Thursday, June 30, 2011

Writing Games

In my years of teaching, I've worked with a lot of kids and adults on writing.  Many of these students have been extremely resistant to the writing process.  It's extremely common for people to have anxiety around writing, so it's important for teachers to not only teach the process, but to address this anxiety as well.

Sometimes this involves tricking the student.  If, for example, the a perfectionist and overthinks everything, I often have them do speed writing.  They have to write for two minutes.  It doesn't have to make sense but all the words have to be actual words. 

An old friend recently asked for help for her 9-year old who needs tutoring over the summer.  I wish I was near the kid because, as I immodestly pointed out to her, I'm very very good at this.  I did the best I could over the Internet and I think we've made a start.  Inter-state tutoring is kind of fun!

The first timed writing exercise ended up being:

"Man I word bomb numb ice roar exit hey whoa oh model England prinsess no toot" 

The second:

"Hey NASCAR toot fart butt pee poo yo he mom dad Father"

I LOVE 9-year old boys.  When you say they can write about farts and poop, they lose all their hesitation.

Three years ago: School Trials and Tribulations

A Need or a Want?

My friend wrote this beautiful post about trying to explain why some people are homeless.  Her daughter asked her one day, "Mommy, why are there homeless people?"  I think most of us would have trouble answering that one.

My students were very familiar with homelessness.  I've told the story before about our unit on city wildlife - by the definition in the unit, the kids decided that homeless people should be included.

There was another time, when the Junior Achievement program came to our classroom.  I love Junior Achievement - people from various careers in the community come to teach for a day.  I was teaching first grade at the time and wasn't really used to the school yet.  I was more used to it, though, than the woman who came.  She was coming from the prison system - she was some kind of administrator - and was excited to come teach first graders.  The first thing that tipped her off to the type of community she was in was when she asked where our tape player was.  I told her we didn't have one for the classroom and that I'd have to buy one but I didn't have the money at the moment.  She looked horrified and got one out of her car, telling me I could have it.

The curriculum that day was about the difference between needs and wants.  It started simply enough - she showed the kids photos and they had to say if what they saw was a need or a want.  It was pretty unanimous at first: "roller skates," a want.  "Food," a need. "Games," a want.  That's when we run into trouble.  The woman showed a picture of a house and a bunch of kids declared that it was a "want."  She was confused and said, "Oh, it could be a house or an apartment."  They said it wasn't a need.  It was a want.  She looked even more confused.  Finally one boy piped up.  "My uncle don't have no house and he still alive."  Another kid, "I used to be homeless.  You don't need no house to live."

This, of course, ruined the nice lady's lesson plan of food, air, and shelter being needs.  I looked at her to see if I needed to jump in and noticed that she had tears in her eyes.  She had never thought about the fact that kids might not have one of the things that she thought of as a basic need.  She told me later that she wished she could give more than the tape player.  I knew the feeling.

Three years ago: Louisiana

Sunday, June 26, 2011

My Little Mexico

From five years ago - I love this.

Monday, June 26, 2006


I'm going to Mexico for two weeks to visit my good friends (second family) who run an orphanage there. In honor of that, I thought I'd share a little essay one of the kids wrote:

My dad told me about when he was a soldier in Mexico. When he was a
soldier he went on a helicopters to go where they told them to go and keep mexico safe from other armys. He told me his life as a soldier. He said life as a soldier wasn't easy so he said don't go to the army.

soldado means soldier in spanish. for my little mexico.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Best Thank-You Note


This is from the guardian of a teenager I've been tutoring:

"Just imagine where he'd be if you weren't in his life.  Probably a CYA somewhere out in the desert."

Two years ago: How to Outsmart a Teenage Boy

Four years ago: Teacher Turnover
                         Is it That Hard to be Nice?
                         Seriously, Can't You Just Be Nice?

Monday, June 20, 2011

This is Leadership?

Here's a story about one of the principals from another teacher. I can't decide if my favorite part was that she had to call and tell the district that they had openings because they didn't notice or if it was that the principal didn't feel like showing her where her classroom was.

I was hired two days before school started, (After calling all the elementary schools in the city to find out where the openings were and then informing the district that they in fact did have jobs to fill). I went to the office to introduce myself to the principal and see if I could see my classroom so that I could get it ready for kids. When I walked in to the office it was utter chaos. I saw the principal in her office. I knocked and said, "Hi, my name is ---, and I was just hired to teach second grade here." Her response was "OK." I said, "I was wondering if I could go and see the classroom I am going to be in so I can set it up for the students tomorrow. Her response was something along the lines of I can't, I am too busy. So I stood in the office for about 10 minutes in a state of shock. When finally another teacher saw me and asked if he could help me. I explained my situation to him, and he took me up to the classroom. (which by the way, had all of the desks and chairs piled up in the middle of the classroom, nothing on the wall, no chalk for the chalkboard, and not a single piece of curriculum or literature to be found)

Five years ago: Surviving by Meanness
                        Free Lunch

Friday, June 17, 2011

Playground Equipment

Playground equipment is something that many of us who went to school in more affluent areas (or during more affluent times) take for granted.  We assume that big red four-square balls and jump ropes are found at every elementary school in America, since that was part of our childhood.  Some of us were really lucky and had “earth” balls and parachutes to play with; those are actually some of my best PE memories. 
 The reality, nowadays, is that playground equipment is much less available.  Some years I got a playground ball at the beginning of the year in my classroom supplies, and some years I didn’t.  It was never blown up though, and I was never given a ball pump so I usually bought or borrowed one.  Sometimes there was one teacher in the school with a ball pump and everyone knew it so kids were constantly bringing in balls to be pumped up.  Of course, they’d try to do it themselves and would end up bending or losing the needles so I was not only constantly buying pumps but also needles. 
Most of the playground equipment was bought by teachers.  Because this was true, the equipment was WELL marked.  A regular kickball might have “Ms. Smith” written on it 5 times and “Room 10” another 4 or five times.  You never let those words fade because then some other class would have a ball while your kids would have nothing to do at recess again.  (And every teacher know that down time equals fighting).Jump ropes were a little harder, but you could fit the name and room number on the handle.
Of course, balls would end up on the roof or popped and jump ropes would mysteriously disappear.  Some teachers designate equipment monitors who are the only ones who can bring out and bring in the equipment.  This brings the equipment back but often leads to “You can’t touch the ball, you’re not the MONITOR!” kinds of fights.  Some teachers say that if you bring the ball out you have to bring it back in but kids forget that.  You’d think that in a 10-minute recess, they could remember that they brought the ball out, but they lose interest really quickly and sometimes the ball just falls out of their hand as they walk away. 
Sport for Kids, now called Playworks, is a program that started in my last few years at school.  It has a coach who provides equipment – and organized sports and games – for all the kids during recess and I think maybe during PE.  The kids have to turn in the equipment when the bell rings and since it’s on the playground, it’s more central and easier to get everything back.  And the coaches (usually there’s one and then they train some upper graders to be “junior coaches”) know how to run games and are on duty at recess and lunch, unlike the teachers.
In addition, I really can’t emphasize enough how organized games change the dynamic of recess.  My first few years, we had nothing.  The yard looked much like a prison yard, except maybe with fewer basketball hoops.  The kids’ favorite thing to do at recess was to fight and complain that they were bored.  A few years into my time there, we got a grant for landscaping and we got a play structure, some grass, and a bunch of stuff painted onto the blacktop: a map of the US, a little river, all sorts of things.  Also some trees that are finally growing up. 
The kids were so starved for fun things to do that the first year we had the grass, their favorite activity was just rolling on it.  It was a very little slope and they would just roll down the little tiny hill, get up, run to the top, and roll down again.  Over and over again.  

Two years ago: Grieving
Four years ago: Job Security 
                               The Stories Go On

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Good Ones

I've noticed that much of the time, dysfunctional situations/people make for better stories.  It's way more interesting and makes a better story for me to tell someone about my old upstairs neighbor whose son kept screaming at her that he was going to kill someone with a serrated knife "It's serrated!!" and how he threw his dead pet snake onto my balcony than it is to talk about my other neighbor who says hi to me each morning.

Along those lines, it's often far more interesting - and needs to be brought up - to point out what schools and teachers do wrong.  And I think it is necessary, because these things need to be corrected.  But I was reminded recently when chatting online with a former coworker of the people who really did - and do - put all of themselves into it. 

This woman I was chatting with was talking about how she's going to meet a former student who is now pregnant to give her some photos and what a wonderful beautiful person this former student is.  This person (the teacher) is the first teacher I talked to at the school.  She happened to have a prep period when I was interviewing and I asked her what it was like.  She was honest with me, which maybe should have scared me away, but she helped me out a lot that first year.  Some of the other first grade teachers did too, which was good because I didn't know WHAT I was doing and the administration was not about to help.  Many of these people worked with kids during lunch and before and after school, donating their time.  They all dealt with kids who had emotional problems that no one was qualified to deal with, teaching and disciplining them with fairness and patience, at least as much as was humanly possible.

I've heard a lot of these people from the early days talk about how they hope the kids are OK. None of them stayed for longer than my first few years but I can't blame them because we all had to leave. Whether it was for mental health, physical health, or family sanity, no one could last very long there and still do well.  Some of them are in different school districts, others are teaching adults or preschoolers or not teaching at all.  But I know they all remember the kids and, while we had a lot of kids we'd like to forget, we have a lot of kids we think about too and we hope and pray are all right. 

I just wanted to say that just because I might be the only one of this group writing about it on a regular basis, there were some good people I worked with and I certainly would not be writing about the experiences now if they hadn't helped me survive my first few years, and helped me actually learn to teach.

Four years ago: It's Over.

Five years ago: Numbers

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Remembering Guns and Lockdowns

Friday, June 12, 2009

Guns and Lockdowns

(I thought about including an image of a gun on this page, for visual interest, and I couldn't do it. Just couldn't.)

The kids I've been talking about in my last few posts are a little more stable, at least in terms of their living situation. Again, thanks to everyone who helped financially - you may very well have helped save these boys' lives - no exaggeration. Again, these are the kids who witnessed the murder and had to be relocated because the police (who I just love SO MUCH - is the sarcasm reaching you through the computer?) showed them off to the suspects so there are plenty of threats of retaliation to go around. Then they treated them like they were the criminals. But I digress.

They are in an apartment now which is bigger than ones they've lived in before and - while not in an affluent area at all - are not in danger. I think they're talked into counseling - and thank goodness, their mom and grandmother are 100% in favor of it. I worry about them - the older one talks about getting an AK-47 and shooting anyone who bothers him. He tends to say things for dramatic effect, but still. The little one - when I told him he gets to go to summer camp (yay! Post about that soon.) tried out my sleeping bag. He asked if the other boys would help him if he needed help putting it back in the bag. I said I thought they would, and he said, "If they don't help me, I'll just shoot them."

I understand that this is probably normal for kids who saw their friend shot and killed three weeks ago (can one use "normal" in that sentence?) but it is really hard to hear. Fortunately, I don't think these two have any access to guns and I actually think they're smart enough not to use them if they did, but it is definitely on their mind. And these are loving boys - not nearly as hardened as many in their schools.

To show a little bit of what the kids at my school (I haven't worked there in two years and my last set of kids just graduated from fifth grade, but I still think of it as my school) talked about in their graduation speeches.

First of all, fifth graders are just funny when they are doing public speaking. One of my old students gave a short speech about going to middle school and was apparently quite nervous, as most of her speech came out like this:

"Andnowthatwearebeingpromotedfromfifthgradewearegoingtomiddleschoolandwewillhavetoactlikelittleadults withoutthekindofhelpweareusedtofromourteachershereinelementaryschoolwhentheyhelpusallthetime."

(that's hard to type)

The speaker that almost made me cry though, was the next one. Her topic was elementary school memories and she was listing ways that she and other students could tell that their teachers cared about them. Along with "teaching us" and "helping us when we don't know something" she added something I've never heard in an elementary school graduation speech. She said something like "Another way our teachers show that they care about us is they don't let us go to the bathrooms or in the hall when there's shooting."

Now, I know exactly what she's talking about. At least once a year each year that I was there, we had a lockdown. A lockdown is when there's a threat and the teachers have to lock the doors, close the curtains, turn off the lights, and get the kids in the center of the room, if possible. There were plenty of times when I didn't even know the reason for the lockdown, but some I do remember were a parent running through the school with a gun (custody battle gone bad, I think), a high-speed chase of a bank robber over the Bay Bridge that ended in front of our school, and an arson/attempted murder-suicide thing at a carburator shop or something like that a block down the road.

Lockdowns themselves have a number of problems. First of all, since we changed principals so often, there was never an accepted procedure for any emergency action. Fire drills are pretty much the same from one school to the next, but we never got earthquake drills or lockdowns down. (Or bomb "treats" as one memo we received stated. "In case of a bomb treat...") Sometimes it was a series of bells, sometimes it was announced over the loudspeaker that it was a lockdown, and sometimes the current principal would use some kind of cute code intended not to freak out the children. One year it was "Mr. Keys has entered the building." Get it? Keys? Lockdown? That was the year all the kids asked if it was Alicia Keys' dad.

Then there are the logistical problems. The doors only lock from the outside, so you (the teacher) has to open the door and go in the hall to lock it - which is not ideal if you've just heard that there's a man with a gun running through said hall. I used to keep my door locked and just make everyone knock on it when I was in the portable classroom all exposed out on the yard. The principals always got mad at me, and I always did it anyway, after the first lockdown.

Then, you have a bunch of freaked out kids who have no idea what is going on and all need to do two things immediately: call their moms to make sure their moms aren't dead, and pee. We resorted to having kids pee in the sink a couple of times during long lockdowns - I had a blanket that someone would hold up and I cleaned the sink really well after. And I'd pass around the cell phone while we tried to keep doing school in the dark.

However, the thing that made me want to cry about this little girl's speech was the sincerity in which she said it. Just like another kid might say they knew their teacher loved them because she took them on field trips, this one knew her teacher loved her because she wasn't allowed in the hall when there was shooting. That's how much of an accepted part of life it is. And none of the parents reacted. I mean, imagine if someone had said that at an upper middle class graduation! No, these parents just nodded because they too know that it's one way the teachers take care of their kids. After all, the parents have taught their kids to get in the bathtub or the closet when there's shooting. I learned that my first year.

Finally, the kids - Jorge and Luis - I've been talking about before... right before their friend died, they found out their dad was arrested for possessing a handgun. I'm not sure, but I think he was a felon and therefore is not allowed to have a gun at all, but he's convinced the kids he didn't do anything wrong and they are full of righteous anger about him being locked up. Also, he'll probably be deported back to Mexico after he serves his time.

Amazing what a few inanimate objects can do to kids, even kids who have never even touched one.

One year ago: The Wrath of the Almighty Johnny

Two years ago: Guns and Lockdowns

Five years ago: Exploratorium, Continued

Friday, June 10, 2011

School Break-Ins

An essay about so many of the school break-ins that have happened this year (and last year and the year before...)

Two years ago: This is What I've Been Saying

Five years ago: The Exploratorium
                        Recycled Sculpture

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

I Think I Had This Kid...

This is not my note, it's from, but I definitely had kids who should have written me one just like it!

Two years ago: An Apartment

Four years ago: Last Report Cards

Friday, June 03, 2011

An Awesome Thing

Sometimes, you just need some good news about a school district.

The custodians (who by the way, do not make a lot of money) in Oakland Unified have started a scholarship fund. (You can help if you'd like)

Good job, custodians.

Two years ago: Progress

Five years ago: What's Normal to You...

Thursday, June 02, 2011

TeachingTolerance: The Black Teacher Who Wasn't

I had a blog published in Teaching Tolerance!  Very exciting.  (Although I don't usually start sentences with "so," so you can tell there was editing.)

Read it here.  It explains the origin of the blog's name.

One year ago: Being Light Skinded

Three years ago: What's Going On

Five years ago: Bedtime