Monday, March 31, 2008

The Future of Education

Over the past 18 months Lauren and I have assumed the roles of cooperating teachers for three up and coming pedagogues.  The interesting thing (for me at least) is that they represent the three schools from which I have received degrees; New York University, Columbia University and Fordham University.  

This rite of passage into becoming a fully qualified, licensed teacher can be a positive experience or a nightmare.  I had the former but while I was student teaching I had friends who would relate their own horror stories of cooperating teachers who were rude, unhelpful or just downright mean.

And the student teacher is mostly at the mercy of their cooperating teacher because a) they need the placement to fulfill course requirements b) finding a placement is not always the easiest thing to do to begin with and c) most student teachers are a bit unsure of themselves since they are learning and trying new things and therefore have not found a voice or a way to assert themselves in this setting.

I really enjoy being a cooperating teacher for two main reasons; I can put forth an example of the way I feel things should be done and because I learn so much from each student teacher - even if it is what not to do. This relationship necessitates the kind of ongoing dialogue and examination that needs to take place in order to keep the teaching/learning experience fresh, up to date and meaningful.  

Our student teacher, Mike, will graduate in May with a Master's Degree at only 22 years of age.  He had his second formal observation last week and really knocked it out of the ballpark with a lesson on non-fiction writing.  I happen to be of the opinion that anyone can become a decent teacher but those who are naturals really stand out.  Lauren is a natural.  Mike is too.  Lucky me to be surrounded by such passion, dedication and smarts.

Friday, March 28, 2008

School Signs

Two weeks ago I gave a talk to a group of teachers at Fordham University to discuss the issues and challenges they might encounter if they suddenly found themselves with a deaf or hard of hearing child in their classroom. 

It is a topic I have spoken about before and every time I present I am asked the same question "Why did you choose this field of education?"  I tend to go on about my interest in Deaf Theater and my early fascination with American Sign Language but I have found that what people really are curious to know is if I have someone in my family who is deaf. And this is an understandable question. 

My answer to that however is "No, I don't".  I did not grow up bilingual (yes, ASL is a true, living language and being able to communicate in both English and ASL does make an individual bilingual) but since I can remember I have wanted to learn how to sign.  I took basic sign language classes when I was in Junior High School but it ended up being a case of "If you don't use it, you lose it".  

I started taking classes again when I was 26.  My first formal class used the Vista Signing Naturally program with workbooks and videotapes (now DVDs).  This is a terrific program that I found very supportive in helping this fledgling signer develop his skills.  You may be able to find them in your local library if you want to check it out without investing the money.

Those early classes solidified for me the importance of practicing a small but growing number of signs and reinforcing what I had just learned by using them in different contexts. Creating dialogues with other students, watching them while they conversed so I could see if I was catching the signs I knew and giving it a go myself were the cornerstones of my early learning experiences.

So, in creating these instructional posts I have used the tenets of effective learning practices - things I have found useful anyway. Below Lauren and I show you some basic signs related to school: teacher, student, book, homework and study. These words are followed by a brief conversation. Watch the video and see if you can pick out these words. A transcript of the dialogue can be found below.

Lauren: Are you a student or a teacher?
Gary: Really both. I am a student of life. And you?
Lauren: Me, yes, I am the same. I am a teacher and a student.
Gary: Do you like homework?
Lauren: Sometimes but I like to study and I like to read books.
Gary: Me too.
Gary and Lauren: Now, go practice!

For more video of the lovely and talented Lauren in action please check out her video blog or Vlog here.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Picture Day

Our parent coordinator, who is responsible for making important decisions regarding home/school communications and sponsoring educational or fund raising events at our school decided to try something a little different this year.  In addition to the traditional picture day, when we get a whole class picture taken along with individual student photographs, she also scheduled a 'pose' picture day.  

This took place a few months after the first and had a much looser feel to it than the usual 'get 'em in, get 'em out' mentality of our previous picture day. On picture 'pose' day the students were asked to choose one of of five possible poses; from the extreme close-up with hands under the chin to a long shot of them lounging on a small bench.  

Lauren and I were having quite a bit of fun watching our students model in these various poses and sometime during all of this I got it into my head that we should join in as well.  The photographer welcomed the idea so Lauren and I stepped up to the bench.

We call this our wedding shot.  After all, I have spent the last six years partnered with this beautiful and talented woman so a photo such as this seems only appropriate.  

Saturday, March 22, 2008


The other day during bus dismissal I was reminded that children represent the best of what mankind can attain. 

I was chatting with a former first grade student that I affectionately call 'cupcake' - this is the artist, who after I remarked on the beauty of one her drawings last year replied "I don't go to art school for nothing" - she is truly outstanding in so many ways.  

I remember vividly her coming into the classroom last April and telling me that she was lucky. When I asked her why she said it was because she had long hair.  She spoke this without boastful pride or conceit. She simply enjoyed the fact that her hair was so long, past her waist, and was feeling blessed by that. 

This exchange becomes especially touching given our conversation last Thursday before she skipped off to her bus.

Gary: Wow!  Your hair is really long now.
Cupcake: I know.  And soon I am going to cut it off and give it to the kids who have cancer.
Gary:  Why are you going to do that?
Cupcake: So they won't die.

Oh, boy!  Imagine a seven-year-old with this incredible generosity and belief. Not only is she willing to part with something that brings her happiness but she believes that in doing so it can save someone's life.  I stood there amazed.  Truly amazed by this little girl with the bright smile and dimples.  

I think I could have been knocked over by a feather at this point - color me moved and amazed. I just knelt there smiling at her like an idiot.

And to finish me off she added...

Cupcake: And I am going to give my old clothes that don't fit me anymore to little kids who don't have a home so they can keep warm.

Tell me again, who is the teacher?

Wednesday, March 12, 2008


Learning to read is a complex business. It requires the ability to orchestrate the semantic (meaning), syntactic (grammar) and grapho-phonic (letter/sound connection) elements of language into a melodic symphony. Without all of the pieces operating smoothly the reader can become disoriented and jumbled, like the preshow warm-ups of the New York Pops string section. We cannot focus on the whole because the parts are demanding far too much attention.

As we read our short term memory works in tandem with our long term memory, making connections to past experiences and knowledge, while holding and processing new information. Experienced readers take this process for granted. We no longer have to expend so much energy in figuring out an individual word or sentence, which in turn frees up brain space, and we can therefore comprehend what we are reading.

It has been said over and over again that reading is not a natural phenomenon. Some folks find the task easier than others but the fact remains...reading is something we learn to do. And much of the magic of reading is taught in first grade. It is here that all of these elements are brought together, worked out, stretched and practiced. As educators it becomes our responsibility to act as the 'trainer'. We help our students build their reading muscles with the hope that they will become life long readers who enjoy interacting with printed materials; books, newspapers, blogs, magazines, comic books, etc.

Research ranging from the Reading First initiative to the No Child Left Behind Act stresses the importance of integrated reading instruction. This encompasses phonics training as well as comprehension strategies. One such strategy that good readers use, and developing readers need practice using, is visualizing. This is 'creating mind pictures' while reading or seeing the story in your head. When a reader is able to do this it helps ground the story, making it more meaningful and clear.

This past Monday Sara, our school librarian, exercised our children's visualizing muscles by reading the Greek myth Persephone from D'Aulaires' Book of Greek Myths. Persephone was the reluctant queen of the dead who was kidnapped by Hades and brought into the underworld against her will. One day she was frolicking in the midday sun with her mother Demeter, the Greek goddess of the green earth, and the next she was whisked into darkness on a chariot of death.

In Persephone's absence Demeter grieved, leaving the earth to turn cold and barren. Eventually, momma found out what happened and went to Zeus to demand the return of her daughter. Hades had to give in but before he did he tricked Persephone into eating a few seeds from the Pomegranate, the fruit of the dead, the fruit of blood. OOPS!

A deal was struck...Persephone would return to the underworld one month a year for every seed that she tasted. Forever more the earth would remain barren in her absence (winter) and flourish anew upon her return (spring).

During the story our students were encouraged to visualize this story. Afterwards we asked them to choose one part that was especially vivid and draw it. Each child choose a portion of the myth that was unique and different from everyone else's. Some chose to draw Persephone walking in the meadow with flowers springing to life as her feet touched the earth, others decided to illustrate her heart turning to ice or the black chariot coming up through the earth. Each a treasure.

I would love to post some of them here but since my Dell computer crashed two weeks ago I am without my scanner (never fear I just ordered a new iMac last night).

This little excursion into Greek Mythology leaves me hopeful that I have another class of six-and seven-year-olds waiting to soak up these amazing tales. Next up...Daedalus and Icarus.

Persephone, by Kris Waldherr (top)
Persephone's Return, by Frederick Lord Leighton.

Monday, March 3, 2008

A Retrospective

A little of this and a little of that...

This is post number 101! I wanted to celebrate my 100th but since that unexpected article came up about Hunter at the same time, I opted to celebrate him instead. My BFF Joy said that it was an appropriate representation of the purpose of this blog anyway.

I began this endeavour to express the complete bliss I found in teaching, in my students and with my journey through this amazing life. And again I have Joy to thank for giving me the idea to document my life in this manner.

Since I began, almost a year ago, this blog has taken me in unexpected directions. My coworkers (teachers and administration) regularly check in and have become extremely supportive. I think a bit of my positive attitude and enthusiasm has rubbed off. My friend Cayne, who team teaches with me at Fordham University, has been inspired to develop some research with me revolving around teacher blogs and my mom loves being able to catch up with my doings.

The biggest surprise though is the fact that there is truly a thriving, welcoming, blog community out there. I never expected that I would get lost in the lives of strangers as I read their words and followed their lives, thoughts and struggles week after week. But that is exactly what has happened.

I have met three fellow bloggers, Reya, Ched and Steve whose energy and ideas have caused me to deepen my own thinking.

I have been promised a party by graceful Scot (to be attended by 'cool, laid back', handsome Wat and clever Christopher) when I visit California.

Kimy has shared her quilting talents, Dumdad passed along an original 'dummy', Junk Thief, Joy, Mark and I are going to sip Cosmos and watch (perhaps reenact scenes from) Valley of the Dolls when JT visits NYC to film another episode of JTTV.

I'll meet fellow educator Lettuce in April when she visits these United States. My dear friend Mikey and godson/nephew Randy have started their own blogs in the past year.

I have been reminded what youthful exuberance for stepping into adult roles and responsibilities is like through writer Arielle's blog and have been challenged in my perceptions by Mona, Paul and David.

I learned about art and nicknames from Pod, traveled the world with Bella, learned a bit of Spanish from Florecita and learned the many varieties of salt from Jill. And I continue to find new friends (Ciara, Lee, Cinn, Marmite) through this medium.

Thank you all for making this such an enjoyable experience.

I am not really one to pass along awards but consider each one of you tagged with the Excellent Blogger Award! (I got this one from Kimy and Dumdad.)


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