Saturday, September 29, 2007

We Will Fun At The Bell Gans

I have experienced that unhappy feeling of being with someone while wishing that it was someone else beside me. I have spent time occupied with mundane tasks as the minutes slowly ticked away, sixty seconds feeling like a day. Our lives are too precious, and too short, to engage in endeavours that are less than edifying. Of course, a certain amount of this is unavoidable. The dishes can not clean themselves, the garbage does not walk itself to the curb and the laundry will not wash and put itself away. These small chores are part of our lives.

It is the larger, more meaningful chunks of time we do have control over. Who do we spend time with and how do we spend our time? My friend Winston once gave me some simple advice after a performance that I have really taken to heart. It was an opening night party and many of my friends, family and coworkers had come to cheer me on. I was working the room as best as I could and not really enjoying anyone thoroughly because I was worried about hitting every table, thanking everyone for coming. I told Winston this and he said that I should just spend time with whomever I wanted to spend time with and it would sort itself out. I did. And it did.

Fourteen years ago I decided that I wanted to spend my time teaching children. To say that I love teaching feels like an enormous understatement. I share my time, knowledge and energy with the children and they do the same for me. It is a true gift to realize in the middle of the day, as I am conferencing with a student or engaging in a group lesson, that I am exactly where I want to be. I will forever be grateful for that continual realization.

One aspect of teaching that I find both fascinating and marvelous is the writing process and the way that children's writing develops. This is always most striking at this time of year when I am getting to know a new group of students. The stages of development are so clearly delineated. Presently we have a range of examples across the spectrum - all are to be applauded and celebrated. We must trust that with guidance and modeling all of our students, regardless of where they fall on this continuum, will grow as writers. We use their writing as a form of assessment. We build upon their current stage of development with an eye towards guiding them to the next level.

Below is a smattering of work from our first graders.

Initially children use their unique talents to draw pictures which represent either real life events or familiar stories.

This is a princess opening the door of her castle.

You guessed it! Spidey getting covered with the black gunk from Spider-Man 3.

In the next stage, children usually add some form of writing to their drawings in an attempt to simulate the writing that they have seen in print. It begins with small squiggles and marks upon a page that is distinct from the drawings. Parents who engage their children in literacy activities such as creating a shopping list or writing letters are giving their children an advantage. This modeled writing behavior will be the stuff that children will emulate.

The squiggly lines and marks then become random strings of letters that look more like conventional print.

This child includes not only letters but punctuation to accompany his drawing of Captain America.

The random strings of letters and symbols give way to more conventional letter combinations as children begin to spell some basic sight words and words that have meaning for them, such as the names of family members or superheroes. Word boundaries have not yet been established so although the writing contains more recognizable patterns the letters all run together without spaces between the words.
This says "Batman is fighting at (I couldn't understand the name here but it starts with an 'S') park".

The spelling of words also has a pretty uniform progression. Children usually begin to represent a word with the initial letter (S for sock), followed by the initial and final letters (SK for sock) and finally a medial vowel sound (SOK for sock). The inclusion of a medial sound or letter is HUGE, even if the vowel they write is not always correct.

"We will have fun at the ball game." This piece is moving towards more recognizable writing and spelling conventions but could use some shoring up with establishing word boundaries.

And this brings me to the last stage of writing development evident in my class at this moment. Word boundaries are somewhat established, simple sight words are spelled correctly, individual words that are unknown contain initial, final and medial letters and there is use of ending punctuation.

"Me and my team are playing football."
I am already sad that I only have another 168 days to spend with this amazing group of children.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

"Run! Run! Fast As You Can!"

I don't know what it is that makes me love The Gingerbread Man so much. In the children's books he is kinda, sorta obnoxious and meets with an unhappy fate. Yet, the magical image of him popping out of the oven and taunting that poor old man and that shocked old woman outweighs all else and I am in love.

It may also be that I remember my Oma telling me this story when I was an impressionable kinder yuden. He is the original bad boy. And doesn't everyone fall for the bad boy? Plus, he is cute and witty as the world witnessed with the Shrek "not my gumdrop buttons" movies.

During the past two weeks I have been sharing different variations of this story with my first graders. Once they know the basic story we get into the fine differences (or not so fine) to compare the stories, read together, act them out and do some extension activities.

One activity I have done in years past has been to go up to our cooking room to bake and decorate these little guys ourselves. After we bring them back to the classroom and the students go to lunch I get busy. I hide all of their gingerbread men and leave a note for the children that reads "Run, Run, Fast as you can! You can't catch me. I'm the Gingerbread Man. I have run to Rebecca's office (our principal). Catch me there."

Everyone is "in on it" so that when we arrive in Rebecca's office she tells the kids that they just missed them but there is a note. The note directs the students to a new destination in the building and we are once again on the chase. We make several stops until finally being directed back to the classroom where the cookies have been set up with glasses of milk for the children to enjoy. The best part is that in our search the kids are sure that they catch a glimpse of the gingerbread men. It is all terribly exciting and fun. Well, I enjoy it.

I thought I would share some of my favorite versions of this classic story and the clever variations from some talented authors and illustrators.

The Gingerbread Man with pictures by Karen Schmidt.

This is my favorite illustration of Gingy; bright, colorful, plump and delicious. All of the illustrations are just delightful. Children are drawn to them. In this version GM meets his fate at the hands of a clever fox who feigns a hearing loss to get The Gingerbread Man to come closer. This section has the best pictures! The story ends with the fox wiping the crumbs away from his mouth. Yum.

The Gingerbread Man retold by Jim Aylesworth.

This is also a pretty straight forward retelling of this classic fairy tale that ends the same way as the book above. The cool thing about this book is that The Gingerbread Man is flat. You can see clearly that he is a cookie that has jumped from a cookie sheet. Jim Aylesworth's illustrations invoke an old world feel.

The layout of the print is also helpful. The oft repeated refrain "Run! Run!..." is always printed in bold print as is all of the dialogue. This makes it easy for young children to know when to join in or read along.

Plus, there is a recipe for making your very own cookies on the back cover.

The Gingerbread Boy by Richard Egielski.

This version changes the setting of the story from the country to New York City. This is especially meaningful to my students who recognize many of the places The Gingerbread Boy visits such as the E train (subway) and Central Park. I am not sure how to describe the artwork but it reminds me of the paintings that J.J. created on the old TV show "Good Times". Really fun. And where else can you find The Gingerbread Boy chased by a rat?

It ends with the classic 'crossing the lake' scenario that finds another clever fox licking his lips.

The Gingerbread Baby by Jan Brett.

Cute, cute, cute. Again the setting has shifted, this time to the mountains. Exquisite drawings give previews to the coming scenes and a surprise is waiting at the end.

The Stinky Cheese Man and other Fairly Stupid Tales by Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith.

A riot! In this story a lonely old man and woman decide to make a man out of stinky cheese. However, he is more than they bargained for and when they check to see if he is done the smell knocks them out. Undeterred The Stinky Cheese Man runs off (but no one is chasing him). He meets various characters along the way, none of whom want anything to do with him. This poor guy can't get anyone to pursue him. The tale ends with a river crossing but the fox does not consume our stinky friend. He is so repulsed by the "funky smell" that he gags, causing The Stinky Cheese to plunge into the water where he falls apart. Not a huge loss but you gotta admire his determination.

The Runaway Dinner by Allan Ahlberg and Bruce Ingman.

This is not a true Gingerbread Man story since there is no baking of cookies but it is in the spirit of the above stories. In this book a boy chases his sausage around town. Great artwork and an inviting story. I am especially in love with the peas and the fries who speak French.

Au Revior!

Sunday, September 23, 2007


When it comes to the big five, I have always relegated the sense of smell to the role of neglected stepsister. Like Cinderella it operates on the periphery, making sure things run smoothly but never demanding too much attention. It only really comes to the forefront when it brings about some offense, such as appearing in a ball gown wearing Drizella's beads or Anastasia's sash. Oh, wait that is Cinderella again...back to smell. Offensive odors are noticed, as are exquisite ones, but most of the time my little nosey sniffs happily along without much aromatic action.

But when it's time for Prince Charming to come around with the glass slipper and we discover it fits Cinderella's dainty foot, the future is altered forever. Well, I found my glass slipper (and my perfect fit) in those little scent-sational bottles of fragrance called reed diffusers and I'm not looking back.

Reed diffusers can be purchased rather inexpensively at stores such as Bed, Bath & Beyond and Pier1 Imports. They come in a variety of scents ranging from light, sweet aromas to more heavy, heady perfumes. The concept is a simple one; a bunch of wooden sticks are placed in a bottle of scented oil. To freshen the room simply turn the sticks over so that the part that was just submerged in the liquid is now on the top. Depending on how often you do this one reed diffuser can last anywhere from several months to a year (or more).

Lauren and I placed four of these in our classroom at the start of the school year. Two lavender scented small ones (pictured above on the left) were a gift from my colleague Cindy. She purchased them at The Christmas Tree Shops for only $3.99 each. Two larger ones (pictured, right) called "Mad Love" I bought on sale from Pier1 for only $7.98 each.

Not a day has gone by since that someone has not entered our room without commenting on the delicious smell. It actually stops folks in their tracks. This seems to be the finishing touch in creating a classroom environment that is pleasing to all of the senses. I would venture to state that most teachers concern themselves primarily with how things look. I challenge you, fellow pedagogues, to step beyond the visual to incorporate other aspects of the classroom environment. Last year, I added soothing music into the mix. And this year; smell.

Hmm...what does that leave me? A classroom that has yet to be equipped with fun things to touch and taste?

Saturday, September 15, 2007


Fear when it leads to action, such as the flight or fight response, serves a purpose. Fear that is based in a kind of apathy that exists only to feed on worry and inaction does not. It can drain the life and spirit out of you.

There have been times in my life that I have allowed fear to take over my thoughts. The "what if" fear in which I have created scenarios of illness, death or loss and let my imagination whisk me away into a paralyzing state of obsession. All I could think about was how I would no longer be able to enjoy this life I love so dearly. No more interactions with children, no more teaching, no more fun, no more happiness, no more anything pleasurable ever again!

Intertwined with all of this of course is a grand flair for the dramatic. Even when my neurosis was at its best I never failed to provide a proper soundtrack or wordy commentary. It was almost as tho I wanted to wallow in my own misery. What feeds that kind of unhealthy behavior?

I think I have spent too much time in the past sitting with the fear that the things I love most will be taken away from me. Thankfully something has evolved and changed in me as I have gotten older.

This might be because time and again every illness or scenario that I can imagine for myself has proven to reside only in my imagination. And I do not discount that fact. But I think perhaps the main reason I have conquered my fears (for the time being anyway) is that I have faith in that inner core or strength that lies within each of us. This allows us to deal with troublesome circumstances when/if the need arises. The realities of life, as terrible as they may sometimes be, never seem to measure up to the decimating level I can create in my mind.

I find that this 'lazy' worry about what might happen is a luxury, because when things are really, truly bad we do not have the time to ponder "what if". We cope. We get on with it. We accept.

By the way, nothing bad has happened to prompt this post. Rather, I have faced a fear and come out on the happy side of it.

I think that fear also intrigues and interests us even as we protest. Joy and I went to see an Off Broadway production a few years back of Shockheaded Peter. It is based on a series of German cautionary tales for children titled Struwwelpeter.

The show had a fantastic poster displayed throughout New York City and Joy was able to procure inexpensive tickets. I was eager to go. Our seats were in the very front row and as soon as the curtain went up I wanted to leave...and I wanted to stay. I was scared. I mean really scared. I had visions of the vampire theater from Interview with a Vampire in which the audience becomes a trapped feast.

The main character, the narrator, freaked me out in a way I have not felt since I was a young boy watching the child catcher lure little children in Chitty, Chitty, Bang, Bang. The guy on stage was SO creepy and since we were in the front row he kept looking at me, taunting me, getting ready to jump down off the stage and get me. I knew it. I curled up close to Joy who simply stared this freak down with a defiant attitude and a "just try it" expression.

The show incorporated large disturbing puppets who told the macabre, Edward Goreyesque tales. One vignette told The Story of Little Suck-A-Thumb who was warned by his mother that if he continued to suck his thumb the "great tall tailor" would come and cut it off with his "great sharp scissors". You guessed it, little suck-a-thumb sticks his thumb back in his mouth and gets it snipped off by the frightful tailor with the long shears.

On stage the dismembered thumbs are flung out into the audience and yours truly was not above screaming like a little girl.

But perhaps the most disturbing aspect of this show was that it was a musical! Not a happy, la la la, we-love-life musical but a truly horrible we-are-gonna-get-you-musical. I found a clip of the Tiger Lillies singing a song from the show and you can see for yourself how unsettling it is.

I was freaked by this show but at the same time I couldn't stop talking about it. I even bought the children's book which I enjoy. But maybe this is what we all need to do. Face our fear, stare it down and move on.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Beverly and Her Ducks

Many years ago, back when I was in college working on my Master's Degree in Deaf Education, I decided to step away from the plethora of school work and attend a dinner party at the home of a friend. Going back to school awakened many dormant loves for me; the greatest perhaps is my love of children's literature. It is rather imperative that teachers in the lower elementary grades have a vast knowledge of interesting, motivating and high quality literature to use to hook children to the magic of story telling. And it is magic for me to share these wonderful stories with my students year after year.

During dinner I was discussing some of the titles I rediscovered while browsing in the children's department at Barnes and Noble that weekend, such as The Gingerbread Man and Curious George. As the conversation proceeded my host, Beverly, shared with me as well. It seems that Beverly's mother was an artist with an interest in using her talents to create books for children. Her passion resided with the paintings however, not with the text. Her mother would fashion detailed paintings that when put together would tell a story and later write out an accompanying text. When her manuscripts were completed she would send them out to various publishers who all gave the same response. They loved the artwork but were less than enamoured by the writing.

Intrigued and fueled by a few Bacardi and Cokes I asked Beverly if she had any of the paintings because I would love to take on the challenge of writing the text to go along with them. We'd be a perfect marriage, I assured her, because I have no talent as an artist but enjoy spinning a tale.
So, we weaved our way upstairs where Beverly showed me some of the artwork from this one particular book about ducks which was framed and displayed in her son's room.

It was reminiscent of the illustrations from one of my favorite authors as a child, Carolyn Haywood. Ms. Haywood's wrote and illustrated many books for children beginning in the late 30s and continued her prolific career for the next 50 years. I was constantly going to the library as a young boy to check out books like Here's a Penny, Penny and Peter, Two and Two are Four, Eddie and the Fire Engine, "B" is for Betsy, Betsy and the Boys and Back to School with Betsy.

She wrote sweet, innocent stories of children doing ordinary things. Nothing earth shattering happened in their white, middle class homes filled with love and respect and a mom, dad and 2.5 children. Can't you just feel the whispers of a bygone era wafting through the black and white lines of these two pictures from "B" is for Betsy and Here's a Penny? They stand as a portrait to America at a particular point in time and I could not get enough.

Several years ago I was curious to see if urban children living in the world of today would find these stories of interest. To test this point Lauren and I read Here's a Penny aloud everyday. Our students got it. Even though their world is far removed from the outside trapping described in the book they could relate to the characters as they struggled with independence while at the same time wanting to stay close to mom. We eventually read them the sequel to this called Penny and Peter which STILL makes me cry.

As I stood in that bedroom looking at the illustration illuminated only by the dim light of a Winnie-the-Pooh lamp, I thought how wonderful it would be to write a modern children's book that gave props to the fantastic Carolyn Haywood. Her prose include the following passage from Here's a Penny:

Penny picked up the kitten. It was so thin he could feel all of its tiny bones. The kitten curled up contentedly in Penny's arms. When they reached home, Penny ran into the house to show the kitten to his mother. "I've got a kitten," he cried.
Beverly agreed that this was a super-duper idea and several days later photographed 18 pieces of artwork that her mother had created for a book about a girl feeding some ducks and sent them along to me. It was about this time that I was taking a six day writing institute designed for lower elementary school teachers to improve their understanding of the writing process and thus inform their own teaching. Each section was led by a different group leader who met with us when the speaker for the day had finished presenting. My particular group leader was a young girl from Brooklyn with little teaching experience. It was in this small group that we spent time writing in our writer's notebooks. This meant sitting for almost an hour writing anything we wanted. By the end of the institute we were asked to share a piece with our classmates who would then provide feedback. I chose to share a bit of the text to the book (a work in progress) I now called Beverly and her Ducks.

My group leader took issue with my word choice in the following sentence; White cotton curtains that blew across Beverly's back, massaging her as she slept. Her exact words on the written critique were "Massaging her back? Are you sure about that word?!?!" She underlined the offensive word massaging and in the discussion that followed she stated that she thought it sounded inappropriate. I told her that that was her own personal hangup and she shouldn't try to make something innocent ugly. Ultimately in the end I changed it to "'sweeping' over her as she slept" but resented her for pushing her own dirty thoughts onto my little story. I changed it back when the class was finished. :)

Anyhoo, I thought I would share a few of the pictures with you and some of the writing I came up with to walk alongside it. I am especially in love with the first sentence because it captures exactly what I wanted to say as far as wedding the old with the new.

Beverly and Her Ducks

Many years ago when the adults of today were still children and those children were full of wonder, there lived a special little girl named Beverly. She wasn't special because she could jump the highest or throw the farthest or blow huge bubbles with her bubble gum, she was special simply because she thought herself to be.

Beverly's parents thought their daughter was special too and liked to surround her with things that were beautiful in their eyes. Red geraniums in terra cotta pots to line her windowsill, white cotton curtains that blew across Beverly's back, massaging her as she slept, and a soft feather pillow to place her small head in the evenings.

Beverly was living in her age of innocence and although she was too young to fully understand the words, inside she felt secure, happy and loved.

But Beverly had a secret.

Each summer morning before her parents awoke she sprang out of bed to anxiously peer out of the open window towards the pasture before her. The fresh farm air caressed her cheeks like a mother's gentle hand. She searched across the grass, past the splintered wooden fence to the quiet lake beyond. There she could see her friends silently frolicking in the clear water.

Sadly, Beverly's mother passed away and never got to read these new words or know that we were planning to make her dream of publishing a reality (please note: planning). I still hope that one day a mom or dad will pick up Beverly and Her Ducks and read it to their child before they tuck them in at night. And somewhere out there perhaps Beverly's mother is smiling.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

J.K. Rowling Book Tour

Exciting News!


Our school was one of 40 New York City Public Schools chosen to attend J.K. Rowling's U.S. Book Tour at Carnegie Hall on October 19th. Our principal Rebecca went to a press conference yesterday where the names of each school was announced. Each principal was given a sorting hat (which I have not seen yet but was told is beautiful) to use in selecting the 40 children from their school who will attend the event.

As a Potter fan I am obviously very excited about this and am throwing my own name into the sorting hat. After all, the students need to be accompanied by adults on this outing. At the moment I am not sure how teachers will be selected but I will definitely write more on this topic in later posts. If I am chosen it will be with great excitement and if I am not it will be with bitter resentment.

At any rate I am proud that our school was selected. I do not think we were actually chosen because of our test scores but rather because of our outlook on education and the fact that we provide a welcoming, nurturing, caring environment in addition to a quality education. We are also unique in that we are the only dual language school to utilize American Sign Language and English in our classrooms.

I look forward with great anticipation to our students reactions to this news. Below is a copy of the press release as posted on MuggleNet.

Press Release:


1,600 Lucky New York City Public School Students will Join Rowling at Carnegie Hall for Special Reading, Q&A and Book Signing.

Scholastic To Donate 5,000 Copies of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone to New York City School children Ready to Begin Their Hogwarts Journey New York, NY – (September 5, 2007)

Scholastic, the global children’s publishing, education and media company, and U.S. publisher of the Harry Potter series, today announced the 40 New York City public schools that will participate in the “J.K. Rowling Open Book Tour,” where Ms. Rowling will read from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, answer questions about the entire series, and sign a book for every student.

New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein and Scholastic Chairman, President and CEO Richard Robinson handed out 40 Sorting Hats to representatives from participating schools (listed below) to help each select 40 lucky third through twelfth graders who will attend the event at Carnegie Hall on October 19th.

The NYC DOE selected public elementary and middle schools that showed the greatest gains on the statewide literacy test in each borough (from years 2005-06 to 2006-07), and the rest were schools showing the greatest gains citywide. Public high schools that were selected were those that showed the greatest gains in the state English Regents’ test for each borough (from years 2004-05 to 2005-06), then the greatest gains citywide.

Scholastic also announced that the Company will be donating 5,000 copies of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, the first book in J.K. Rowling’s series, to New York City public schools for students who have not yet read the books and are now ready to begin their Hogwarts journey.

“The Open Book Tour is a chance for Ms. Rowling to spend time with some very important people—the kids who love Harry Potter,” said Richard Robinson. “Scholastic is passionate about putting books into the hands of children, and with this gift of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone we are honored to introduce a new generation to the series that created millions of young, enthusiastic readers.”

“The love of reading has changed the lives of countless children,” said Chancellor Klein. “But it doesn’t always come naturally; it often takes a lot of effort. Our students have worked hard to build their reading skills during the past few years. We are proud to partner with Scholastic and the amazing Ms. Rowling to reward our students’ efforts and encourage their continued success.”

New York City Public Schools Participating in J.K. Rowling Open Book Tour -

Edward Bush School - Brooklyn

Teunis G. Bergen School - Brooklyn

Weeksville School - Brooklyn

Pacific School - Brooklyn

The Upper Carroll School - Brooklyn

Acorn High School for Social Justice - Brooklyn

Acorn Community High School - Brooklyn

Enterprise, Business and Technology High School - Brooklyn

Brooklyn Academy High School - Brooklyn

Progress High School - Brooklyn

The Sidney Silverstein, Little Sparrow School – Bronx

Jonas Bronck Academy – Bronx

New Millennium Business Academy – Bronx

J.H. 080 The Mosholu Parkway – Bronx

New School for Arts and Science – Bronx

Academy for Careers in Sports – Bronx

The Celia Cruz Bronx High School of Music – Bronx

Monroe Academy for Visual Arts – Bronx

P.S. 347 American Sign Language & English Lower School – Manhattan (YIPPEE!)

East Village Community School – Manhattan

The Lillian Weber School – Manhattan

School for Academic and Athletic Excellence – Manhattan

Technology, Arts and Sciences Studio – Manhattan

University Neighborhood Middle School – Manhattan

West Side Collaborative – Manhattan

Clinton School for Writers and Artists – Manhattan

Dual Language Middle School – Manhattan

Leadership/Public Service High School – Manhattan

Legacy School for Integrated Studies – Manhattan

Landmark High School – Manhattan

The Robert F. Wagner Jr. School – Queens

Parsons School – Queens

Springfield Gardens School – Queens

I.S. 237 – Queens

Daniel Carter Beard School – Queens

High School for Arts and Business – Queens

Middle College High School at LaGuardia Community College – Queens

Huguenot School – Staten Island

Anning S. Prall School – Staten Island

Concord High School – Staten Island

J.K. Rowling will appear in two other events for school children: in Los Angeles at the Kodak Theater on Monday, October 15th and in New Orleans at the Ernest N. Morial Auditorium at the Convention Center on Thursday, October 18th. (Please note there are no public tickets available for these school events.)

Scholastic will announce the participating schools in Los Angeles during a press conference on Monday, September 10th. Participating schools in New Orleans will be announced at a press conference on Wednesday, September 12th. The final event of the “J.K. Rowling Open Book Tour” will be held on the evening of October 19, 2007 in New York City. One thousand lucky fans are being selected from sweepstakes entries to receive a pair of tickets to the J.K. Rowling event at Carnegie Hall on Friday, October 19 at 7 p.m. (Please note: the sweepstakes closed August 31, 2007.)

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, released on July 21, 2007, had an unprecedented first printing of 12 million copies, followed by another record-breaker: 8.3 million copies of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows were sold in the first 24 hours. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, J.K. Rowling’s sixth Harry Potter book, was released on July 16, 2005, with a first printing of 10.8 million copies. At the time, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince was the fastest-selling book in history, selling 6.9 million copies in the first 24 hours. All six Harry Potter books, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince have been number one bestsellers in the United States, the U.K., and around the world. The American editions of the Harry Potter books are published under Scholastic’s Arthur A. Levine imprint.

Monday, September 3, 2007


When a thing is wick it has a light around it

Maybe not a light that you can see

But hiding down below a spark's asleep inside it

Waiting for the right time to be seen

From the Broadway show The Secret Garden with Book and Lyrics by Marsha Norman

In our go-go world of "this needed to get done yesterday" it is often easy to overlook the importance of small moments of human kindness, manners and issues of social etiquette. Added pressure to adhere to deadlines can make robots out of even the sweetest folk. Smiles as you pass in the corridors may be replaced with the concentration of self involved introspection. Not only do you neglect to say "Hello", you actually do not even 'see' anyone or anything else but the task afore ye. Establishing a courteous, thoughtful work environment that allows for a bit of stopping to smell the roses generally starts with those who are leading, whether it be in a business or a family.

Building a sense of community among coworkers cannot be underestimated. Once there is trust, with everyone reading off the same page, petty differences or misunderstandings melt away to the periphery. The remaining structure is strong. The work gets done. Folks are happy. Stop, breathe...this too shall pass.

In the midst of all of our preparations during the first two days of school before the students arrive we had to attend several meetings. It can not be emphasized enough that NO ONE WANTS TO BE THERE. All anyone wants to do is dig into setting up and preparing their classrooms for which there never seems to be ample time. Although to our Principal, Rebecca, and Assistant Principal, Dave's credit this year we were given more time than I can ever remember in years past.

So, "Bravo" for that.

And "Bravo" for this...

Visualize the setting if you can. A late morning meeting in the cafeteria (or canteen as my Australian friend Max would say) complete with a breakfast spread of assorted bagels, cream cheese, butter, coffee and tea. Low rumblings of voices are only overpowered by the even larger rumblings of the air conditioning units overhead. Rebecca steps forward to welcome us and rolls out a large rather odd looking plant that is kinda like Aloe Vera but not. Well, she said it was in that 'family' but I do not know the name of it.

Rebecca shares with us that each new school year she takes a small slip or clipping from a plant, gets a new clay pot, some 'clean' dirt (that last bit made me laugh. Rather an oxymoron but I get the point) and creates a new plant. This is symbolic of growth and development.

Her love of nature is well known to us so we all think "Oh, that's sweet", "What a good idea", etc. Then another cart is wheeled out with bags of 'clean' dirt, boxes containing clay pots and more of these strange looking plants.

Now it is our turn to pinch off a segment and plant. But before we do we are invited to think of one word that will symbolize our teaching or attitude this year. One idea that will be our touchstone.

People call out words like:



While all of this is happening my colleague Zack (pictured left) comes up with the Taj Mahal of words and asks me if he should say it. I said "Of course!" His was a perfect word to describe our role as a teacher. Instead of just calling it out he steps to the front of the room and shares this word...
This is followed by a brief description: Wick in this context is about seeing more in the child than they may be showing. It is about potential and belief. It is a way of viewing children that is positive, encouraging and supportive. This reminds us that not all children are the same, that they learn in different ways and that we must be thoughtful in our lessons and interactions. It also states that ALL children are to be cherished.

I wish I had thought of it.

CODA: I went in to work today which is officially the first day of school. Before I headed down to meet my new class I took a quick picture of the plant that will represent the WICK in my classroom. This little guy is there to remind me to look beyond the mundane trappings of day to day routine and search for the magic within each student.
When a thing is wick and someone cares about it
And comes to work each day like you and me...

Saturday, September 1, 2007

Feels Like Home To Me - Setting Up

It was back to work on Thursday which began with kisses, hugs, sweet hellos and friendly exchanges of summer 'doings' with my colleagues. All is fresh again with the start of another school year like it is after a cleansing summer rain. Small hurts and annoyances of only a few months ago are washed away as all is forgiven with our revitalized energy and fresh outlook.

I was particularly happy to be reunited with my co-teacher Lauren. This is our sixth year working as a team and our fifth year teaching first grade together. We have been lucky enough to stay in the same room throughout which makes these first two days of set up a tad easier. Everything we need is already in the room but over the summer it is all moved about while the floors are cleaned and waxed. Stepping back into the mess is both exciting and daunting. Exciting because there are new possibilities; "How will we arrange the space this year?", "What do we see as the best environment for our incoming students?" And daunting when we ponder; "How can we possibly get all of this looking polished in just two days while at the same time attend to school business issues and orientation meetings?"

Of course staying late is unavoidable but as the process slowly unfolded the vision for our room became manifest in small ways. New work areas, little niches for independent study or one to one conferences, smooth flow of foot traffic across the various centers, easily accessible books and references materials and ample space for both large and small gatherings.

I wanted to document the transformation as it happened so I took some before and after shots. We have a large classroom as is evident from these pictures so we are blessed in that way. The first four shots are of one section of the room that we see as an area for small group work.

This is how the room looked when we first arrived.

Early on in the second day things began to shape up.

This is how I left it yesterday. Still not perfect and lacking the finishing touches such as paper on the bulletin boards but enough of a clean slate from which to begin.

This area is for our large group meetings and interactions as well as art projects.

We enjoy the open feel of this space and hope that it is both comforting for the children and practical.

This is how things looked when I decided that I could not do anymore yesterday. I am sure that Tuesday will find things shifting and finding new homes. Nothing is written in stone and the rest will take shape according to the demands and needs of our students.


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