Tell Me Everything

Once a week my class pairs up with a first grade class to read books. It’s one of my favorite traditions, and the older and younger kids all really love it. It’s also a chance for me to interact with first graders, which is always an adventure.

Today one little girl brought a non-fiction book about fish to read with her buddy. They were near my desk as I answered an email, so I could hear my student patiently answering questions about fish. Do they blink? Do they have eyelids? If they don’t, how do they close their eyes when they sleep? My student patiently answered as best she could, including to say she didn’t know and maybe they could do more research together in the library. I smiled to myself, so proud of my student.

However, after awhile they hit a point where my fifth grader was all out of answers. Which was when I looked up from my computer to see a tiny person staring at me solemnly. As soon as I made eye contact, she demanded “Tell me about goldfish rectums.” In a heavy Russian accent, which made it even better.

I stared back at her as I decided where to start. “What do you want to know?” I asked. “Everything.” She answered.

Thus followed a detailed discussion of the digestive system, fish eating habits, and official terminology of body parts. Always an adventure.

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Revolution, Babies, and Pill Bugs

The last time I told a class I was pregnant, they spent about 45 minutes processing and asking questions. This time, it went VERY different.

After telling most of the staff, I was eager to let the kids know. Especially as it got more and more obvious that I was not just getting chubbier. I wanted them (and their parents) to hear from me before word got out. Unfortunately, crazy schedules, extended absences and unexpected time out of the room meant over a week had gone by since I planned to announce. Finally, I had a day that would work.

We spent the first part of the day on a field trip, touring sites in Boston associated with the American Revolution. One of my favorites! We were scheduled to get back around 1:30, which would give us two hours before the day ended. Plenty of time!

Except it wasn’t, because we got lost walking back to the bus, needed to find bathrooms, got lectured by a very cranky bus driver on noise level before we could leave, and then hit traffic. We got in about 2:15. An hour and a quarter? Plenty of time to process the miracle of life.

As we walked in, a frantic secretary waved me over. I ushered my kids into the class, and went to see what was up. Turns out the living organisms we had ordered for our upcoming science unit had come in. Not last week, like the original order said, or next week, like the company told us when they contacted us about the delay. Sitting in the office patiently waiting to be ogled by children were several containers of snails, worms, and pillbugs. All of which would die if left over night in said boxes. Excellent. I figured setting them up in the terrariums we had made could take awhile.

Once we were in the classroom, we circled up on the rug. I had the kids quickly go around and say something they learned on our trip. Then I said I had news to share, told them I was expecting, that I would miss some time but not a full year, I didn’t know the gender, and no, they couldn’t pick the name. Then I asked for questions. Most were to repeat that no, I would not let them pick the name. No, not the middle name either. One boy asked if he could say a comment. When I said yes, he replied, “This was a really weird transition from talking about the field trip.”

I smiled. “It sure was. Now head to your tables. I’m going to hand you a paper plate with worms on it.”

 

 

Moo Contests

Kids are weird. This is one of those truisms that holds the world together. The sun is bright. Night follows day. Kids are weird.

In my class, the latest weirdness is moo contests. What is a moo contest? It is exactly what it sounds like.

Two kids get on all fours and face each other. On the count of three (often counted by an enthusiastic third child crouched beside the competitors banging a small fist on the floor for each count, like some kind of tiny boxing ref), the kids begin mooing. The goal is to moo the longest. The winner is lauded with cheers, hugs, and pats on the back, at least until they are challenged by the next moo-er.

This has led to interesting conversations about lung capacity, volume in relation to duration of the moo, cow behavior, and sound waves. Sometimes more scientific thinking happens during the odd times like this that happens during actual science.

 

New Year, New World, New Weird

As part of our unit on Colonial America, we have the kids imagine its the year 2090, and Earth is not in good shape. We ask them to imagine they are given the option to board a spaceship to go to a new, relatively unknown planet. Would you do it? Would you leave your family and friends, the life you know, and risk a dangerous journey to a place you know very little about? Is it worth the risks to have a new, better life? Some really great discussions come out of this, and it’s a lot easier to empathize with and understand the early colonists this way.

We also ask them what they would pack for the journey, emphasizing survival over personal belongings. The results are, unsurprisingly, hilarious and disturbing.

Inevitably, some students insist that yes, they do need their football/iPad/hair straightener/favorite book to survive. Others argue that they could fit an entire generator in a suitcase. They need to make these discussions as a group, so things get heated.

With my last class, they really understood that this was theoretical. This new class has a much more heightened sense of imagination, apparently, because I had to keep reminding them that this was entirely pretend. It didn’t actually matter what color the jacket you packed was, or who was going to get to share the two tents that you brought. None of this was real!

Here are the highlights from this year.

In one group, a small girl walked up to me and casually asked if a colonist could kill the other colonists for food. Her group tried to argue that once she killed one person, the others would stop her. “I’ll kill everyone at once.” She rationed. They pointed out the meat wouldn’t last, and she replied “Why do you think I packed so much salt? I’m going to preserve you.” Through the whole discussion I kept trying to wrest the conversation back to the realm of more school appropriate and less downright horrifying, with limited success. At this point I had to say “Cassie, you may not turn your classmates into jerky.” “Theoretical jerky.” She answered.

In another group, someone was arguing that they should bring purse dogs. Thinking I misheard, I asked him to clarify. “Small dogs that fit in purses.” He answered. After a long pause I could only ask, “Ok… why?” His reasoning was that they could breed them and trade them for other supplies. “People love purse dogs.” He said. Luckily one of his group members started talking about the dangers of invasive species, saving me from having to talk someone out of bringing chihuahuas on a spaceship for trade purposes. (That sentence right there is why I love my job.)

After leaving that group, I overheard a heated discussion about bringing a baby. “A human baby?” I clarified. They nodded, and again I had to ask why. “We’ll need more people.” a very earnest boy explained. “Otherwise when we die our colony is gone.” Knowing I was treading into dangerous territory, I explained “Well, the people in your colony could get married and have babies.” He narrowed his eyes. “You said our colony was only the people in the class.” “Well, it’s imaginary, and you could imagine there are other people-” A girl next to me cut me off. “Kyle, I told you. If we want the colony to continue you have to marry one of us.” He turned beet red and yelled back, “I’m not having children with you, I told you already!”

I guess the moral of the story here is that even when you’re imagining it, thinking about marrying your classmates is weird. And even when you insist it’s imaginary, talking about eating your classmates is weird.

Heritage

This time of year, both teachers and students start thinking about next year. The kids are asking older friends and siblings about each teacher, watching us in the halls with our classes- and we’re doing the same to them! It’s strange to think about having a new group of kids after what feels like so long with the current one.

Last week, a student in the grade I’ll have next year stopped me in the hall.

“You’re Puerto Rican, too, right?” He asked earnestly, gesturing at himself to indicate that he was.

I am not, in fact, Puerto Rican. When I explained that I wasn’t, he looked alarmed.

“But you’re Mexican, or Dominican, or something Spanish like that?” He pressed.

When I answered in the negative again (apologetically, as he was clearly distressed), he let out a deep sigh, covered his face with his hand, lifted it to eye me closer, and then pinched the bridge of his nose in a surprisingly adult gesture, sighing again.

“Ok,” he said firmly, clearly having come to some sort of decision, “Well if I get you next year, we’re just gonna tell my mom you are.”

How I Know I’m a Grown-up

When I started teaching, I was 22. In my first week at work, a custodian yelled at me not to run up the stairs, and was mortified when I turned around and he saw I was not a kid. A student once told me “Sometimes I think of you like a grown-up, but it doesn’t last long.”

I am no longer the youngest teacher at school. Several of my colleagues now have the dubious honor of being yelled at by custodians, and staff in the parking lot who tell them high school parking is on the other side of the campus. I’ve passed on the torch.

Since then, I have hit a lot of adult milestones. I went to grad school, got my masters, travelled all over, payed off my car, bought a house, got engaged, got married, had a baby (almost, anyway! One more month!).

None of these are the reason why I can now truly say “I am an adult.” No, that statement hinges solely on one reason- I watched THE MOVIE and handled it like an adult.

THE MOVIE refers to the human growth and development video we have the kids watch at the end of fifth grade. It can be summed up the following way: “Feelings. Hormones. Wash yourself real thoroughly or you’ll stink. Menstruation. Nocturnal emission.” The kids start talking about it in fourth grade, and the lead up to the movie itself is fraught with sweaty palms, awkward laughter, and red faces.

The teachers handle it much better, of course. Except for me. Awkward situations make me even more awkward. If the kids are laughing and know they shouldn’t be, I am most likely busting a rib trying not to laugh with them.

In my second year working with kids, I student taught in fifth grade. When we watched THE MOVIE, I went with the girls. (We split the grade by gender, and have each watch their own movie one day, and the opposite gender movie the next.) I was not looking forward to it. During the event, I did my best to blend in with the wall. Despite this, one girl felt the urge to turn around and make direct eye contact with me every time a part of the male anatomy was mentioned. It was intense. When I reminisced about this with the colleague who at the time was my mentor teacher, she was surprised that I had been there. “I don’t remember you being in the room for that at all!” She said. Good. That meant my attempts at blending in with the bulletin boards had worked.

This time around, I was in charge of my own classroom. I had to run the group. There was no blending in with the walls. Not only did I have to watch the movie with them, I had to teach the associated curriculum, and answer any questions. There was no backing out.

My colleagues and I had a talk about who would take which gender, since we split our class and send half to another teacher. “I’ve taught the boys class before.” “Me too, and I used to be a doctor.” “I have three sons, I can do this.”

They looked at me. I answered honestly. “I am not mature enough to handle this, so if no one minds, I’ll take the girls group!” Have I mentioned I love my colleagues?

On the day of, my boys all went to a colleagues room, and her girls came to me. We watched the movie. They giggled, turned red, and then wrote down a million questions, which ranged from serious to confusing, insightful to accidentally hilarious. I answered them all. Was it hard to explain how to insert a tampon? Yes. Was it hard not to laugh when explaining that boys did not get their periods? Of course. Was it hard not to be embarrassed explaining what, exactly, testicles were to a group of 11 year old girls? Good god, yes. But I did it. I didn’t laugh, I didn’t turn red, I didn’t try to become one with the walls.

And that is how I know I’m a grown-up. It’s kind of nice, to have finally stepped away from the intense awkwardness of caring about being embarrassed. I guess I just don’t care anymore. So please, feel free to ask me any and all questions about puberty, tampons, and nocturnal emissions.

We’re All Gonna Die in the Desert

One of the big themes of fifth grade social studies is “Why do people move?” We study colonization, the American Revolution, growth of the colonies, and Westward Expansion. At this point in the year we have made the transition from kids yelling “No taxation without representation!” whenever they don’t want to do what they’re told, to yelling “Manifest destiny!” and then stealing each other’s seats.

Part of the Westward Expansion unit looks at pioneers, wagon trains, and the journeys west. We have a whole simulation we do where kids are assigned a character with a history and family, grouped together and required to complete tasks and assignments that show what life on the trail was like. It’s a really engaging, informative way for them to learn. It also reminds me to be grateful that 11 year olds are not actually in charge of life or death situations.

One of the first tasks is deciding what to bring. They are given a supply list that includes bulk weight units (bwu). They have a limit of 1,000 bwu to fit in their wagon, so they really have to prioritize and think logically. Which they can’t. Leading to decisions such as…

– Only sugar as a food source- 30 lbs worth of sugar.
– Bringing a grand piano, which took up nearly 1/5 of the total weight, because “entertainment is important!”
– Packing not one, but two bed frames and mattresses. After being explicitly told that they would not fit in the wagon, and would need to be set up and dismantled each day. Because “I need two beds, because I am NOT sharing with my sister.”
– Nearly bringing an entire table and chair dining room set. Nearly because when he was asked if he could think of a reason why he wouldn’t need this (by which I meant, you’re on the damn Oregon trail, just sit on a log!) he said “Yeah, you’re right. My character is single and has no kids, so it would be pretty pathetic to be sitting there at the table all alone!”
– Arming to the teeth with 12 rifles. I was really confused why he had so many on his supply list, and was trying to get him to explain the decision to me. Eventually I realized he was thinking that when he ran out of ammunition, he would need a brand new gun. I blame video games for this sort of thinking.

Then, off we set, riding west towards our new lives, with minimal food, almost no water, and a plethora of unnecessary furniture.

One of the first decisions is deciding which branch of the trail to take. When given the choice between a short trail with known dangers and possibly even more unknown dangers, and a trail that is reliable but longer, the kids unanimously picked danger. The trail is literally called “Burial Grounds trail” in the simulation. The visual on the map has a skull and cross bones.

Unsurprisingly, the simulation several days in had every wagon train hungry, with limited supplies, and in the dangerous wastelands. “Well,” said one little guy drily, “We’re all gonna die in the desert.”

We didn’t all die in the desert, luckily. Each group worked together, realized they needed to change their priorities, and they’re all progressing happily along the trail now. I love this unit because I think situations like this really let kids go beyond the textbooks, and understand that real people had to make real decisions like this- or else die in the desert!