Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Super Reader vs. Super 'Bad' Reader

This is "Super-Reader!"

SuperReader uses many different strategies for figuring out unknown words and making meaning while reading. SuperReader prepares for reading by looking at the cover and title of a book, reading the blurb on the back and taking a picture walk. SuperReader reads many books, shares them with a reading partner and builds his reading muscles every day. SuperReader is gentle with books and understands how precious they are.

SuperReader is cool! Unlike....

Super 'Bad' Reader!

Super 'Bad' Reader likes to destroy books. Super 'Bad' Reader is not gentle with them. In fact Super 'Bad' Reader rips, throws and eats books. Super 'Bad' Reader pulls them away from SuperReaders who are allowing their imaginations to whisk them away to fantastic places while reading. Super 'Bad' Reader gives up when there are difficult words or phrases and does not try any strategy for figuring out tricky words. Super 'Bad' Reader reads words without thinking of their meaning or visualizing the images the author is describing. Super 'Bad' Reader makes young children cry. Super 'Bad' Reader needs a patient and loving teacher.

The above characters were created by my first grade students. They thought of the names (Lauren and I were not so keen on the term "BAD" because as you teachers and parents is not the child who is bad, it is the action. If a child hits another child it is that action that is wrong - it is not a reflection on the character of the child. But, kids aren't so PC and insisted on the name. So we let it slide.) The students chose the colors, the costume, the attitude, the entire look. They are wearing masks because you are not supposed to know if they are male or female. Lauren took the rough sketches we created together as a class and crafted the final versions pictured here.

The evolution of SuperReader and Super 'Bad' Reader is an interesting one.

I have been fortunate in my teaching career to work with a principal and vice principal whose educational philosophy meshes with my own. I have rarely been asked to do anything that I found to be a waste of time or that was in opposition with my stance on education. This seems to be rare in my field. When teachers get together to bitch about their schools I am the odd man out because I am without horror stories to share.

But recently Lauren and I were asked to create rubrics for our students. They would provide the students with clear expectations for work in all academic areas. I didn't really understand what this would look like for first graders. I am quite comfortable creating rubrics and guidelines for the college course I teach but I was really at a loss when it came to doing this for 5 and 6 year old children.

So, we brainstormed and came up with a way to visually represent the expectations for our students as readers. We found a way to take a task which was initally confusing and turn it into an amazing source of information. It makes me think of one of my favorite childhood sayings...

I am still not sure if SuperReader and Super 'Bad' Reader satisfy the requirement but it has been such a cool experience. The characters have sparked interest in the children and have given them a motivating goal that is at once understandable and relatable. It is winning challenges like this that makes teaching that much sweeter...or should I say SUPER!

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Dare to be Happy

Yesterday I went to pick up my new 2008 Gecko Green VW Convertible Beetle! And although I should have been a good boy sitting indoors all day studying Verbal Protocols of Reading by Pressley & Afflerbach, the call of my new baby proved mightier by far. We went for a little outing to the park and got to know one another.

Ever since I can remember I have wanted...
  • a green car (I have only had blue, red, or black ones)

  • a convertible (this is my first)

  • to say "Load it up!"

The day has come! I put my order in for this three months ago and have been waiting ever so patiently for it to arrive. Say hello to _________. I don't generally name my cars but if you have any ideas let me know. Maybe something will stick.

It has everything I could think of and even more that I haven't figured out. Leave it to German ingenuity to create a Tiptronic transmission that is an "automatic that offers the option to drive with the race car feel of a manual". You can choose, not that I know what this really means but it is exciting. As the brochure states - It's all about freedom. It has heated this and automatic that. And the convertible boasts a 10 speaker sound system with satellite digital radio service, CD player and MP3 hook-up.

When I was through signing all of the paperwork and finally alone with my car I felt very nervous. Suddenly I was surrounded by bad drivers and menacing pedestrians who were ready to either slam into me or key the car at the next traffic light. To soothe my manic spirit I popped We Ran by Linda Ronstadt into my new system and sang along to Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues. By mile 13 I was over the nerves and looking forward to pulling over to put the top down. Forget about the fact that it was 30 degrees outside - I got me a convertible.

Another aspect of The New Beetle which complements my sensibilities is the whole 'flower power' philosophy Volkswagen promotes with this car. Did you know that they have conducted quantifiable studies which showed that New Beetle drivers "tend to reach out to those around them more than other drivers do?" Well, evidently they have. Or that they also tend to be "really cool, good people who are very connected to the world around them?" The implication is that VW Beetle drivers dare to be happy. What a concept. Me likey.

It is also eco-friendly and heaps better for the environment than the 1996 Chevy Blazer I had been driving. You can see it over my shoulder in the picture below.

As if all of this weren't enough I got a message from Mona today who wrote a tribute to me in her Friday Flash 55 Fiction #2 (Thanks Mona!). I guess the folks at Volkswagen know what they are talking about. I've only had the car one day and already I can feel the love.


Thursday, November 22, 2007

Everything is Beautiful

Thursday night I was a V.I.P at the New York City Ballet for the 2007 opening night gala. My V.I.P status was not generally recognized by anyone associated with Lincoln Center but to the parents of the 11 year old boy who invited me, I was indeed special. This boy was a former student I taught in both Kindergarten and First Grade. His mom (Heli) and dad (Jonathan) have always been demonstrative in their appreciation of the "great start I provided" for their son - even though he would have blossomed under the tutelage of any teacher. Over the years I have become friendly with them; going out to dinner every so often and attending some special events in the lives of their children. So when they called me with this latest invitation I was not surprised, but as always I was touched and honored by their offer.

Their son has been taking classes with The School of American Ballet for about five years now and he is becoming quite the dancer. His dad told me that the school provides these classes free of charge for boys (girls pay about $4,000 a year) and they study under some of the big names in dance. They are holding auditions for children 6-10 years of age in May 2008 for classes beginning in September 2008. Some of these children are selected to perform with the New York City Ballet in George Balanchine's The Nutcracker as well as in productions like the one I attended. Here we have yet another fantastic and unique opportunity for young children living in New York City. Click the above link or call 212-769-6600 for more information.

As I sat in my seat gazing at the opulence and grandeur of the State Theater I became a bit sad that I didn't have the chance to perform in such an incredible space when I was growing up. I couldn't help but wonder what my 20s and 30s would have been like if I had the advantage of such discipline and teaching early on. Would I have been hoofing it in a Broadway musical at 22? But, everything works out for the best. If I had become a dancer I may not have heard the call to teach or subsequently found my bliss.

I had an hour to kill before the show so I went browsing at The Shops at Columbus Circle. This gave me a chance to take some pictures with the new digital camera my BFF Joy gave me for my birthday.

Even though Thanksgiving was days away I could hear the Christmas music playing, feel the excitement of tourists and the vibe of holiday anticipation. All of this made me feel happy - so I bought a cashmere sweater, talked with Joy on my cell and clicked away. It was a beautiful evening but after all isn't everything beautiful at the ballet?

And...Happy Thanksgiving to all of you! Enjoy the turkey (or lasagna - J.J, or egg rolls - Mark, or tofu - Joy) and remember to give thanks.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Linguistics: American Sign Language

My early experiences in learning my second language, American Sign Language (ASL), came with the acquisition dilemmas of vocabulary and structure. It is one thing to scribble down hand movements in a notebook during class to try to decipher later thinking "how did that sign go again?" and it is another to tap into the grammatical structure of ASL. I think many eager young students want to amass a copious store of signs without delving into the linguistics of ASL. I was fortunate to do an in depth study of this as part of my course work at Columbia University when I was working on my Master's Degree.

ASL is a true, living language with its own phonology, morphology and syntax. Phonology in spoken languages is concerned with speech sounds which then branches off into smaller, more specific realms. In ASL phonology consists of aspects of a sign; namely location, handshape, movement, orientation and nonmanual signals (facial expression). But phonology only looks at these contrastive parts of language devoid of meaning. Meaning is studied by linguists of all languages under morphology.

One of my favorite oft repeated phrases in linguistics is that languages have a finite set of rules that allows us to create an infinite number of sentences. We can mix up the words in our language any way we want, to say anything we want, but we gotta play by the rules. The rules are called syntax. We may not know the rules explicitly but they are implicit to us. How many times have you said "that doesn't sound right but I don't know why?"

When all of these elements are orchestrated to create language in use we do not necessarily separate out each of these essentials. One way these play out in ASL can be seen with the five basic sentence types; questions, negations, commands, topicalizations and conditionals. The focus of this post rests with questions.

The types of questions most asked are either Wh-questions or Yes-No questions. The former engages the use of words like who, what, when, why and where. In spoken English we indicate a question by using a falling inflection at the end of our sentences. Give it a try by saying out loud now "what time is it?". It would feel strange to us if our voice were to rise at the end of that question. So too in ASL when asking Wh-questions there is a correct grammar and 'feel'. The nonmanual features of phonology along with syntax and meaning necessitate the employment of the eyebrows. For Wh-questions the eyebrows lower much like the voice would. When I was first learning this it was like patting my head and rubbing my belly but it does become ingrained eventually, better to learn this early on in your studies.

Yes-No questions in American Sign Language also carry nonmanual features that are evident on the face of the signer. In spoken English when asking a yes-no question such as "Did you like that book?" our ending inflection goes up. In ASL this translates to raised eyebrows (and other nonmaual features like leaning forward and widening the eyes).

Lauren and I have put together another short video explaining all of this again but this time watch Lauren as she signs the 'wh' words. This is followed by a series of questions that are either wh-questions or yes-no questions. Can you notice the differences?After the video I wrote out the questions and answers so you can check out how you did.

If you had a keen eye you would have noticed that I asked all of the Yes-No questions and Lauren asked the Wh-questions.

Gary: Are we friends?

Lauren: Yes. What is your name?

Gary: Gary. Do you like that book?

Lauren: Yes. Where are you from?

Gary: Long Island. Do you like ice cream?

Lauren: No. When is your birthday.

Gary: It just passed, November 4th.

Lauren: Happy Birthday

So there you have a mix of vocabulary and structure. For more on the linguistics of American Sign Language check out Linguistics: A Resource Text for ASL Users of American Sign Language by Valli and Lucas now in its 4th Edition. It contains detailed information on basic ASL concepts, phonology, morphology, syntax and language in use. It's everything you always wanted to know about ASL but were afraid to ask.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Mingling the Muses with the Graces

I shall not stop

mingling the Muses with the Graces -

sweetest of connections.

I could not live without music,

I could not be without crowns of praise.

Yes I am old

but I'll sing forth Memory,

sing forth Herakles' beautiful victory

with wine and lyres and flutes and song -

I will not stop singing

the Muses who set me dancing.

from Euripides' Herakles as translated by Ann Carson

Last Tuesday we visited The Metropolitan Museum of Art to explore the intriguing stories of Greek Mythology through sculpture, tapestry, artifact and painting. After the last fiasco and an email from our guide, asking if we would perhaps prefer the Exploring Art tour instead, I was very leery. Would this be another lazy, unfocused wandering through history?

My reservations were happily dashed when we arrived at the newly completed Ruth and Harold Uris Center for Education. They celebrated the opening only a week before and it is wonderful. This place is highly organized. We were greeted by our two docents, a sign language interpreter and the museum/school coordinator and after a few do's and dont's were on our way.

As we walked through the labyrinth of statues the children pointed and giggled at the naked men and women carved out of marble and stone. This happens every year and to be honest I have to chuckle at their reactions. At this point our guide usually explains that long ago clothes weren't the fashion and that the body was considered a thing of beauty which keeps the giggles to a minimum, somewhat.

My memories can't help but take me back to my last first grade class and how they simply devoured the stories from Greek mythology. As we began this tour I felt the loss of those kids and their unbridled enthusiasm. My present class in general is very young (sweet, naive) and my initial feeling was that these stories, with their tales of murder, temptation and revenge, would be too much for them to handle. But as the tour progressed I got the sense that these little darlings had a taste for dramatic encounters with beasts and otherworldly shenanigans.

The big draw this time was the story of Hercules with his many trials and near impossible tasks to complete. Our guide was most impressed with her young charges - the connections they made, their capacity to remember all that she explained and their on target questions.

This continued as she spun the tale of Diana and Actaeon from the late 17th-early 18th century wool and silk tapestry, and molded the story of Perseus, Medusa and Andromeda through the glorious sculptures. It was these stories that captured the imaginations of our students last year and it seems to have done the trick again with my wide eyed students. I was somewhat jealous that they were getting to hear these stories for the first time, with all the inherent magic and awe inspiring details.

As our tour reached its conclusion our tour guide, Ina, once again congratulated the students on their enthusiasm and focus and bid us goodbye. And we were off to the playground at 84th and Fifth to eat lunch and run around.

Several days later I got a call from the office that we had a visitor - someone from the museum. Lauren and I were at a loss as to who this could be. As we were pondering this, our guide Ina came around the corner smiling and carrying a large envelope. We welcomed her into our classroom and introduced her once again to the children. She had come to give us some materials about interesting programs at the museum. This was so sweet as she had already given us a book on Greek Mythology and free family passes for every student. She also gave me a postcard showing the "Leon Levy and Shelby White Court with statue of youthful Hercules" and a handwritten note...

We have another tour scheduled for January 8, 2008 and I am hoping that Ina will once again show us around. On our next visit we will 'Explore Art' and sketch a variety of objects in the museum. For more information go to and scroll down to "Read All About It!" to view and print out family guides before you visit.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

"Are you One? Are you Two?..."

This past week has been jam packed and fun fulled - beginning with Joy's Dia de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead) party, a class trip to The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Halloween, an Off-Broadway show and culminating with my birthday celebrations which took place in school, around town and at home.

Normally at this time of year I take stock of my accomplishments by listing in my journal all of the wonderful and new things I have accomplished in the past year like others do. Although I have always enjoyed this style of reflection, this year I am thinking along different lines. Yes, I have obviously had new experiences but for the most part I am in the middle of things. No big changes, no life altering revelations, just an ongoing enjoyment of the life I have worked so hard to create. It seems fitting to be in the middle - a little more than half way through my doctoral studies, a little less than half way through my teaching career - since at 44 I am probably at the half way point in my life (I have decided that I will hang out here in this body until I am 91). This is comforting and wonderful.

I am at peace with so many things and the notion of following your bliss keeps coming back to me.

If you follow your bliss, you will always have your bliss,
money or not.

If you follow money, you may lose it, and you will have

Joseph Campbell

I have a deep appreciation of the fact that I have found my bliss as a teacher and this colors all aspects of my life. I feel blessed by my amazing family, friends and co-workers. Thanks!

After I blew out the candles on my birthday cake at school the kids started chanting "are you one, are you two, are you three?" and I stopped them because by the time they hit 44 they would have become exhausted. They laughed - I love when they get my dry, witty, subtle, sometimes sarcastic, often borscht belt, humor. Then they surprised me with their cards.

Here are a few...

"Happy birthday Gary. I hope that you have a good birthday"

"You are so funny. I wish you and Ms. Cheritha can be my teacher! Are you going to be 2nd grade soon? I like you very much." This was written by a student in the other first grade class.

"Dear Gary, Happy birthday. I love Gary. I fun to Gary play. I love Gary. You are a fun man."

And my favorite....

"Happy Birthday Gary. He the KING of the school." This child is very wise and will receive high marks on his report card next week. (see above: Humor)

But the most precious card came from my parents.

I can hear my mother's voice in these words although they were obviously written by someone else (click on image to enlarge). It is perhaps my greatest joy in life to have this unconditional love from my parents and their undying support. With such a foundation how could I have not grown up to find my bliss? Or know happiness?

It has been a spectacular life thus far.

I look forward to the second half!


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