Wednesday, February 25, 2009

A Second Home

Monday morning we arrived back to school after Mid-Winter Recess to discover that a new set of gorgeous windows were installed in our absence.  Our already scrumptious classroom has been made even more exquisite with these amazing additions.  The previous occupants were dingy Plexiglas that blocked the light and the view.

The new shades have not yet been installed so the sunlight is free to shine and sparkle unencumbered.  Lauren and I feel like we just signed a lease for a Soho loft.  They open up the space in a way that we couldn't have imagined.  

Light bounces off the mirrors and glass vases. It creates shadows on the walls and on the table tops. It energizes the students and lifts our mood. 

I tried to capture the magic but photos just can't reproduce the happy vibe. But, while I had the camera out I decided to take a bunch of pictures of the room.  

I have included only three here because when they are viewed together they represent a good portion of the room. I took these today after the kids went home so I had the opportunity to straighten up a bit before I started clicking.

As any teacher or parent knows things can get messy sometimes when children are involved, but Lauren and I understand that there is such a thing as a 'good' mess.  It means that the students are invested and involved with the task before them.

But for now, no mess.  Just sunlight, shadows and lots of shiny!

Sunday, February 22, 2009


I mean no disrespect, but Florida is a scary ass state.

To be fair my own state is probably just as scary, in its own endearing way, but it seems that every time I travel to The Sunshine State I hear horror stories about the small minded rednecks who run the asylum. 

Ouch, maybe that is too harsh.

In the spirit of the objective ethnographic researcher I will document two stories; comments to follow (mine and hopefully yours...)

The first story was told to me by Graham, a young teen who dropped out of high school.  He is now pursuing a 'good enough diploma' or GED while working as a cosmetologist.  

A contributing factor in his decision to 'drop out' was the sort of incident that took place one day before gym class. It is a requirement that everyone "change out" from their street clothes into their gym uniforms.  As an 'out'  gay teen he had endured many snide remarks from the other boys at school. This was only heightened in the locker room. On this particular day, as he changed into his gym clothes, a few boys accused him of looking at them.  Obviously, he needed to be taught a lesson.  

Afterwards he went to the principal; an adult who could provide some sense of justice or a voice of reason.  Graham was told that he deserved what he got because, after all, the other boys said he was looking at them.

The second story came courtesy of my niece's boyfriend, Gregg.  I met Gregg and with my ever present wit and charm I remarked that I couldn't understand a word of what he was saying.  Of course I could, but it sounded like he had a thick accent (Irish?) and it is part of my goofy shtick that I can neither talk with an accent or understand anyone with one.  Haha, hehe. Oops!  

Well, he does not have an accent. Turns out he had been attacked just 5 months before at a party.  Some good ol' boys were there making remarks and harassing an African American teen who had the nerve to attend.  When Gregg asked them to knock it off he was hit in the head with a Jack Daniels bottle.  The blow made him drop to the ground where he was relentlessly kicked in the face until his jaw was shattered. He had to be airlifted, bloody and in pain,  to the hospital.  He showed me the deep, dark scars that run along his jawline (how did I miss them?) that were a result of the surgery. 

His 'accent' is a consequence of the fact that he is unable to open his mouth very far.  

I was totally wrapped up in this horrible story. "What happened to the guys who did this?" I asked. Gregg replied, "Nothing". 

Nothing was done. 

He was told it wasn't worth pursuing. No one wanted to support him in his quest for justice because this stuff happens. Oh well.

Both of these stories, along with a few others that were less dramatic but still unsettling, made me think about authority; authority related to my role as a teacher. In our schools, at least in MY school, we stress respect. All of our class and school rules have respect at the core. When the rules are broken, there are consequences.

What would happen if a child came to me for help (or justice or to be a voice of reason or to simply listen) and I blew it off? What a horrible lesson. I hope I don't do that. Certainly not to the extent of the Florida stories but I hope I allow my students to feel that the wrongs of their world can be made right again.  Fundamentally I believe they can.  

I suppose I must remember that just because someone has 'authority' it does not mean that they are deserving of it. 

Just ask Graham or Gregg. 

I couldn't resist the juxtaposition of the happy, sunny images of The Sunshine State with these horror stories.  Look below the surface and all is not so bright.  

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Overheard II

There is nothing quite like a child's perspective of the world. Sometimes their logic is so basic and genius that I wonder why we adults make life more complicated than it needs to be. And sometimes they make no sense at all - at least not to anyone but themselves. It is up to their audience to try to ascertain the meaning behind their utterances and actions.

I often tell myself to document the clever, odd little tidbits my students say but rarely remember to jot them down when they happen. And once it is said, it is gone.

However I have managed to collect a few;

Scene One:

This is an example of disconnected discourse in education. A situation in which the teacher is putting forth a message that is not getting through because the student has other things on his or her mind.

Teacher (during a reading conference about story elements): Take a look at the posters the class made showing the different places a story can happen. What is the setting in the book you are reading?

Student (perplexed): My eyebrows are moving by themselves.

She started moving her eyebrows up and down but it turns out that she was experiencing a bit of a twitch. Who knew?

Scene Two:

Every morning we write a message on the whiteboard to share information or ask a question. Lately when we write our messages we purposefully make errors in capitalization, punctuation and spelling and ask the children to "Edit this Message".

One morning we wrote the sentence 'if i had three bundles of sticks with ten sticks in each bundle how many sticks would there be all together' In editing this message a little boy came up to the board. We pointed to the 'i' and asked him if he could fix it.

Student: You mean it needs to be a big 'i'?

Teacher: Yes.

This is how he wrote it - 'if i had three bundles...'

We should have been more specific.

Scene Three:

This one is not school related but I got a kick out of it. I am with my friend's six-year-old daughter talking about music.

Gary: Which Jonas brother do you like the best?

She turns to me with wisdom beyond her years, a bit condescending and with perfect delivery.

Child: I'm not a fan.

(I love it!)

Scene Four:

Lauren and I took our class trip to Town Hall on 43rd Street to see a theater production based on the children's book series Nate the Great. As we are getting off the subway I am holding on tight to one particular little boy who is 'high strung' in an effort to keep him close.

When we are going through the subway turnstiles I go first and he follows closely behind. Maybe a little too close. As push my way through the turnstile he misjudges and gets hit with one of the metal spokes. Behind me I hear "oh, my nuts!"

I chuckle but keep walking. He'll learn.

Sunday, February 8, 2009


Team teaching situations can be a complete joy or a total nightmare depending on the chemistry between the parties involved.  

I often praise my co-teacher Lauren with whom I have taught elementary school for the past seven years.  She is a beautiful woman - inside and out - and my words could never do justice to the admiration I have for her as an educator and as a person.

With all the love for Lauren spread across the posts I have totally ignored my other co-teacher, Cayne, who is also a beautiful person, inside and out.  He just turned 32 (Happy Birthday!) has a fantastic wife and daughter and will have his doctorate within a year.

Cayne and I have been teaching together at Fordham University as part of the Hello Friend/Ennis William Cosby Certificate program for Young Readers at Risk (that's a mouthful) for the past four years. 

Eleven years ago I was asked to teach a class at Hunter College in their Deaf Education program.  I turned it down because I was terrified by the thought of teaching adults.  I did not have the confidence or the background at the time to accept the offer.  I thought for sure that it was the one and only time I would ever be offered a teaching position at a college, but I was wrong.

When the opportunity presented itself again at Fordham I accepted - actually the way it was offered by Dr. Uhry made it clear that saying no was not really an option.  However, I was still genuinely nervous.

On the first day of class I took Cayne's lead.  I watched how he was totally at ease, how he leisurely walked around the room while he taught, how he made jokes and laughed and good-naturedly went with the flow.  I thought "I can do this".  

And I have enjoyed it. I already miss the fact that next summer we won't be teaching together during Fordham's Annual Summer Literacy Institute. The next class I teach at the college level will probably be one that I will teach solo. I am back to feeling nervous and apprehensive. How will I be without a partner to bounce off of or to finish my sentences when I talk myself into a corner?  

My guess is I will be okay.  I have had a good role model.

Thank you Cayne for teaching me how to be a better teacher. For bringing in humor mixed with 'smarts'. For taking care of all the technical aspects of setting up our PowerPoint presentations. For making me chill out when I get too anal and detail oriented. 

And above all else, thanks for your friendship.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Speech Bubbles

Our resourceful school librarian, Sara, introduced our class to the wonderful world of WebComics through something called ToonDoo.

ToonDoo, lifting their own words, is "a wacky way to get creative with comics".  I have long been a fan of hooking children on literacy in any way that works and have found, over and over again, that comics are often the key.  

During Reading Workshop we have been focusing on story elements. Those 'oh, so essential' components that make for interesting reading.  They include a predicament, conflict or struggle; characters, setting and some sort of resolution.  

Character study is a rich and exciting land in which to travel, especially for a former thespian.  Authors have many techniques to indicate that a character is speaking in a text.  One way is by using a speech bubble (not to be confused with the all important 'thought bubble' which is similar).  For days now our brilliant artists and story tellers have been finding speech bubbles in their books and including them in their writing.  

This story is about an on again, off again makeup party (click on pictures to enlarge).

And this one is about Medusa, the snake haired Gorgon who is looking for yours truly. Thank goodness in the end my intrepid student saves the day by cutting off Medusa's head and biding her a fond farewell.

There are also some excellent children's authors & illustrators who use speech bubbles in their work. Consider 'your friend' Mo Willems and his Elephant and Piggy books, the hilarious pigeon series, Knuffle Bunny & Knuffle Bunny Too and Leonardo, the Terrible Monster.  We read many of his books as we explored this topic.

Also, one of my favorite authors, George O'Connor who wrote Kapow! and Ker-Splash! These books tell the tale of American Eagle and Bug Lady, two kids with vivid imaginations and a great sense of fun. 

George uses speech bubbles in these and other books. He is currently working on sketches for a new book of Greek Mythology. Talented guy!

We are using speech bubbles to gently guide us into the use of quotation marks.  It seems like an organic link; taking what a character says in a speech bubble and surrounding it by quotation marks in the body of a text. Our students are making this connection quite easily this year. 

The development of character, the progress in reading fluency & prosody and student motivation have all increased.

Finally, I can't resist sharing one final story.  This student had written a story about how beautiful Lauren is (who can argue with that) and I asked, feigning insult, "where is the story about me?"  

The next day she wrote this...

"Everyday Gary always says "Go to the table to draw for me".
 I say "No".
Gary says "Yes". 
I said "Fine!"
Gary said "Oh, that picture is beautiful".
You know that Gary always says that word.
I said "Thank you". 
He said "Good, (you're) welcome". 

All I can say is...."Beautiful!"

Monday, February 2, 2009

As a Fire is Meant for Burning

I have noticed in my teaching, and in my life, that until a person is ready to 'hear' a message the words will simply pass through them unheeded and ignored.

And conversely, when the time is right the message or lesson continues to come at you unceasingly. It's like my friend Joy and the purple car story from her childhood. She never saw a purple car until her family was going to get one. All of a sudden there were purple cars everywhere.

Lately this notion of 'readiness' has been tugging at all aspects of my life. In church this Sunday our pastor spoke of the gifts each of us has been blessed with and the gifts we may not possess. In our journey through life we have the pleasure of sharing these gifts with one another. My gift may not be the same as yours but we assist one another, working together as a whole. This sharing comes about at different points for each of us. Each in their own time. No mistakes. No judgements.

Our last hymn As a Fire is Meant for Burning called out to me and I thought it would be a wonderful choice for today's fourth annual bloggers (silent) poetry reading. Perhaps someone is ready to 'hear' the message. Perhaps not. All I can say is "I was".

As a Fire is Meant for Burning

As a fire is meant for burning with a bright and warming flame
so the church is meant for mission, giving glory to God's name.
Not to preach our creeds or customs, but to build a bridge of care,
We join hands across the nations, finding neighbors every where.

We are learners; we are teachers; we are pilgrims on the way.
We are seekers; we are givers; we are vessels made of clay.
By our gentle, loving actions we would show that Christ is light.
In a humble, listening Spirit we would live to God's delight.

As a green bud in the spring time is a sign of life renewed,
so may we be signs of oneness 'mid earth's peoples, many hued.
As a rainbow lights the heavens when a storm is past and gone,
may our lives reflect the radiance of God's new and glorious dawn.

Words:Ruth Duck


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