Sunday, February 25, 2007

United Female Empowerment Workshops

For the past couple of weeks, I've been helping set up some workshops in Clarksdale for this Saturday. Yesterday, 52 kids from 4 counties gathered in Clarksdale and spent 6 hours going to 5 workshops on things they don't necessarily learn in school: nutrition, fitness, health (on puberty and STDs), gender stereotypes, body image and healthy relationships. Here are a few pictures:

Cutting Up Fruit in the Nutrition Station

Working Out in the Cardiovascular Health Class

Stretching after Cardio

Eating the Results of the Nutrition Station (Fruit Salsa)

Acting Out an Oprah Show on Body Image

Girls from the QC in their UFEW Shirts at the end of the day

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Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Our Nine Weeks Tests

I have pretty much reconciled with the fact that I give exams at the end of every quarter to my first graders. That means every nine weeks, I test my students on what they have learned during those nine weeks. I've even swallowed the fact that it has to be 25% of their grade for the quarter (like a final exam in college! absurd!).

But you can not tell me, during the 7th week of the quarter, that instead of being in the 9th week of the quarter, the exams will be during the 8th week of the quarter. To clarify, a memo was sent home to parents (note: teachers were not informed, except for the letter to parents we were supposed to distribute) that exams were moved up to next week instead of beign the week after that, as originally scheduled. Ummm... I still have a week's worth of material to cover! An eighth of my material for the quarter! Reading and writing and grammar are ongoing, but it is interrupting a 4-week math and science unit on measurement.

There has been no word about making tests, either. I went ahead and made a third nine weeks exam and a fourth nine week pretest (I create the math tests for the grade), because we won't hear about that, it seems, until the day before.

This craziness is not even close to the craziness in tested subjects and grades. From second grade upwards, all skills for the year are supposed to have been taught by this Friday, which will be the 126th day of school. In other words, teach 100% of the material in 70% of the time and then review for the last 30% of school. If you gave everything the time in merited in the first place, you wouldn't have to review for 30% of the year! Also, upper grades don't make their own tests, which means that teachers have no idea where to steer their students in order for them to perform well. It also means that testing timeliness is entirely dependant on Dr. R-, a former superintendant of another district who now oversees several struggling districts including mine. And she's not so timely and not so good at making tests that actually test what was supposed to have been taught.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Skin Color

I've been trying to explain the terms "African-American" and "Black" in the context of our unit on Black Musicians, Writers, and Artists for Black History Month. We've talked about our unique differences and referenced grandma's grandma and so on. Every time I mention "black," D- raises his hand and tells me that he is brown. In January, we made a bulletin board for Martin Luther King's Birthday where each student picked the color construction paper that he/she thought best represented his/her skin color and cut out a hand for the border. We had red, pink, yellow, orange, white, light brown, dark brown, and black hands.

Anyhow, here is a very interesting video, written and directed by a 16-year old girl. My friend T- sent it to me. It talks about the perceptions African-American girls have about themselves, including their skin color. It is well-worth watching, and it's only about 7 minutes long. Watch it here.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

PTO What?

There was a PTO meeting tonight at my school. It wasn't much of a meeting, though, seeing as I was the only person there. Not the only teacher there, not the only white person there, the only person there.

Normally, the school sends home two or three reminders about PTO meetings and gets 6-10 parents. This month, they didn't send home any reminders, so they didn't get any parents. Not even the president, secretary, treasurer, etc.

I called the principal to see what the deal was, and he said there was supposed to be a meeting. The janitor was there to unlock/relock the doors. But nobody showed up.

I proposed, seconded, and unanimously passed a few binding resolutions, just for the fun of it.

Sunday, February 11, 2007


I hear "Who that is?" and "On tomorrow, we be going..." and "I'm ain't touching her!" and "I can use it?" and things of that ilk all the time at school. And I'm torn between correcting and allowing that kind of talk in my classroom. On one hand, what I do doesn't really matter because next year, their teachers will not only not correct it, but they will use the grammar incorrectly themselves.

Here are two of the questions on a ten-question spelling test that I was supposed to give this week:

1. The girl's _____ is big. a. fete b. feat c. feet

2. She sits ____ by the chair. a. loaw b. low c. loow

On the other hand, it is important that the students learn conventional grammar. Or is it? Most likely, they will never leave the Delta, and people don't use conventional grammar in the Delta. I do want them to be able to function outside of the Delta, though. And I think that conventional grammar is important.

It's hard to teach it without putting down the way my students talk. I don't want them to think that they are speaking in a way that is wrong. It isn't wrong. It just isn't how the white majority talks. African American Vernacular English (AAVE), or whatever you want to call it (Ebonics, jive), is a complete grammatical system with as many, if not more tenses than standard English. (See the Wikipedia article on it.) I want them to know how to switch to standard English without marginalizing or losing their own way of speaking.

There was a whole big controversy with teaching AAVE in classrooms in Oakland, California, in 1996. The thing is, teaching children to read in their native tongue and then switching them to standard English actually was shown to improve reading scores in studies. It's a very touchy subject, though.

And where do I come in? I don't know or speak AAVE. I don't mark students down on reading tests if they read "He's my friend," as "He my friend," because that is a pronunciation issue with standard English that stem from fluency in AAVE (and not in Standard English.) But I can't teach the translations, because I don't know AAVE. And I can't teach in AAVE for the same reason. Also, I don't have any AAVE or brige books (books in a mix of AAVE and SE). And I won't have my kids for the rest of their school career, just for another short few months.

This past week

Sorry for the long absence. I'm working on lots of different things right now, including a day of workshops for Delta girls, making my classroom even better, and getting a job for this summer and next year. And, of course, my taxes. Hurrah!

Here are a few moments from the past two weeks:

I've beefed up independent reading time in my class. All but one of my students can read, and I would like them all to be reading above grade level by the end of the year. Right now, four are reading at or above the end-of-first-grade level. On the other end of the spectrum, K- isn't reading at all, and four students are reading at beginning-of-first-grade level. When my assistant or I meet with each student to check on how their reading is going and review the books they have been reading, I always have the students read me the title of their book and point to the author (since author's names are typically not on a first grade reading level.) But on Friday, D- was telling me about "One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish." She told me proudly, "I know who is the author of this book! Dr. Soup!"

We began our unit on measurement this past week. Students were measuring around the classroom and even up and down the hallways using their feet, and they were very insightful about why different people were getting different measurements.

Because February is black history month, I decided to teach my students about some famous African-Americans. This past week, we studied some black jazz musicians (Charlie Parker, Louis Armstrong, and Billie Holiday), this week we are studing some black poets and artists, and next week we will look at some black sports stars. I decided not to focus on anyone from the civil rights movement because I know they will get that later on, and we already spent a week on Martin Luther King (and touched on Rosa Parks and Ruby Bridges) last month around his birthday. When I told the class that this month was Black History Month, and so we would be learning about some famous black people, D- looked at me and said, "I'm not black. I'm brown!" We can't really get into the discussion on the arbitrary nature of race assignments because they don't know enough about different races, so we had a little talk about how strange those titles "black" and "white" are, since the 3 "white" people in the class (me and two little girls) are not really white, and the 15 "black" people in the class are not really black, and they are not even the same color brown. On Tuesday, we listened to some Charlie Parker, I read the story "Charlie Parker Played Be Bop," and we tried to write real or make-believe words that sounded like Charlie Parker's music. On Wednesday, I asked who we had studied yesterday, and K-, the little boy who is so far behind and who has hearing difficulties, shot his hand into the air. "We listened to Be Bop!" he told me. "And who played it?" I asked. "Charlie Parker!" he responded. Score!