Saturday, June 29, 2013

Parental Relations

Huck delivers a line in the musical Big River that goes, "It seemed like ev'rybody in the whole blame town of St. Petersburg was tryin' to tell me who I should be!"

That's how I felt this year.  Critiqued, criticized and questioned at every turn (well, not every turn, but consider that this rant is tempered for dramatic flair) until I wanted to throw my hands up and shout, "All right, then, I'll go to hell".

Yet I persevered because, like Huck, I "turned over some considerable many ways in my mind"  to cope with the continual barrage of negativity and judgement.

One is to literally close the door on gossip and if you listen closely you can hear the soft click (or booming slam) of teachers doing just that.  The only problem with this solution is that bullshit always comes a-knockin' time and time again.

The latest issue involves the teacher/parent relationship.  The central question being, "Are there limits to how available a teacher is to a parent?"

In this regard I have always been fully accessible.  I give out my cell phone number and school email (which sends all messages immediately and directly to my iPhone).  I encourage and truly enjoy communicating with parents.

Other teachers prefer to keep contact within the confines of the school day.  Is one way more professional or better than the other?

I think not.  It seems to me that both approaches are acceptable and reflective of the various personalities, comfort levels and beliefs of the teachers involved.

I did a little research and only found research articles and opinion pieces that favored open, continual communication between parents and teachers. The only caution was a recommendation to avoid written communication around sensitive subjects.  In those instances, it is preferable to speak on the phone or have a face-to-face discussion.

I found nothing that supported limited interaction and communication.

So haters stop hating and let me do my thing!

Friday, June 28, 2013

Top Ten 2012 - 2013

Number One on our Top Ten list!
There are 180 days in the school year and we read about two books aloud to our students every day.  Those 360 books, which encompass multiple genres, serve as the foundation of our collectively shared literacy experiences.

However, this by no means solely represents the extent of the books that blanket our classroom.  We have book bins of favorite authors (Todd Parr, Dan Yaccarino, Nancy Carlson, Ezra Jack Keats, Mo Willems), favorite characters (Curious George, Rotten Ralph, Froggy, Clifford) and popular themes (holidays, planets, community workers, school, friendship, animals, etc).

Students bring books from home to share with the class and constantly create their own little books "in the style" of the books that surround them.  I love when they do that!

Number Two on our Top Ten!
Given the constant exposure to so many wonderful books I am always curious to know which titles really make an impact on the students.  So, at the end of each school year I ask my students to compile a list of their favorites.

This year they came up with a preliminary list of 25 books. From there they voted on the Top Ten.

It was a huge surprise for me to see that Five Little Ducks retold and illustrated by Ivan Bates came out on top.  This was just a cute, simple book I chose from the library one morning.  I suppose one should never underestimate the power of a catchy tune and the inherent appeal of waddling like a duckling.

The second most popular book was no surprise.  Clay Boy by Mirra Ginsburg and Jos. A. Smith has elements of The Gingerbread Boy (which was in the top 25) and The Three Billy Goats Gruff but ultimately stands on its own.  It is virtually impossible to resist the charm of Clay Boy even as he gobbles up everything and everyone in his path.

Number Three on our Top Ten!
Unlovable by Dan Yacarrino came in at Number Three. Interestingly, this book held the same position in the Top Ten for 2009 - 2010.  I was introduced to this engaging book when I observed another teacher sharing it with her class and immediately fell in love with sad, insecure Alfred.  SPOILER ALERT! - He is not unlovable at all!

I think this was also the first time that author/illustrator Dan Yaccarino entered my consciousness. Afterwards, I began to notice that he was responsible for many of the books I was reading to my students.

Once I realized this I invited him to visit our school and he graciously accepted!  In addition to that visit he also gave his time and talent to support the fundraising event held at the Children's Museum of the Arts for art education in our school.  His book Lawn to Lawn also made our Top Ten in the Number Eight position.

Number Four on our Top Ten!
Hooway for Wodney Wat by Helen Lester and Lynn Munsinger is the Number Four selection. At heart this is a story of the underdog triumphing over his loud, bossy oppressor.

But I think the reason our students voted for this book is because we have a student, Camilla, who shares a name with the know-it-all character in the book.  Our Camilla was not amused (and she is nothing like the character in the book) but it proved intriguing to everyone else.

Number Five on our Top Ten!
I am thrilled with the Number Five pick.

Washington Irving's The Headless Horseman is a story that I do not always read to my kindergarten students because it can be a little frightening (especially the way I tell it) although it is one of my favorites.  However, I gauged the bravery level of this group and went for it.

Their reaction was immediate and positive.  Instead of harping on the scary elements, the students focused on the humor in it.  I had kids throwing "pumpkin heads" at one another on the playground all week.  It was fantastic to listen as they excitedly recreated their playground dramatics using character names ("I'm Brom Bones and he is Ichabod Crane") and mounting their imaginary horses.

Their reaction gives me great hope that they will take most favorably to the stories from Greek Mythology I plan to teach them in first grade.  If they like headless horsemen, they'll love Medusa!

Number Six on our Top Ten!
Curious George by H. A. Rey made the list again this year. Yes, perhaps my influence is strongly felt in regard to this book and this character but I did have a few students (all girls) who told me they didn't like him.

Imagine that!

I have a limited edition pop-up book from Scholastic that amps up the interest in the story if needed.  And the classroom is heavily decorated with Curious George touches.  I'm glad he made the cut again this year!

Number Seven on our Top Ten!
Stop Snoring, Bernard! by Zachariah OHora proudly joins the Top Ten in the Number Seven position.

I discovered this book while browsing at the bookstore last summer and it thrilled me. Sometimes I wish that I could go back in time to hang with Margret and Hans Augusto Rey and feel the excitement of their literary journey as it unfolded.  When I held this book by this incredible illustrator I thought of them.

I contacted Zachariah about a school visit and last November he generously made time to do just that!  His latest book No Fits, Nilson! just came out this month. My sweet co teacher, Michelle, gave it to me as an end of the school year gift.  I wouldn't be surprised if it is on the Top Ten list next year.

Number Nine on our Top Ten!
The Rainbow Fish by Marcus Pfister was a story some of the children performed during our American Sign Language Festival this year.  This week long celebration of ASL and Deaf culture concluded with a lively performance by Peter Cook with our students acting as his opening act.

The Rainbow Fish is a popular, award winning book that aims to instill good values, like sharing, in young children. Rainbow Fish comes to understand that friendship is more important than his superior beauty, a message that deserves to be told again and again.

Number Ten on our Top Ten!
How Rocket Learned to Read by Tad Hills rounds out the Top Ten. Tad is another brilliant storyteller who visited our school last year and also gave his time and talent to support art in our school during our fundraiser last fall.

The Rocket books are excellent for beginning and emergent readers and writers.

Initially our Top Ten had a five-way tie for tenth place which we had to have a special vote to resolve.  It was close but in the end, Rocket took the honors.

Still, honorable mention must go to the other four books that were edged out.  They are Otto Goes to School and Otto Has a Birthday Party by Todd Parr and We Are In a Book and There's a Bird on Your Head by Mo Willems.

Thank you to all of the talented authors and illustrators for providing me with superior material to share with my students.  And congratulations!

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Tips From My Mom #16

Today one of the cutest little girls in the universe quietly asked me if I would read with her.  In addition to being ADORABLE she is also very soft spoken.  It is sometimes difficult to understand her speech so she'll often facilitate communication by signing.  I wasn't quite sure what she wanted at first but when she repeated it and her tiny hands signed book I realized her intention.

The fact that this quiet, undemanding child sought me out and asserted herself in this atypical way prompted me to drop everything I was doing.  I took the Berenstain Bears Bears in the Night book she offered and we walked hand in hand to the rug. We quietly read together amidst the noise and chaos in the room.

It was a nice moment.

The interesting part of this, for me, was that this exchange happened during lunch. Our kindergarten students eat lunch in the classroom instead of going down to the school cafeteria. Generally there is about ten or fifteen minutes of independent reading between the time the children finish eating and when they leave for recess. While the children read and mill about taking and returning books to the various book bins, I busy myself with wiping down the tables, sweeping the floor and putting food away.  It is not a particularly relaxing time for me as I endeavor to move quickly though these tasks in order to get the little ones out the door in time.

It was during my cleaning frenzy that this small girl looked up at me and asked me to read with her. It would have been so easy to say, "Not now" or "I'll be over in a minute" (and probably never end up going) but I thought of my mom and set aside the Clorox wipes.

Funny how long ago memories return in an instant to influence the decisions we make. I remembered all those times when my brothers and I were young and asked Ma to play a game with us. We'd ask her when she was in the middle of cooking dinner. We'd ask her as she passed us with a laundry basket full of clean clothes ready to be put away. We'd ask her as she attended to the bazillion chores she carried out to keep our home running smoothly. Sometimes she would say "no" but sometimes she would say "yes". And when she would say yes it felt like we were given the best gift there is. Mom was stopping to play a game with us!

Today I remembered that kid perspective.  I remembered what it felt like to have someone drop everything and take a moment to share something so simple, yet amazing, with me. Today I remembered my mom and that remembering made me a better teacher.

The dirty tables and messy floor could wait. But the moments to listen to a child pass too quickly.

Thank you mom for all the times you played Uno, Trouble and Monopoly with us.

Especially since I now know you hate Monopoly.

Monday, June 3, 2013

When Education Goes Wrong

The end of the school year is rapidly approaching.

This is the first time in memory that I am counting down the days and looking forward to walking away.  I love the children and their families but the state of education has deteriorated to the point of disbelief and I need to step aside for a moment.

I wonder, "How did we fall so far?"

It becomes difficult to remain optimistic and passionate about teaching when every day the chisel chips away at creativity and respect.  The Department of Education has placed value only on the most superficial and mechanical aspects of what it means to educate and to learn.

Teachers are given scripts to follow and judged on how well they comply with the robotic recitation.  Teaching artists who thoughtfully weave content and excitement with knowledge of the students and the material are looked down upon (or talked about behind their backs) for displaying a "rebel" nature.

Educators are now assessed on bulletin boards and charts instead of genuine student learning. Of course, that is hard to quantify isn't it?

It is happening all over the city, the state and the country.

And what is even more distressing is the rigid and misguided devaluing of the children we aim to teach.  Their natural curiosity and desire to figure things out becomes squelched in sacrifice to myriad high stakes tests.

A friend sent me this video of a TEDxTalk with Dr. Nancy Carlsson-Paige.  Her words reflect my frustration.

“All these amazing capacities that children bring to us in education are cut out when we drill and grill them. And when we take the natural and powerful capabilities that children have out of the education equation, we take the love out of learning.  We take the joy out of learning. And we take it out for children but we take it out for teachers too because the great craft of teaching involves knowing how to harness those amazing capabilities children have for the purpose of helping them learn in school” 

I suppose I can find some solace in the fact that I have a principal who believes in the work I do and has confidence in my abilities. That trust is certainly valuable but at the moment most teachers are the proverbial dog who gets kicked when daddy (or mommy) is stressed.

Teachers would appreciate a bone every once in a while or at least a pat on the head.


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