The Dangers of Volunteering

A few times a year, we do school-wide activities where every student participates in mixed groups. It’s fun, but a lot of prep! This year’s activity involved painting rocks, so we needed nearly 600 roughly palm sized rocks. Needless to say, the preparation and storage for this was daunting. When we realized we needed to move 6 large buckets full of rocks from the first to second floor and down a long hallway, I immediately volunteered my class.

The reason I volunteered? Steven.

Let me tell you about Steven. At 11 years old, he is 5’4″. His shoulders are wider than some of his peers standing side by side to each other. When he walked in the room on the first day, my first thought was “Is this someone’s Dad?” He is also an incredibly helpful kid, willing to volunteer for any job. Perfect for rock lugging.

Of course, I didn’t expect him to do it alone, but I figured other kids could handle it, so I asked for volunteers.

Some background about elementary students and volunteering: They will volunteer for anything. It doesn’t matter what it is. If you say “I need volunteers to”- every hand will go up. I’ve tried to get them to realize they should wait to hear what is being asked. Otherwise kids go on errands to find teachers they don’t know, in rooms they’ve never been to. I always tell them one of these days I’m going to ask for volunteers to clean the restrooms with their own personal toothbrushes. It never works.

So this time, I explained, “Don’t raise your hand until you hear what I’m asking, ok? I need volunteers-” Every hand went up. “Guys.” I said. “Listen. I need you to carry buckets of rocks, very heavy buckets, quite a long way. This is not a joke. It’s literally buckets of rocks.” All hands still up. “They’re heavy. Please don’t volunteer unless you know you can carry very heavy things!” All hands still up. Since we were doing morning work, I added another caveat. “And you can only volunteer if you’ve finished page 127.” A few hands went down, including Steven’s. “Except for you.” I told him quietly. “You can still volunteer.”

In the interest of fairness, equality, and hopefully teaching some a lesson in forethought, I picked a mix of gender, size, and strength. For 6 buckets, I sent 10 kids. Then I waited.

A few minutes later, a trio of girls walked back in to the room empty handed, shaking their heads. Next Ethan, one of my bigger, taller, but not quite Steven-sized boys walked in. Or rather, waddled in, carrying the bucket between his bowed legs and swaying side to side so he could move it. After he put it down outside the room, he went and laid on the rug with his eyes closed for several minutes, breathing heavily.

Next, two groups of two came back, each carrying a bucket between them. One group managed to carry it, the other was dragging it down the hall where it made a horrible scraping shriek on the linoleum.

Then Steven came in, walking with a normal stride, standing tall, a bucket in each hand, arms held up so the buckets swung at his side. Ethan raised a fist from where he lay on the rug. “All hail Steven.” He said weakly. Steven smiled shyly, then walked up to me.

“Um, Riya is still in the hall with her bucket. Can I go back to help?” He asked. “Riya has one bucket by herself?” I asked, alarmed. Riya is the tiniest person in the class, but also arguably the most stubborn. I didn’t even actually call on her when she volunteered, but apparently she went anyway. He nodded. “Yeah, why don’t you go back.”

“She won’t let you help her.” One of the girls who came back empty handed called. “We tried!” Steven shrugged and left anyway.

A few minutes later, he walked back, his arms literally full of rocks, more than half a bucket’s worth. He placed them in the other buckets, then turned to look back down the hall. In the distance, Riya appeared, tiny arms straining, a look of grim and slightly terrifying determination on her face as she dragged her bucket, now nearly empty, down the hall. “She wouldn’t give up her bucket.” Steven explained as I walked over to stand next to him. We watched as Riya finally made it to the door, and then silently walked into the room, head held high. “Good job Riya.” Steven told her. “I told you I could do it.” She answered.

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Sixth Grade

I’ve never taught sixth grade before. So far, I love it. Yes, they are hormotional, as we call it. They are obsessed with each other, and their clothes, and who likes who. They smell like a combination of stale sweat and cheap, alcohol based perfume and cologne. But they are able to have deep, meaningful discussions far beyond what younger kids can do. We talk about global warming, what defines a civilization, social justice, and debate whether math is invented or discovered. They are deep thinkers and social creatures. I’m so glad to spend my days with them.

They are on the cusp of childhood and the teenage years, holding on desperately while they also push away. I get to watch them become the people they will be- and help them along the way. This mix makes for some poignant , sometimes heartbreaking moments. I’ve watched friendships that are nearly a decade old fall apart, see kids realize their parents flaws, and helped them confront things like racism and terrorism.

But of course, there is also humor.

A few weeks ago at recess, I had two interactions that sum up sixth grade to me.

One of my girls, Rosa, shyly asked me if I would go on the swings with her. “Of course!” I told her. “I love the swings!” We swung together, feet pointed to the sky, talking about how while you may never be too old to swing, our butts were definitely not the size of the little butts these particular swings were made for.

“OMG!” Another student yelled, running over to us. (She actually said this phonetically- oh-em-gee.) “Hashtag teacherontheswings!”

Will, one of the boys strolled over. “You guys are on the swings?” He said disdainfully. “Yeah.” Rosa said between pumps. “The swings are great!”

He raised an eyebrow. “Yeah, if you’re like, six.”

Just then, another girl walked over to us. “Will, want to go on the swings with me?” She asked, smiling at him

“Yeah, definitely. I love the swings.” He said with a totally straight face, and immediately followed her to the open swings. Rosa looked at me with a raised eyebrow. “Interesting.” She said.

 

Hello, Summer

Between teaching a new grade level and being pregnant, this year was busy. Most of my days consisted of reading essays, learning new curriculum, and barfing. So I didn’t write here as much as I planned.

Now, I’m finally on vacation, and I have time to finish the drafts I started and abandoned, and write up some of the great moments from this year. At least until mid-August, and then I’ll drop off the face of the blogging world for a bit. Until then, here’s some new/old stuff!

Why You Don’t Discuss Race With Second Graders

We have reading buddies once a week, so second graders come into the class to read books with my kids. After they finish reading, they can play a game. Today one of my boys and his second grade buddy were playing chess, while another fifth grader and his partner looked on.

I missed the first part of the conversation, but came by in time to hear one of the fifth graders saying that chess was racist because it was black against white. Before I could speak up that this a) wasn’t accurate and b) not a subject you discussed with 7 year olds, one of the little ones piped up. “What’s racist?” He asked.

The two older boys stared at each other for a second, then at me with something like panic. Before any of us could say anything, the second little boy announced “I’m black.”

He is not. He is definitely, definitely not. He has sandy brown hair, blue eyes, and very fair skin. The fifth graders, again, looked at each other, then me with a mix of confusion and panic. Again, they were interrupted. The same boy said, in the same definitive tone as before “I’m not black.”

“Gabriel is black.” The other little boy said, looking over to where Gabriel and his buddy were drawing together. “Yes, he is.” Said one of my boys, clearly relieved to have something he could answer clearly. Gabriel is definitely black. Then the same little boy leaned in and said quietly to his buddy, “Is Gabriel black?”

The other second grader interrupted again. “Are you black?” He asked his buddy. “No, I’m Chinese.” My student answered. “Black Chinese, or white Chinese?” The little one pressed. At this point, his buddy put his head on the table. The little one patted his hair gently, and moved his chess piece.

The Good in the World

Yesterday marked one year to the day since the Boston marathon bombing. I did not want to acknowledge it, or think about it. I didn’t want to hear the news stories play over and over again, see the traumatizing pictures. I didn’t want to think about how gut-wrenchingly awful this day was. I sure didn’t plan to bring it up with my class.

The kids had other ideas. The week before, a few asked me if we were going to do anything to mark the date. I gave vague answers, explaining that not everyone would be comfortable with it. The bombing happened early in a week long vacation last year, so by the time we came back to school, they had had time to process it, and it wasn’t as immediate. Plus, last year they were third graders. This year, fourth. The same kids that were not completely aware of what happened  then were now acutely aware of the anniversary.

“Can we do something good?” One asked me last week. I asked her to explain. “It was so bad, what happened. Shouldn’t we do something good, to balance it out?”

That hit me. I have a responsibility to these kids, to help them navigate this sometimes scary world and their place in it. After asking the class parents for their opinion, I decided to ask the class what they wanted to do. I figured it would be something like raise money, or write letters.

One of the first suggestions came from one of my very thoughtful boys. “Can we plant something?” He asked. The class loved this idea. Plants, they reasoned, were the ultimate way of giving back. They were good for the planet, the atmosphere, the ecosystem. Go figure, we had a shipment of baby pine trees donated by an Arbor Day foundation that I had completely forgotten about! We decided to plant our trees in the woods behind the school. Not as a memorial, not a place to remember the dead and injured, but just out among the existing trees. Just an act of positive.

After this discussion, the class went to music. One child hung back, and as soon as the class left she collapsed into my arms, crying. The trees, she explained, reminded her of the memorial to Martin Richards she had seen. The youngest of the bombings victims, he was only 8, and his sweet face was everywhere in the days following. I had cried hardest, I think for him. He was the same age as my students.

This fact hit hard for the little girl sobbing in my arms, as well. She explained she couldn’t stop thinking about it after she saw the tree hung with ribbons and beads, with stuffed animals underneath. Planting trees reminded her of it all over again. She apologized for crying, and I told her not only was it ok to cry, that I felt like crying, too. “Is it ok if I cry a little?” I asked her. She nodded.

So I held her while we both sat in the classroom, tears running down our faces. We cried for Martin, Krystle, Lingzi, Sean, for everyone injured, for the sense of safety that had been shattered, for the act of evil that tore apart a beautiful April day.

Then we both felt a little better. We talked about emphasizing the positive. Planting the trees would not be a solemn act of remembrance- that was certainly important, but not what we wanted to focus on. It would be a chance to go outside, be with our classroom community, and give back to nature. To celebrate the good in our world.

The next day we went outside into gusts of wind and rain. We climbed over the stone wall, and dug holes in the leaf covered forest floor, using plastic spoons and sharing one rusty trowel. We got covered in mud, and our feet got wet. The kids lovingly found spots for their little saplings, and implored the rain to keep their trees nice and wet. They sang, they laughed, they threw sticks, they flipped rocks and found salamanders. They were kids, being kids, in a world that can sometimes be scary, sometimes be sad, sometimes be so goddamned awful it makes the adults want to pull the curtains and never leave the house.

I took a lot of pictures. The best is of two of my girls, arms around each other, heads thrown back in laughter and song. They’re kicking their legs in unison, can can style. One holds a Red Sox umbrella, with the Boston B front and center. It’s perfect.

I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again- you can’t lose hope when you work with kids. They won’t let you.

Field Trips: An Analysis

During a recent conversation about field trips with a colleague, we were reviewing the more challenging aspects of bringing groups of small children anywhere. She pointed out that the worst part can be well-meaning people (quite often parents) who say “You must love these days off!” or something along those lines.

No.

This is not a day off. This is not even close. It occurs to me that most people don’t really understand what these forays into the outside world with your small friends can be like. So here is some insight!

All field trips can be divided into certain categories:

Museums, a.k.a. ‘Narrow corridors filled with priceless and fragile things you can’t touch’

Nature a.k.a. ‘Wide expanses of land that are easy to disappear in and full of things you are allergic to or should not touch, but will. Also, it’s going to rain.’

Historical Sites a.k.a. ‘Downtown areas with close proximity to two lanes of traffic and overly friendly strangers’

When you have two dozen impulsive little people in your care, you can’t help but view these trips based on the dangers they pose.

My very first field trip as a classroom teacher was 3 days after I had my wisdom teeth out. It was my first day not on heavy duty painkillers. I was woozy and sore, but luckily the terrifying and near crippling knowledge that I was in charge of other people’s children and that I was the adult kept me on a good adrenaline buzz. As we boarded the bus to go, one student stopped at told me, “I like the color of your face bruises.” I’ve come a long way since then, but field trips are still exhausting!

Last week, we went to a museum attached to a university (narrow corridors filled with priceless and fragile things you can’t touch). Here is a brief run down of that trip.

The kids had a blast, which is great. Usually, about 20% of the fun is due to the purpose of the trip. Those bones were cool! I love dinosaurs! I learned about Native Americans!

30% of field trip fun is the bus ride. Yes, they ride the bus everyday, but not with everyone in the class! And the teacher! And she totally wants to hear you sing every pop song of the past five years off-key and at the top of your lungs!

Kids on a bus are like popcorn. They cannot stay seated. They either pop up to see what the person in front of them is doing, or lean across the aisle, or slide bonelessly under their seat across the grossest floor imaginable to grab the feet of the person in front of them. I’m tall enough so that if I sit up VERY straight and crane my neck, I can see them if they pop up. So the whole ride is me saying various names followed by “In the seat! Sit down! Legs in! Sit up! Turn around.” My neck stays sore for days.

Between the singing, yelling across aisles, and hysterical shrieking hyena laughter, it gets very loud. I have an app on my phone that registers decibal levels and compares them to comparable sounds. On our most recent field trip, we got as loud as a running blender!

Some field trip locations are almost 2 hours away. It’s a magical ride.

Bus rides aren’t the only fun thing! 10% of field trip fun happens en route from point a to point b once in or at the location. Stairs with railings you can lean over, aiming your body from the waist up at the ground 3 floors below (while you’re teacher has a heart attack and hauls you back by your pants)! Escalators that you can dangle your baggy clothing on, and run up while it goes down! Elevators that are older than the combined age of the entire class! Even better if they are tiny, squeaky, and rickety! If you find out your teacher has mild claustrophobia, this is an AWESOME time to have a dance party and sway your hips side to side to crash into her.

Once in the museum, the real fun begins. Now, I pride myself on being very aware of gender bias. I treat all my students equally, and I try to break down stereotypes- just try telling someone they throw like a girl in my classroom. However, when in a museum, most kids will break down along gender lines and play two very distinct games as they tour the exhibits. And therein lies 40% of the field trip fun.

For girls, the game is “Find the Cutest Thing.” I’m sorry, I meant “Oh my goddd, it’s the cutest thing Ev-EERRRRRR.” Paintings with horses in them. Dioramas of tiny people in tiny clothes. Hummingbirds. Tigers. (I don’t think they quite got that the latter two were taxidermied.) “Look at THIS! ohmygod so furry. So colorful. FEATHERS!” They are not normally like this.

For the boys, each visit to a museum becomes an intense game of “Spot the Penis.” On a statue! Naked people in a diorama! Taxidermied animals! Whale skeletons! (They aren’t right 100% of the time.) The game is played like this. See something, point at it while snorting and giggling and huffing. Elbow your friend. Whisper. Stare at your teacher with giant eyes and yell “Nothing!” before she even asks you a question.

Usually I tactfully pretend I haven’t heard them or seen whatever they happen to be looking at. The group I had with me on this trip was particularly good at spotting everything even remotely phallic, and freaking out about it. After a couple hours, I was getting a little tired of it.

So when we stopped in front of a giant Native American carving and they did the ‘hee-hee-look-at-it!’ shuffle for the 78th time, I snapped, “Yes it’s a penis!”

Then turned around to see three alarmed looking undergraduates staring at me.

Luckily, my students had my back. From behind me, one little guy logically pointed out “Well, it is, you know.”

 

Ballroom Dancing is a Bi-Partisan Activity

At the end of the day today, I was asking the kids questions from BrainQuest. One was “What are the two main political parties in the U.S.?”

One of my wiggliest and most impulsive kids shot a hand up into the air, and made the universal “ooh! ooh!” sound that means oh man, I KNOW this!

So I called on him.

“Ballroom dancing!” He yelled.

Then immediately followed with “Wait, what was the question?”