Friday, August 25, 2006


Today was the fifteenth day of school, so we were trading coins on our chart: 5 pennies for a nickel, add that to the dime that is on the chart, 15 cents. I pointed to the coin cutouts hanging above my head. "Which is bigger, a nickel or a dime?...That's right, a nickel is bigger. But which is more money?...Good, a dime is more money because a dime is 10 cents and a nickel is 5 cents." It was good, we were looking and connecting.

"The nickel has a picture of President Thomas Jefferson. He was our 3rd president a long time ago. On the back is a picture of his house, Monticello. Does anyone know the name of our president today?" Last year, they knew. This year, no clue. We got off track for quite a while, because I was sure I could get it out of them.

Kid 1: Thomas Jefferson?
Teacher: He was president one time, but that was a really long time ago. He died a long time ago and we have had lots of presidents since him. Does anyone know the name of the president now? He's a very important man.
Kid 2: Martin Luther King?
Teacher: That is a good guess. He was a very important man. However, he is dead. Also, we haven't ever had a black man be president yet. Does anyone know who our president is?
Kid 3: My grandma died one time.
Teacher: That is sad, when someone dies, isn't it? But we're not talking about dying right now, we're talking about presidents.
Kid 4: I was sad when my daddy died. That was a long time ago, too.
Teacher: It is sad when someone we love dies. We're going to talk about the presidents now, though. Does anyone know our president, the one who is alive and in office right now?
Kid 5: Georgia?
Teacher: Georgia is a place, not a person. But you are close because our president has the first name of George.
Kid 6: Martin Luther King?
Teacher: We already talked about him and I told you he is not the president. I really bet you know this, guys. The president is very important. He runs the United States.
Kid 7: God?
Teacher: Um, good guess. God is very important, but he runs the whole world. Our president only runs the United States, which is our country. And he is a man, that you can see.
Kid 8: Jesus?
Teacher: Remember, I said his first name is George.
Kid 9: George Clooney?
Teacher: That is a famous George, but George Clooney is an actor, in movies.
Kid 9: George Washington?
Teacher: You're on the right track. He was our first president. But he was president a long, long time ago. Our president now is George W. Bush. (blank stares) Let me find a picture on the internet...

It was a bit of a detour from coins, but I do think that knowing who the president is is important, even if I don't particulary care for some of his policies. I think I may write him a letter and ask for a picture so that I can show my kids.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Parent Visits

I've been doing parent visits to discuss my students' results on the pretests and diagnostics and I'm pleased with the response so far. Of course, I've only gotten to 6 of my 16 astudents, and probably the most parentally involved ones. We'll see what tomorrow brings.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Test Scores

State test scores were officially released on Thursday. You can access the info for my school here.

Across the state, scores remained about the same, which is to say, low. "Proficient" on the MCT is really failing -- I believe you only need a 50 or 60% to be proficient. Advanced is where it is at; advanced means you get it. A look at the state reading tests scores is bleak. The students shift slowly from 40% advanced in 2nd grade down to only 12% advanced in 8th grade, while the other numbers shift accordingly. Only 6% of 2nd graders fall into Minimal, the lowest category, while about 19% of 8th graders do. it is as though Mississippi teachers are only teaching most of what they should be teaching in a given grade, and he few things that get left off each year never get added back, and the students just slip further and further behind.

I wonder about cheating, too. In the book Freakonomics, the author discusses cheating on standardized tests. The hardest to catch are the teachers who cheat. There was a big investigation of teacher cheating in Houston several years ago. They pinpointed many suspected cheating teachers and retested their classes and some control classes and uncovered exactly the results they were expecting; the classes with suspected cheating teachers' scores declined while the scores in the control classes went up slightly (since they had a few extra weeks between the original test and the retest and had continued teaching.

First graders aren't tested, so I had nothing to do with the MCT at my school. It would have been hard to cheat, though, because there were State Department monitors patrolling the testing classrooms. But the middle school, there weren't as many monitors. One teacher there had a tremendous leap in scores. Almost all of his students were proficient or advanced. When the administration praises teachers for their hard work and their improvements in test scores, I hear that they do not praise this teacher. I think they may be suspicious.

The only reason that my district had monitors was because we were under state control. Other districts did not have the same level of scrutiny. It would have been easy for a teacher to cheat -- change a few answers on some tests before she handed them in. It would only have taken a few minutes.

Read another article on teacher cheating here.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

SPARK Mississippi

There is a program in Mississippi called the SPARK program. Thirteen of the children at my school are "SPARK" children. SPARK stands for “Supporting Partnerships to Assure Ready Kids." The program supports partnerships of selected communities, schools, state agencies, and families to ensure that they work together effectively for children’s early learning.

The SPARK children in my class are the first generation of SPARK kids in Shelby. They have had an extra year of head start, and their teachers have had extra money for supplies and extra requirements for child-friendly classrooms. I don't know the exact mix of things that have prepared these students for my classroom -- including the switch to the Trophies reading program, and the current class size-- but they are better equipped to deal with school, reading, and each other than the students I had last year.

Evidently, parents of SPARK children have had workshops on parenting and school-readiness training for their children. The head start teachers got additional training, funded by SPARK. I will get additional training and assistance with parent contact, facilitated by SPARK. I'm pleased. I'm hoping to get a bigger, more colorful carpet for my classroom with some of the money that they give me to use on the children, so that our on-carpet learning time (which I'm doing more of this year) can be more comfortable and thus more productive. The carpet I like is 9'x 12' and has some sight words and big rulers on it. Alternatively, there is one with a map of the world on it which would also be neat & useful. Right now, I have two 5x8 blue $20 Walmart carpets next to each other, and they fit us sitting in a group nicely, but they are barely big enough for a circle and they are already (!!!) starting to fray. I'd also love to get some learning music -- I had already written a Donors Choose proposal to fund the music, but if I could get it through SPARK, so much the better, and more funding to teachers who don't have other options.

I'm amazed by how much my teaching experience has improved this year, and most, if not all of it, unrelated to my development as a teacher. I think my teaching skills have been kicked up a level as well. Here's hoping all of this can be channelled into fabulous gains in reading and math for my students.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Quotes of the Day

Two cute(?) quotes from today:

We were brainstorming words that rhyme with map.
Kid 1: "Cap."
Teacher: "Good. Cap rhymes with map. Anyone else?"
Kid 2: "Crap."
Teacher: "That is a rhyming word with map, but it's not a word we use in school. Anyone else?"

(This reminds me of a story about my little brother when he was in first grade. The teacher called home one day because G- had said "ass" when she had asked for a short-a word. Just like crap rhymes with map, ass is a short a word. Can you really get upset at them for that?)

We were taking our math pretest. One question has a group of stars and the students had to count how many stars and bubble in the number (the choices were 17, 27, or 37.)
Teacher: "C--, count the stars and mark how many there are."
C-- begins to fill in the bubble next to 37.
Teacher: "Did you count them?"
C--: "No, I just know."
(There were 27.)

Monday, August 14, 2006

A Not-So-Hairy Situation

My hair is falling out again. (The last time it did this was last fall.) Maybe it is seasonal? Lack of sleep? I'm certainly not as stressed out, by far. I adore my students and they give me quite a bit of delight, unlike last year, when I usually liked them and they gave me small doses of delight and large doses of frustration.


In other news, this morning I installed our air conditioning cover that we painted with our handprints on Friday. It is quite fetching, if I do say so myself.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

The Scratchy Show

The rat goes in to school on Monday. It was finally named last night by my friend Jared. We were at the blues festival, and he mentioned that he had heard one of the most difficult words to spell correctly was the word "scratch." Just look at all of those consonants! So, Scratchy the Rat will be coming in to school on Monday. For those of you who are Simpsons fans, I know that Scratchy is actually the extremely violent cat on the show-within-a-show, but I'm just hoping the kids don't pick up on that.

Saturday, August 12, 2006


Directly after school on Friday, we had a brief faculty meeting to discuss the materials we need in our portfolios (easier for K/1 because we don't have state testing) and our test results. The results, of course, had been announced previously in a meeting held by our state superintendant, but our principal wanted to clarify things.

Evidently, schools are rated on a scale of 100-600 points. Schools whose scores fall between 100-199 are level 1 priority schools, as we were last year. Schools whose scores fall from 200-299 are level 2 schools, and so on. Our school got a score of 355, which puts us right in the middle of the level 3 schools. However, our official rating is a level 4. Why the disparity? The state awards an extra point for extreme improvement. That means that even if we improve, say, by 40 points this year, our rating would still fall to a level 3.

The district's goal is to have every school a level 5. That means that we will have to have an increase in test scores equvalent to the jump we had last year. This seems like a very, very lofty goal to me, but maybe it can be done.

I don't know if it is simply my increased confidence in my teaching abilities, but I perceive the whole school as actually having improved this past year. Behavior is more controlled, people are more on the same page. One example of our improvement as an elementary school is our library and computer classes. They are the only special classes our students get (no art, music, or pe outside of the classroom), and last year only computer lab was valuable because they watched TV in library. This year, my students came back from library thrilled because the teacher had read them two books. Excellent! That is a 100% improvement right there, from 1 useful special to 2 useful specials. Also, my class size has gone down, our copy allowance has gone up (it was prohibitively low last year, and I am not a worksheet-giving teacher) and, to put the cherry on the sundae, we are officially allowed a 15 minute recess after lunch -- for the whole first grade together!

I'm also more pleased with the school this year because we will be allowed (even encouraged) to go on field trips, which I think are really valuable for building prior knowledge from which students can build, and we will have some plays by the students and some assemblies. It just seems more elementary.

My students also came in at a higher level than my students last year. As I wrote before, I don't have any Special Ed students, but beyond that, their reading diagnostic scores are higher across the board. We use DIBELS, and my students are starting our approximately 2 months ahead of my students last year. In fact, they are almost on grade level this year, only a couple points off!

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

The Room, The Kids

I am very pleased with my class so far. They have soaked up my systems like so many little sponges, and I'm going to work hard to keep them performing well. I really want them to like school...

Here they are:

Monday, August 07, 2006

Head, Shoulders, and Torso

This day was head and shoulders, maybe even torso and hips, above my first day of school last year. (Check out the posts from the beginning of last August to compare.) I don't know exactly what the differences were, and I don't know if it will last, but I think there are several reasons for the turn-around.

1. I had 14 students instead of 22. Huge. This is probably the biggest difference.
2. I had 1 repeater instead of 4. All but one of my students this year are actually the correct age for first grade, which means they get excited more easily, don't have the attitudes, and are little. Tiny, some of them.
3. I am more experienced. Although I don't know if I changed what I did that much...
4. I don't have any classified Special Ed students, and anyone possibly classifiable is certainly more capable than 4 of my Special Ed students from last year.

The 14 students I have so far are small, inquisitive, and excitable. One cried two times -- once because I made her wait to go to the bathroom and once because she didn't know how to tie her shoe. Another cried once, of a tummy ache. I had her lie down and told her she could rejoin the class when she felt better. We were having fun; she was back within minutes. Most of them were on their best behavior and I can tell I have a few smarties.

We went to breakfast and the bathroom, we read a story about the first day of school, we went over our rules and consequences and classroom hand signals. We went to lunch. We did calendar and some activities around 100's day -- we are on day 1, of course. We read Chicka Chicka Boom Boom and another book called Ten Black Dots. Then the students glued little pieces of paper to a sheet I made with the numbers 1-12 on it to show 1-to-1 correspondence while I brought students to my desk 1 at a time to listen to them count orally. About half can get all the way to 100! I had a parent observe the math lesson, and I think she enjoyed it. We also wrote down all the words we knew (very short lists) and began to learn our 5 sight words for the week -- the most basic: a, I, am, it, the. And that was about it. But it went well. And I am tired but happy.

Thank goodness. I was a little bit worried, a little bit dreading this teaching thing.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Moved In

I am sore all over from all of the moving I have been doing. Books to school, books from school, books back to school again. Cabinet here, cabinet there, cabinet turned, cabinet scooted out to plug something in, cabinet scooted in again. Tables to the room, desks from the room, desks up on the stage, tables down off the stage, tables right side up, tables upside down to put little pads on their feet, tables right side up again, tables in groups, tables in rows.

My room is set up, though. It looks great, if I do say so myself. My principal stopped by today, and said, surprised, "You did it! You're all set up," as if he had believed I'd start class with boxes and supplies strewn around the room. Now I'm just working through what will actually happen in that room, when the children come in. I have set up seats and folders for 18, I am expecting 16. A--, who has moved from her school to my school and who will be teaching 3rd grade math, science, and social studies, is expecting two classes of 14 each. The poor kindergarten teachers, now down to three, are expecting 21 apeice.

I'm disappointed in the response rate to my question: what should I name the rat? The current forerunners are Rizzo (approved by my sibs), Magnolia/Maggie, and Fritter (suggested by my friend L- from Cornell). Again, let me know what you think.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Name My Rat

Here she is, in all her glory: the rat of 1C. Before school starts, this little squeaker needs a name, preferably one which will help my first graders learn some sound-spelling conventions. Here are the current suggestions -- please comment with your thoughts or ideas.

Wheezy -- she sneezes quite a bit, and this would teach "wh" and "ee" and "y says e"
Chopstick or Chapstick -- E's idea, teaches "ch" "st" and "ck"
Lilly -- the name of the mouse in a storybook
Squeaker -- teaches "squ" and "ea"
Cocoa -- because of her coloration, teaches "oa says o"
Sniffles -- teaches "sn" and double consonant and "le says /ul/"
Molly -- M's suggestion
Maisy -- a mouse on a TV show for young children
Rizzo -- the name of the rat on the Muppets

Please help me out!

Home Improvement

I'm in the middle of several projects to improve the comfort levels in my classroom, to make it a better learning space. Today I went in to school and worked on project #1, Setting Up Stuff in the New Arrangement. I started to organize things on my shelves (I had to clear them all off in order to move them around.) I put up one set (of three) of curtains and finished papering and bordering the outside of my door.

Then, I went to Southaven, a big town near Memphis, to equip myself for projects #2 and #3. Project #2 is the Pet Project. Most of my students are too poor to be able to afford pets like suburban kids often have (gerbils, fish, etc.). Some of them have dogs or cats, but most are pet-less. So this year, we will have a classroom pet, and it will be a rat. Don't cringe -- I did quite a bit of research, and I found out that, as classroom pets go, rats may very well be the best. They are more interesting than fish or hermit crabs, more cuddly than centipedes or hissing cockroaches, more intelligent than... well, than anything else that you might have in a classroom, cleaner than any other rodent, more disease free than a turtle (known to carry salmonella), and, unlike hamsters and gerbils, they don't bite. So I bought a rat and all the fixin's.

Project #3 took me to Lowe's, where a very friendly salesman helped me find supplies to make two benches for the room and to cut some plywood so that I can create a baffle around my hideously ugly air-conditioning unit. I am going to assemble it this week, prime and paint it, and then during the first week of school, have the students decorate it.