Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Rachel K. Non-Negotiables

I am back in school this week at Seattle U, and we are learning about literacy. Our teacher is amazing, and everything she says is liquid gold. One of our assignments this week is to think about what "non-negotiables" we'd like to hold high in our classrooms someday.  A non-negotiable represents something we will always insist on regardless of what age group to whom we instruct, and what subject matter we teach. I am terrible at assignments like these, but I have come up with a few ideas.

For my students, I want my non-negotiable to be, "avoid excuses," and to take on subject matter that they both adore and despise. What difference does it make if you don't like math? You can still be awesome at math if you hate it. In fact, I think it would be interesting to see a subject matter you despise as an enemy. CRUSH IT. Learn its weaknesses - observe it in secrecy, and strike when its back is turned!

That illustrated, my mission statement for my classroom is:


Kids don't have to love a subject to kick its ass. Kids DO have to get through school. My long-term teaching goals are to ensure that my students learn meaningful things that ignite their passions and motivate them to keep learning, but who are we kidding? That's not going to happen all the time, so I'm going to train my kids as warriors as well as scholars.

For myself, I don't plan on kicking anyone's butts, but I do want to work hard for the little brains that surround me every day. It is always easy to say, "no" to kids when they ask questions, so my non-negotiable for myself is to, "find ways to say yes." This, on the advice of my table-mates today, will also be the title of my self-help book that I publish in 20 years when I am a life coach living in Sedona, AZ. Going off of this idea, my personal mantra will be:

Find a Way

I think that this will encompass many of the difficulties I will face as a publicly-funded employee with too much to do and not enough time nor resources to do it. Kids are too important to give up in the face of common sense, and I will try to find ways around these obstacles.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Rachel K. Belly

My Body is Wrong
Kids say the Meanest Things
There's a girl named Sophie at Gumball Elementary who has special needs (mostly in working through her behaviors and healthy ways to show her feelings, from what I've observed). Due to my status as a new, young(ish) teacher, a lot of the girls have taken a shine to me (their dreams that I am a ballerina bride who loves to bake and sing and ride horses will gradually be crushed by my own harsh, non-Disney capabilities and affinities). Sophie asked me on our way out of the music trailer portable, "Ms. Kay, are you having a baby?" I guess I've graduated from being Teacher Barbie to being "that lady who's my mom's age whose belly kinda sticks out like a toddler's. In any case, I wanted to punch everyone in the face.

On a side-note, I used to teach English (or rather, help plan English-centered activities for a real teacher) in Japan. I'm sure the Japanese people, with their slight statures, demure carriage and shiny shiny hair, also commented aloud on my body shapes. Fortunately, Japanese is the impossible picture language of ninjas quite difficult, and I must have missed the majority of pronouncements.

I responded to Sophie, "No, I'm not having a baby," and then added to the other girls who had gathered, "my body is just shaped this way." I also want to mention as a disclaimer, that I am not a fat person (not that there's anything wrong with that). I have actually lost about 15 pounds since February, and most of the time I feel like I'm looking pretty good! It's just that for whatever genetic reason, my stomach likes to shape itself like a beer gut, and so it is and has always been.

Perhaps my oddly shaped midriff can stand as a beacon to all girls in the 5th grade! It is OK to have a beer belly even though you really don't drink beer and you've gotten so good at sucking it in except after you eat leftover lasagna for lunch. It's OK to forget to blend your foundation because you're putting on your makeup at 6:30am without your glasses on and you can't actually see what you're doing to your face. Most of all, it's OK to realize that your flower print skirt doesn't match your hamburger earrings, but it's Friday and there's a spelling test and maybe nobody will notice. The moral is, young girls, that you should be yourself. Women like Tina Fey, Maya Rudolph and Amy Poehler have worked and striven to make us a world where it's OK to look wrong so long as you can write satire about it and clean up nice on TV - and I do, girls. I do.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Rachel K. First Week Snippets & Tips

The first two weeks of school have mainly been a blur of kids and feeling somewhat prepared until something I AM NOT PREPARED FOR HAPPENS. Here is some advice I have picked up so far:
 "Don't smile until Christmas."

It is best to be strict with kids until the holiday break in December. You can always get nicer; you can't get meaner. I have trouble doing this, but I'm around teachers who have high expectations of their students. This includes pushing in chairs, lining up quietly, and other things you remember from elementary school. To put it aptly, my boyfriend said, "Do you mean that some of the mean teachers I had in school were doing it on purpose??" Yes.
"It is a zillion degrees in this room, but Japan has made me mighty."

The last hot weeks of the summer have coincided with school this week, and it gets to the mid 80s inside our room. To cope, we turn off the florescent lights, spray the children with water (like cats) and give them ice cubes after recess. We also melt a lot and get less done. Japanese public schools out in Bumbleberry, Japan (aka: Ine-cho, see White Chocolate Geisha Blog) have neither central heating nor cooling; in the summer all of the windows are simply opened, and in the winter kerosene stoves are hauled into the classrooms. It is brutal. Japanese weather conditions have trained me for Seattle extremities, and I find 83ยบ afternoons to be "balmy," not "god awful." Similarly, ice cold mornings in the rooms during which the temperatures hover around the mid 50s, I simply see as "refreshing and cool," and adjust my undersweater™ and long-johns.

Kids say weird $&*@!
"When I grow up, I want to be a teacher, a librarian, a principal, or a billionaire or a landlord and own a big piece of land."
 I am trying to think of a good analogy for this week, and am coming up short. I suppose the first week of school is like a student film; you really assume it's all going to come together at some point and make sense, but then, suddenly, it's over.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Rachel K. Setup

I have started going to Gumball Elementary to work with Mrs. Cake every day, and we have been preparing for the new school year together. Mrs. Cake is a prepared and organized person, so her set up was mostly finished by the time I showed up; this left me free to help the other two teachers, who were on vacation or simply out of town for the time that Mrs. Cake was setting up. The majority of my responsibilities were to write names on things. I wrote names on plastic bags, folders, and note cards to put in "tote trays," which are storage drawers that exist in lieu of desk cubbies. The work has been perfunctory, but has been helpful in getting to know many of the students' names (there are almost 90 in the 5th grade whom I will be seeing at least once a week for the next school year). 

A few tips on organization that I have picked up: 

Index Cards:
 Index cards with students' names written on them will serve as notes for the entire school year. Mrs. Cake had prepared 28 note cards to bring to our meetings with the 5th graders previous teachers. The 4th grade teachers talked about students that need special attention or are falling behind in certain subjects. This way, Mrs. Cake will be able to access quick references on the students at any time.

Plastic Bag Collection: 
Take a large Ziploc bag and two small Ziploc bags. Write the student's name on the large bag (Gary, for instance). Then, one one of the small bags, write "Word of the Day," and the other bag, "Vocabulary." As students learn words and Latin or Greek roots, they will write the definitions or examples down on note cards and place them accordingly in the small bags. Next, the small bags will go inside the large bag. The student's small whiteboard also goes inside the large bag, along with two colored markers (green for Greek roots, red for Latin). Now the student has a system for their word learning and for their white boards. 

Colorful, Appropriate Magazines:
Mrs. Cake saves magazines over the summer to bring in for the 5th grade. The students will decorate their composition notebooks with cool images that excite them. Many of these magazines are food-related or science and world culture themed, like the National Geographic. 

Seating Chart: 
Mrs. Cake makes a few seating charts. One of these is written on a laminated diagram of the classroom and has the names of where students are going to be for the first part of school. The other diagrams help her with collecting things like permission slips or school supplies. The school supply diagram has abbreviations by each student's name: K for Kleenex, $ for $2.00 that they need to bring in, N for notebook, B for binder. As Mrs. Cake collects these supplies, she simply circles K when the student has brought in Kleenex. 

There are a lot more ideas for organization, but I will put up photos of the classroom instead of writing about every little thing! 

On the board, Mrs. Cake has set up a purple border for students to know what math to do, and a green border for spelling words and Greek and Latin roots. This helps students to be accountable and responsible for making sure they know that is going on if they miss the directions.

A place for every thing, and everything in its place. 

There is a cup for each table group (all labeled with numbers). If a students needs scissors,  he or she will bring the entire cup over to the table and make sure all the scissors are accounted for before it goes back. 

Markers follow the same logic as scissors. 

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Rachel K. Acronyms

I promised that I would write more in my blog, and here I am making an effort. 

I joined the staff of Gumball Elementary School for a meeting during which all manner of results and numbers were half-heartedly explained in attractive, powerpoint graphs. We were asked to pinpoint what "we did right," "what we didn't quite get," and "burning questions." Having never worked at Gumball, I had very little to say on these matters, but it was an insight into how boring real life teacher meetings can be. It was simultaneously disheartening and reassuring to see how confused the teachers were, and how many of them were content to sit at their tables and whisper things like, "what does any of this mean?" And the fact of the matter is, these people are teachers; THESE PEOPLE ARE SMART. So, rather than you, the reader, losing faith in the public school system, please instead consider how ridiculous standardized test scores can cause everything to appear. 

Students aren't kids named Aidan or Beverly or Tien, they are numbers that go in all manner of categories like "Pacific Islander or other," or "special education," or "ELL," or sometimes all three. These categories all have their own numbers -some percentages, some percentiles, and all of them color coded. I heard things like, "this is something to celebrate - the black kids increased their progress in reading by 14.2%!" But really, all black kids aren't reading better, it just means that the handfull of black kids in the specific 4th grade cohort had watched enough sesame street, whereas the previous cohort may have all been refugees from some African country you're pretty sure you've heard of, but pray nobody ever asks you what region it's in... because you're pretty sure it's in east Africa, but really it could be near the Baltic Sea for all you know about geography that is anywhere east of Europe and west of China. 
Geography aside, it is really strange to look at demographics and numbers and to think that a good number of kids who really need to know stuff like how to read and add sums aren't up to grade standard. Can we all just take a moment for those kids? OK, back to the numbers. 

Seattle Public Schools are apparently in trouble; only 35 schools in the state qualify as at or above standard on our standardized tests (all of them with horrible acronyms like the MAP or WASL or MSP, which I guess isn't technically an acronym although it could arguably be pronounced, "misp.")  
On the upside, the 5th grade team seem very happy to challenge their assumptions, change things around and never be set in their ways. Mrs. Cake is my teacher, Mrs. KLRZ is another teacher (she would fit in the "Pacific Islander or Other" category as a Samoan-American), and Mrs. Short, who used to be KLRZ's teacher intern back in the day. I am looking forward to working with them and seeing how on earth planning for 5th grade works when there are 3 people in charge of it. As I may have mentioned, Gumball is an open concept school, so our 5th grade classrooms are all in the same space and the teachers are very involved in one another's planning. 

Eventually the meeting ended, and my friend who will be working in the 1st grade classes (Hannah is her name) drove me home and we listened to Ludacris circa 2003 and it was awesome. 

I hope that I teach in Seattle long enough to create my own acronym for standardized testing. I'm thinking along the lines of FISH (fundamentals of integrated school humanities), RAIN (ritual assessment of intellectual (k)nowledge) or TSFTWHTT (that stupid ****ing test we have to take). I am open to other ideas, too.