Be Nice to Possums

During read aloud, we came across the word considerate. I asked the kids what they thought it meant. This was the response from the boy who answered.

“Considerate means you are being nice, and thinking about a person’s feelings. Or a possums feelings. Or… Sam Adams feelings. The old guy from Boston, not the beer guy. Although I guess he counts too, so it can be the beer guy. Or… a bear.”

Now, for full disclosure, the character in the story was a possum. And we are learning about Samuel Adams during social studies, and it has been repeated several times that he is not currently alive and making beer. These things were clearly on his mind- along with bears, apparently.

The best part was his delivery. He was not in any way trying to be funny. He was trying very earnestly to make his case, and when he finished (a little out of breath and wild eyed), he nodded firmly.

Plus, who wouldn’t want to live in a world where we are nice to everyone?Wwoodland creatures, historical figures, and brewers included.

You Have No Power Here!

One of the best things about my job is how kids can always find or create something humorous or positive in any situation. There are few days more monotonous and frustrating than standardized testing days. Third grade is the first year they take the tests, so they are all pretty nervous and unfamiliar with the routine. I do my best to calm them down (just shy of saying “This test is a load of bull crap”), but they are still a little on edge.

One of the hardest concepts for them is that they need to stay seated. The test lasts at least an hour, and can go on for much longer. Until the last student finishes, everybody stays in their seats. They can get up if they need for legitimate reasons, but they need to ask me, and wait until I take their tests before they can move.

Please note that this level of security is not my choice. It is laid out in a dense tome known as “The Test Administrator’s Manual”. According to the manual, we have to protect the tests as if they were bars of gold, or the cure for cancer. We are seriously instructed “In the event of an emergency, ensure the tests are secure before exiting the building.” If a fire breaks out, just tell the kids “Hold on! Stop drop and roll, because we can’t leave until I have collected and counted all your tests!”

Anyway, the idea of staying seated isn’t easy for my kids. It’s hard to sit that long. Especially when you are 8. Especially when you have attention and impulsivity issues. In my classroom, they are frequently up and moving during lessons, so this was a new concept. They had a lot of questions.

“What if you need to go to the bathroom?”

“Raise your hand, I’ll come over and take your test, then you can get up.”

“What if you need a drink?”

“Raise your hand, I’ll come over and take your test, then you can get up.”

“What if you need to go to the nurse?”

“Raise your hand, I’ll come over and take your test, then you can get up.”

“What if you need to go to the bathroom?”

At this point I was about ready to start beating myself with the manual. Sometimes with kids, dramatic works better than logical.

“Look at it this way. Imagine that I cast a spell on you, and glued all your butts to your seats. The only way you can get up is if I come over to you and release you from the spell.”

They laughed, but they got it! And in answer to any “What if…” question, I just said “Magic spell!”

Only one student had trouble with this. During the test, he was like popcorn- up and down, all over the room. He just couldn’t remember to stay sitting. Finally I said to him (quietly, because the manual loves silence as much as it loves immobility) I reminded him of what I said earlier. “Remember, it’s like a put a spell on you so you can’t get up.”

He looked at me, raised an eyebrow, and yelled loud enough for the class next door to hear “You don’t have that kind of power!”

If you’ve seen or read The Lord of the Rings, you might know the scene where Gandalf is fighting with Saruman over control of King Theoden. In a scratchy old man voice, Theoden (really Saruman) yells “You have no power here!”

That was all I could picture. The rest of the kids were giggling, the wanderer in question was already standing up, and I was crouched next to his desk practically stuffing my fist in my mouth to keep from laughing. Every time I looked at him I pictured him with a long white beard and crazy eyebrows.

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There is, oddly enough, no section in the manual on what to do if your students fail to believe in your supernatural powers, or what to do if you have a hysterical laughing fit when your students inadvertently act like Tolkien characters.

Get on that, Department of Education.

Leave me alone, I’m drinking

I learned the hard way that you should not buy booze near the school you teach at. A few years ago, my then roommate and I were hosting a party. I (stupidly) decided to stock up at the liquor store in the town I teach.

Of course, I was walking out to my car wheeling a cart chock full of beer. Of course a bus full of kids from my school went by. Of course it stopped in traffic mere feet in front of me. And of course one of my students poked his head out the window and hollered “That’s a lot of beer!”

So I learned my lesson.

Which is why today, I decided to go to the liquor store in the town I live. Half an hour away from my school. Less than a quarter mile from my house.

I walked out the door, with a six pack in one hand and a bottle of gin in the other. As I opened the door and walked out, I saw a car stopped at the light. A car full of students from my school. Who all waved enthusiastically as I tried to hide my alcohol behind my back.

I have no idea why they were there. But they were.

In the future, I will take the advice of a colleague who has been in the field a long time. Whenever confronted by students while holding an alcoholic beverage, I will shake it at them and yell “This is because of you!”

Real Learning

It’s standardized testing week! I hate standardized testing. I absolutely hate it.

I know that it is logical and practical for states and nations to hold teachers accountable. I have no problem with this. I want to be held accountable. I want to know I am doing the best I can. I want to know other teachers are as well, and that the youth of my town or state or country are being effectively prepared to meet the rigorous challenges of the world.

But standardized tests don’t test that. They don’t test how smart my kids are, or how much they’ve learned. They don’t test how good of a teacher I am, or how effectively I teach the curriculum. They test each individual’s ability to take a standardized test.

On one hand, I can’t complain too much about this. I was an average student in high school, but I rocked my SATs and got a scholarship because of it. I aced all the teacher certification exams without ever opening a book. I am one of the people who are good at standardized tests. Give me the bubble sheet, throw some analogies at me, ask me to reason, give me an essay prompt. But is this the best way to see how students are doing? Hell no.

The problems with this method can best be summed up by the conversations that occur in staff rooms and principals offices all over the country months after the tests are taken. When we all sit down, and go over student scores. When we are asked why a particular student failed to perform to the standards mandated by the powers that be.

“This student scored in the needs improvement range. Why do you think that happened?”  Asks the administrator. “Well, she’s on an IEP for a pretty severe language disability.” The teacher points out, trying to be rational. “But she was given accommodations on the test.” “Yes, she was given a graphic organizer and had the test read aloud to her, but she still has difficulty forming sentences and keeping her ideas organized.” Trying to stay calm. “Well, that may be true, but the state has said she has to be making adequate progress.” “This time last year she couldn’t form a sentence at all, and now she can write a three paragraph essay. That’s not progress?” Asks the teacher through gritted teeth, steam slowly starting to come out of her ears. “According to the standards, she should be able to write a five paragraph essay by now.”  At this point the teacher slides bonelessly out of her chair and onto a puddle on the floor. Or wants to, at least.

The conversation continues. “What about this student, also in the needs improvement range?” “He emigrated from Korea a few years ago. His English is coming along great, but reading comprehension and writing are still a challenge for him.” “Wasn’t he given a Korean to English dictionary?” “Yes, but it’s still pretty hard to succeed on a reading test with only a dictionary. Language learning isn’t as simple as translating individual words. The section on metaphors and idioms was especially hard for him.”

“What about this student?” “He has a lot of anxiety, and he froze on the test and couldn’t stop crying. He was terrified of it.” “Didn’t you try and calm him down?” “Of course, but it’s hard to be convincing that the test isn’t a big deal when the entire school is covered in neon signs saying ‘WARNING! TESTING IN PROCESS! NO TALKING!’”

“What about this one?” “She was really worried about her mom. She was having a biopsy for cancer that week. It’s hard to stay focused when you think your Mom’s going to die.”

“And this one?” “Threw up on himself halfway through.” “On himself?” “On himself.”

Every conversation listed is one I, a colleague, or another teacher I know has actually had. That’s the problem with these tests. You spend a few hours two days testing, and expect to get an accurate portrayal of a student as a learner. Kids don’t work that way. People in general don’t work that way! We get anxious, we worry about sick family members, we struggle with language deficits and disabilities. Sometimes, we throw up on ourselves.

What I as an educator would love to see is a system that looked at a variety of sources to see how teachers and students were doing. Most systems in place claim to do this, but don’t. These tests are incredibly high stakes. Districts lose funding and control over the outcomes, students are denied diplomas. Again, I agree that schools that are underperforming shouldn’t be left to continue the way they are, and students who haven’t learned the curriculum shouldn’t graduate. But why do we punish schools, teachers, and students for things that aren’t their fault?

We know that schools in poorer areas do worse on these kinds of tests.

Obviously, schools who are forced to slash budgets due to lack of funding will do worse than schools who have plenty of cash flow. We cut drama, music, the arts, and wonder why kids drop out.  We cut P.E.  and wonder why kids who have no chance to run around can’t sit still. Class sizes swell and there’s no money for new teachers. How can one person meet the needs of upwards of thirty students, all with their own complex situations and issues? They can’t, and they are then blamed when these same kids score low on tests.

Obviously, kids who don’t get enough to eat do worse on these tests. Kids who don’t have a safe place to sleep. Kids who have parents who don’t have time to read to them, let alone pay for a tutor. Does this mean we teachers throw up our hands and say, “it’s too damn hard!” Hell no. We try even harder. That doesn’t change the test scores, though.

Then there is the issue of special education. In today’s schools, students with special needs have wonderful things called Individualized Education Plans- IEPs. These are the documents that mandate that students receive things like speech and language support, one on one teaching, classroom assistants, and the use of modifications on standardized tests. But in general, even with all these supports in place, these students don’t tend to do as well as there peers.

Why? It has nothing to do with intelligence or ability. Rather, these tests often include the type of things that are challenging for a wide variety of students with special needs. It’s hard to write an essay when you have a language disability. It’s hard to organize your thoughts and use algorithms when you have executive functioning deficits. If you have ADHD, it’s hard to sit still for two hours with few breaks- especially if you are eight! It’s hard for any eight year old to sit still that long, and that’s how young we start kids on these tests.

The most heartbreaking thing I have seen in my career as a teacher was a student of mine  with special needs (who I knew to be an incredibly intelligent individual) struggle on the math version of our state test. He was exhausted, overwhelmed, and scared. He put his head down and said, “I can’t. Let them fail me. I’m stupid.” I wanted to run into the department of education and drag them to our school. To sit them down and have them watch him solving complicated math problems the way he did- walking around, talking out loud, using manipulatives. Because if they could do that, they wouldn’t be in doubt that he was meeting the standards for his grade.

And which of these scenarios is more true to the real world? When you pay bills, draw plans for construction, collaborate with colleagues, solve problems, you do it by talking and moving and asking. You don’t sit at a table in a silent room filling in multiple-choice answers. Yet a machine read his scores, and told him that he was underperforming.  It told his teachers, myself included, that we were not doing our job because his intelligence couldn’t be accurately tested using the one rigid method that was easiest and most cost effective.

So much of this comes down to money. We are a nation of bank bailouts and corrupt politics, where we spend more on weapons than on books and vaccines. We tell our children, you are not important enough to pay for. We will not make sure you have up to date books and resources, safe buildings, or enough teachers. We will not test you in the ways best suited to your intelligence, or even in ways that allow you to be seen as living, breathing people.

We will, however, blame you for not being able to showcase how smart you are and how hard you’ve worked. We will blame your teachers when you aren’t all at the level we have decreed. We don’t care about your family life, your language ability, your special needs. We don’t care that a year ago you couldn’t even speak English, or write a paragraph, or add. We don’t care what progress you’ve made. We want you all to reach the finish line at the same time, and we don’t care how far back you started.

I am lucky to work in a district that is fairly well funded, in a school that refuses to bend our entire curriculum and philosophy to standardized tests. The pressure is there, however, and so in the weeks leading up to the test we show them examples, and remind them of expectations, and take practice tests. Some schools, like mine, do this a few times. Others practice it for weeks.

This isn’t learning. This isn’t new information. It isn’t even review of learned information. It’s  teaching to the test, no matter how you spin it. This is not why I became a teacher.

On the last day before our tests began, I took my class outside at the end of the day, during a precious half hour of free time that I refused to fill with test prep. Because I want them to learn. I am invested in their learning, deeply and whole-heartedly.

I want them to learn how crocuses come up from the mulch. I want them to learn that when they go down the plastic slide, static electricity makes their hair stand up. I want them to learn that capture the flag takes a lot of cooperation and teamwork. I want them to learn that pinecones and sunflowers have the same spiral patterns we learned about in geometry. Yes, I teach them math, language arts, science, social studies, and I do I well. But that’s not all there is. I want them to love exploring, and learning, and school, and their time here. I don’t give a damn about filling in the bubbles.

What’s in your pocket?

We’re studying matter in science, and recently we started weighing cubes of various materials in grams. During this particular lesson, we were recording the weights on the board. One cube weighed 20 grams.

Apparently this had meaning for someone, because he began to sing about it.

If you don’t frequenting social media, you may have missed Macklemore’s “Thrift Shop.” If you did not miss it, you probably feel similar to how I feel. Namely that if one more person posted the goddamn youtube video to that song, I was going to throttle them with their grandfather’s vintage suspenders and hide the body in Goodwill.

Well, the younger generation did not miss this video either. (They don’t miss much. They’ve finally stopping singing Gangam style.) As I was writing the weight on the board, from behind me, in a ridiculously deep but hysterically accurate voice I hear “I’m gonna pop some tags…”

The next line is “Only got 20 dollars in my pocket.” My little friend, however, was clearly reminded of the song by the weight of 20 grams. So instead he sang “Only got 20 grams in my pocket.”

At first I just thought it was funny that he was singing it. (No, I did not remember that the line following the one he sang was “This is so f***ing awesome. Luckily he stopped in time.)

Later in the day, though, I retold it to a coworker, who raised an eyebrow and said “20 grams in my pocket?”

Oh. Huh. We probably don’t want the kids singing about how many grams they have on them.

Damn you, Macklemore. Damn you, science.

Magnificent!

Today we had “Dress up like a book character day”. It’s fun! And because we don’t let the kids dress up for Halloween (which I think is ridiculous, but no one is asking me), it also is an outlet for everyones costume desires and leftover Halloween stuff. Which means that for every Harry Potter, there are five ninjas. For every Curious George, there are 3 kids in skull masks. For every Eloise, Madeline, and Fancy Nancy, there are 35 kids in football/basketball/baseball gear. Because you HAVE, technically, read a book with a ninja, a skeleton, a pro athlete. Just because the kid in that particular costume can’t name you the book, so what?

I went as Mrs. Frizzle. For those of you who had childhoods bereft of the glory that was “The Magic Schoolbus”, this is who I mean.

 

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I wore a blue dress, with stars and planets cut out of colored felt. Since I have the fine motor skills of a sloth, everything looked really uneven and messy, or “authentic” as I like to call it. I like to think it makes me fit in with the kids.

The one highlight of my outfit was my shoes. Red heels with yellow paper stars taped on the toe. Now, I do not wear heels. Especially not ones like these. I’m not actually sure why I own this pair of shiny red pumps with high heels, but I bet they cost less than $15 and I felt I was being ironic. They hurt like hell.

The kids reaction was, unsurprisingly, the highlight. In the morning as they were coming in, a few commented. “You look…” One boy trailed off, a frown on his face. “They’re…” As we were waiting for his answer, in the lull left by his thinking, two other kids answered at once. Loudly. Shrilly. And at the exact same time.

“It’s freaking me out, man!” One little guy yelped, arms waving, while a girl threw both hands into the air and shrieked “You are MAGNIFICENT!”

They sort of cancelled each other out, but I still felt pretty good about being magnificent.

Until at the end of the day, I told the girl who yelled it that it was a great word, and she confessed she had no idea what it meant.

Show and Tell: Dead things in a bag edition

It’s a snow day today! One of the great things about being a teacher- I don’t have to go outside in this crap. Since I have a little time on my hands, I thought I’d share one of my absolute favorite stories. This one comes from my previous class.

Show and tell is always a fun time for kids. They get to bring in fun things from home, personal objects, strange things they found. Or they forget and share whatever they found at the bottom of their backpack. In my five years in the classroom, I have had students share shark teeth, expensive jewelry mom didn’t know they took, rabbits, bones they found in the woods, siblings, bags of chips, sandwiches growing mold, rocks, bugs, and hair. None of these come close to what has since become known in my school as “The Hawk Incident” in my class.

The kid who brought in the share in question was one of those boys who just seem to embody everything about being an 8 year old boy. Wiggly, laughed a lot, loved sports and running and crashing into things, made hilarious comments when he shouldn’t have. He was so excited to share, and could barely contain himself when the kids who went before him shared. When it was finally his turn, he got up and scurried into the hall to get his item out of his backpack. He came back with a huge, proud grin on his face, and something in a Ziploc bag. He held it aloft, and we all got a closer look at what it was. No. I thought to myself. That can’t be what I think it is. It was, of course.

“This,” he stated solemnly, “is a hawk’s foot.”

The kids oohed, and leaned closer for a better look. It was huge, with hooked black talons and a shard of bone protruding from the end. My mind started racing. What do you do when a student brings in a severed, decaying animal part? “As you can see, it’s been burnt.” I’m sorry, a severed, decaying, charred animal part. “I found it on my street, and I used gloves to pick it up.” Ok, trying to be sanitary, good.  “I think it’s a red-tailed hawk, because I know from what we learned about birds of prey this year that those are the only type of hawks that live in our area.” OK, connection to the science curriculum, not bad. “I don’t know how the foot got cut off, but I wanted to bring it in because you can really see the talons close up and they look cool. And when we saw the hawk during the birds of prey unit, you couldn’t see the talons real close up like this.” Wow, he really learned from that unit! Go him. Go me!

 “I don’t know why it’s burned, either, but I think maybe after that big storm, the electric wires weren’t as safe, so maybe he landed on it and it zapped his feet and that’s what killed him and made his foot come off. So, I claim that the hawk got electrocuted, and my evidence is that the foot is charred and, um, off.” He ended with a firm nod.  He’s using scientific terms! Awesome!

“Questions or comments?” A hand went up. “Where was the rest of it?” “It was right nearby. I was going to bring it, but I didn’t have a big enough Ziploc.” Thank you, kid’s mom, for not keeping 5 gallon Ziplocs in the house.

Another hand. “Can you pass it around?” “Sure-“

“Nope!” I cut him off. “Sorry guys.” A collective “awwww” went around the class.

When sharing ended, I had him put it on my desk so I could take a picture. One part of my brain realized that this was unsanitary and more than a little gross, but it was overridden. The teacher part of me was so proud of me for finding this, making a connection to the curriculum, and thinking like a scientist. The I-still-think-like-a-kid part of me was also excited- this was so cool! I would like to say I made a conscious decision to praise him rather than punish him, that I turned what could have been a disaster into a teachable moment, but the truth was, I thought it was just as neat as they did.

The other teachers felt slightly differently. While I was a little disappointed they didn’t feel the same joy in discovery, I did need to be reminded that no one wants to die of some sort of bacterial infection or avian flu from handling dead bird parts.

“But it’s in a bag.” I pointed out when my assistant recoiled in horror when she came near my desk.“He used gloves to pick it up.” I told the para-professional when she half jokingly suggested the kid who brought it may need to be rubbed down in lysol wipes.  “But look how cool it is!” I said when a colleague mentioned her class-wide ban on bringing in dead things, whole or otherwise.

“You sanitized your desk after, didn’t you?” My assistant asked, eyeing the offending surface. “Of course.” Not yet. “He’s throwing it away, right?” The para added in.  “Yes, he’s going to.” When he gets home, because I didn’t have the heart to make him and it’s back in his backpack. “And you reminded them what constitutes appropriate sharing?” “Absolutely.” By telling them to make sure anything dead is in a bag.

Yes, it was gross. But it was also cool. They were excited, they were engaged, they were making connections to the science curriculum and using scientific terminology. Isn’t that what we want, as teachers? After all, I may not have enough time to fit in science everyday, but there is always enough antibacterial soap to go around.

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And here is my proof, in all it’s charred, decaying glory. Science!