Friday, October 27, 2006

Kinder Update

The law, and not the desire of the parent, the recommendation of the teacher, or the best interest of the child has prevailed. K- is going to remain one of my students.

Supposedly, he will be pulled out (along with his brother, who is in another first grade class) for approximately 3 hours per day. This is of course, pending the adjustment of the special ed teachers' schedules. So who knows when it will happen and how long it will last. Or even if it will happen.

Last year, I had 6 special ed students, 3 of whom had pretty severe obstacles to learning. Unspecifically diagnosed, of course. I got a special ed teacher who took them out an hour in the morning and an hour in the afternoon about 70% of the time during the first nine weeks. Then inclusion really kicked in with upped supervision from the state department, and I got a special ed teacher in my room for an hour in the afternoon 3 times per week. I used him for centers. Then the state really came in, and changed the focus to only 2nd and 3rd grade, tested subjects, and I never saw my special ed teacher again.

Side note -- inclusion is fine if the staff is properly trained on how it should work and everyone tries to make it worka dnthe student is not too far behind. None of those things are true at my school. Pull the kids out, make your own lesson plans, and work at their actual level.

If K- is ever going to make progress, he needs to be taught one-on-one or in a very small group, at his level. Actual teaching. Like kindergarten. I hope that will happen in special ed. But I know for a fact that the teacher I worked with didn't make lesson plans, he just worked on "whatever he thought they needed." Which was good to some extent, because I'm sure he can tell, but also not good because when you don't plan your lessons they are poorly taught.

And he will still be in my room for 3 hours a day. Which means him arriving and departing at inconvenient times (because the sped teachers aren't strict about what times they arrive) and so even if I disciplined myself about my schedule, even a 2-minute discrepancy is too long. In 2 minutes you miss the most important parts of a first grade lesson or you don't have time to finish your work.

Drug Free Rally

Today was the drug free rally at school. Every day this week we have had some sort of paper to wear. Tuesday was headbands that proclaimed I Won't Let Drugs Go to My Head. Wednesday was monkey masks that said Don't let drugs make a monkey out of you. (So now we have a bunch of elementary school kids thinking that if they smoke crack they will grow hair all over their bodies and like bananas a whole lot more.) And Thursday was a fake report card with all A+'s (which we don't even give at our school) and the slogan, Too Smart to Start (if you get some B's are you dumb enough to do drugs?)

I guess someone decided that kids needed to be bombarded with "drug free" messages as early as possible. But things that are learned as mantras, without question or explanation, things that are drilled in -- aren't those the same things that kids question and then experiment with later? Like all the crises of faith my friends had in high school? Anyhow, I'm not arguing that it is important to talk to children about the hazards and illegality of drug use, I'm just saying, let's do that instead of bombarding them with catchy slogans that they don't have the vocabulary to comprehend beyond the simple call and response: Who's Drug Free? We're drug free!

Not that I did much of that. I think we all did a little of that, but really, if Mississippi wants a useful drug-free program starting in elementary school, they should incorporate it into the curriculum framework so that it actually gets taught. Something in Science for first grade like, "Looks at pictures/videos of diseased organs and healthy organs and discusses basic causes of organ degeneration (drugs, disease, malnourishment.)"

Anyhow, for today each class had to prepare some sort of skit, song, poem, etc. Last year mine were sort of duds. And since I still don't have any rhythm (have I mentioned that when I go to church I have to watch the choir to know when to clap during the gospel songs?), I decided to do a song. So I taught my class about how there are many different kinds of drugs that people use, most of which are against the law, which have averse physical and mental effects. I showed them a picture of a diseased lung and a healthy lung. We talked about how drugs can make you think it is okay to do crazy things and act strangely and not only does it make it harder for you to learn, it hurts your family's feelings when you don't act like yourself. And we sang (to the tune of "Do You Know the Muffin Man?"):

Did you know that we're drug free? (Shrug.)
We're drug free, we're drug free. (Point to selves.)
Did you know that we're drug free?
Star learners in 1C! (Make 1C with hands.)

I'm drug free so I can learn, (Point at head.)
I can learn, I can learn.
I'm drug free so I can learn.
Those drugs, they hurt your brain. (Wobble and hold head.)

I'm drug free so I can breathe, (Deep breath.)
So I can breathe, so I can breathe.
I'm drug free so I can breathe.
Those drugs, they hurt your lungs. (Cough, cough.)

I'm drug free because I love, (Hug self.)
Because I love, because I love.
I'm drug free because I love,
I love my family.

Clap your hands if you're drug free. (Clap on "drug" and "free".)
If you're drug free, you're drug free.
Clap your hands if you're drug free.
Star learners in 1C!

They did a good job. We won the prize for first grade and my students got water bottles (for the girls) and mini plastic footballs (for the boys) with the slogan Drug Free Begins With Me emblazoned on them.

So, hurrah for no drugs!

Thursday, October 26, 2006

At a loss

I got a new student for the second time today. Not a second new student. The same new student, for the second time.

About a month and a half ago, I got a little boy who looked, spoke, and acted way too young for first grade. Early-elementary kids grow so quickly that after a little time around them, you can sort them by age fairly accurately. Kindergarteners, for example, look, act, and speak differently from first graders. So I asked him how old he was. "Five," he responded. I asked him his name but I couldn't understand the answer. So I asked him to write it. He scrawled some letters, backwards, upside down, across an entire sheet of paper. It spelled his name, but barely. I took him to the principal and told the principal that he was too young for first grade and that there was clearly a mistake and he should be in kindergarten. The principal said that there was no mistake.

I went to visit his mother, and I found out that before coming to Mississippi, he had been in a special school for hearing impaired special-ed students. He has partial hearing loss, but evidently it fluctuates from ear to ear. Also according to his mother, he didn't speak until he was 3. Although this is consistant with hearing loss, the boy seemed to be able to hear fine. His mother told me he can hear regular volume, but he can't hear yelling. Um...

Anyhow. I was prepared to accept all of that. Evidently in his old school, he had already completed the equivalent of kindergarten. But he just should not be in a regular first grade classroom. If he had completed kindergarten at my school, which is by no means a paragon of high standards, and emerged with his current skill, set he would have been retained. But since his old school was only through age 5, they had decided to pass him to another special school for older students. And then his family had moved. But since he was supposed to pass in that state (to another special school! based on age alone!) the principal told me that they have to put him in first grade here.

I told his mother that she should fight to put him in kindergarten. I had special ed students last year. I had six of them. Skills-wise, they were low. Some of them were very low. And one of them was emotionally very young as well. But not nearly to the same extent as this boy. She told me that she would do that, although she might take him to another city where he had gotten into a special school.

He came to my class 2 days. And then he was gone. I assumed he had gone to the special school.

Today, he came back.

I do not want him in my class. Even to me, this sounds incredibly selfish. I teach at a public school. That means we take everyone. But this little boy will get nothing out of my class unless I create totally separate lessons for him. His speech, behavior, attention span, everything is light years behind even my lowest student. This little boy doesn't know how to hold a pencil or follow directions. My other students are writing sentences with ease. They are reading. He doesn't know all of his sounds. I don't know what to do!

It sounds easy. Just go ahead, make lessons on his level. But we are talking all subjects. Not just math, reading, and writing. Science. Social Studies. He can't do any of it. And while I am teaching him these lessons, what will my other students be doing? First graders don't sit and do work. Every single child needs to be acknowledged within a maximum period of ten minutes. Unless we are in centers, I suppose, but I can't totally neglect 16 students to spend the entire centers hour teaching K--. That's our guided reading time, which is the only way those 16 students are going to become proficient readers. And even so, an hour a day isn't enough. And I can't tutor him after school. I already tutor 3 days a week. The lowest students in the grade. He wouldn't even fit in with them.

I'm at a total loss.

This is not something I know how to deal with. I am not this good of a teacher. I am not good at differentiating to this level. I can differentiate reading. Even math, to some extent. I can't differentiate school.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Parent Conference Day

We didn't have school today because it was "Parent Conference Day." In the elementary school I attended, this meant that parents signed up for conferences and the teacher met with every parent. Or at least, that's what I think happened. In the elementary school where I work, it does not work that way. Even remotely.

I sent a letter home last week: SIGN UP FOR A CONFERENCE TIME! BRING YOUR CHILD! I told them we would talk about their child's progress, behavior, grades, and I would GIVE THEM things to do with their child at home. It is 5:30. There is an hour and a half left before this day is over, and I have seen 2 students with their families. Out of 16. That's 1/8. Or, 12.5%. No good!

Last year, parents had to come to "Parent Conference Day" to pick up their child's report card. This year, report cards were mailed home. So there was no need, in the parents' eyes, to show up. In my class, everyone was passing everything. So there was not even a need to come harangue me about the grades. Last year, for the record, I had about a 50% turnout rate, which was pretty good. This year, it is absolutely dismal.

The only way I can rationalize it in my head is that my parent contact in general has been much better this year, so parents know their child's strengths and weaknesses, grades and behavior already. Three I can forgive: they have little babies (under 2 months old) at home. One other contacted me to schedule a makeup for Friday because she's working today. So four are excused, 2 were present, and that still leaves 10 unaccounted for. 62.5% unaccounted for. Three of those parents I've never been able to meet or get on the phone.

Overall, 29 parent showed up in the school (I know this from the sign-in log.) That is about a 10% average turnout, so I guess my class is on par. What is up with these parents? There must be a better way to get them motivated and involved.

Shelby Fest in the News

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Shelby Fest Was a Blast!

Shelby Fest '06 was a huge success. Thank you to everyone who helped us out, financially or with their labor. What made me the happiest was to see the TFA people working together with the citizens of Shelby, black and white alike, to make an event for all of Shelby to enjoy. And Shelby enjoyed it! Over 500 people turned out. The activities were mobbed (more than 2000 game tickets were sold!), the music was fabulous, the food was prepared and delivered and delicious, and we earned enough money to fully cover the two field trips for the fourth grade.

Here are some pictures.
Rev. Pitts and Mr. Frailich help set up the banner with the schedule of events.

Some booths, such as this bouncy castle, were run by TFA volunteers.

Others, like this bracelet making stand, were run by community volunteers.

And a few were run almost entirely by students.

The volunteer fire department lived up to its name by volunteering to fire up their grills and cook the food.

And Shelby Women United united to serve that food.

The kids had a great time bouncing in the bouncy castle.

We went through 10 dozen donuts at the donut-on-a-string stand.

Even the littlest Shelbyites loved to play the football toss game.

And everyone enjoyed the races that Save the Children ran, which included a crazy clothes race, a three-legged race, an egg-and-spoon race (shown here) and more.

Even Mayor Grimm showed up for a brief speech.

Everyone pitched in to clean up, also. Fourth graders collected bags of litter in exchange for a free hotdog, and clean-up and take-down was completed in about an hour.

All in all, lots of work, but a great time.

Why You Should Wait to Carve Your Pumpkin

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Ms. S-- Visits

A friend of mine visited recently. I made her take a reading group (they discussed problem/solution and made pumpkin cutouts) and read to the kids before dismissal. Here is a picture from that.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006


This week in Science, I am teaching the benchmark 4a: names the nine planets. Oops! There are only eight planets. For those of you not up on your science, Pluto has been kicked out of the planet club.

Last year, around this same time, it was announced that a tenth planet, Xena, and its' moon, Gabrielle, had been discovered. My students had a fabulous time making up a new verse to our planet poem and smiling knowingly when worksheets referred to the "nine planets." I guess this year they'll smile knowingly for a new reason. I'm planning to teach the eight planets and discuss both Pluto and Xena.

I think that this is very exciting. I want it to give my students the early understanding that science is still evolving, and hopefully open their minds to the idea that they, too, could one day discover something that expands, refines, or explains part of our current body of scientific knowledge.

I'm sure teachers are capitalizing on this all over the country. What a great research topic for an informational report: "What makes a planet a planet." Or an interesting and relevant timeline project: "Pluto, from unknown to planet to dwarf planet." Or a fantastic topic for debate "Pluto, Planet vs. Just Another Space Rock?" The list goes on. If my kids were a few grades up, we'd be doing all of those (time pending and Curriculum Overseer vanquished.)

Monday, October 16, 2006

Bug Poems

I was about to go to bed and I opened my closet and interrupted a cockroach climbing on my laundry basket. This is only the second roach I've seen in this apartment, but any roaches are too many roaches. Unfortunately, they are extremely common in Mississippi. (Unlike in Massachusetts, they can survive outside all year round, so even if you get rid of them, they can just walk right on back in.)

I pretty much gave up poetry in middle school, but now I'm wide awake, so I wrote a poem about my cockroach experience. While I was thinking about bugs, I also wrote a poem about my ant experience (which I wrote about here earlier). Since I know these poems will make my mom laugh, I'm going to post them here.

Cockroach in my Closet
There’s a cockroach in my closet,
And it’s climbing on my clothes!
There’s a roach, and where there’s one
You know there must be droves.
Two weeks ago I saw one,
Belly-up, dead in the kitchen.
I hoped it was a loner ‘cause
I don’t want to be b*tchin’.
I don’t like those nasty creatures!
(I know, no one’s in awe.)
But a cockroach in the closet?
That should be against the law.

Ant Experience Limerick
My class, they were playing a game
And I was engaged in the same
‘Til I stepped on some ants
And they ran up my pants
And practically rendered me lame.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Busy Week

This week will be a busy week.

First of all, Shelby Fest is this coming weekend, and the primary organizer keeps giving me more things to do for it. Second, it will be my second week of tutoring, and I'll really have to lay the foundation for the rest of the school year of tutoring. That means being on top of both behavior and curriculum. And those are both not even in-school activities!

This Saturday was one of our Teach for America professional development days. It hurts to give up a Saturday, because it's my only non-school filled day (Sundays are preparing for the coming week), but I always find them immensely useful. This week, I spent a lot of time talking with T--, another first grade teacher here in the Delta. T-- is incredibly sweet, motivated, and hard working. She runs the first and second grade learning team and she is taking the same course as me.

In our course, which is on unit planning, we worked together to improve the way we plan for, assess, and teach math. Then in the learning team, she told me how she runs her guided reading groups, and I think I am going to totally switch what I am doing now to emulate her system. Basically, instead of running centers in the morning, her students read for half an hour to forty minutes while she meets with reading groups and focuses on comprehension strategies. Then in the afternoon, she runs her centers, which includes her reading center at which she might do phonics or decoding or phonemic awareness for struggling readers. The other centers are cross-curricular, so some are math, some are science or social studies, and some are reading. Fantastic! Now I have to figure out how to implement, and then I jump in!

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Phonemic Awareness

Phonemic awareness is the ability to recognize and manipulate sounds in the spoken language. It is a prerequisite for phonics, which is associating those sounds with letters, and then manipulating them. I just started working for our after-school tutoring program, which means I'm helping a dozen of the most struggling readers in first grade (3 from each class).

The students at my school were tested using DIBELS at the beginning of the year, which measures phonemic awareness (breaking spoken words into their component sounds, like "fan" is fff-ah-nnn,) phonics/decoding (reading nonsense 3-letter words like "div"), and letter names. So when I got these students, I tested their phonemic awareness again, since they had all passed letter naming and it is the next skill step they need to master before going on to be able to read.

And (I'm going to brag on myself a little bit) my three students jumped from being able to segment between 4 and 8 sounds in a minute to being able to segment more than 30 sounds in a minute, which is to say, they are almost on grade level for phonemic awareness now! I was thrilled. It is the first real proof I have that I am a better reading teacher this year, and it makes me really happy. I will have a more complete picture after I also retest their decoding skills, but I feel like they are a mini-barometer for the class. (You are only as strong as your weakest link, right?)

Devil Drill

Yesterday, the school set off a practice fire drill, only they got mixed up and rang the tornado bell. All the students went out in the halls, got by the walls and covered their heads, and the principal ran up and down the hall shouting, "Get outside! The fire would have gotten you!" Poor little T- was so scared she started to cry!

We went outside in fire formation (line holding hands) and were released back inside by the bell. Altogether a little bit of a fiasco, although much better that it happened during a drill and not a real event. It would definetely be fatal to crouch in the halls during a fire, but even more fatal to get confused the other way and go outside during a tornado.

Anyhow, after we were all back inside, the principal came on the intercom and clarified the bells and sounded them for us: a long buzz for tornado, a long bell for fire, and three short buzzes for an earthquake. (For real, we're in a mid-continent seismic zone.)

As the students left for the day, K- asked, "Mi' Hay', when are we going to practice the devil drill?" "The what?" I asked. "You know, the devil drill. Because when he comes up, he sure is going to burn us all up." "Um," I answered. "I guess we'll treat that just like a fire drill, and hold hands... and go outside."

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Playing on the Playground

The playground at my school has been under construction with no progress for a month now. Before school started, someone paid to have low wooden barriers put up around the playgroupnd equipment. Around these wooden barriers, they put stakes and string, which I found very hazardous to running children. It also wound up looped around the jungle gym, just waiting to strangle a student. I cut all of the string down. A few weeks into school, someone dropped off a load of dirt to fill in the barriers under the swings. The same day, someone wrapped the swings around the top of the swingset to get them out of the way and a bulldozer came in and began to shovel the pile of dirt under the swings and jungle gym. But it didn't finish. And now it has left it unfinished for a month.

So there have been no swings. And no jungle gym. Because it is now even less safe because the ground is wildly uneven and there are mounds of dirt everywhere.

We have compensated by playing games. My students are now proficient at several kinds of races, tag, blob tag, Red Rover, and duck duck goose. I can't think of any more games. And there are still no swings and no improvement. Why start a project you can't or won't finish? The playground is worse than it was.

Last week, I stepped on an ant hill on the playground. I didn't realize until I felt a pain and looked down to see my foot covered with ants. I brushed them off as quickly and completely as I could, but there were very many and some had gotten inside my shoe, so I suffered several more bites. My foot swelled to twice its normal size and was very itchy. I used this as an excuse to wear flip-flops to school all week, since my foot didn't fit in any of my normal shoes.

My suggestion to the school: Finish what you started, or at least smooth it out and unwrap the swings, and while you are at it, get rid of the ants.

Any ideas for equipment-free big group playground games?

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Grading Woes

The end of the first quarter of school is drawing near. Wow! 1/4 over already. I still really like my students. Anyhow, today we got a memo giving us the breakdown for grades (3o% classwork, 40% tests, 5% homework, 25% nine-weeks exam). I'm annoyed.

We are required to do grade-level multiple choice testing in each subject every week, and the final exam is, of course, multiple choice. I just feel like multiple choice is not developmentally appropriate for 6-year-olds. They don't understand how to evaluate answer choices to find the best one -- they see an answer, they pick it. I've spent some time teaching them how to do it, but honestly, I'd much rather spend my time teaching the material and giving my students performance assessments or at least open-response tests (like 2+2=__ instead of 2+2= a) 3 b) 4 c)2). But now, according to district policy, 65% of their final grade is based on these "MCT format" tests.

First graders don't even take the state tests. (I'll save my thoughts on those unhelpful things for another time.)

Our principal also told us that we have to have proof of every grade we have given if we fail a student in anything. Now, I understand the logic behind this, but don't you think it would have been better to tell us that at the beginning of the year? I have sent almost everything home, because I think it is much more valuable for me to show the parents what their child is doing in class than to cover my @ss with a paper trail. Also, if I can get the parents to sign off that they knew their child was failing, there is no need to prove the paper trail -- the parents have seen it, and if you give me the child for 10 minutes, I'll show you that he or she doesn't know what I say he or she doesn't know. Why would I lie about these things?

My last principal told us that we were the teachers, the bosses of our classrooms, and if we felt that a student was not mastering the objectives, we had the full and complete power to fail them, or to adjust their grades up or down as their performance merited. We would, of course, have to be reasonable, but as long as we could show -- somehow -- why they deserved the grade they got, all was good. This new principal has told us he has no qualms about changing our grades.

So now I don't get to decide what is important in my classroom (I would weight classwork higher and the end-of-quarter test lower), how to test my students (more performance assessments, especially in reading, where multiple choice tests tell me about phonics skills and listening comprehension but nothing about reading comprehension, fluency, or decoding), and I can't give the parents full access to their students infomation without a classroom visit.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

It's Your Last Chance

You know you want a Shelby Fest shirt. Scroll down to buy one. Wednesday I'm going to take the link away...


Mr. F- alerted me to an interesting and informative NY Times article on paddling. I had no idea it was that prevalent in the country, outside of the Delta.

Paddling for my class has gone way down this year. In fact, I have only sent 2 children to the office so far. It happened on the same day, about 2 weeks ago. R- stuck D- with a pencil, and then C- was in a bad attitude and got his clip moved all the way down. I must have been way off the ball that day. Most days are pretty smooth sailing, and my biggest problem is some calling out or putting heads down on their desks.