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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Jumping Off Bridges

A couple weeks back, I was leading lines of kids from the gym to their buses at the end of the day. A jacket was left on the floor. “Whose is this?” I asked, pointing to it. After a short pause, two second graders literally flung themselves at the jacket, smacking into the floor and each other, then wrestling for it.

“WHOA!” I yelled, and they separated from each other, but continued to yank the jacket back and forth between them. I held my hand out for it, and they reluctantly surrendered it. “Who does this belong to?” I asked again. One of the boys raised his hand. “Mine.” “But he told me to race him to it!” The other cut in quickly. “Did you think that that was a good idea?” I asked him. “But he told me to!” The little one insisted.

Using the oldest metaphor in the book for this kind of scenario, I asked him, “If he told you to jump off a bridge, would you?” I meant this as a rhetorical question, but he got a thoughtful look on his face and cocked his head to the side.

“Hell yeah!” He answered. “That sounds awesome!”

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.

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.”

 

 

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.”

Hormones Are Not an Excuse

Being a sixth grade teacher is weird in so many ways. The one that I’m reflecting on today is the fact that I deal with a group of people who need my help because they lost a tooth, and need my help because they have their period. It’s a strange sense of vertigo to realize that these two milestones that literally mark the end of childhood and beginning of adulthood happen simultaneously, often to the same person.

And as I write this I’m realizing that as strange as it is for me, it’s even more poignant for them. So I guess I should say that being a sixth grader is weird. Again, in so many ways!

Last year we had them watch THE MOVIE, as they all call it. All about puberty and changes and all that fun stuff. This year we went over it in even more depth, with even more overly scientific terms, and cartoon images that were even more graphic and detailed. Plus the added bonus of discussing conception and fertilization. Last year was a one day lesson. This year’s spanned four days. A colleague referred to the curriculum as “Girl parts, boy parts, how they go together.”

Last year I felt so proud of myself for getting through it without too much awkwardness or discomfort on my part. Last year was nothing. After this year, I don’t think anything will ever make me feel uncomfortable again. Until you’ve showed a detailed model of sperm fertilizing an egg to a group of 11 and 12 year old girls, you haven’t really lived. Some people go sky diving to get a rush. This is a lot cheaper.

(My favorite part of this was when one girl yelled “Woo, that worm is the winner!” when the first one reached the egg.)

One thing that came up a lot in our long, ongoing, and incredibly detailed discussions was that for a lot of the questions (Why do we get acne? Why do we have crushes? What determines when puberty starts? Why do you get emotional around your period?) the answer was ‘Hormones’.

Yesterday I met with a student about her behavior on the bus. For the past few weeks, she’s been having some ongoing issues with another student. She freely admitted she hadn’t been as nice as she could have been. “Ok, I’ve been mean to her.” I asked her why.

She was reluctant to give the reason for the original argument, but did let me know this bit of info: “Well, I got my period today.” I waited for her to explain more. I stared at her. She stared back at me. “Ok, but this has been going on for a few weeks, right?” I asked. “Yeah, well, my period!” She said happily. More staring.

“I’m confused how you getting your period today made you mean to her three weeks ago.” “Well, hormones, you know.” She informed me knowingly.

Sixth grade, everybody.

Ant Problems

We had a class breakfast last week, and in the ensuing chaos of twenty-three 12 year olds eating and drinking, some juice was spilled. Multiple kids attempted to clean it up, but only ended up smearing it across an even greater surface of the counter. Within an hour, sugar ants were busily crawling across it. We cleaned it up, but by then the damage was done and a line of ants kept scurrying across the counter.

That afternoon we had reading buddies, and the second graders of course noticed the ants. One little girl quickly pointed out that I could just poison them. I explained that they were there for the spilled juice, and that I didn’t want to use poison if we could just do a better job cleaning up the juice.

“You could put the poison in the juice bottle!” She suggested enthusiastically.

“Well I really don’t want to use poison, and the ants won’t be able to get the juice in the bottle anyway” I replied.

The little girl looked meaningfully around the table at each of the sixth graders she sat with. “It’s not for the ants.” She said to me. The sixth graders looked at me and each other, but the little one was already back to her book, head resting gently on her very alarmed looking buddy.

After the second graders left, my students asked “Did she suggest you poison us because we didn’t clean up the juice?” “I think she did.” I answered. “But I promise not to poison any of you.” Nonetheless, the juice was thoroughly cleaned up after that.