusta cerezas!” (I like cherries).

My Spanish is still muy limitado.  I like to tell my Spanish-speaking students they better behave because if I have to call home, all I know how to say is, “Su hija/o es un diablita/o!” (Your child is a little devil).  This works every time.

For the second year now,  I have a cluster of Korean English Language Learners along with my Spanish speakers.  My Berlitz English/Korean dictionary arrived from Amazon yesterday and I’m wildly excited.  Oh boy, another language I can butcher!  But isn’t it really the thought that counts? Hey, I just found out “thought” is sago in Korean (or maybe it’s saenggak).  I feel smarter already! 

And what about Senorita Cuadrado?  I pictured her in charge at Gitmo, so I was shocked when my mother told me she’d recently run into her and she still teaches!  My mother mentioned my name Senorita Cuadrado (who’s now a Sra.) swore she remembered me.  My mother told her how I’d become a teacher and now wished I was bilingual in Spanish.  She said Senorita Cuadrado didn’t miss a beat before snapping back, “That’s what they all say.” My Spanish is still muy malo.  I blame Senorita Cuadrado.

Acronyms Are Da Bomb October 26, 2008

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I’ve recently rejoined the living after a 21-day Teacher Cold, so I’m tempted to say that ASAP stands for Antibiotics Sudafed And Prednisone, but that could be the meds talking. 

Forget Navajo code talk.  When I was growing up my father was a master of acronyms.  My brother and I often qualified as a PITA (Pain In The Ass), a distinction we still proudly claim.  So it’s only natural that I introduce my students, most of them English Language Learners (ELLs to civilians), to the English language’s many acronyms – some which are endemic to a certain third-grade classroom.  

When I first taught my students that FYI means For Your Information and ASAP means As Soon As Possible, you’d have thought they’d deciphered the Rosetta Stone.   My students know the difference between 12 o’clock noon and 12 o’clock midnight because at noon it turns to pizza munching time and Cinderella had to be home at midnight.  My personal favorite is XYZ, which I explain in a hushed tone of voice, means “eXamine Your Zipper.” The boys particularly appreciate this snide aside and quickly zip up.

This year we have a new math program that my students are less than enthusiastic about.  I got tired of their disgruntled mutterings every day when it was time to pull out the math book, so I christened it Da BOMB (The Big Old Math Book).  Now when I say it’s time for math, I simply tell them to take out Da BOMB. When we’re done with the lesson, they “diffuse” Da BOMB and put it back in their desk.  Hey, it keeps me entertained, and if the teacher ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.

If you’ve got a problem with that, you need to MYOB (Mind Your Own Business).  When a student from two years ago came up to me the other day and discreetly whispered “XYZ,” I knew my work was done.  My kids might not be able to tell you what NCLB means, but even if their scores aren’t up, their zippers are.  Since they’re only in third grade, I spare them KISS and they can figure out IRS (or in some cases INS), when the time comes.  

If you’d like to decipher cryptic text messages, or catch a glimpse of the English Language which is evolving as I write this, you can go to the Urban Dictionary and find more information than you ever wanted or needed to know.  WTF?  But that’s IMO.

Multiplication Rocks October 12, 2008

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I’m going to go out on a limb here and say the dreaded words. Drill and kill. Yes, you heard me right. Drill and kill. Unlike a certain vice-presidential candidate, I’m not talking about the solution to end our dependence on foreign oil, or my weekend plans to pick off wildlife with a high-powered rifle from low-flying aircraft. No, what I have in the cross hairs of my scope is a more elusive target – multiplication.

Third grade is the beachhead for mastering multiplication. Students who are promoted to fourth grade and haven’t memorized their times tables should prepare to hunker down in the trenches of “And would you like fries with that?” Study after study has shown that the majority of students who struggle with math in middle and high school never learned their multiplication facts.

I attended a week-long math training last summer and the trainer taught all sorts of alternatives to the dreaded drill and kill technique. She demonstrated ways to calculate facts by contorting your hands and fingers so that you ultimately came up with the answer, while also getting a vigorous physical workout. These alternatives fell somewhere between throwing up gang signs and cheerleading. Hello? 3×7 is 21!  I knew that, and I didn’t even have to slap my thighs and yodel the answer!

By the end of third grade, students should be able to complete 100 multiplication facts in five minutes. One fact I know is that they haven’t really memorized the facts unless they can do them in three minutes. That’s why I have “The 3-Minute Club.”  Last year, 18 out of my 20 students were proud members. The remaining two could do their facts in five minutes, but I saw some secretive finger counting under the table. (I’ve been known to make them sit on one hand when they do fact practice, math meanie that I am!)

Some people call it drill and kill, but my students call it FUN!  They literally salivate at the chance to practice math facts. It wasn’t always like that. Five years ago I attended a New Management Seminar given by Rick Morris, who has lots of creative ideas on classroom management. That’s where I learned about the TeachTimer, which can be used on any standard overhead projector. It functions as a clock and a timer, and can count up or down. It costs around $40 (divide by $3.75 to calculate the number of lattes this equals). I’ve only had to replace the battery once, which makes it one of the best investments I’ve made.

Here’s how I do it.  My friend, Jen, gave me sheets of 100 math facts – various levels of addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. My students drill daily and by introducing the timer on Day 1, they get over their fear of being timed.

The rules are simple. No one gets to shout, “Yes!” or dramatically flip their paper over to let the entire class know they’ve already finished. The great thing about the TeachTimer is I can set it to count down, so those students who finish early can write the time remaining. Once they’ve written 2:00, they know they’re “in the club.”

I give students the same facts every day for a week. On Monday they write M-5, as they have five minutes. Tuesday is also T-5.  But then we speed things up, so Wednesday is W-4, and Thursday is R-3 (yes, I have to explain why I use R instead of Th, but they quickly catch on). On Friday, they once again take the same test in five minutes (F-5). That’s the one I grade. When the timer beeps, I say, “Pencils down, correcting crayons out.”

And here’s the best part. The students correct it them themselves!  Those who’ve finished the row raise their hands and I call on one.  “Einstein, Row A,” and Einstein ticks off the answers. Row B!  Row C! Most of my students are ELLs (English Language Learners), so this also gives them the opportunity to speak.  Most ELLs are more comfortable with math and saying numbers aloud.

At the beginning of the year, I have students practice reading the answers at just the right pace, and how to project their voice. If someone gives a wrong answer, there’s an incredulous chorus of “Huhs?” and the mistake is rectified. Students put a tick mark next to each correct answer (no stars!) as they correct. If they get an answer wrong, they just circle it, as there’s no time to write the correct answer. After practicing last year, we timed ourselves. It took SEVEN MINUTES to do a five-minute drill AND correct it!

Last Friday I put one of my students in charge of correcting. He called on students and they rattled off the answers. This gave me TWO WHOLE MINUTES to do something productive like figure out where I’d put my brain. Do you know how many teachers would kill for just two extra minutes?  It was bliss, and the kids were totally running the show.

The drawing above was done by one of my students who was a crackerjack reader, but was flirting with early arthritis from chronic finger counting. He drew the picture at the end of the year after his confidence had soared 100 times (and yes, he could calculate x 100 using that neato zero trick). Drill and kill?  Just ask my students. They’ll tell you multiplication rocks!

For free math fact practice sheets, you can go to mathfactcafe.com

The “S” Word August 7, 2008

Posted by alwaysjan in Teaching.
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You obviously have a dirty mind.  I’m a teacher so don’t even get me started. Teachers don’t even THINK of using bad language.  We’re role models 24/7 so that might explain why so many teachers burn out before they hit the five-year mark.  I’d like to hear you say, “Darn it!” when you slam your finger in a door.  Say it for five years and with feeling, darn it!

When people swear, it’s because they have a poor vocabulary and can’t think of a more appropriate word to use.  If you buy that line, then have I got a real estate deal for you.

It’s bad enough that some of my students have a chronic case of potty mouth.  “Do you kiss your mother with that mouth?” I ask, feigning disbelief. Then there are the students who tattle on someone because they said the dreaded “S” word.  

When I was a newbie, I naively asked, “Does the “S” word rhyme with ‘it’?” The kid stood there and I could tell he was going through the entire alphabet in his head – bit, cit, dit, fit…  After what seemed like an eternity, he said, “No, it rhymes with ‘upid,'”  Oh yeah, THAT “S” word.  I thought he meant…. But then I obviously have a dirty mind.

I don’t swear like a sailor, but being in a classroom and being a Role Model presents challenges.  Sometimes THOSE words just slip out. But, I’ve found ways to minimize the damage (for the sake of students and my career).  So if one of THOSE words slips out, here’s how to turn that lemon into lemonade. Drink up.

“Shit….arsky!”  – If the kids look at you oddly, explain that you religiously watch Starsky and Hutch in reruns and sometimes they’re collectively referred to as “Shitarsky.”  All they’ll remember is that you do something “religiously.” Whew!  

A variation on the above is “Holy…moley, guacamole!”  This is my trademarked expression, so use this at your own risk.

“Hell…o operator!”  – I got this one from some incredibly INSERT “S” WORD HERE cheer that cheerleaders did at my high school.

“Jeez…Louise!” – Kids don’t even ask about this one as it naturally rolls off the tongue.  I had a little boy who blurted out “Jesus!” twice last year and I just took to raising my hands and shouting, “Hallelujah!” and moved on.

“Damn…atian, as in 101!” – Any reference to the movie 101 Dalmatians is a slam-dunk.  If you immediately begin humming Cruella de Vil, your students will most likely burst into song.  

“Crap…ola, Crayola!” – Tell kids to immediately get out their crayons as you’re going to do an impromptu art project.  They’ll be so excited about doing art, they’ll come to think of that as the brand of crayons they’re using. 

I can think of no substitute for the “F” word, but you could try F&*k…i-delic and tell students it’s similar to Funkadelic, which is a style of music.  If you smile and start dancing “funky-style” you might get away with this, but why risk it?  Don’t be INSERT “S” WORD HERE!

Also, never underestimate the power of the English language to confuse. When students tell me they “lost” their homework,” I’m in the habit of saying, “Bummer.” I say it like a surfer dude and then have them write their name under “Benched” on the board.  One year the mother of a Spanish-speaking student confessed that her daughter thought I was saying a bad word until a neighbor assured them it had nothing to do with your backside.  Ouch!   I apologized for the misunderstanding.  Now I explain what “bummer” means, but it would help if those Webster people put it in the dictionary.

If you follow these simple tips, you too can kiss your mother with that mouth – guilt-free.

It Did It on Accident! July 21, 2008

Posted by alwaysjan in Language, Teaching.
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I’m not a card carrying member of the Grammar Police, but I do keep a badge in my top drawer.  Not that I haven’t made my own share of spelling and grammar gaffes along the way.  I once wrote eight thank you notes to my mother’s friends who’d hosted a wedding shower for me.  I thanked them profusely for the vacume cleaner they’d given me.  My mother was tempted to ask for a refund on my college tuition.  Third graders love to hear THAT story.

There are two things my students say that bug me to no end.  One is, “It’s mines!”  I realize that there is his and hers, but there’s no mines.  At least not in my universe.  Notice I didn’t include its because I know some adults who still mess that one up, at least in writing.  I gently remind my students that there are only two kinds of mines: 1. holes in the ground where people go to work if they don’t have an education, or 2. explosive devices that tend to leave small children, like themselves, limbless.  I figure this will make a lasting impression.

This said, within 20 minutes of the above gentle reminder, someone inevitably blurts out, “It’s mines!”  I must admit that last year I finally nipped that bad habit by taking a marble out of the coveted marble jar every time someone uttered mines.  Problem solved.

The other thing that bugs me is when kids say on accident instead of by accident.  I teach a cluster of English Language Learners (ELLs to you civilians) and originally thought this explained the mix-up.  After all, you do something on purpose, so it figures that children would think that the flip-side is on accident.  “I knocked out his front teeth on accident!”  “I peed my pants on accident!”  Again, I gently remind them that they peed themselves by accident, which probably explains how many were also conceived.

Imagine my horror then when I read that this line of logic is so old school, or should I say old skool?  I recently purchased Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing by Mignon Fogarty, which is a rolicking fun read.  She found an entire research paper on the by/on accident conundrum, published by Leslie Barratt, a linguistics professor at Indiana State University.  Barratt found that most people 40 and over use by accident.  For people between 10 and 35, it was a toss-up. and for those under 10, on accident is most prevalent.  The horror!  

Barrett goes on to say that most children don’t even realize that by accident is an option unless a caring teacher, like myself, points this out.  She takes it a step further and says eventually there won’t be enough of us around to set the under-10 demographic straight.  Now, I just need to tell my mother I misspelled vacuum on accident.  

Why Is Horniness Coming Out from My Mom’s Feet? June 1, 2008

Posted by alwaysjan in Teaching.
Tags: , , , , , , ,

NOTE:   Desperately seeking information on Science Fair projects?  Check out the link at the end of this post.  Jan

Science Fair projects were due Monday with NO exceptions, so I was pleased to see my students lined up outside the class on Monday struggling to get get a grip on their oversized and overpriced presentation boards. American students lag behind the rest of the world in science, so this is serious business.

Teachers had already told students that we didn’t want to see the same old tired projects. After all, they’re third graders now. Time to move beyond the exploding vinegar and food coloring volcano or the emaciated plant that proves plants DO need sunlight. I’d provided an entire bin of books on science fair projects to stoke their imaginations, so I was eager to see what my students had come up with.

I have a cluster of English Language Learners in my classroom, five whose first language is Korean, and five who are native Spanish speakers. Some of my students hear no English once they leave school. Their parents have to ask friends or neighbors to help with translation. My Spanish is muy limitado. My Korean is kim chi.

My job was to sit in a chair at the back of the classroom and listen to each student’s presentation and ask questions. Some students are eager to get up and share. They’re the ones who excelled in show-and-tell in first grade. The shy students tend to stand behind their board, using it as a defacto human shield, and mumble inaudibly. Sometimes it’s all I can do to coax them to show their face.

The presentations began. “How are Crystals Formed?” One boy’s were home grown, the other’s from a kit. The ones from the kit hadn’t formed and the end product looked like an irradiated mashed egg yoke. The student had written under the heading “Results” that he’d followed the directions AND had witnesses to prove it. “Can A Needle Float on Water?” “Where Does a Carrot Store Its Food?” I can’t remember the purpose of one experiment, but it had great photos showing how far you can shoot a liter of soda using a Mentos mint. I made a mental note to buy a pack of Mentos and give this a try.

One of my Korean students – I’ll call her Esther since half the Korean girls in our school are named Esther, was reluctant to present. This is her second year in the U.S. and she’s made amazing progress this year in her ability to speak and write in English. Esther is incredibly bright, artistic, and eager to please. I’d take ten kids just like her in a minute, but like all ELL’s, at times she has difficulty expressing her ideas in English and navigating the intricacies of English grammar.

Esther was the last student to present. She set her board up on the front table for all to see. Without hesitating, I read the title aloud. My eyes widened and my jaw dropped. Could it be? No! I reread it again, this time silently. Oh my god! It said what I thought it said: “Why is Horniness Coming Out from My Mom’s Feet?”

Esther stood beside her board trembling with what I thought was laughter, until I realized she was crying. I thanked my lucky stars that no one in this year’s class had a clue what “horniness” meant. In years past, she would have been teased about this for years to come. No, Esther was crying because she realized her project was so different from everyone else’s. She’s a sensitive child and my heart went out to her. I reminded myself that Hari Kari is a Japanese, not a Korean, response to humiliation and shame. But I had to think quickly to help her save face.

“It seems to me that your mother has some problems with your feet,” was my response. Was that the best I could do?  My mind was racing. Who on earth had translated this for her? Did her mother have feet that looked like a horny toad’s skin? Thank god, she hadn’t provided photographs!  “Let’s see now,” I continued. I ticked off the list of materials, absolutely poker-faced. “Low hills, high hills.” She meant heels, of course. If I didn’t handle this deftly, Esther could spend much of her adult life in therapy dealing with my inability to protect her from the quizzical looks of her classmates.

“You know,”  I announced, “Foot problems can be very serious and I can see that Esther has put a lot of thought into how to solve this very important problem.” I was wearing open-toed sandals and took one off. “Now take my feet for instance.” My students stared wide-eyed at my feet. I might as well have stripped naked.  Third graders don’t even think teachers ever go to the bathroom, let alone have foot issues.

“You’ve seen me put band-aids on my feet when I’m wearing new shoes,” I added, and all of the students nodded. “I’ve even had athlete’s foot,” I offered. I described the symptoms, which some seemed familiar with though they were convinced it was called  “Athlee’s Foot.” All of the boys who play sports, nodded knowingly. Why couldn’t I have athlete’s foot now, when I needed a good visual aid? I looked over and noticed that Esther had stopped crying and was now listening.

I continued reading from her board. “Oh, I see you gave your mother a foot massage,” I said, looking approvingly at Esther. “Everyone loves a foot massage. I bet your mother enjoyed that!” Esther smiled weakly.

I decided it was time to pull out the big guns. These are those memories from your childhood that can only be expunged by retelling them to future generations. “You know, when I was about your age, my mother dropped a heavy mixing bowl on her toe. It got infected and started swelling.” I had them hooked now. “Pus!” a student muttered under his breath. “Yeah, pus,” I confirmed. “It happened on a weekend and my father couldn’t get a hold of the doctor. He didn’t want to take my mom to the hospital cause they didn’t have insurance.” Actually, they did have insurance because my father worked for an insurance company, but I think my parents were reluctant to use it. I know many of my students’ families don’t have insurance so this made for a better story anyways. “Finally, my mother couldn’t stand the pain any more so my dad got a needle.” All eyes were riveted on me now. They knew what was coming.

“I can still remember the sound of my mother screaming as my father slowly poked the needle through her toenail,” I said to audible groans. “But after he did, all of the pus spurted out, and she immediately felt better.” I glanced at the clock. “Oh, look!  It’s time for lunch.” The students sat stunned for a moment then eagerly lined up. I walked them down to the cafeteria. When I got back to the classroom, I folded up Esther’s presentation board up and set it behind my desk.

The rest of the day Esther was in great spirits. Just before dismissal, I remembered that I had a bag of foot care products in the bottom drawer of my desk, a birthday gift from the student whose crystals had refused to grow. The student who had witnesses. I looked through the bag and picked out a bottle of green Cucumber Foot Moisturizing Cream. When the bell rang, I called Esther over to my desk and discretely slipped her the bottle. “For your mother,” I said, smiling. Esther glowed with appreciation. I walked my class downstairs for dismissal, then staggered back to the classroom. I sat back and put my aching feet up on my desk. Boy, did I earn my pay today, I thought.

Note:  If you’re looking for information/ideas for Science Fair projects, a great site to go to is Science Fair Central