Tuesday, January 29, 2008

"Do the Old Woman"

There are two things that I really enjoy.

Humor of the "I just flew in from Chicago and boy are my arms tired" ilk and doing accents. This basic level of yuks is about on par with my expertise in actually sounding like someone from another part of the world but hey, I confessed to enjoying speaking with an accent, I didn't say that I was any good at it (although once in a while I surprise myself and pull it off - but I can never seem to repeat the magic).

There is also a third thing I enjoy. That is teaching. And when the three converge my classroom suddenly turns into a lounge act in the Catskills. I get on a roll and create characters on the spot. They all have their own personalities and ticks. And naturally they all speak with an accent. These 'performances' are encouraged by my students who laugh and giggle at every witty bon mot.

But sometimes the characters I create come back to haunt me.

One such creation came about on a slow, dreary Monday morning following an especially hectic and exhausting weekend. I was moving rather slowly. My thoughts were of slipping into my comfy bed after school and getting some rest. But there I was teaching. So to help keep myself awake and to add a touch of entertainment value I created "The Old Woman". For the life of me I do not know why it became a woman instead of a man - perhaps it was funnier at the moment.

This old woman spoke with a funny accent which I never did pinpoint. I just know it was not my usual speaking voice. She also moved really slowly and would fall asleep in the middle of a sentence. So there I was talking and nodding off. Each time I did this the laughing children would scream and tap me until I was awake. All this nonsense got me fired up and soon I was no longer dragging.

The old woman hung around for a bit as the students would ask me to "do the old woman" or other characters that I had come up with. I always happily obliged until the day my class was chosen to be observed by some important, hoity-toity visitors.

There I was in the middle of a well planned, stunningly executed lesson when I heard "do the old woman". Uh-oh! I shot the kids a 'not now' look and kept going. But they are slow to take the hint. Again, "do the old woman".

Realizing that I must address this I cleverly responded with "Oh, you mean the old man?" as I smile and look towards our visitors. They reply, "No, the old woman. Do the old woman."


They are blowing my cover. Here I am all proper and perfect and they want me to feign sleep and do some indeterminable accent. Oh, what the hell. I do it. We all laugh. The lesson is actually better. The students are engaged. They are learning and enjoying themselves. Everyone lightens up a bit and when the guests leave they shake my hand and smile. We all learned a lesson that day and mine was to just be myself.

But, I did add another character later that week. Can you guess?

Yes, an old man.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Are You Listening?

I am very excited to announce that my friend and colleague Lisa Burman has finished writing her book Are You Listening? Fostering Conversations That Help Young Children Learn. It will be available this spring through Redleaf Press. They have provided the following description:

Conversations are more than an exchange of words; they are the core of the teaching method discussed in Are You Listening? This book offers early childhood educators an original model for using conversation as a learning tool in the classroom that is child-centered and compatible with emergent and Reggio Emilia approaches.

Conversation is a powerful tool that engages children in actively constructing their understandings of the world while also strengthening their social, cognitive, and language skills. This book explains how to create a culture of conversation, including information on theories of learning and how to facilitate discussions based on children's interests, set up your classroom to promote conversation, and document and interpret what is said.

I have been after Lisa to include a picture or story about me in this book and so far she is not letting on as to whether or not I made the final cut. That sorta tells me that I didn't, but even if that is true I am still thrilled for her. Big of me, huh?

Lisa and I have had discussions about publishing texts vs focusing on doctoral studies. It is difficult to do both at the same time. Sometimes I think it would be better to bypass the doctoral studies altogether and get right into publishing. But then I could not add the Dr. in front of my name on these yet to be written masterpieces so for the moment I'll stay the course. :)

Truly, Lisa is a real inspiration. Bright, sexy, fun, clever and humble. I think that parents as well as teachers would benefit from what she has written here.

Congratulations Lisa!

Well done mate.

Monday, January 21, 2008

That One Day

Every Monday Lauren and I introduce a new poem to our class which connects to some event or topic of interest under examination. The topics range from the tooth fairy to birthdays to friendship to numbers and beyond. The repeated readings of these poems support fluent reading, concepts of print, grammatical structures and spelling.

Each week we choose five words from the poem which become our spelling words for the week. This context provides a genuine purpose for the words while grounding the new vocabulary. I must give credit for this idea to my friends Cindy G. and Cindy A. who teach second grade. They introduced me to this concept in June while I was observing their class as part of a study I was conducting. I cannot stress the importance of sharing information through class visits. Fresh ideas are swirling around out there if you are available to catch them.

In addition to sending home copies of these poems each week for the children to read and practice with their families, we have made them available through our class page on our school website.

In December I took a workshop and learned how to include video on our class page. Since that time Lauren and I have discussed the possibility of videotaping ourselves reading the poem in both American Sign Language and English so that parents can see how we interpret the poem.

This past Friday we did just that with for our upcoming poem entitled simply Martin Luther King Jr. poem. I found this poem here as I was searching the Internet but I do not know the author.

Martin Luther King Jr. Poem

Let us dance, let us sing.
In praise of Martin Luther King.
A man of peace who stood up tall.
He worked for fairness for us all.
We must be kind to one another,
Because he said, 'All men are brothers."
So let us try as we dance and sing,
To be like Martin Luther King.

Two excellent children's books that are exceptional in detailing the life of Martin Luther King and his gentle approach to hatred and bigotry are:

Martin's Big Words: The Life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (the cover of this book is at the top of the post) by Doreen Rappaport and Bryan Collier.


My Dream of Martin Luther King by Faith Ringgold.
I actually met both Faith Ringgold and Bryan Collier. She presented at the 31st Annual Summer Literacy Institute in the Summer of 2002 at Fordham University and he came the following year. Both have an amazing catalog of children's books. In addition to the two I already listed you might want to check out Uptown by Bryan Collier and Tar Beach by Faith Ringgold.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Learning Centers: Fishing for Sight Words

In the early grades we strive to make learning as fun and entertaining as possible. Catch the interest, make it a game and children learn without even knowing it. No struggles, no fuss, just good times.

To that end young childhood educators are constantly on the lookout for innovative ways to make this happen. I have picked up some ideas along the way from other teachers, friends, The Mailbox and through my own inventiveness. I would like to share some of these games once in a while to perhaps assist other teachers or even parents to motivate children to focus their considerable energies towards learning.

One game we play at school is something I call "Fishing for Sight Words". Sight words are common words that children encounter everyday in their reading. These words generally can not be figured out by decoding because the rules of English are not always consistent. You may be able to figure out a word like 'cat' by sounding it out (segmenting) /c/ /a/ /t/ and then blending it all together but this does not work with a word like 'what' or 'said'. Try to do it now and you'll see what I mean.

Sight words are words that children need to look at and automatically recognize. Without the ability to do this their reading will lack fluency and reading comprehension suffers.

This game gives students practice reading these words. On each colored fish is a different sight word. Near the mouth of the fish I place a colored paper clip (to match the color of the fish, natch). The fish are spread out on our lake rug and each student takes turns fishing with a plastic fishing rod equipped with a magnet at the end of the line instead of the usual hook. When a fish is caught the child reads the word and places it in a fish bowl.


They really enjoy this activity and as the year progresses new words are added to the mix. It does take some preparation on the teacher's part but once this is set up it can become a nifty item in your bag of tricks.

And just because I can't resist here are some great children's books featuring fish.

Big Al by Andrew Clements Yoshi

All of the cute little fish are afraid of Big Al because he is so ugly and scary looking. But Big Al just wants some friends, not a snack. When the fish get caught in a fisherman's net Big Al saves the day and everyone learns to appreciate him.

Swimmy by Leo Lionni

A fish story about working together to beat the big guys and the power in being different.

The Rainbow Fish by Marcus Pfister

Sure, Rainbow Fish is beautiful but what good is being beautiful if there is no one around to admire you. His pride ensures that he has no friends but when he decides to share the wealth in the form of his lovely, shiny scales, he is the hit of the ocean. A lesson to be learned for sure.

Friday, January 11, 2008


This 'boy' with boundless energy and optimistic attitude recently let the rose colored glasses slip to the end of his nose for a moment and discovered he needs a bit of a break. A break from constantly going, constantly running from one place to another, constantly striving to achieve.

Yes, the 'boy' is yours truly.

The wonderful thing is that once I decided I could use a break the universe conspired to make it happen. I have been taking classes non stop for the past six years - first as part of the Hello Friend/Cosby Scholars Program and then as part of my doctoral studies in Language, Literacy and Learning. This past semester I began to feel a tad burned out.

Instead of reading journal publications during my two hour morning commute I found I wanted to sit with my copy of Entertainment Weekly. I wanted to watch Ugly Betty rather than focusing at my computer writing a paper. I wanted to wrap presents and listen to Christmas music instead of typing up a transcript. This past semester was a little difficult for this reason.

So when I found out that the class I had registered for in the Spring was cancelled and there were no other classes being offered that I needed, I was not too disappointed. Sure, it will delay my progress but without enjoyment what does it matter. I need time to regroup so I can reignite the fire that caused me to begin this whole process in the first place.

What I really want to do is focus more energy on the kids I teach, not that I have ever neglected them of course. When I first began teaching I went to bed every night at 9:30 so I would be totally available to my students. I never wanted to be tired or distracted. Now, there are nights I am not even home until after 9:30. Teaching the young ones is what sparks me. I am well aware that we are all 'students' in life but for one semester I simply want to be just a teacher.

I suppose knowing when to step back and enjoy the view is a blessing. And I do feel blessed in so many ways. I do.


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