Friday, December 19, 2008

Halfway to What?

I'm halfway through my first year in first grade. I've said before that it was surprisingly challenging to adjust to the move from fifth grade to first. A lot of it is getting better. The credit for that goes, in great part, to the literacy coach and the special education teacher that I work with. They have been willing to problem solve with me and have been great models for me to watch.

There are so many things that are beginning to feel comfortable. I'm getting the hang of making the content accessible for first graders. I'm beginning to understand how they are learning and how I can help that process. The biggest problem I'm still facing in classroom management. It's painful. For the five or six years prior to this one, classroom management required little thought or effort. It felt natural and I had a huge bag of tricks ready for when things got a little more challenging.

Now, I feel like my responses are all wrong. I'm unable to anticipate quickly enough and head off problems. I haven't figured out how to redirect students in order to help them refocus. And, worst of all, I spend way too much time yelling - not helpful. This is my big goal for 2009. I expected classroom management to be a challenge, but I underestimated how big a challenge.

I'm open to any suggestions of good books, websites, and other resources to help me mull this over.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

We're Low on His Agenda

Obama has chosen his Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan. In my mind this is a really disappointing choice. He's not Michelle Rhee or Joel Klein, but he isn't that far off either. He's the CEO of the Chicago Public Schools. Schools that, as it has been pointed out, the Obamas did not choose for their children.

This is a choice that means things will not change in education during an Obama administration. I think it shows that education is low on Obama's agenda (something I don't find too surprising given the state of our economy and Iraq and Afghanistan). I don't have to like it however.

I had my reservations about Linda Darling-Hammond because I don't think she would have been revolutionary enough. I would have like to see Deborah Meier in the job, but she's probably smart enough to turn it down if it were offered. At least Darling-Hammond would be walking into the job with some experience in the classroom and in school buildings. As Alfie Kohn said
Imagine--an educator running the Education Department.
That is what I had been hoping to see. Instead, we'll spend the next few years fighting for funding in an economic recession while we spend more and more on tests, test preparation, and 'research-based' remediation methods. How sad for our students.

Monday, December 15, 2008


I don't mean me cursing, although that does go through my head sometimes.

We've implemented a reward program due to some classroom chaos (due, I'm certain, to my less than impressive classroom management in first grade). Students have been able to earn stickers when they are doing a fabulous job. They've earned a variety of different things (lunch with us, small toys, extra recess). It's worked pretty well. Last week I noticed that one of the stickers we used was probably less than appropriate for first grade.

Very Special Student

I've written before about a student who fascinates me. On a recent morning I needed to complete a county-wide math assessment on a few students, this one included. I went over to his special spot in the classroom to get him and he was working on this:

I tried to get him to stop, telling him he could return to it later. He got quite agitated and, after pushing it a bit longer, I stopped to really look at what he was doing. Once I did so I noticed the creativity he was using to make the title of one of his favorite books. I backed off (after taking this picture) and began the math assessment with another student. A few minutes later this little one must have managed to complete this because he joined us to work on math.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Reality Check

I'm not completely naive. I've looked at my students for ten years now and wondered which ones would end up in gangs, pregnant, in jail, etc. I have some clue about the realities of their lives. My first group of fourth graders are 19 now. I think of them as sophomores in college, although that's probably true for only a small percentage of them.

In the past month or so I have learned of the pregnancies of two of my former students. One is a sophomore in high school, the other is a senior. Neither is a shock, but it is still painful. The senior was the one I learned about today. When she was in third grade her mother was pregnant and diagnosed with cancer. Due to the pregnancy there was little they could do. After the baby was born the cancer was so far along there was little hope. She died that year. The father was accused of sexual abuse and the kids were placed in foster care (actually with a staff member at our school who is phenomenal). Near the end of fourth grade, I think, they were placed on a permanent basis with an aunt one county south of us. I was deeply sad to see her leave our school, but thrilled she had found a more stable home.

When my colleague came in today and shared the news I asked her if there was any way to get a letter to this girl. She said that if I could get it to her by 1 today she could pass it on to the girl's aunt. While my first graders did their math centers I sat down to write.
Dear S.,
D. just stopped by my room with a beautiful picture of you in fourth grade. I have, sadly, forgotten the names of many students from the past ten years of teaching but your name has not been lost to me. Your beautiful smile in that picture brought back so many wonderful memories.
She says you are 17 now. I'm sure D. would never lie to me, but it is really hard for me to believe. She also told me about the baby. I have two daughters now; they are 5 and almost 2. I love them more than I can believe possible. I wish you and your little one the very best of luck. You both deserve the most wonderful things this world has to offer.
If there is ever anything I can do to help you, please let me know.
I included my phone numbers and email address. I don't expect to hear from her, but at least it felt like some sort of action on my part.

I'm left wondering what I could and should have done differently for this child. I don't hold myself responsible by any means. I think I am simply looking for some way to control the situation, some way to keep it from happening again. There is little in life that is as depressing as looking at first graders and wondering which ones will become parents long before they are ready.

I Have a Granny and a Grandmother

I've been working hard to improve my guided reading lessons with first graders. I still feel like they are sub-par, but they are getting better.

Recently one of the books we were reading had a girl and her grandmother in it. The girl called her grandmother Gran. I wanted to be sure the students were able to read that word because I figured it was not one they would immediately recognize. So I asked the kids what they call their grandmothers. I expected to hear things like 'grandmother', 'grandma', 'gram', 'nana' and such.

The first child says, "Eyfly". I said, "No, not how you go to visit her. What do you call her?" He repeated his answer. I tried again to clarify and finally realized that he calls her that.

The next child says, "Flower" or sometimes we call her "Mentenuga".

At that point I realized that I teach in a very diverse school. (I did already know it, just not as clearly as I did at that moment.) These students do not lead lives similar to mine at that age. I love that about my students. I just need to remember it so that I can build their background knowledge appropriately.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008


This is apropos of nothing on this blog but I just discovered that a former teacher of mine died in July at age 100. Now that I've written the word teacher this line of thinking seems more appropriate here but my interactions with her were far removed from a traditional classroom.

She was Alice Chalifoux. I spent two summers studying with her at the Salzedo Harp Colony in Camden, Maine. By the time I was lucky enough to learn from her she was in her late eighties. The mystique around the harp colony was so great for me before my first trip there that a friend suggested I would be studying with the Yoda of harpists. It was a surprisingly accurate description. She was a tiny woman with an impressive force of personality. I was constantly intimidated by her. In spite of that she pushed me to greater heights as a harpist (which probably helped me reach mediocrity).

This weekend I will play for a Christmas party for the seventh (or so) year. As a result, I've actually been doing some real practicing recently. I think this must be what got me thinking about Alice Chalifoux. The amazing power of the web quickly led me to this video of her on Johnny Carson in 1988.

I can't begin to do her justice in this brief post. She was the principal harpist in Cleveland long before women played in orchestras. She taught at three different schools in Cleveland and ran the harp colony each summer up into her late eighties. She was the grand dame of the harp world, something she probably found amusing. The harp is known as a sedate, elegant, classy instrument. Alice could be all of those things, but none would be her natural state. She was strong, outspoken, witty, and often off-color. The harp world will shine less brightly without her.

Reason 835 Why I Love My School

These signs hang outside our bathrooms. Our fantastic math specialists put these up for teachers to use as their students take bathroom breaks. I've played various games with my students during bathroom breaks for years, but this is much better! They've changed the signs over time so that new ideas and activities are available. To me, this just illustrates the attitude at our school that the students belong to ALL of us. We are all working to provide them every opportunity to succeed.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

My Special Friend

One of my most fascinating students this year created this.

He has a special spot in the classroom. It's a secluded area between my teacher cabinet and the back of a bookshelf. I had not intended for it to be used for anything - I was just trying to minimize the space around the teacher cabinet. However, it has been perfect for him. When things begin to overwhelm him he can head to that area. We have left a variety of math manipulatives there for him; pattern blocks, unifix cubes, pentominoes, etc. He has created some astounding patterns and designs with these manipulatives. This flag was one of my favorite of his creations.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Presidential Election - First Grade Style

Eight years ago was my first opportunity to teach about a current presidential election. I was psyched! My fourth graders and I did a ton of research about the candidates and the idea of the election in general. We even set up to exit poll voters. Some of my students came in on the teacher workday and stood outside the school to ask voters about their choices. Our plan was to do some graphing with the results and compare to the state and country. However, the students arrived the next day and we still didn't know who the next president would be. We wouldn't know for a few more weeks. It was painful. I really had no idea how to explain the electoral college and the fiasco that was Florida to fourth graders.

Four years ago I taught an intersession class in October about the election. (We're on a modified calendar so we have optional breaks in October, January, and March/April. We offer really fun classes to students who choose to come.) I worked with fourth and fifth graders to learn about the candidates and about how campaigns and elections work. We researched the various positions on important issues, created campaign posters and buttons, and wrote campaign speeches. We then invited other classes to come in, learn from us, and vote. It was a blast.

This year I was nervous. I'm teaching first grade now and I had no idea what to expect when addressing the election. However, I was unwilling to ignore it. So, we read Duck for President and talked about the upcoming election. We used some basic resources for kids online to learn about the candidates. I had students write/draw the most important or interesting things they learned about John McCain and Barack Obama. We created a VoiceThread with what we had learned. The other first grade classes watched our VoiceThread and then all of them voted. The results were overwhelmingly in favor of Barack Obama (but we think the fact that they learned he played basketball was a major factor). It was a really fun experience.

I did learn that first graders latch on to some odd things sometimes. One of the sites we looked at (I think it was Scholastic, but I'm not sure) had fun trivia bits about each candidate. It had their nicknames when they were kids. This is how we learned that Obama had played basketball. The site said that John McCain was called Punk or McNasty as a kid because he fought so much. I didn't spend a lot of time on this fact, but I did share it. It seemed innocent enough to me until one of my students asked me, "What was he called when he farted so much?"

Sadly, she was not the only one who had heard it that way. Many of my students asked similar questions over several days. Come to think of it, maybe that impacted the votes for Obama.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Free Choice

In the upper grades (4th and 5th) I never stressed about how much play time my students had. Now I'm starting to wonder if I should have been more concerned. As a primary teacher now, and a parent of young daughters, I think that play time is critical. I'm amazed at how tight our days are in first grade, but I've managed to find some free time two or three days a week. It's our free choice time and it lasts about 20 to 30 minutes.

One of my goals for this time in our day was to have it as open ended as possible. My exposure to Gever Tulley and his Tinkering School has been a big factor in this thinking. Puzzles are one of the first stations I offered the students. It's not as free thinking as I'd like it to be, but I think students gain a lot from working puzzles.

I also pulled out a small magnet kit I had bought for the upper grades and never used. I dumped the few pieces into a basket and offered it to the kids. They loved it. While I was in San Francisco in October I picked up a couple of other sets to add to this station. I've been amazed at what the kids have discovered with this. They held magnets below their chairs and used them to move magnets sitting on the chair. They've used magnets to move balls inside small strategy games to get the balls into the right location. They love this station.

Somewhere along the line in my years of teaching I had picked up this set of letters. Again, it had never really been used in my upper grade classroom. It's also not nearly the challenge to their thinking that I would like it to be, but it was an option I had handy.

I also had these fun cards from some consignment sale or something. I am fascinated by the different ways the students build with them. Some of them work collaboratively and others work independently. I've taken numerous pictures of their creations because of the variety.

Recently I picked up a couple of new options. I can remember as a child visiting my great-grandmother and playing with marble runs. So when I found some cheap I grabbed them. The kids have identified this as another favorite choice and they have built some elaborate creations.

On that same trip to SF my girls and I played with foam blocks at two different museums. I loved them. On a rare trip to Toys R Us a few weeks later (a treat after surviving flu shots) I found a large container of these blocks. The kids seem to love them as much as I do.

I've also offered them stations using puppets and one using dominoes. I'm still trying to think of other challenging choices. I need ideas that are reasonably priced and not too large. I'm open to any thoughts!

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Book Character Day, AKA Halloween

Another way out of date post. Due to the various politically correct and religious issues surrounding Halloween, my school celebrates it as an SCA spirit day: Book Character Day. The kids can dress up as book characters which leaves them a lot of options. These days any movie or TV show worth its salt has books to go with it. As a result, we mostly see kids in store-bought costumes, which is just fine. Teachers however, have a great time with this day. I think the majority of these are very obvious, but just in case...
Ms. Frizzle

Mrs. Wishy-Washy

Amelia Bedelia


Miss Alaineus


Saturday, November 22, 2008

Halloween (Way Overdue)

On Halloween, instead of doing our regular writing workshop, we wrote a book in the style of Eric Carle's Panda Bear, Panda Bear and other books. I had read about the idea somewhere, most likely on someone's blog, and thought it was brilliant. However, as usual, I didn't have it planned out carefully enough. We had read several of Carle's books over the past few weeks. We brainstormed a list of things one might see on Halloween. Then we let students choose the one they wanted to illustrate and told them what item they would be seeing. So, if they picked witch, they drew that and we told them the witch would see a scarecrow. Thank goodness there were three of us in the room! I could never have accomplished this alone (at least not with the lack of planning).

It was fun to see the pages they created. Some of them stuck with the basic bit, "Witch, witch what do you see? I see a scarecrow looking at me." Others got more creative and added things, such as 'flying goblin' or 'whining at me'.

(I'm sure if I had written this post closer to this lesson, I would have had much more profound thoughts to share. Sadly, I've forgotten them all.)

Friday, November 21, 2008


Another student has been weighing on my mind recently. I’ll call her Seesaw because she shifts up and down so frequently and so quickly. She does not really seem to have a middle ground. Sometimes she is on, really on. She is engaged, thoughtful, verbose, willing to take risks, and smiling. Other times she is withdrawn, sulky, defiant, and completely unwilling to participate.As an outside observer I think it would be fascinating to observe. As her teacher I find it painful.

For another student we’ve been doing a Functional Behavior Analysis (at least that’s what I think FBA stands for) and a Behavioral Intervention Plan (again, I think that’s a BIP). This is an in depth process by a committee (teachers, counselor, administrator, school psychologist, and school social worker for our committee). It has taken us about six hours to finish the process. We look at the child’s behaviors, the consequences of them, and what preceded the behaviors. This is done in the hopes of determining causes and/or results which could be modified or manipulated by the teachers in order to change the behavior. We’ve had a couple of outside observers come in to watch this student as well as our own thoughts and notes.

I’d love to have this happen for Seesaw. Maybe if we could pinpoint the consequences and antecedents of her change to the downside, we could find ways to help her remain on the upside more often. However, academically she’s doing just fine. There’s not really any way to justify the time and energy for so many people for this student. Instead, I’ll continue to feel frustrated and helpless regarding her.

Monday, October 27, 2008


During parent conferences several weeks ago we talked with a parent about one child's frequent absences and tardies. This girl might be working harder than anyone else in my classroom, but she is almost never on time and often absent. The parent did not seem at all impressed by our concerns. In fact it was shared that due to surgery for this parent the children would miss all of last week. We made it clear that this was not a acceptable reason for absences but it didn't matter. This girl was out all of last week. The parent even called on Monday to say that the children would be out all week for this reason. My principal immediately contacted the attendance officer. He went by their home several times last week. It's not clear to me if he ever actually spoke with the parent. The girl was late to school today. When the parent dropped the children off there was anger. This parent was upset that we had sent the attendance officer. Then went on to say that the girls would be out on Thursday for a follow up doctor's appointment for the parent. I'm beyond angry about this because of how unfair it is to a child who is working as hard as this little one. She may end up repeating first grade, not because she isn't giving it her best shot, but because she has missed so much instruction.

I have no idea what happens next. Obviously I give all I can to this child. I know the situation is not her fault. I just wish there were more we could do to get the message across.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Thoughts on being Back in First Grade

I took off during our intersession*, something I rarely do. So, this week I've been readjusting to first grade. It's been a bit of a challenge because the kids are readjusting to 'regular' school at the same time.

Not being truly in the groove has allowed me to notice some things that might normally slip right past me. One is a pet peeve of mine. I'm bothered when teachers use the phrases, "I like" or "I love" to affirm for kids when they are doing something well. It suggests that the child should be listening, sitting still, working hard, whatever simply to make the teacher happy. I'd prefer that students are doing these things because they know it helps them and their classmates learn. I know this is a really difficult concept for first graders, but I don't think we do them any favors if we set up expectations that they are doing these things for us.

I'm also really beginning to realize how difficult it is for first graders to tell the difference between reality and what they wish were true. This first started becoming clear to me when we were teaching the kids about schema. We asked them about a time they had lost something important to them and how they felt. The discussion went quite well. Then we read Knuffle Bunny by Mo Willems. It was amazing to me to see how many students then talked about a time they left their stuffed bunny at the laundromat. Today a child wrote a story about meeting Barack Obama and getting his autograph. (It's still unclear to us what really happened. He was in our general geographic vicinity yesterday.) After she read her story another student shared what had happened to her. She told the same story almost word for word. The kids are so genuine as they tell these tales that are so obviously untrue - at least obvious to the adults. It's really fascinating to me.

*My school is on a modified calendar. We start in late July and go through mid-June. We take 1-2 week breaks after each quarter, in October, January, and April. We offer students optional classes for a nominal fee during those periods, which I typically teach.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Reading Workshop Amusements

I do have to admit that first graders make me laugh quite frequently. Yesterday it was my little prince who forced me to turn away so he wouldn't see me cracking up. He's an extremely bright little guy who seems to be treated as a prince at home (from what we can tell). He has great things to say in class, but is completely unwilling to stop or to refrain from sharing at inappropriate times. He craves constant attention from his teachers and peers. He is willing to argue just about anything and has impressive perseverance in an argument. As a result, he drives me bonkers quite frequently. However, I also adore him.

Yesterday the amazing reading teacher who works with the prince's guided reading group was collecting some of their guided reading books from earlier in the year. She was asking the prince for his copy of a certain book and he was insisting that he had already given it to her. As he searched through his book box he continued to vociferously state that he did not have the book. Mid-claim he found his copy of the book. As he handed it to her he said, "Oh, yeah, you're right." She and I looked at each other in shock, wishing we had the statement on tape.

The week before our intersession break I was working with one of my reading groups. Two of these little ones have been driving me crazy because they aren't putting into practice the reading strategies we've been learning. They just look at me, quite patiently, when they come across a difficult word. They're also really good at listening to each other so that if someone else in the group can read the word they'll hear it (not a sustainable strategy obviously). One thing I've really been focusing on with them is looking at the beginning of the word and getting their mouths ready. They have not done it consistently without reminders from me. It's going to make my head explode soon. On this particular day we were reading a book about different animals. One of the animals was a wombat. My kids have no background knowledge on wombats and would not recognize one if it bit them on the butt. So, getting their mouths ready and looking at the picture weren't going to be hugely helpful, unfortunately. In the midst of our guided reading group chaos broke out in another area of the room. Another teacher dealt with it but I got distracted by it and lost my focus for a minute or two. When I managed to look back at the kids they were all on the wombat page, getting their mouths ready. All I could hear was, "Wah, wah, wah, wah..." It's not clear how long they'd been at it. I was proud of their effort but I'm sure that wasn't obvious as I struggled to keep from laughing out loud.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008


I have a very special friend this year. He makes me smile constantly. If the phenomenal special education teacher I work with and I stand on opposite sides of him he pulls us in a hug bear hug and talks about how he loves us. Every morning he greets me with, "Good see you this morning." (That's not a typo, that's how he says it.) Today he prefaced that with, "That's a nice dress that." He's also the one that will look at me sometimes and say, "You're doing a good job." It's surprisingly reassuring and validating.

This afternoon I read Mo Willems' Don't Let the Pigeon Stay Up Late to the class. If you've never read it, go grab a copy ASAP. It's brilliant. As I read, he repeated everything. He was sitting on the other side of the room on his own, but he repeated the words quite clearly. I would read, "I have a great idea! We could count the stars." About halfway through that bit you would hear, "I have a great idea! We could count the stars." with the exact same inflection and everything. I had a lot of trouble continuing reading to the class. It is a testament to Mo Willems that the rest of my class did not seem distracted by it at all.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

We Can't Contain Ourselves

I have no experience with first grade before this year. So, I have nothing with which to compare things. However, I am constantly amazed at how excited these students are about writing. When we say it is time for writing workshop there is cheering. They can't stay in their seats during writing workshop because they want to show us what they are doing. I credit Katie Wood Ray's book, Already Ready for this energy. These kids see themselves as writers. Amazing!

We've been doing a study of Mo Willem's books. Today the astoundingly phenomenal special education teacher I work with (she was a first grade classroom teacher before) started an interactive writing with the kids of Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Truck. If you've read Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus you might remember that, at the end, the Pigeon sees a truck and starts thinking... My kids have been chomping at the bit to write about it for a few days. Now, about half the class is writing about the Pigeon in some form or another. I love writing workshop!

Monday, September 29, 2008

My Principal Rocks

My principal made my day last week. I have to say that I do know how lucky I am to work for her. When the principal who hired me left (for a fantastic promotion) I was devastated. When they promoted our assistant principal I was relieved. Over time I’ve become even more impressed with her. Today she became a rock star to me.
I have a little friend this year who is really struggling. We'll call this child RB (rubber band for all the stretching and tension this little one faces and struggles with). Teachers spend a lot of time with RB in the classroom, in the hallway, in other classrooms, wherever we can help. RB spends some time screaming about hating things. At other times RB is totally engaged. Still other times RB is off alone in a corner of the room. None of us have been able to figure out how best to meet the needs we are seeing (and believe me, we’ve got a lot of folks involved in this).
Last weekI was alone with my students when RB had some serious problems. I finally broke down and called the office for help. Both my principal and assistant principal came to my room. They were amazing. They wandered the room talking with all of my kids and eventually spoke with the child in question. The principal had a long conversation that was both kind and caring and authoritative and firm. She began by asking what was going on in the classroom and just talking about the math centers we were doing. She told RB that screaming at school was not acceptable and that dad would be called to come and remove RB if it happened. In the end she got RB to join the group for our share at the end of math workshop, at least to the extent that RB ever joins the group which is sitting somewhat behind others in the circle. At least RB was with us and not screaming.
My principal then waited in the hallway outside of my classroom for the next fifteen minutes while we had share and got ready for lunch. She waited in case she was needed and she walked with us to the cafeteria. I stopped in her office after depositing my students at lunch to discuss what she had noticed and what she was thinking. One thing we talked about was how much RB dislikes PE right now. Yesterday RB spoke with my amazing co-teacher about PE rather than going to the gym. RB was able to explain what made PE so awful and why going was such a torment. My principal said, “If it’s that terrible for RB, let’s stop forcing it. Have RB come here to the office with something to do while the rest of the class goes to PE. Make sure it’s clear that it isn’t a punishment.” What a wonderful solution for the moment. There are so many issues for RB; PE doesn’t need to be one of them.
Just before it was time for us to go to PE the principal came by my room again to check and see if she was needed. She wanted to be sure things were in hand for RB. I was thrilled to see her. We didn’t need her, but her presence was so reassuring.
RB was excited by the idea of going to the office once it was clearly understood. We gathered up the writing work and book and went to the office after taking the rest of the class to the gym. RB stayed there for half an hour having a lovely time. My principal came out and chatted with my little one near the end and shared how proud she was that RB was able to make such a great choice.
I left that afternoon thinking that my principal had handled this situation beautifully. She made RB feel comfortable while setting clear boundaries. She made me and my co-teachers feel supported as professionals and feel that RB’s issues are being addressed. For all of the frustrations in the day, this made it possible for me to end the day feeling great.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Talk Like a Pirate Day - First Grade Style

My class celebrated International Talk Like a Pirate Day last week. It was something of a last minute decision on my part and therefore not as well planned as it should have been. It was still great fun. We shared a few pirate jokes on our way to art first thing in the morning. Then we came back to our room to read this book:

We did some pirate math. We've been working on a basic understanding of place value; the idea of the tens place and the ones place. So we used pirate chests and gold pieces rather than more standard manipulatives for tens and ones. (It's not ideal because the chest does not clearly equal ten gold pieces the way the other manipulatives can, but it worked for the day.)

We pretended to be pirates searching for treasure on our way to the cafeteria for lunch. We were trying to be sneaky so we had to be really quiet. This worked well for most of the kids, but one of my precious friends was so excited he spent the whole walk saying, "We're sneaking pirates!" quite loudly. He was never convinced that talking was antithetical to our goal.

In the afternoon we read more pirate books:

Saturday, September 20, 2008

First Grade Funnies

First graders are amazing. Our phenomenal speech teacher pulled a small group of them this week and played bingo with them. Apparently they would burst into giggles at any little thing (or at nothing as it appeared to her). At one point they looked at an apple tree and erupted into uncontrollable laughter. She asked them about their giggles and they said, "Apples! On a tree!" It seems they couldn't fathom the idea of apples on a trees. They learn things we never expect.

During writing workshop I sat down with a little boy so that he could share his book with me. It was really quite a good book about seeing a comet and chasing it. At the end he makes a wish on it and then flies. Until the flying part it had seemed like a story that might have happened to him. So I asked him when it happened. He looked at me in utter disbelief and said, "It's a fahliction book."

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

My 5 for Policy Makers

I've put this meme off for weeks now because I wanted to really take the time to think about what I would want policy makers to understand about education. However, that time may not materialize until next summer so I decided to simply take the plunge. Organized chaos set me this task, but I was also fascinated by splatypus, kiri8, and Michaele's takes on it.

As for my thoughts:

1.In a well taught classroom class size does matter. I'm aware of the studies that have shown mixed results. However, if we expect teachers to truly meet individual needs of students, conference with each of them in reading and writing, differentiate for the varied needs, and communicate regularly with parents then they can't have thirty students in a class.

2. Money matters. This is true when we consider state level, school districts, individual schools, and students' families. That money needs to be spent well, there is no question, but money makes a difference.

3. Test scores only tell us a small bit about students, teachers, and schools. No test, no matter how well designed, is going to really paint a picture of a school or of a student. There's no simple, on the cheap, way to measure the learning of individuals. There is a reason why special education testing is very time consuming. That's how we really learn about a child.

4. Kids' educational opportunities are hugely impacted by their early years. There is a lot of brain research that has shown how critical the first three years of a child's life are to their future. We should be doing something to help families and children during those critical years.

5. Public schools are doing an amazing job. They deserve more respect and accolades than they have seen in recent years. Visit one. Visit often. Get to know the amazing teachers and support staff. Ask them questions. Recognize the challenges they face and the efforts they put forth. It's worth your time.

Toilet Paper?

I've made a lot of fascinating new friends since I made the switch to first grade. One of them is especially fascinating to me. He has ups and downs each day. Today, during one down, he took off out of the room. The wonderful instructional assistant followed him. I'm not sure what happened out in the hallway, but eventually the instructional assistant, the student, and a special ed teacher came in. The student brought over a stack of papers and handed them to me. The special ed teacher gave me a look and said, "These are what you needed." I got it. I took the papers, looked at the student, and said, "Thank you."

This was right in the middle of a lesson so it was a few minutes before I was able to look at the papers. When I did, I was surprised to find I was holding a stack of about fifteen pages, each with a picture of a toilet on it.

I was left wondering where this stack of papers came from. Was it just some scratch paper someone found and used for this task? Did another teacher actually need these pages?

If you're interested in knowing what I learned about the pictures of toilets, splatypus over at Kindergarten Chaos has the details.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

My Mentors

I just watched a seasoned first grade teacher walking her class to lunch (yes, it is only 10:45, that's when we have lunch). She had one little friend who was not staying in line and kept touching the walls. She said to him, very kindly, "I'm going to walk with you, friend, because I see that you're having trouble keeping your hands off the walls."

I have this same problem with several students regularly. I make them hold my hand (it's a terrible punishment in the eyes of one, at least). However, I've never put it so gently to them. Listening to her was such a small thing and yet gave me so much to think about. It's amazing what I learn from the other teachers around me.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Our Dreams

Yesterday my class talked about Martin Luther King, Jr. Most of my first graders had no idea who he was. We read a big book about him, mostly looking at the pictures of segregated places, the lunch counter in Greensboro, MLK in jail, and more. The idea of segregation is such a difficult one to get across to young children. I wanted as concrete an image as I could find so I looked around our circle to name a white student and a black student to explain that they would not have been able to go to school together at that time. I started to panic as I looked thinking that I had no white students. Then I saw one girl, the only one in my class. I have three African-American students. All the rest are Latino, middle-Eastern, or Eastern-European. I managed to avoid any discussion of what school they would have attended or whether or not they could have gone to certain places. I'm never sure how to answer those questions.

For those students who were really listening and beginning to grasp the ideas we were discussing, I think they were shocked. It was amazing to watch them grapple with this concept compared to the world in which they live. After our discussion I sent them back to draw a picture of their dream. Below is a video of some of them sharing their dreams. A few literally drew something they had dreamed about recently, some drew things they would really like to have happen to them, and some truly got the idea of drawing a visionary dream.

In case it's hard to follow what they are saying, here's a brief synopsis of each one.
  1. She wants everyone to have a special house (a shockingly profound dream in the current economy).
  2. He says, "All the persons be together, it doesn't matter which color of skin they have."
  3. He is talking about everybody being able to play together and help each other.
  4. He wants to say sorry to Martin Luther King (we had a brief discussion of his assassination because one student brought it up).
  5. She wants the world to be forgiven (I'm trying to follow up on this one to better understand her thinking, but I'm not sure yet).
  6. She drew herself and her friend finding lots and lots of gold.
  7. This is her in a rainbow spot.
  8. He is describing riding a horse and shooting a ghost.
One of my biggest concerns having switch grades so drastically is that I will underestimate my students. They wowed me with this and I hope I can challenge them enough.

Trading Spaces (Thanks to A Year of Reading)

Franki and Mary Lee at A Year of Reading have coordinated a share of our classroom spaces. I've planned to get my pictures posted for weeks now and am finally getting around to it. You'll notice from these pictures that the focus on literacy is important to me, not surprising in first grade. This is one bookshelf in our classroom library or book nook. We've got the other two bookshelves covered up right now to limit the number of books they are choosing from during reading workshop. I am still amazed at how many books my school provided for me for first grade.

These are the books we've read recently. I didn't have one of the really nice wooden display pieces for books that some classrooms have. Fortunately one of my teammates mentioned to me that I could buy these from Walmart for pretty cheap. I don't know if they'll hold up for more than a year, but I'm fairly happy with them.

This last picture is of one thing that is new to my classroom this year, a couch. It takes up a lot of space, but I love having such a warm, cozy spot in the room.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Cords, Cords, and More Cords

For the first time this year I decided to really manage all the cords by my desk. I never worried about it with fourth and fifth graders, but I think it could be quite a temptation for these first graders. So I gathered them all and taped them up and away. (There are cords for my computer, printer, Smartboard, projector, speakers, iPod, and palm.) However, after the first few days I realized we needed to make a change in our meeting area. So I started over. About a week later I changed things again and did the cords again. Finally, last Friday I got rid of the desk I'd been using and switched to this one (it was a space saving decision) and started over with the cords yet again. I'm hoping this is the final time. At least they are out of the way of my students!

Tea Dead?

Our students have been writing their stories in little books. (If you want more information Organized Chaos explains it well.) I'm learning to read first grade writing but it is often a challenge.

This was written on the back of the last page of this student's book. It says, "The End."

Friday, August 22, 2008

Starting off a Friday

I've been close to tears twice this morning already (and it isn't even 9 am). Once was in a good way. One of my students from last year's fifth grade class stopped in and said, "I just wanted to come and say thank you for this." as he held out his SOL (standardized tests) scores. He had a perfect score on math and passed reading, writing, and science easily. I hugged him, but told him not to thank me. He worked hard for those scores and he deserves the credit.

As I greeted my first graders at the door this morning one of them wouldn't shake my hand or look at me. When I pushed the issue, gently, with her she said she was upset because her dad yelled at her. She's usually really easygoing and upbeat so this was quite a switch. I don't think dad was out of control in any way. She felt like she got blamed and yelled at for something that was her brother's fault. It just illustrated for me how much things that seem small to adults can be so huge to children.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Success! (at least a little bit)

One student in my room has been having a rough time. This kid has been trying the patience of all of us, quietly defiant, not joining the group, turned away a lot. Small things, but they add up to a lot by the end of each day. Plus, at dismissal this child has said to me every day this week, "Call my dad. Tell him what a bad day I had." My response has been the same, "I can't wait to call your dad, but I'm going to do so when I can tell him what a fabulous day you had. So I won't call today, but maybe I'll be able to call tomorrow."

This morning this child gave a thumbs down about another student's answer during our calendar time. It was the only thumbs down in the class. I figured it was just another quiet way of pushing my buttons, but I questioned the child about it. The response was genuine and thoughtful about the thinking being done. The child was completely wrong, but still I showered the praise, for having the courage to speak up, for really thinking about the question, and so on. This student was glowing. In just a bit I called this student up to do our magic number activity. Then, during math I spoke one-on-one and asked for help during calendar tomorrow. The rest of the morning was fantastic.

I had to leave at lunch for a meeting at a nearby university, but I told both the literacy coach and the special education teacher I work with about the morning so that they could continue the praise at every opportunity. When I got back the class was just wrapping up writing workshop. We keep the books they write in their writing folders each day but this child wanted to take today's home to read to mom. It was all about our calendar time this morning. I sent it home, only saying that I wanted it back tomorrow so that it could be read to me!

I told this little one that I would be calling dad to share about the fabulous day. More glowing. Then, by chance, it turns out that dad was at school at the end of the day for a meeting with a sibling's teacher. I found him talking to his child in the lobby at dismissal. I put my arm around my student and gushed about the day. Getting the chance to tell him in person with the child there was even better than a phone call. I have high hopes for tomorrow!

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Why My Job Can Stink

I just spent several minutes holding and hugging a first grader as sobs wracked her body. She was devastated that she did not get to share at the end of reading workshop. Of course, I recognize that this significant reaction was only very tangentially related to share. Mostly it's from all the various weights that she carries on her thin shoulders, most of which I don't, and probably won't ever, understand.

The only thing I could do was hold her tight and tell her that tomorrow we'll see what we can do about share.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Random Act of Kindness

My students have lunch at 10:40 everyday. We're the first class to go to lunch. It was fascinating to watch the parents' faces when I told them that at Back to School Night.

We arrived at the cafeteria today to find that lunch wasn't ready. Initially we were told they needed five more minutes. When they looked at the clock they revised that to say they needed two minutes. My students, antsy and bored, waited in line until they were let in. I'm still staying with them to help make sure they get through the line without trouble, an attempt to make life easier for the ladies in the cafeteria. As a result, I walked out of the cafeteria ten minutes into my thirty minute lunch break. Needless to say, I was quite frustrated. (Thank you for indulging my need to whine about this.)

On my way back to my classroom to eat, check email, and read some blogs I stopped by the office to check my mailbox. I found an envelope from Kristen in my box. I've never met her and have only had online contact for the past few months. She's one of the few primary grade teachers who blogs that I've found and greatly enjoyed. She's offered me a lot of support and encouragement as I've begun my adjustment to first grade.

I opened the envelope and found a CD full of songs for first grade. It was such a kind, generous act. I'm continually impressed with how much teachers do for one another. For a profession that can be incredibly isolating, it is full of people who go above and beyond for one another.

I have to say that I walked back to my room in a much better mood.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Ain't That the Truth

I'm exceptionally lucky to work with two amazing teachers during our two and a half hour language arts block. One is a reading coach at our school. Her job is designed for her to be in a classroom co-teaching for half the school day and coaching teachers the other half of the day. I get to be her partner this year. The other teacher is one of our special education teachers who used to be a first grade classroom teacher. I am learning a lot from them both.

Yesterday we cracked down on behavior during center time. We're raising our expectations of their stamina and focus. The students who were reading to a stuffed animal (really just more independent reading, but with a twist) were sitting in a tight little triangle together. I went over and had them each turn around so that their backs were to each other. One girl really didn't want to do it. She kept saying, "Now we won't have any fun."

I'm beginning to think that their switch from kindergarten to first grade might feel as shocking to them as my switch from fifth to first feels to me.

You Never Know What You'll Learn

During writing workshop today we had our first graders telling stories from their lives and then writing them in books. The idea comes from Katie Wood Ray's book Already Ready and my astoundingly amazing co-teacher organized chaos has explained it quite well in some of her recent posts.

One little girl was completely unable to come up with any story to tell. After trying to help her come up with something I suggested she go sit at the Thinking Spot so that she could think with fewer distractions. After a few minutes she came back to me saying she was going to write about when her mommy and dad got married. I asked her if she was there (because we keep telling them to write about something that has happened to them!). She responded, "I was in her tummy."

I recommended that she write about something she can actually remember.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Underappreciated Specialists

I'm starting to feel as though I'm getting my sea legs in first grade. This is allowing me the opportunity to notice things beyond me, my students, and our classroom.

One of those things has been watching specialists work with my class. Intellectually I've always thought that specialists (librarians, PE, music, and art teachers) were amazing because they know almost every student in the school and work with all grade levels, from head start through fifth grade. However, I'd only ever really seen them work with the fourth or fifth graders I was teaching. Now I've seen them teach amazing lessons to first graders.

These teachers are immensely talented. They adapt numerous times a day to various groups of students who are at a wide range of ages. They have to meet the needs of hundreds of different children. I find it exhausting to try to meet the needs of the twenty students in my class. For all the challenges in that I have lots of time to get to know these students and they are all at fairly similar developmental stages. Our specialists also work alone. They do not have teaching partners or instructional assistants (usually, at least) to help them. I am awestruck by them.

Sunday, August 10, 2008


I survived my first Back to School Night as a primary teacher last week. As the event began there were five parents (out of 19 students) in my classroom. My phenomenal co-teacher and I looked around with a bit of disappointment, but smiled and moved forward. She sat down in a child's chair to be out of the way as I made sure the welcome videos from administrators and school board members was loud enough. A few minutes later she had to get up because the chair she was sitting in belonged to a boy whose father arrived. She moved to another table and sat down. Not five minutes later that child's parents arrived. She stood up and moved off to one side of the room. I quietly walked over and told her to sit somewhere else so more parents would arrive. She chuckled and chose a new seat. Again, that child's father arrived. She moved again and again the child's mother arrived. It was amazing!

By the time the evening was over we had the parents of thirteen of our students there. One other came the next night for his older child's Back to School Night and was very apologetic for missing ours. It was a wonderful experience.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Overwhelmingly Grateful

I haven't managed to post anything in the last week for a variety of reasons. As a result, this post is long overdue. Switching from fifth grade to first was more terrifying and exhausting than I had expected. The support of my teammates and other friends at school has made a huge difference, but I knew that would be true. I've been at that school for ten years and I know how wonderful everyone is.

I was astounded by the encouragement and support from my online network. I haven't had nearly the time for Twitter as I have in the past. However, there have been tweets that have made my day. Thanks so much to sfern, KarenJan, jomamava, timstahmer, coordinatortwo, and gever.

Every comment on my recent posts has been heartening and helped me get through each day. Some have been from other teachers in my school, splatypus, jm, organized chaos, snippety gibbet, or my district, kgd. Others have been a part of my personal network for some time now, Michaele, Stacey, Amy S, Doug Noon, and Julie Pippert. Still others are fairly new or brand new to me, dcowart, egretsnest, Veggie Mom, greenisle13, teresa, teacherninja, Ms. Mize, Mandy, teach5, and Tracey.

Finally, a couple of other bloggers have had posts that have helped. It's been a personal example of the power of the network. Tracey's post actually references back to one of my posts from last year in fifth grade. Tricia's post gives me more credit than I deserve, but is greatly appreciated.

Again, thank you so much to all of you who have offered advice, encouragement, or simply come along for the ride. It has made all the difference.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

The Joy of Math

I'm amazed by what a teacher can learn simply by watching first graders work with manipulatives. I've learned about their understanding of shapes, physics, patterns, cooperation, and cleaning up. At the same time, they've been having an absolute blast. It will be an effort of mine to ensure that they have some time for exploring with various manipulatives throughout the entire year. I don't want them to lose the joy and the free learning that is happening in these pictures.