Tuesday, January 31, 2006

An October Party

Since we filled up our marble jar (we take marbles out of the teacher jar and put them in the student jar when we save time, are on task, get compliments in the hallway, etc.) we get to make a wish. The first time we did this, I got some crazy wishes and we talked a lot about how it had to be a wish that Mi' Hay' could grant and it had to be a wish that the whole class could have (i.e. no motorcycles, no million dollars). So today when we tried to brainstorm, the ideas started off great:

A Valentine Party
A Popcorn-and-Movie Party
A Pizza Party

Then we got some "sure, kids, we'll write it on the board but DREAM ON" ideas:

A food fight
A dance party in the hall

Then C-- raised his hand. He is one of my regular-education students but I'm hoping he will be tested for special ed by the end of the year. "I think," he drawled, leaning back in his seat and rolling his eyes towards the ceiling, "we should have an October party."

"An October Party?" I asked, "It's going to be February tomorrow. Do you want an October party in February or do you want to wait until October?"

"Well," he answered, as though it was the smallest of details and I was boring him to death, "I guess you could call it a February Party if you want."

Monday, January 30, 2006


It was a good day. We filled up our marble jar, for the second time this year. I heard excited whispers about a popcorn party -- score, how easy would that be? -- and it was actually quiet during morning reading time today. My program directors stopped by to drop off orange juice and donuts as a prize for winning the observation challenge (way back before Christmas) and I had a nice chat with the kindergarten teacher that I just reclaimed the early-morning reading program from (I did it for two months, she did it for two months, now I have it for February again.)

My classroom is falling into order. It was a little rough right after break and it was mostly my fault. I didn't spend enough time adequately preparing for reintegration into school life, there was the whole moving issue, and I went away to a conference for two days and was sick (albeit present at school for all but one day) for a week. We're back on track now, and I'm hoping it will be smoother sailing into the end of the year. My kids are not where I want them to be, but if classroom management stays under control, I should have time to fix that.

I'm already exhausted for the week, though. I didn't get much done early in the weekend and so Sunday afternoon and evening were full of scramblings and I was up late. Tonight I have tracking forms, back-writing of completed interventions, test grading, and marking 108 magnetic marbles with little x's to look forward to.

On the flip side, I also have a cup of steaming vanilla tea in my hand, eggplant parmesan in the oven (thanks to my roommate), a warm bed for sometime later tonight, and tomorrow's payday (although most of that will go to moving expenses.)

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Old Mc Donald had a Farm

The internet has arrived, via satellite, to my house. Finally! The farm is now operational.

Today (Saturday) I took four of my students to McDonald's and to see a movie in Cleveland. We saw "Hookwinked," which is an animated film about the different sides of the story "Little Red Riding Hood." It wasn't that good, but the kids seemed to enjoy it. It was their special prize for getting 60 stars on their behavior charts.

In the process, I learned a little bit more about my students and about our town. I drove around to pick them up and got to see several different areas of Shelby. Two of the four live in apartments, one lives in a different town, and one lives out in the country in a different direction from me.

Some funny moments of the day:
M--, at McDonald's, pointing to the sign: "Look at that big M! That must be the mama M... or the teacher M."

S--: "When I grow up I'm going to have three jobs: doctor, lawyer, and car washer."

When I got back in the car after walking S-- to her door, J--, M--, and F-- were all doubled over in laughter. It took them about three minutes to calm down enough to tell me that they had been telling jokes. I asked what the joke was. They told me they were singing "Old McDonald Had a Farm," and substituting in other things. The hilarious one, evidently, had been "Old McDonald had a Squeaky, E-I-E--I-O."

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Shaving Cream

We explored some of the properties of solids and liquids today, comparing a block, some water, and some shaving cream. I let everyone touch all three things. The students especially commented on the scent of the shaving cream. "Mi' Hay'," said Kendrick, "I smell like a grown man."

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

White as a Napkin

Today I was on breakfast duty. A little boy got my attention and pointed at another boy. “Mi’ Hay’,” he told me, “He called you white!"

“I am white,” I said. I showed him my hand. I put it next to his hand. “Yup,” I said, “I’m pretty white.” Then I walked away.

The next time I circulated by that table, the same little boy got my attention, pointing at the other boy again. “He said you as white as a napkin!”

I picked up a napkin and held it next to my hand. “I’m white,” I said, “But I don’t think I’m quite as white as this napkin.” I chuckled to myself and walked away again. Should I worry? Is “white” an insult? I am white, and I sort of think it’s better that they recognize that – that I am a white person, but one who cares about them.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

New Corps Members

Early applicants to the 2006 TFA corps are currently being mailed their placements. If anyone reading this has been accepted into the Mississippi Delta region, welcome. A special welcome to those that have already accepted: Marissa, Jessica, Brett, Brenna, Ryan, Bo, Angela, Joshua, and Emily. Perhaps some of you will be placed in my district -- the TFA Delta Director is looking to expand our four to ten.

Here are a couple of logistical things I was worried about that all y'all should not have to worry about:

1. Cell phone service: switch to Cingular. They are the national provider that gets the best service throughout the Delta. I have no problems with them. I get good service almost everywhere.

2. Placement: you won’t know your actual grade level until July. The best thing to do is read Fred Jones’s “Tools for Teaching,” and the reading that TFA assigns you and sends you. And call schools now and go and visit them as much as possible.

3. Housing: there will be corps members here in the Delta ready to help you find somewhere to live. There are also corps members who will house you until you have found a house.

4. Should I accept? Absolutely, but only if you’ve willing to have the most frustrating, difficult, and underappreciated job around. You will hate many days. If you can handle that, then you will also have wonderful moments. And you will love your students. If you can’t handle it, don’t join, and let Teach for America take someone else who will stick it out NO MATTER WHAT. A teacher who quits in the middle doesn’t leave the students in a neutral position, he or she impairs their learning. TFA’s sponsors invest $10,000 in every candidate because they want you to help children. Don’t waste that money and the children’s time if you can’t handle it.

5. Are there fun things to do in the Delta? Sure, but you really won’t have much time to do them. You’ll be close to a group of corps members and you’ll see the corps members in your district the most. You’ll go out on weekends, sometimes. And you’ll work the rest of the time. I estimate that I work 60-70 hour weeks on average. Some weeks I work much more. I only work less on testing weeks or short weeks.

6. The people: Even (especially) the native Deltans are welcoming and friendly. The Program directors, your fellow corps members, and even the community members will support you almost unconditionally. This is a place that needs lots of help, but it is a friendly place.

MRA Conference in Tunica

I’m sitting on a bed in my hotel room in Tunica, Mississippi. I’m here for the annual Mississippi Reading Association conference. The conference, originally slated to be in Biloxi before the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, is two and a half days of sessions focused on building literacy skills. The chairperson also happens to be the curriculum specialist from my district. Although all new literacy teachers from the district were supposed to come, there are just two of us here from my school, and a few more from the high school. A-- and P--, my soon-to-be-former-roommates, were supposed to attend but elected not to. As for other two teacher from my school who were supposed to attend, one quit over break (she has been replaced with a retired first grade teacher) and the other was out of town for a wedding.

I’m ready to go back to school and start teaching. I wasn’t upset to miss these two days, though, because we’re doing mid-year testing. My principal decided that we should give the end-of-2nd-grade MCT, so I’m sure my hids have been thoroughly frustrated by three tests a year and a half above where they are supposed to be. There was no need for my presence.

So far, the conference itself has been a mixed bag. I attended one session that was supposed to be on writing that ended up not being on writing and was entirely not useful. Then I attended another session led by a principal from a level-5 elementary school about how the school turned itself around and became a real literacy-rich environment.

The accommodations are excellent, though. Tunica is a big gambling city. About a dozen glitzy casinos squat in the middle of flat, dry fields that are part of a reservation. The conference is at the Grand Casino, which is very highly rated by the Casino Magazine. A few of my Teach for America friends are here as well, so we’ve been eating and going out together in the evenings. Yesterday I won $2 at the slot machines and tonight I lost $20 at craps (definitely the most fun game at the casino.) The World Series of Poker is also going on right now at the Grand and the Gold Rush casinos here in Tunica (in addition to the events in Las Vegas). Tonight at the craps table, I stood next to a man who had come in 6th in the poker tournament and won $10,000.

Tomorrow I’m going to leave the conference before the final speeches so I can get to Helena, Arkansas to look at furniture. M-- and I have been forced to move out of our house in Clarksdale because our other two roommates wanted to move out. We’ve found a house on the outskirts of Shelby, out in the country, on a farm. Literally. There are chickens and peacocks roaming the yard. The owners of our new house, who we share a driveway with, also own about ten dogs and three horses (who live on the other side of our house in the fields of the Shelby Country Club, also owned by my soon-to-be-landlords.) We’re going to have to get satellite internet, furniture (A—had all the furniture in our current house) and paint for the new house (it’s in a bit of a shambles).

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Frustrations Abound

On Tuesday, the teachers in my school district were introduced to our new conservator. We had just spent a day of professional development creating "school-wide procedures," an idea that is great in theory but fell short in practice at our school. Basically the idea was to have some school-wide norms for things like how students should walk in the hall, behave in the bathroom and cafeteria, etc. Unfortunately, the procedures were created (by the teachers) in such a way that no controversy could possibly arise from their implementation. For example, recess has been a bit of an issue at the school. We don't have it. However, the kindergarten team was supposed to write a procedure for how everyone in the school would deal with recess. It included such illuminating information as, "Students will follow the recess procedures," and "Teachers will correct any behavior that violates the recess procedures." It reminded me of that programming language whose name references itself... I think it starts with a P...

The first grade team wrote the procedures for walking in the hall (which were already established) and for using the restroom (pretty much already established as well). We actually pushed the envelope a little bit, and now no student is allowed in the hall without a pass (a small step, but nevertheless a step towards a well-oiled accountable machine of a school). I tried to change the existing policy of no more than two bathroom breaks per day to no more than three (since well-hydrated people should urinate every 2 hours) but was shot down by the principal.

After we had created the procedures, we were told that the next three days would be devoted exclusively to the teaching of the procedures. NO academic work was to be conducted. The diagnostics we had been slated to give have been pushed of indefinetely, and the pre-tests for the quarter pushed off until next week. Then they brought in the new conservator. He made no speech and he didn't introduce himself. He looked around at our faces, the 18 teachers aching to teach our children who are so far behind and need all of the instructional time they can get, and said, "Anyone who doesn't think this is a good idea, and anyone who doesn't think they can teach these procedures to 100% mastery in three days... We will accept your resignation with pleasure. We will accept your resignation tonight." And that was all he said.

Welcome back to school, teachers.

So that's what I've been doing. And it has been driving me crazy. I want to teach. I want to teach my students! I want to read with them! Count with them! Add, subtract, make maps, change ice cubes into water. Draw shapes, name coins, sound out words. Wednesday and Thursday, I did what my school wanted me to do, and all we did was practice procedures. We paced the halls, went to the bathroom (but only twice), fire and tornado drilled, discussed intruder alerts, the telephone policy, and how we act in an assembly. On Wednesday, we wrote in our journals about hwo we should act in the bathroom. On Thursday, I read them a book about firefighters and we made posters of the classroom rules and presented them in a mock assembly.

Today I gave up on that. I was supposed to teach four procedures: phone, morning duty, recess, and visitor. I taught it in less than five minutes: "Class, you don't need to know anything about morning duty, the principal says we will never have recess, you are not allowed to use the phone, ever, and visitors need to go to the office before they go anywhere else." I don't know why I'm scared not to do what I'm supposed to do, but I follow the directions of my administration. I didn't have anything else to do with them. We reviewed the tornado drill procedure until it was seamless. By then it was... 8:30 in the morning. I broke out beans and math mats and gave them directives such as, "If you are supposed to have your hand in your pockets in the hall, put four beans on your mat. If you are supposed to have your hands on your head, add one bean. If you should throw food in the cafeteria, take away three beans. If you should eat your food, take away one bean..." When we were finihsed, they counted their beans to see if they had gotten all of the answers correct. Then they counted the rest of the beans in the cup. Then we put the beans in piles of ten, made patterns with them, and sorted them by color. We read "Ms. Bindergarten Stays Home From Kindergarten" and wrote get-well cards for my assistant and the five students who were absent (the flu is going around). We went to lunch and the computer lab. I put them in quasi-centers -- addition puzzles, pattern blocks, word puzzles, Kaboom the sight word game and we rotated through that. In order to be in compliance I rang a bell twice during the rotations and made them practice a fire drill and a tornado drill. It was a wasted day.

I am going to the Mississippi Reading Association conference Monday and Tuesday while my assistant administers tests. There is school-wide testing. However, I found out today that we are not allowed to give the regular pre-tests for the nine weeks (i.e. written by the teacher, testing the skills we are going to teach) but that the first grade will be giving the end-of-second-grade MCT... again. We gave it at the beginning of the year, which was a huge waste of time, because it was two years too advanced. Now it's one and a half years too advanced and still ridiculous and unhelpful. The principal explained that we should be "accelerating the learning" of our students and teaching material one grade level above where they are. Not to be negative, but I can't teach them reading comprehension until they can read. They are BEHIND right now, and teaching them MCT-style test prep is not going to give them any real knowledge or understanding. We spend so little time actually TEACHING in my school district that it is ridiculous. Interruptions abound.

The rant is done, I'm going to bed. My one consolation is that I won't lose my fantastic pirate-themed lesson plan and that my students will still learn map-making and the "ar" sound from a teacher with an eyepatch. I think they'll love it. I'll take pictures. That will be next Wednesday, a full week after school has resumed, and the first day that teaching will go back to normal. Argh.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Books for Trains

My friend Thomas Rains, who teaches in Quitman County, Mississippi, has written a wonderful letter requesting books. If you have any books you didn't send me, please consider sending them to him: http://scotchandpolitics.com/books.html


"I'm looking to move," I told my assistant today. "Do you know of any places? Maybe in Shelby or Alligator?" She thought a moment and then popped next door to ask Mrs. A--, a teacher who lives down the street from me in Clarksdale.

"Mrs. A-- says there might be a place near her," she told me. "Smaller than your house, down on her end of the street." Later in the day I posed the same question to another first grade teacher who is a Duncan local. "You seen the Country Club apartments?" she asked me. "They up in Clarksdale."

I work with these women daily, and I realized that that's really all they know of me, outside of that I am temporary, from elsewhere, and white. They don't see me as a part of their community. Perhaps I'm being too sensitive and really it's just that they thought I would be happier living somewhere close to where I already am. Hopefully I will find a place in Shelby, though, and I can be more than a fleeting white face.

Monday, January 02, 2006

And She's Back!

I'm back from a lovely long break in which I got to see my family and my closest friends (except for Lauren, what's up with that?) and I am ready to see my kids again. That does not mean that I am ready to teach them, to turn in their grades, or to rock house yet, but I lost the dread about two days ago.

To be completely honest, I thought I was going to be so happy for the break and get lots done and I didn't get lots done (although I was happy about the break). I also thought that I would be quicker to miss my kids, and I wasn't. I missed them when I told people about them. The truth is that I adore each and every one of them SO MUCH. I'm going to figure out how to teach them well and then I'm going to do it.

My college roommates and I graded their reading tests together in Starbucks one day and the class average was almost an 80%, which is fantastic. I amready to really get them reading, though. One think I am really psyched to do is administer the mid-year standardized reading (phonemic awareness, phonetic awareness, fluency, vocabulary, reading comp) tests (we use DIBELS for the first three components and have just gotten in Peabody Picture Vocabulary and a reading comp one I have forgotten the name of for the other two.

I also got a fantastic camera for Christmas from my Dad and Anne, so expect more pictures and videos of my little terrors soon.