Thursday, April 27, 2006

A Superstar Who Is Black

The assignment: write in your creative writing journals. You can write whatever you want, but you need to have 4 sentences and at least 3 describing words.

S-- wrote:

I had a dream that Ms. H-- got married to a superstar who is black. They love each other very much. She wore a peach dress at the wedding and the best man had a suit that was gold and tan. It was a good time.


I picked 9 of my superstars (who are black but not marriage material for at least another dozen years) to perform at our MCT rally. The Mississippi Curriculum Test begins on Tuesday and because of the whole state takeover thing, the focus has been exclusively on preparing our second and third graders for the test since about January. Since it is such a big deal, we are having an RAF book giveaway and a rally at which each class is supposed to perform (or, have one child or a group of children perform).

I picked my most outgoing students and they helped me write a little cheer to perform. Four of them (the small ones) are being first graders and five (the big ones) are pretending to be second and third graders. Hope it goes well... Every other time, my class has been outdone in spades.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

In Class and Next Year

Teach for America told us, at Institute, that the most effective way to teach is through units. I have yet to really teach in solid units, but I have been moving in that direction as the school year progresses. I'm still not tying my units together cross-curricularly very often, though. It occasionally happens with our Book Of the Month work, but because of our scripted reading program, I have no leeway in what I teach or read in the mornings. I try to tie in the independent reading bin -- so when we were learning about animals, we had a bin of animal books out, and when we learned about dinosaurs, there was a book of dinosaur books out.

Next year, I hope to be able to integrate a little bit better. Now that I know the reading program, I can schedule some of my math, science, and social studies objectives to align with our Basal reader stories (hopefully).

We're doing a unit on plants and animals in Science right now. I was gifted a butterfly kit and I bought a ladybug kit, so we are growing butterflies, ladybugs, and marigolds. The kids love it, and I can have them write about the changes that they are observing. I printed up and stapled some "bug journals" and some "plant journals." Every day, little T--, who is lost in ever subject, asks me, "Mi' Hay', can I go look at my plant?" I told them that plants grow better when you love them and now their plant journals are filled with "I love my plant," and "My plants is the best most beautiful plant in the whole wide world,"s. I also like long-term projects because they work with time really well. Extra ten minutes? Let's write about our plants and bugs. No time today? That's okay, we'll look at them tomorrow...

For the end of the year, I'm going to have them learn and perform several Reader's Theaters. Typically, reader's theater is just acting out a story impromptu, with no props. In upper grades, it could be the dramatic reading of a play, in younger grades, it ranges from things such as students chiming in for the speaking parts, to children acting the story out as the teacher or other children read it, to the more elaborate style, like what I'm setting up now. I typed up three books. They are on three different levels -- one is a big book that we read often in class (Hattie and the Fox), one is a repetitive rhyming book (Five Little Monkeys Jumping on the Bed), and one is a more complicated, funny story about a group of cows with a typewriter that request electric blankets from their farmer and go on strike when he refuses (Click, clack, Moo.) I presented them to the groups today, and all were very excited to perform them as plays for the kindergarten later this year.

Anyhow, what this all leads down to is an idea I've been turning over in my head for a while. I'm thinking of doing book units next year. I'll pick a book related to something we're learning in Science, Social Studies, or Math. In the half hour of literacy time where I can design my own activities, and in our reading centers, we'll read the book or do activities related to the book (sequencing, book reports, related writing, reader's theater). In our other class time, I'll try to tie the book in to the curriculum to foster a more cohesive understanding of the things we are learning. For example, we recently read "Down the Road" as our book of the month. In the story, a little girl goes on a walk to buy some eggs. As she comes home, she stops to pick apples and inadvertently drops all of the eggs. We were learning about coins at the time, so I have the students a coin amount to figure out, cut out, and glue to "Hettie's Pocket" to buy the eggs. Voila, integrated math. We're learning about coins, and one way they are used in the real world is to buy things. We'll be able to do author studies or subject studies to compare books, and so on and so forth. What I would really love (although I doubt it could happen) would be to be able to give each child a copy of the book at the end of the two or three week unit (or at least, at the end of some of them.) Most of my children have very few books at their houses, and even fewer that they can read. However, most of them can at least "play read" all of the books we've read a few times in class.

It's still just a seed of an idea in my head right now. I've heard of other teachers doing units like this with great success and I'd love do do more reading to and with my students. They also love being read to and pick books at our RAF rallies that we've read in class (for example, my class picks more Junie B. Jones books than anything else.) I really enjoyed most of the principal's Books of the Month and would definetely use them (for example, Where the Wild Things Are, Down the Road, Guji Guji, Love You Forever, the Giving Tree). I would supplement them with other books I've read and the children have loved, and others that tie is really well with units (The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Alexander Who Used to Be Rich Last Sunday, Click Clack Moo, Caps for Sale, Miss Spider's Tea Party, Whose Mouse Are You, Why Mosquito's Buzz In People's Ears, and so on).

What do you think?

Monday, April 24, 2006

School Improvement

Last Thursday, I went to a meeting for “concerned members” of my school district. Of the 50 or so concerned members present, about 25 were state or district staff and faculty, 15 or so were parents, and the rest were their children, babysitter-less and bored silly. The State Superintendent of Education, Hank Bounds, spoke, expressing his belief that our school district will be the first to have (ever? anywhere?) improved under state control. He told us he was of the opinion that we would pull out of Priority status and be left, again, to our own devices. Each of the three principals spoke, highlighting their school’s progress in the face of numerous obstacles.

Not to be pessimistic, but I think that the whole meeting was the wrong way to go. Undersell, I would urge the principals. Your results may very well be erroneous, because the tests that you gave were the tests you have been teaching for the past nine weeks. But they didn’t. They declared that we are doing well. I hope we are.

I also have a sinking feeling in my gut that the state will leave no matter what. Here’s why. I think there are four possibilities:
1. We do really improve, the state leaves, and we continue to improve in the future.
2. We improve our test scores, adopt the “test-prep” method of teaching, remain a passable district in Mississippi’s eyes, and really only teach our children through multiple choices, and they grow up never having to support their beliefs or think of original ideas.
3. We don’t really improve. The state doesn’t leave. We continue swimming through muddy water towards the supposed light and continue to not improve.
4. We don’t really improve. The state leaves anyway. We continue to not improve, they consolidate school districts and we cease to exist. They never have to admit publicly that they failed to help us in any way.

The only good option is option one. From the state’s eyes, though, the only bad option is option three, where they show that they are worthless. Option 4, they maintain that we are no good, or they sweep us under the carpet. Numbers one and two are the same to the state, which is supported by the fact that they are eliminating open-response items from their tests.

I do think the takeover has helped because it has been a kick in the behind to the district. I hope they leave because we actually improve, and the kick leaves a bruise that makes us keep running.

These are just kids. My kids are as smart as your yuppy suburban kids, and I’ll prove it to you all yet.

Soup for Easter

Me: Oh, and what did you wear to church on Easter?
E- (proudly): A soup.

The River

Yesterday I convinced my roommate to drive with me to the levee, which is about 10 miles west of us. We brought our dinner, thinking we'd eat and look out over the river. It turns out that the levee is, at points, four or five miles inland from the river. We walked along the top of it, thinking that the still little lakes must somehow be part of the big river.

I was quite confused.

Then we met W-. W- and his girlfriend had been out fishing on the lakes around the river. At first, they thought we were poachers (except they decided I probably didn't have any guns in my little sedan). It turns out that the land on the inside of the levee is mostly privately owned by hunting clubs. W- and his girlfiend belonged to one of the clubs, and in fact, W- had moved permanently to the camp six years ago. He now sells irrigation equiptment, hunts, fishes, and "parties hard" on the weekends, at the hunting club, in the most Southern place on Earth (the Mississippi Delta).

He led us in towards the river on rutted dirt roads. We passed his house, up high on stilts to keep it safe from the nine-foot floods that come most every spring (and are stopped by the levees way inland.) He stopped for a moment to drop off his catch and returned with a few cans of beer. We drove on, in through the camp, for quite a while. When we stopped, we were at the edge of the river in a small clearing. The sun was just beginning to set and there was a rainbow shooting up out of the water.

Another car of club members, friends of W-'s, pulled up after us a few minutes later. This load included a young boy with a good arm for throwing rocks in the river, a lawyer from Greenville, and another twenty-something reedy-looking man. You can belong to the club if you buy the land, they told us. Land in their part is about $1800/acre and their hunting club has, I believe, about 20,000 acres. Up North a little land is more expensive because it's better for hunting on, but they seemed to like this area just fine.

We left soon after the sun set, so that we would be able to find our way out before dark settled. Since we had spent the sunset at the river talking to W- and his friends, we hadn't eaten our dinner, so we stopped up on the levee and watched the stars instead. In my small town, the stars are bright and fill the sky. Out a few miles from settlements, they were even better.

The Delta really is a gorgeous place. Now that spring has set in, the weather is amazing and the bugs have yet to hatch (knock on wood.) And again and again I am startled by the genuine openness, friendliness, and generosity of the people that live there. I thought it wasn't true when I lived up North, that Southern hospitality was a farce. It really isn't, though. It seems to be the norm rather than the exception, and it is guileless and completely refreshing.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Hi Again

Sorry for the delays in posting. This past weekend, I went out of town. Wow, it is so different in the real world. Actual buildings, well-maintained infrastructure... fantastic. On another note, don't fly Continental. They lose bags.


Today, during lunch, a little girl told me that the middle schoolers were talking about me. "They said you look like a white panda," she said. "But I think you is pretty." I thanked her, and commented that maybe they just mean I am white. "You don't even look white," she responded. Umm... I'm about the palest white person you could find. I guess that means pretty is out the window as well.


We are going to have penpals for the end of the year. One of my training group members from TFA Institute teaches a first/second grade split in Houston, TX. His class wrote us a wonderful letter and my little hellions are tickled pink to write back. We're goingto type the letters on the computers in the computer lab so that they are a little bit more legible (first graders reading other first grade writing is just asking for trouble.) However, typing is turning out to be a big hassle, because they have never done it before. I think it is worth the trouble, though. Got to start them on the computers young.


My principal is looking for a great teacher to teach 3rd grade math. I kind of want to ask for the job. I really do enjoy teaching math so much more than reading. However, whenever I start to think seriously about it, I think, but now I really know how to teach first grade so much better! I'm actually going to be an okay teacher next year... Besides which, Mr. R-- really wants a male teacher. He told me that the boys in our school are falling behind in math because they no longer consider it something that men need to know.

Saturday, April 01, 2006


There was a horrible smell in my classroom on Friday. I noticed it, the children noticed it, Mrs. B-- noticed it (and sprayed some air freshener.) It was E--. She smelled like a baby with a very dirty diaper, but without that clean-baby-head smell to mitigate it.

In first grade, there is little sweating, so body odor has not typically been a problem. The only smelling problems I have had have been bearable -- children wearing their school uniforms every day without their parents washing them for weeks or months at a time. The blue shirts fade to gray, the khaki pants spot to brown.

I took E-- aside when the rest of the children went to lunch. "Did you have an accident?" I asked her. She shook her head. I touched her skinny little arm. The skin, normally taut, had a drier than normal, gritty feeling. "When was the last time you had a bath?" I asked.

She shrugged. "My daddy's tub's been broke," she told me. "We didn't have no water."

I pulled her close. "It's okay," I told her. "Sometimes that happens and there's nothing you can do." In my head, I ran through possible ways I could bathe her and get her some clean uniform clothes that fit and a decent meal without it being terribly odd. For now, I'm sneaking extra stickers on her star chart to help her earn her trip with me as soon as possible. Maybe we'll go out to eat and have our hair done together. And shop for a new uniform.

In ways, the poverty is not as apparent as you would think it would be in a school where 100% of the students qualify for free lunch. Noone has much money, everyone wears the same thing and it's a little dirty. But most are washed and hair-braided and regular-sized. So it's the few who are not only poor, but actually impoverished that stand out.