An-i-maaaa-tiooooon

Despite the fact that I don’t teach kindergartner, kindergartners feature heavily in this blog. They are adorable, hilarious, and have absolutely no filter. Most of my interactions with the tiniest of our school’s students occur at the end of the day while I walk bus lines out, and this week’s highlight was no exception.

A little girl who I know only as ‘dinosaur hat’ based on her excellent choice in winter headgear looked up at me with big round eyes yesterday and said apropos of nothing “I’m confused by how some movies have people that are real and some don’t.” I’m used to questions like this- when you’re still processing how the world works you ask anyone and everyone for help.

“Do you mean like how some movies are drawn, and have some have real people?” I asked her. “Drawn like Spongebob?” She clarified. I nodded. “That’s called an-i-maaaa-tiooooon,” She told me in an incredibly condescending tone, drawing the word out like I was simple and clearly wondering if she had chosen the wrong adult to ask for help. “And no, not just like that.”

At this point I was confused by what she meant, and when I told her this she puffed out her cheeks and said “Ok, it’s like this. Have you seen ‘Frozen’?” When I nodded she said “Ok, so Anna and Elsa are drawn, right? Remember an-i-maaaa-tiooooon?” Once I reassured her I understood this concept she moved on. “So they aren’t real, at least I didn’t think they were real, but my friend when to Disney World, and she said that Anna and Elsa are there, and they are real, and they talk to you!” Her eyes had been getting bigger and bigger throughout this, and her hands getting higher and higher in the air. The shock and awe was palpable.

“I’ve never beened to Disney World, but I’m going in April! Do you think they will talk to me?” She asked. I assured her they would, and then I melted into a puddle because this was just more adorable than I can usually handle.

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Why I Don’t Teach Kindergarten

The youngest grade I have ever worked with for longer than a few hours is third grade. I have said before, I think primary teachers are superheroes and I bow down before them. Days like today really bring that point home.

At the end of the day, our kids go in to the gym and line up by their bus number. When their bus arrives, a teacher will come bring the line out. Today I walked over to a line and saw the following: five very uncomfortable upper elementary kids, a distraught looking fourth grader hovering over a tiny girl who was smiling beatifically, and a second grade boy named Mikey who was calmly informing the tiny girl that her butt was showing. “Just pull up your pants some more.” He was telling her. She gamely hitched them up. The other kids still looked horrified.

I picked up the sign that had their bus number, inwardly rolled my eyes that the other kids couldn’t handle a tiny bit of butt crack showing, and thanked the gods it was Friday. The line followed behind me, tiny girl at the front. When we reached the door, the little on went on ahead of me, and I saw the real problem.

Her butt was out. Her entire bare bum, her pants pulled down almost to the back of her thighs. “Her butt is out again.”  MIkey announced. The older kids all turned red, looked anywhere else, and tried not to hysterically laugh. “OoooK honey!” I took her backpack, and asked her sweetly to pull her pants up. She did, grabbing them by the front and yanking them up past her belly button. Somehow this made the back go even lower, as evidenced by the gasps and muffled giggles of the older kids.

“Grab the pants by your hips, ok?” I tried. She pulled them by the front even higher. I moved her teeny little hands on to her hips and had her pull them, but that was all I felt comfortable doing- what with all the naked butt and not my student and I don’t know how to handle these situations, ok?!

Meanwhile, the teacher coordinating calling the buses as they came was trying to get my attention to see why we were stopped. “Her butt is out!” Mikey yelled, pointing at the little girl, but actually sort of pointing at me, based on the confused and concerned look every colleague in the vicinity gave me. “Not mine, hers!” I mouthed at the bus caller. Meanwhile, tiny girl was still smiling serenely.

“Grab the pants and pull up like this, ok? Like this!” I made a frantic pants-pulling-up motion. “Do you want me to help shake her?” The hovering fourth grader asked me. “What? No, we don’t need to shake her.” I said frantically.

Finally, we had the majority of her butt covered, and we headed towards the bus. As the line moved forward, Mikey said “Oh, no…” Sure enough, we had a full moon as the tiny one walked proudly and happily onto the bus. The bus driver looked at me with a raised eyebrow.

“Um, her butt is out.” I told the driver, pointing at the little girl. “And, I, I tried, pants, I don’t, I have to go…” I muttered all this while backing slowly away from the bus. Then I scurried back inside.

Hats off to you, superheroes.

Adventures with Tiny Kids

In the summer, I usually teach a few community education classes. These are awesome. You can make up whatever it is you want to teach, and kids will sign up to take it. I’ve done a few over the years. Hands on Science, a.k.a. mentos and diet coke! Creative Writing a.k.a. I feel guilty your parents are paying me to sit here and watch you write on your own. Introductory French a.k.a. what can I remember from a class I took over a decade ago.

My favorite has been cooking, and that’s what I did this year. In the past I offered one class for grades 3-6. This year, the program director encouraged me to expand the ages. So I had a morning class for K-3, and an afternoon class for 4-8. The older grade scared me more. I know kindergartners. I’m around them, we share a space, and occasionally I interact with them. Middle schoolers are a whole different animal. I thought the little ones would be easy, the older ones more challenging.

Good god, was I wrong.

Little kids have no logic. I’m sure this is obvious to some of you, at least on some level, but I doubt many people realize this truth I’ve come to be painfully aware of: humans under 7 are feral creatures who thrive on chaos. Yes, they are adorable, and sweet, and fun. But I challenge anyone reading this to attempt to make a pie dough with someone who has not yet attended public school, and come out with your sanity intact.

Here are a few highlights from the week:

Bathroom Adventures

Little kids who have to pee will grab at and compulsively knead their crotches. They will make direct eye contact with you while they do this. When you ask if they have to go to the bathroom, they will say ” No…?!” In a way that is somehow a question and a firm denial. Then they will ask to go at the least convenient time ever. They also don’t like to go alone. This will entail either leaving a group of 5-7 year olds alone in a room to accompany one down the hall, or making a whole group field trip together to stand outside the bathroom whispering louder than most people yell while other classes look at you with clear concern and mild fear.

I’m going to eat this, but not that.

This was a cooking class. We cooked food, and we ate it. On one end of the spectrum, we have the boy who was grossed out by everything. The smell of potatoes, the feel of flour dough, the sound of apples being chopped, and anything, ANYTHING, to do with corn. He would loudly announce “Eeeeeew!” all the time. I tried to get him to switch to a different word- maybe he could say ‘bologna!’ instead. “No, I want you to know when I’m grossed out” was his response.

On the other end of the spectrum, we had the human garbage disposal- who also happened to be not only the smallest person in the class, but the smallest person I have ever worked with in my capacity as an educator. He had turned five last week. He was adorable, eager to please, and probably would have eaten the other students had they not been constantly in motion. I learned fast to say “Do NOT eat this!” when I put something down on his plate. On the very first day, when we started cutting up tomatoes for sauce (with plastic butter knives) he ate half a tomato in a bite before I could stop him.

That’s not to say he didn’t keep eating things. In 5 days he ate portions of an apple core, apple seeds, raw dough, and several tablespoons of butter. When we had leftovers after making pizza, he ate the cheese with a sense of single minded purpose that was frightening. At recess, he sat on top of the slide eating fistfuls of pepperoni and laughing to himself.

He also ate literally everything we cooked, which included portion sizes most adults would be daunted by.

Following Directions

I teach kids. I know they don’t generally follow directions. Third and fourth graders get distracted, they decide they know better, they’re too concerned with their friends to care about directions. I’m used to that.

But little ones? That’s a whole different story.

I had conversations like this multiple times a day.

Little girl: “Where does this go?” Holding up empty bowl and spoon.

Me: “In the sink, sweetie.”

Girl: Stares at me in silence.

Me: “Put it in the sink, please.”

Girl: “Where does the spoon go?”

Me: “It all goes in the sink.”

Girl: “Where does the bowl go?”

Me: “Everything in your hands goes in the sink. The bowl and spoon go in the sink.”

Girl: Stares at me, frozen and silent.

Me: “Sweetie, put the bowl and spoon in the sink.”

Girl: “Ok…” Walks away

7 seconds later

Girl: “Where does this go?” holds up spoon and bowl

Me: Moment of silence to figure out if this is a joke… “Where do you think it goes?”

Girl: “Um, the twash?”

Me: Silent, staring. “In the sink, sweetie. The SINK!”

Then she put it UNDER a table?! Why? Fourth graders would do that and then say “Ha! I put it under the table. Hilarious!” They would not actually go through a thought process and decide yes, this is where this should go.

Physical Contact

I’m used to kids giving me high fives, poking me when they need something, occasionally asking for a hug. Little ones are different. This week was about 85-90 degrees every day. It was also humid. When we went outside, everyone was dripping wet in about 3 minutes. When offered indoor recess, however, no one wanted to stay in and play games, preferring instead to go outside and risk 2nd degree burns on the metal playground equipment. I stayed on a nearby bench, watching to make sure everyone was safe.

Without fail, one of the kids would come sit with me. I would smile and chat with them, and meanwhile they would get closer and closer to me, while I scooted away until I was on the edge of the bench. Then the tiny one would either get next to me so their body was completely against mine, or climb onto my lap. The sweatiest snuggles ever.

Meanwhile, the middle schoolers were predictable. Every sentence had 14 ‘likes’ and 23 ‘ohmygods’ and there was eye rolling, but in the end, they followed directions, did what they needed to do, thanked me, and only threw handfuls of flour into each other’s faces while shrieking 7 times.

Early childhood and primary educators, you have my deepest respect.

An Angry Teacher Speaks

This isn’t a funny post. I’m sorry. I know many of you follow this silly little endeavor of mine because it’s all about the ridiculous things that make this job so damn fun. And I love those things. I do. They are such a big part of what makes me love my job. I think I sometimes revel in and celebrate the silly things more than the average teacher. But at my core, underneath everything, the part of my identity that is the most important part of who I am right now is- teacher. 

I love my students. I would do almost anything for them. The highest responsibility I’ve ever held is the privilege of helping them become happy, engaged learners, and successful members of a greater global community.

Yet I can’t, in good consciences, continue to do things I know are bad for my students. Why, you may ask, am I doing things I know are wrong? Ask the state and federal government why. Ask Arne Duncan. Ask the writers of the Common Core State Standards. Ask Bill Gates. Ask Pearson publishing company. 

Here is what I’m angry about. 

The Common Core Standards are developmentally inappropriate.

You may have heard about the Common Core standards. They cover grades K-12, are being implemented on a nearly national level, and have the goal of readying all students for college and career. Which is not a bad goal! Ask yourself, though, about the validity of developing reading, writing, and math standards for Kindergartners. Kindergarten used to be about learning to tie your shoes, hold a pencil, empathize with your peers, solve problems. Clearly this was a terrible idea, as I’m sure everyone reading this has suffered hugely from an inability to function in college or career based on the lack of standardized literacy skills you received.
 
Here’s the thing- many kindergarten classes are half day. In a half days time (even a full day in most cases), you can’t possibly cover all the skills K previously taught AND meet the CC standards. So by age 6, little Johnny has learned to “With guidance and support from adults, respond to questions and suggestions from peers and add details to strengthen writing as needed. (CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.K.5 ) But he never had time to learn what to do when the kid at the table next to him takes his crayons away, other than smacking him.
 
It sounds dire, but if kindergarten isn’t the time and place to learn these skills, many kids will never learn them. Furthermore, how are kids who don’t know all their letter sounds supposed to be writing at all, let alone strengthening their writing as needed?! Multiple organizations have come out arguing that these standards, particularly for the primary grades, are developmentally inappropriate-  http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2013/01/29/a-tough-critique-of-common-core-on-early-childhood-education/ 
 
Standardized tests don’t effectively evaluate students or teachers
 
Think back to times in your life where you have had to sit down and fill in bubbles on an answer sheet. Chances are that after the SATs and GREs, most of us didn’t do that. It isn’t a real world skill. Yet we evaluate students as young as 7 on their ability to take these tests. I’ll share an example from my own experience. I had a student with ADHD. It’s difficult for him to sit still for very long. He moves around, waves his arms, talks his thinking out before answering, draws pictures and diagrams. He’s a smart kid, and is pretty successful academically. He did poorly on our state test, though. Sitting still for two hours is really hard for an 8 year old, especially one with some attentional and impulsivity issues. Does this mean he won’t be successful in high school, college, his adult life? Hell no! He’s an incredibly creative, outside the box thinker. He solves problems, writes great creative stories, plans amazing science experiments. Yet we are sending a message to kids and their families that they are academically underperforming if they can’t be successful on one specific type of data collection! 
 
These tests take time away from my teaching. They require me to have taught all standards before April so my kids can prove they learned them in time for the test. We are cramming ten months worth of teaching into seven months. Despite my best efforts, my kids are stressed and anxious about the tests, and can’t focus on the days leading up to them. In many schools, teachers are expected to take weeks on test preparation. Do we really think that our children are best educated by being reminded to fill in the bubbles fully, rather than being given the chance for authentic, open ended, student driven education? Do we think that our nation is best served by creating a generation of kids designed to answer to the test rather than think outside the box?
 
Teacher evaluations are also tied to these tests. If all your students are on grade level, have no major disabilities, are from stable homes, are well fed, well rested, healthy, and English speaking, this is a decent plan. Our schools don’t work that way, though. Our kids come from all walks of life, with unique and diverse backgrounds. And we love this. We embrace it. I have had the experience of a student coming in as a non-reader, able only to write fragment sentences. In a year, that student moved up multiple levels in reading, accessed chapter books, wrote full, well constructed paragraphs. The standards say she should be writing multiple paragraphs, though! These tests don’t take into account that students and teachers may bust their butts and make huge progress- if you don’t meet the standards, you’re out of luck. When did we decide that all kids meet the same milestones at the same time? What happened to what used to be the accepted belief in diversity of learning styles, of maturation at own pace? Does not reading at a fourth grade level by the end of fourth grade really mean you won’t be a successful adult?
 
These tests are the way they are because it just isn’t cost effective to assess in a variety of authentic, developmentally appropriate ways. Yet we give so much weight and importance to them! It’s my hope that more parents will choose to opt their students out of these tests, as we’ve seen in places like Seattle and New York- http://www.thenation.com/blog/176994/turn-tune-opt-out#
 
Corporate interests play a major part in the new education and testing system
 
One of the major publishers of new curriculum aligned with the Common Core, and of many of the state tests, is Pearson. This company describes themselves as “the leading pre K-12 curriculum, testing, and software company in the US.” They and their subsidiary companies are earning a great deal of money on the programs being written specifically to align to the new standards. Why shouldn’t they? A deeper look into the company reveals some uncomfortable connections- http://unitedoptout.com/boycott-pearson-now/. Having the same individuals and corporate entities creating and shaping educational policy and then benefitting financially from their creation is not ethical. School systems end up needing to buy new programs year after year (from companies like Pearson) as standards are rewritten (by people with a financial stake in companies like Pearson). Why should the shareholders in a publishing company have more say in what our nation’s students learn than the people who teach them?
 
Pearson isn’t alone. Companies like McGraw Hill are also profiting off our nation’s schools in unethical ways. If public education becomes for profit, what reason is there for companies earning money to actually care about students? What voice will students, families, and teachers have moving forward into this system?
 
Poverty is the real reason why students (and schools) don’t do well
 
Try this out- skip dinner, then breakfast the following day. Then try to learn a new skill, or take a test. It isn’t easy, even for adults. Yet that’s what a growing number of kids in America face daily.  Add to that the fact that some stayed up until 2 am with a sick sibling, or listening to fighting. Add to that the kids who have no one at home to help with homework, or read to them. The kids that experience violence at home, drug use, homelessness. This is not a small percentage. In 17 states, students below the poverty line are the majority of public school students. Take a second to let that sink in. More kids are poor than aren’t in many places. That’s insane.
 
Unemployment is rampant, minimum wage barely feeds and houses an individual let alone a family, food and heating oil prices are rising. I don’t blame parents, in most cases. For every individual who is addicted to drugs and hitting their kids, there are many more who are trying as hard as they can, working multiple jobs just to feed and clothe their kids. How do we expect them to find time to read books to their kids when they work 18+ hours a day? Furthermore, how do we expect teachers to stay in districts where poverty is rampant when test scores are tied to pay?
 
In a recent article by Elaine Weiss, she asks “What if we have actually been teaching the right skills in US schools all along – math and reading, science and civics, along with creativity, perseverance and team-building? What if these were as important a hundred years ago for nurturing innovative farmers and developers of new automobiles as they are now for creating the next generation of tech innovators? What if these are the very characteristics of US schools that have made us such a strong public education nation, and the current shift toward a narrower agenda just dilutes that strength? What if, rather than raising standards, and testing students more, the biggest change we need to address is that of our student body?” 
We are pouring money into systems to assess our nations teachers and students. Those of us within education (and arguably those with any common sense) know why there are deficits. Imagine if we spent that money on universal pre-K, reduced cost breakfast, counselors, special educators? We wouldn’t need a test to let us know which schools were performing poorly if we spent our resources fighting against poverty.

http://billmoyers.com/2013/11/06/the-real-21st-century-problem-in-public-education-is-poverty/

I know that many will read this and write me off. As lazy, bitter, union-driven, out of touch. I will point out these facts- I am inherently optimistic because I hold the future in my hands every day. I question every decision my union makes by asking if it is in the best interest of my kids. It would be so much easier to give in and go into lock step with these standards and initiatives. It’s much easier to use a curriculum someone else wrote (and profited off of) than write one yourself. Standardized tests take no time out of my personal life to make. They are easier than performance assessments, rubrics, student designed projects. This is the harder route. The route of being ostracized, condemned, criticized.

Here’s the thing, though. I don’t give a damn. I don’t care what anyone other than my students and their parents think. I know these practices are bad for kids. I know they won’t help my students become real learners, or the successful adults I know they will be. So I will fight them, yell about them, push back against them. My kids are the ones who really matter. I’m doing this for them.

Kindergarten Comedy

My students are third graders- 8-9 years old. Occasionally some will start at age 7. This is the youngest age I’ve worked with, and I’m fine with that.

Being in a k-6 school, however, I get to interact fairly often with kindergartners. In my professional opinion, they are a whole different ballgame than first grade and up. A colleague once described teaching kindergarten as “being pecked to death by ducklings.”

I tend to think of them as puppies. Have you ever tried to yell at a puppy? Even if it does something awful like crap on your rug, eat your shoes, barf in your purse, it still looks at you with big, sad, adorable eyes. I can’t discipline kindergartners for the same reason it’s hard to yell at puppies.

I also find the range of their ability amazing and frightening. Kids develop at very different times, so in kindergarten you have kids pooping their pants regularly just for the thrill of it, and kids with a vocabulary and deductive reasoning skills that make you feel bad about yourself.

Right now I tutor a kindergartner, and my class is paired up with a K class once a week to read to. I also see them around the school, and when I bring kids to their buses. I don’t know what it was, but this week was full of some real comedic gold from that age group. Here’s some of the best.

While bringing out buses, a little girl who has a sister in my class came up to me and informed me that their was an animal in her backpack. Further questions revealed that it was not a toy, was moving a lot, and had fur. Hesitantly exploring her back pack, I found a caterpillar that seemed prepared to grow up into a moth the size of an eagle. After admonishing me for not believing her in the first place, the little girl and I managed to coax the beast onto a piece of paper and free him into the garden, where I assume he will catch and eat small birds. I told her we liberated him, which she heard as “libraried”. Now I think her class thinks I teach bugs to read.

The boy I tutor was telling me about how his class is studying dinosaurs. He was thrilled to learn that we shared a favorite dinosaur (a velociraptor. Obviously.) and impressed by my knowledge. Now every child in his class refers to me by my name followed by “who knows a lot about velociraptors.” I don’t think I’ve ever had a better name.

Two teeny girls entertained themselves while waiting for the bus by making paper hats. First they showed me how, then they made one for me. It was tiny, so I figured I wouldn’t be required to wear it. They then made two for me, so more of my head was covered. I put them on for a minute to be a good sport, and one clasped her hands under her chin like a damn disney character and said “I’m so glad you weared them! Other teachers don’t want to weared them.” So in front of a couple hundred kids and a few colleagues, I weared my two paper hats proud.

While holding my hand and walking to the bus, a small boy with a huge vocabulary informed me that he had the power to transform people into toads. Specifically bullies and “people who have done wrong to me”. He then told me he keeps them in cages at his house and feeds them human food because “They might look like toads, but they’re still humans, so they need human food.” He keeps them so they remember “that they did wrong.” He also casually mentioned his ability to teleport things by opening portals of the right size. “It drains my energy, but the bus gets here faster.” I put him on the bus while fervently hoping that when he becomes supreme chancellor of the world he remembers me kindly.

This is a single weeks worth of kindergarten comments. If I taught that age, I could update this damn blog hourly.