Exploration and Discovery

Exploration and Discovery
The Outdoor Classroom

Sunday, September 4, 2011

now that i am actually teaching i have less time for thinking about it!

The year is off and running.  As I prep for next week, and make note that we are already on the 4th week of school, I have to look at my map out of the year to see if I am anywhere near target. I know where I need to get the students by the end of the year, and I had a terrific plan all paced out to get us there, and now I see how the scheduling of "enrichment" classes, holidays, field trips, and kids at different levels of comprehension and ability wrecks havoc with the best laid plan. I teach Language Arts and Social Studies core curriculum to fifth graders, trying to prepare them for the rigors of middle school by the time they walk through our portals at the end of the year. Some kids are already there, ready for the challenge academically and socially mature enough to stay focused on their studies while navigating the hormonal landmine that is middle school. Heck a couple of these girls seem ready for high school. But just as there are 10 kids already there, 10 kids working to get there, and 3-4 that will not be ready no matter how I map out the year, that leaves 10 for whom it could go either way. Maybe with the right services and support the majority of these kids will be ready and do fine, but without the services, and counseling, and one on one work they desperately need, they will get discouraged and angry and bitter, and they will stop trying. That scares me and wakes me up at night. What can I do to keep more of those students from following that tide out to sea? I know, rather poetic , but true.
Teaching the material, finding a captivating and engaging way to teach the material, and an effective way to evaluate whether the message has been received is only part of the task at hand. I used to think that was the job, and challenging enough in its own right. But the meetings with Special Ed, the hopes and demands of parents, and the realities of a ridiculously tight schedule all while trying to navigate 33 students from one class and 33 from another through 2 subjects  seems a tad Sysifusian. I think whoever decided to split the core curriculum between two teachers was a genius, I cannot imagine that science or social studies would ever get their due if it was up to one classroom teacher to plann out the week and meet the math and language arts standards. The beautiful think is we can meet our language arts standards through writing about our social studies curriculum...to be continued.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

professional development day 1

I am feeling a little overwhelmed; the teaching seems easy compared to the scheduling! School politics is visible , but as the new kid on the block I am trying to just focus on what it means for me and my students. As I map out the year I realize how ambitious it is. I still think my flow makes sense, but I am less convinced that the progression can be determined by the calendar. I am trying to think of it only as my goal post and the field is wide pen right now...as we get into the year the offense will be coming on strong.

Football analogies aside. I LOVE the 5th grade curriculum for social studies and language arts- they are dovetailed really nicely. If I can graduate these kids able to read non-fiction, write a multiple paragraph essay with a bibliography, and knowing a little bit about life in the US before Columbus, the explorers and westward expansion, the American Revolution and how a bill becomes law, and, oh yeah, the states and capitals- it will be a three pointer!

Monday, August 8, 2011

setting up a new classroom

OMG I have been in almost every day for weeks and I am finally feeling like my classroom is set up. I can't imagine how teachers do it with two or three days notice. There is so much to pour through and weed out. I know some people wouldn't put in the hours off the clock, but it is a quality of life issue for me. It would be similar to not cleaning up a mess in my home because it wasn't my mess...well, I still have to live with it.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

classroom is in order- now to plan out the pace and opening weeks

After a week and a half of painting, alphabetizing, and removing extra furniture, the classroom is looking ready for the welcoming touches. I found a closet full of borders, posters, and resource materials and placed what was most relevant to the initial curriculum and basic grammar review- the eight parts of speech and the many regions of Indian tribes of North America. Had a clever aha moment as I was posting the boards on the different tribes to place them according to their location...ie. the Southwest, the Far West, The Plains, The Far North, the Eastern Woodlands. If it helps me remember it will probably help the kids, right?!.I also put up some book covers of some of the classics by the library to inspire reading of books above and beyond Goosebumps and Captain Underpants. I found a beautiful hardback edition of The Secret Garden at the used book store for a couple of bucks; I think of it as the jewel in the haystack that is our classroom library. Hopefully someone will discover it and have the sheer pleasure of holding it as she/he reads it.
I am researching on line, reading textbooks, and gathering supporting materials from Creative Teaching and various Scholastic booklets. There are no shortage of activities to help the kids get the concepts- it is the mapping out of the introduction/review of the concepts that I am working on. Where to start? I want to see how well the kids write at the start, but realize there will be a huge gap between the highest and most basic of readers and writers. I am trying to accommodate the lessons and activities to engage everyone- a tall order to be sure.
I know that the first week will be a combination of team building activities, review, clarification of rules, responsibilities and expectations. I also know that it is best to over plan and to schedule every minute of the day - especially for the first few days . Seating arrangements, establishing hand raising protocol, how kids can communicate need to use the restroom or sharpen a pencil without interrupting the rest of the class- those are the kinds of details that I am trying to work out mentally in advance- sometimes in the middle of the night :)

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Cleaning the classroom

Well, it looks by all accounts that I will teaching this fall. I have not signed any paperwork or been given any guarantees, and I am fully prepared to find out something has made it impossible for me to be the honest to goodness teacher, but in the meantime I had to dig in. I have spent the last four days cleaning: removing staples from the wall, pulling down old signs, scrubbing desks, vacuuming air vents, painting over scuff marks and coffee spills, and wiping  weeks and weeks of DLR transparencies clean and hanging them to dry (thanks Carol!). So, I feel that I am starting in a clean, new space- or I have just given some random senior teacher who will be bumping me the greatest gift in the world! Today, after moving the desks for the third time, I settled down to sorting through the library and figuring out how best to organize the books, screening and sifting out inappropriate titles and dog-eaten copies along the way.I, once again, am struck by how much ground there is to cover in a single school year. I know a lot of these kids, having subbed in their class on a number of occasions, but that is quite different from knowing their reading level and their comprehension level to know what will be a realistic starting point for everyone .
I started digging through all the files I found in the classroom and was pleased to find a number of compelling activities and summary sheets for all aspects of writing and reading. Tomorrow I will go through the social studies files and see what  is  there. I have set up the two working computers and the one shared printer and find myself feeling discouraged about how much I had hoped to integrate technology into the curriculum. The class will also have access to a portable computer lab, but I am not sure about the hours of availability and need to feel sure that it is equally accessible to both morning students and afternoon students.
I am glad I have been given this time to get ready for my first full time class, even if I end up getting switched at the last minute. It has given me an appreciation for how much time is needed to do a thorough job to prepare for the first few weeks of school and the year in general. I understand that many people would not be willing to put in this amount of time or do the grunt work that I am doing because we are not paid for it- that is the beauty of being older, having a number of careers under my belt, and perhaps, being a parent- you do it because you feel better for having done it- they couldn't pay you enough anyway, so do it for me, do it for the kids, do it because it just really needs to get done.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Planning out a school year

the first couple of weeks are not about teaching curriculum, but establishing the environment and clarifying the procedures for the kids. There are approximately 36 instructional weeks in a school year after winter break, spring break, and various three day weekends. The first two weeks are about establishing routines and introducing materials, not to mention learning names. The last week is for closing up shop and cleaning the classroom.;that leaves 33 instructional weeks to introduce, reinforce, assess, and have a certain modicum of fun with the curriculum. Can I do it?

Saturday, June 25, 2011

sIck in bed, but getting ready for fall

I have been SOOO sick with the bug that has been playing tag in our family, running its two week course with just a little overlap from one victim to the next. For the first two days I could just lay in bed, and groan, and have weird dreams, but by day three I felt well enough to resume the homeschool routine that I have been insisting on this summer with my youngest son. We do about a half hour each of social studies, math, spelling and speech, and then he reads a chapter or two in a novel related to the period in history he will be studying in the fall. This week, since I am still sitting in bed and he is raring to go and gone after the lessons, I find myself preparing for teaching in the fall.
I sometimes refer to the fourth and fifth grade core curriculum standards and look for interesting and engaging sites that support the social studies curriculum. There are plenty. And then last night when I was watching Charlie Rose, from my Robitussin stupor, he had on the editor of TIME magazine; the whole issue is devoted to the Constitution! Oh Joy Oh Rapture. An intelligent timely discussion about what was written, how was it intended to be used, how should it be used today, is it still relevant and necessary? I got so excited I ordered a copy of the constitution to frame and put in my nonexistent classroom.
This is what excites me about teaching, social studies in particular, but everything really; it is that moment when what you are teaching/learning becomes relevant to now, to each child, to their understanding of the larger world they live in, so they can explore what they think about it, how they feel about it, and whether they think or feel strongly enough to actually prompt them to take some action, whether it is to write an essay/letter to express their opinion or join a local group that is doing work on an issue. Anyway, I got on an extended stream of consciousness research web search and found some amazing sites.

http://blogs.nysut.org/sttp/The Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights created Speak Truth To Power Lesson Plans and compiled educational resources, based on a book that Kerry Kennedy wrote of the same name. There was a play written and performed in NY that I am trying to get a copy of. The book is a collection of biographies of a number of human rights defenders :
Oh, to be able to inspire young people to be politically aware and advocates of justice.

Which led to my next tangent-the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I had known, maybe, thought that somewhere, maybe, there were guidelines that laid out what the UN would stand up against/for. It struck me that I might be able to find this on line (have I mentioned how much I LOVE the web!) and lo and behold. http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/

and then I found myself wondering if there were any sites for kids who wanted to get politically active and found
I am not crazy about the site layout and have not had a chance to explore all the links, but what I love so far is that you can plug in your zipcode and find grassroots local efforts in your area that kids can get involved in. I started running out of steam after this, but I have a plan to compile a list of 10-15 local efforts that  a fourth or fifth grade class could adopt and make a commitment to help...starting with their "own backyard" of course.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Teaching in the Age of Technology

We are so lucky to have a seemingly endless source of information and inspiration only a finger tip or two away! Everyday I find new mentors on the web, people who have been teaching for years and have sifted through their experiences, and then share what they have learned. I just discovered a site
written by a guy who taught history at the middle school level for a number of years, then taught at a small liberal arts college for a few more and is now working for the state of Kansas doing staff development and training...and even though I am not a full time employee of SFUSD, and despite the fact that I don't live in (and am not sure I have ever been to) Kansas I can access this man's wealth of experience.

There are websites to create your own timelines-
It could be helpful for a student to create their own so you can see what they thought was important and you can see
  1.  what interests them 
  2. what they need to know, but didn't embrace 
  3. what you need to go back and review.
I have been previewing 7th grade history with my youngest son this summer and it has been helpful to build a timeline for every couple of chapters we cover and then to go back and see how the timelines intersect and cross over...what was happening in Europe and the Byzantine Empire at the same time as the Islamic Expansion and how they intersect. This has allowed him to see the relationship between the two histories which are covered very separately in textbooks.
  • There are videos and computer generated images to make history come alive for kids today. 
  • There are websites like nutshell math to help explain something a number of different ways so each child can learn the concept at their own pace and in their own academic language. 
  • NY Times has an online Learning Network that suggests lesson plans based on today's paper and features a student opinion section that students can write to and have their work published. How awesome is that!

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

preparing for 4th and 5th grade curriculum

I had reason to hope that I might be teaching this fall, not sure what will happen at this point, but figured I would keep preparing as if I was. I decided to focus on 4th/5th grade Language Arts and Social Studies because I see that as where the greatest potential for cross curriculum instruction lays. I have come across a ton of information about the American Revolution, and our founding fathers, but I wasn't finding the same multiple media sources of information on the Native Americans and the many tribes of North America. I searched out a movie called 500 Nations, hosted by Kevin Costner, and got a copy from the SFPL (OMG I LOVE THE LIBRARY!). It is Wonderful!. The music is a little dramatic, but that seems to always be the case in these kinds of presentations. I love that the featured selection tool allows me to focus on one tribe, or tribes from one part of the country. There are actors reading original texts, as well as computer generated images of what the ruins looked like in their majesty. One thing that Costner says in the intro gave me pause. When you think about how much time our kids spend learning about Greek, Roman, and European culture and then you realize how rich and advanced the Indian cultures were here it is shocking and disheartening that we don't spend equal amounts of time learning our own country's remarkable history. The shame of destroying the Indian culture should not keep us from now acknowledging, celebrating, and honoring the depth and breadth of the Native American civilization.

One of the greatest benefits of becoming a teacher is that the more I continue to learn, the more I can bring to my work and to the kids.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Summer Homeschooling

I have been planning out the schedule for getting Jimmy ready for seventh grade in the fall; three b's and two c's do not cut it in my mind. Seventh grade curriculum is actually great- medieval period. Interesting though, it is not just knights and crusades, but medieval Africa, China, and Japan, as well as early  cultures from the Americas- Mayan, Aztec. Should be interesting. I have a copy of a seventh grade California social studies text, the core standards in social studies and language arts, and some ideas about topics for persuasive and comparative essays. What I am trying to put together now are some good reads and maybe a movie or two to make it a little more Jimmy friendly. I found a book entitled The Samurai's Tale that looks good- he started it and seems interested. The other title I had recommended was Catherine, Called Birdy.It appears to be a diary format which would make for an easy read- though I am not sure that a young girl's diary will be compelling for Jimmy. I will have to read a little of it and see. I was thinking of the movie "Shogun", though it is long, maybe we could watch it as a family and break it up over a couple of nights.

What I have been realizing as I have been pulling our schedule together is: 1) how important it is to know what the curriculum/standards for the grade level are, 2) how great it has been to have a few weeks to think beyond the text book for other mediums and formats to help make the material more compelling and accessible (The Magna Carta is at the Legion of Honor for another week- I am hoping to have Jimmy at least go and see it with me), and 3) how if you were allowed to teach the same grade for a few years you could really make it come alive for the kids, by incorporating art projects, field trips, guest speakers, drama/theater- layer upon layer.

Math is not my forte, but I sense at this point what he needs more than anything is drill and kill on multiplication and division of decimals.

How am I going to do this if I find out one week before school starts what grade I am teaching?!

Monday, May 23, 2011

teacher as parent

I don't feel right about my son, Jimmy , passing onto 7th grade  without expressing my frustration with the experience he had in 6th grade. While he loved his math and science teacher, and his grades were not terrible, I found the communication lacking, and my ability to help him on his homework or prepare for tests less than satisfactory. I went to a parent teacher conference at the beginning of the year with both of his teachers, and found the result unsatisfying, and not really worth the time spent. My primary frustration was with his Language Arts and Social Studies teacher. I can tell that she loves her subject, and has spent a number of years developing her curriculum, but with that in mind, I cannot understand why she doesn't have a syllabus. So many of her larger projects are/were assigned with short notice and no written explanation for a parent to guide or support their student.
I reached out to this teacher on a number of occasions and offered to help correct papers, or post grades, or anything to bring her up to date so I could get a handle on Jimmy's grades and determine whether he was keeping up with assignments. As it turned out Jimmy was behind on assignments and his teacher only accepted late work on certain things. In Jimmy's defense, I found that he had been told of large projects very late, or been given an assignment verbally as he was leaving class. This was confirmed by a number of parents of students and former students of this teacher. And this is why I am writing. It sounds as if this has been going on for some time. My son has survived the experience, barely, and I do not believe my talking to the teacher directly about any of these complaints would be any more effective than it has been in the past...so I just wanted to go on record.
I haven't even started with my frustrations about his PE teacher. I am dreading 7th grade for Jiimy. My older son Max was lucky enough to have a great, young enthused young woman as his language arts and social studies teacher; the flip side of that was the nightmare of having a staunch, hard line, non-accommodating or differentiating math teacher. I am afraid Jimmy will fail in this man's math class, but know he would thrive with the partner LA and Social studies teacher- these are my choices?! 
As a parent, who happens to be a credentialed teacher, I am more than willing to have a second text at home for my son to work from and to insure he is keeping up with his readings. But I need be informed what text, AND WHAT EDITION, they are using in class so I can get the correct text. Please insist that teachers post their assignments on school loop- and if there is a long term project to attach, the instructions. These kids are LEARNING how to get organized, but they are not there yet. As a committed, though over extended working parent of three children, I need all the help I can get from the teachers in order to help my son be a prepared student in their class- this is a partnership, not a blame game.

Sunday, May 15, 2011


I spent most of yesterday organizing my classroom materials- organizers, books, supplies, lesson plans, and standards summaries by grade level. I want to start. I am learning A TON working as a sub. I have seen the benefits of adding theater as means of learning about history, the power of a great read aloud book to quiet even the rowdiest of kids, the critical importance of being completely prepared, the results of daily routine so the kids practically don't need me there as a sub, and I want to try it out; I want my own classroom so I can start working on the process of becoming a better teacher...even before I am a teacher. I know it is going to be hard and an emotional roller coaster, and that part scares me a little, but I am excited about the learning curve and seeing the results in the kids understanding and enthusiasm. I LOVE watching the lightbulbs go on!

Monday, May 9, 2011

Fairness and What's Right

There are always a few loose canons. A boy who can't sit still, a girl who shouts out whatever she is thinking, another who wants to play to the crowd and get entertainer of the year. But what about the 60% of the class that is interested and trying to understand and would like to learn, but is too shy, embarrassed, or not willing to stand up for their educational rights. I don't want to spend more time focused on the few kids who create discord and disruption; I want to teach the kids who want to learn and watch the light bulbs go off over their heads when it starts to click. How to structure a classroom so that the kids that WANT to learn can get what they need, and the kids who need to learn how to function in society can get that, and the kid who functions way above class level can make it clear enough that I can provide them with some specialized, stimulating, independent work- all without sucking the joy out of me and making me a crab apple.

Friday, May 6, 2011

friday ...oy, i made it...kinda

My tummy hurts. I feel as if I am the picture you see in the dictionary if you turn to the page "stress". My brain is a twisted knot and I have to remind myself to breathe.

Five days subbing in a K/1 split, volunteering a little, and then my son's 12th birthday.  On one bookend of the week his real birthday with family presents and home made cake and on the other bookend, his party with 5 buddies for a sleepover. Fortunately my husband understood my overload and agreed to take them to the movie so I didn't have to sit through the action-packed gore and sweat.

I recognize that this was a particularly hard class to sub in, but the fact remains that it was not even a full class (only 15 students), and I am pretty competent, patient, and a multitasking kind of person...what is the district and the world thinking! First graders and Kindergartners are not developmentally or academically on the same plain.

To expect Kindergartners to do independent academics is ridiculous- centers maybe, but even then only with a lot of individual explanation of the activity. And in some wacky, administrative standards- based universe, they think introducing 1st graders to fractions at the end of the year is a good use of time.  It is impossible not to question the rationality of these people. Many of my first graders could not even trace the pattern blocks to determine what fraction of the shape they took up.

A friend who is involved with training and preparing new teachers says that in her program they discourage people from subbing, because it turns so many folks off from the profession. I can truly understand why that is true. You have all the challenges of the classroom teacher, enough time to reflect on what you would change on a given day, and maybe another day to try to restructure an effective lesson, but not  time enough to see what works with each student day after day- all the work and little of the reward. And you still kinda fall in love with a few of the kids taboot.

I am told that it is easier when you get your own classroom, but I am not sure I can entirely believe that. I can see that there is more ability to control the environment, build rapport, and communicate with families about how best to support a child at home or after school.  But some of the problems I faced would not have been vastly different if it had been my classroom and I had developed the routines with the kids.

At the end of the day I tried to evaluate how much time I spent teaching and it made me sad to think it was probably less than two hours out of a six hour day. Between attendance, calendar time (in the younger grades),  English Language Development time (which is critical), and SSR (sustained silent reading which is also critical), lunch, recess, and bathroom breaks you are left with only a couple of solid blocks of time. A mini lesson in math or language arts might take 15 minutes each, and then modeling an activity to reinforce that lesson, and then setting up the groups and getting folks started...and then having 15 people at once say "I need help Ms. Leishman", "I don't know how to start Ms. Leishman", and you realize maybe, maybe, four people know what you expect, have some grasp of how to do it, and are capable, willing,  and engaged enough to begin the activity on their own, unaided.

I do not remember school the way I experience it from the other end now. I would never have socialized nonstop in class, or gotten out of my seat without asking, or ignored the teacher when they were talking to me- I may have been a bit of a goody two shoes, but I don't think even the kids who got in trouble were as clueless and checked out or disrespectful as the kids I am seeing now...WHY IS THAT?

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Long Pause

It has been a long time between entries. I have had so many different experiences and classroom experiences between then and now. Tonight I am a bit exhausted and emotionally overwhelmed. I am "guest teaching" in a K/1 split with 16 students. 2 of these students receive services and my inexperienced guess is that 2 more need them. Then you layer the age difference, developmental difference, and academic challenges on top and my overriding feeling of where do I go, how do I improve what happened today (and yesterday). How can I teach kids who need a nap after lunch, are 5-6 years old and aren' t going to bed until 10 or 11 at night for an early start school.
The fact that I am a sub, with a limited knowledge of the kids routines, doesn't really help any of us. I remind the children about 4 times a day that I am not their teacher, and though she left me notes, and we will DO all the things she left me notes about - it might sound different or they might have a new partner or any of the other myriad deviations to the way it has been since the beginning of this semester.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

one good lesson makes for a great day

In the middle of a four day sub job with no lesson plans- unexpected absence and illness- during CST testing I decided to take a little control and do a lesson based on where the kids were in their anthology and Language Arts when I stepped in. We had read a story called Thunder Cakes in their anthology (great story by Patricia Pollacco who I love) on Monday and not done much to follow up on it. When I looked through the Houghton Mifflin teacher's guide and the practice book it emphasized the words with an -ed and an -ing ending. Short mini lesson in their book about the rules surrounding this. I had the kids do a second reading working in pairs and try and find as many -ed and ing- word endings as they could in the text. One partner was the secretary and the other student spelled the word from the text to the person writing. OMG- we worked steady for about  30-40 minutes before we were done and had a list of 53 ed words and 7 ing words from the text itself.  All the rules were represented by the text and there were some beautiful new vocabulary words like glistening and cooing. I LOVE seeing students engaged and having fun and learning without trying. I felt so successful and when we did the compiled list on the board and talked about the different rules the kid's volunteered their own examples of the rules. I cannot describe how quickly and seamlessly it all flowed. I assigned a practice book page that would have taken me twice as long to explain as do following this "exercise" and they blasted through- no explanation necessary because they had already done it in a REAL text. so gratifying.

Now the rest of the day was a little more challenging, but I try and remind myself this is my first year, not my classroom, and I HAD SUCCESS0 keep the focus on that. How did I get it? BY being prepared and setting a clear objective.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

and then today....

I was on a panel at SF State today. My student adviser, Dr. Isabel Quita, asked me if I would be available to answer questions from 2nd semester students in the credential program about what it was like after you got your credential, began subbing, and how hard is it to get a job,,,etc etc etc. There were two other people on the panel- a teacher from Berkeley, a black male (always grateful to see a man of color as an educator!) who it turns out I knew from my previous incarnation as a chef, and a woman who had been a principal for 10 years in the district and returned to the classroom, to her love, in a Spanish immersion 3rd grade.

I was blown away by her, after so many years of teaching and being at the helm, she was still reinventing her classroom, and learning, and reaching out. SO INSPIRING! I hope that I can do that...keep it alive, no matter how long, or how many hats I wear. I, once again, felt so fortunate to have the luxury to be subbing and volunteering and making contact with educators all over the city, learning from their experience and seeing what is REALLY out there, in the trenches, happening in the classroom every day.

I will never be able to be an immersion teacher, I think I can say that with some knowledge that my ability with Spanish or French will never land me a job in a bilingual environment, and I do think the environment of an immersion classroom will always be different in part because the children and the families CHOOSE to be there- so there is a fair level of commitment going in/ but, that said, kids are kids and a teacher with commitment, dedication, and systems that work is still an invaluable resource. SO ..I will be volunteering in that classroom as soon as I can find a day to go over and make it happen. What a gift!

WOW! What do you do when your class is WILD?!!?

I was working as a Special Ed para yesterday and found myself in a classroom where the two kids I was assigned to were really quite manageable compared to most of the other students! There were kids that were outright defiant, several ADHD boys walking around and bouncing out of their seats, one had this need to spin two pencils in his hands as he walked around that must have been calming to him, and a couple of girls that talked nonstop, despite repeated warnings and having their seats changed. I was impressed at the teachers calm and persistence. She never yelled, went around and reminded kids who were NOT doing what they should what they SHOULD be doing, but meanwhile helping the kids that were actually trying to do the work. I could not imagine facing this same situation day after day, week after week, for an entire school year. I had the opportunity to talk briefly with the teacher about how she dealt with it and her answer was that she just kept trying. She planned good lessons, she tried to remain calm and consistent, and she gave them a chance everyday, all day, to get in to something.

When I came back into this same classroom later in the day she was modeling a How To writing assignment by showing the kids How To make fresh squeezed lemonade- they were mesmerized, excited, engaged. They were writing in the sheet as she modeled (all but one student who was spinning his pencils) and each got a turn to come up and squeeze a lemon into the pitcher. When the writing was done, and the lemonade made and drunk (it was delicious!), the kids starting going back to wild...only a few of them were beginning to think about what their How To would be about or how to describe what they were doing.

But for 15-20 minutes this teacher was teaching and the kids were engaged and appreciative. And that is what keeps her going, knowing that every day, or maybe once every few days, it happens...the kids are receptive and calm enough to engage and get excited about what they are doing.

This is a veteran teacher. She has a bag of management tools and years of experience. She has been successful at bringing students through year after year, learning and acquiring what they need to go on and be successful in subsequent grades. She has an impossible situation this year, there should be at least three adults in this classroom and a number of the students need services who are not getting them. But rather than standing at the front of the class yelling for order (which she says she has tried but to no effect and it just leaves her feeling terrible about her own teaching) she just keeps trying. I imagine a sailboat with a changing wind constantly re-tacking and trying to make progress without capsizing.

This is why subbing is a key part of my education. I can see that every child is different, every situation is different, and that I will always be learning and reevaluating, reflecting and adapting- I am impressed by teachers that are still learning after 20 years in their jobs to be responsive to the group of children in front of them NOW...

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Cooking Class Today

As a fundraiser for CSS I offer my chef skills up for bid and teach a class to 5 or 6 adults. The menu requested was a brunch menu so we will be making Chicken Apple Sausage in Brioche with a Honey Mustard Dipping Sauce, Mixed Greens with Mandarin Oranges, Black Olives, Red Onions, and Pistachios in a Balsamic Vinagirette, Chocolate Fondue with Assorted Fruits and Shortbread Cookies. As I pull the menu together, test out the recipes, write them up, and then insure that I have all the ingredients and equipment I will need assembled for the class, it dawns on me that I have been doing lesson planning for years...why does it seem different or more official or more worrisome for a classroom of younger students?
Maybe it is because of the OUTCOME of not anticipating every possible need- the kids need me to be better prepared than the adults I am teaching do...It is more than the subject or object of the lesson; it is the drum beat that keeps the flow of the class moving and engaged. That is what I am planning for in the classroom- maintaining an order and some semblance of calm.

Friday, April 8, 2011

A Motivational Find as I was Prepping for the Next Class

“What a Garden Can Teach Us”
adapted from “What the Prairie Teaches Us” by Paul Grunchow

Young garden plants put down deep roots first;
only when these have been established
do the plants invest much energy in growth above ground.
A garden can teach us
that the work that matters doesn’t always show.
Diversity makes the garden resilient.
The garden can teach us to see
our own living arrangements as stingy
and to understand that his miserliness is why
They so frequently fall short of our expectations.
The garden is a community.
It is a dynamic alliance of organisms depending upon each other.
When too few remain, the community loses its vitality and all perish together.
The garden can teach us
            that our strength is in our neighbors.
The garden is patient.
The garden can teach us
to save our energies for the opportune moment.
The garden grows richer as it ages.
The garden can teach us
to be competitive without being destructive.
The garden is tolerant.
The garden can teach us
to see the virtue of ideas not our own
        and the possibilities that new-comers bring.

The garden turns adversity to advantage.
The garden can teach us
to consider the uses that may be made of our setbacks.
The garden is bountifully utilitarian.
But it is lovely too.
That is what, over all else, the garden can teach us:
there need be no contradiction
between utility and beauty.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Garden Class Debrief

I had been expecting 16 students and was a little nervous that that would be too many students for the space, but we had a few no shows and the class went VERY well. I was so glad that I had planned out beyond the first class because one hour was a lot more time than I had figured so we started some of the explorations I had planned for the second class...now I'll have a better sense of how capable the kids are as I plan future classes. Usually just putting on the gloves takes 15 minutes, but I had an assistant I wasn't expecting and there are more second grade kids than kinders so they could help the younger ones as well. We lucked out on the weather- I will have to build two plans in case the weather forces us indoors or just have one or two lessons at the ready for inclement weather.

The KWL chart was great. The kids know quite a bit since Hedda is so spectacular and the 2nd graders are old pros by now. But the W part was my favorite- they had GREAT questions...like how does a plant "use" the sunlight ( they knew a plant needed water, air, soil and sunlight to live and they could understand how it accessed the water and the nutrients from the soil but weren't so sure about the sunlight)...a lesson will be built to explore this for sure.

At the end of the class we regrouped and filled in the L part of the chart. My objective had been for the kids to understand that what we call dirt is actually soil and it is pretty complicated stuff. It has nutrients, it is alive and it affects the health of the plant. One kid said it perfectly when I asked what they had learned that day, that "not all soils are the same", some are dark and crumbly and some are hard like clay. Success!

The observation game was good- it would have been a little easier with kids of the same grade level or age group because the little kids didn't always get that what they changed had to be visible. With practice I can see making this a good team building or fun rainy day activity in the classroom.

All in all the class went well...and the garden looks a heck of a lot better already from all those eager weed pullers. WE FOUND A LOT OF WORMS!

Monday, April 4, 2011

Afterschool Garden Class starts Tomorrow

I will be leading a one hour class for the next six weeks after school at CSS. I am doing this through the YMCA after school program and the training I have had to take to be an employee for them is impressive. Seems like I should have had to have similar training to be a credentialed teacher, but maybe I will when I get REALLY hired by the district. The child abuse and how to prevent child molestation trainings were haunting and enlightening. 1 in 4 girls is molested and 1 in 8 boys is molested. 60% of the time it is someone they know; 30% of the time it is a family member. Took my breath away and led to an intimate Q&A with my boys I should probably have had years ago.

Anyway, after all that, I am still looking forward to the class! Especially if the weather stays so spring like for the next few days. I have planned the first five weeks of the class out on paper, breaking each hour long class into fifteen minute time segments and trying to get a sense of what we can accomplish at each session.

First class will involve name tags and a look ahead at what we will be doing, what do plants need to live and thrive (a KWL chart), what do gardeners need- tools and keen observation. I will go over the tools and how to handle them, lay down the safety guidelines and then we will play an observation game. The kids line up in two lines facing each other. The kids will look at each other and try to notice everything they can, both lines will turn around with backs to each other, one line will change something very subtle- ring on opposite hand, untie shoelace, change hair slightly- and the kids will turn back to face each other and try and identify what changed. Then we will walk around the garden and have the kids make observations, documenting what they notice- end of the class is filling in the L part of the KWL chart. And the following week we have the list of observations to start with to see if anything has changed. I feel good about the class - we'll see how it REALLY goes. Ah, the difference between the plan and realty.

Friday, April 1, 2011

A Touch of Greatness

Just watched the most inspiring documentary on Netflix Instant Queue. This teacher, Albert Cullum, was a rare breed and a visionary. Actually he was "just" a gifted, transcendent teacher, but his courage to be different and to elicit the best in kids is (was) remarkable. My cynical self kept wanting to focus on his effeminacy and question his motives, but the longer I watched and listened to his former students speak, about their memories and how they felt in his class, the more I wanted to know how I could be this nurturing and enabling a teacher.

I had the same reaction to reading Teach Like Your Hair is on Fire...these are teachers who go well above and beyond their classroom commitment... I am sure that I will do that, it is how I am wired...but I worry about finding creative, highly intellectually stimulating projects that kids will embrace and be engaged by. I wonder if these teachers worried about the standards or meeting academic requirements. I know there must be a way to do both, but I think the key lies in my knowing the required curriculum inside and out and finding my own passion in it.

Reading Doug Lemov's book Teach Like a Champion and watching this film I noticed how many of the "key ideas" Mr. Cullum demonstrated ...recapping what the student said using rich vocabulary, asking a student what they meant by a certain thing and having them rephrase it better, asking a student to explain WHY they thought something not just taking the answer flat out. A natural. What he wanted to be was an actor, and teaching was his avenue and stage and he was a star. He credits Dewey for the school of thought that the teacher is really there to open the door, but the classroom belongs to the student. I have not read enough about Dewey and think that is the next road to follow.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Olmec Exhibit

Had the great good fortune to go to the Olmec exhibit with Libbie today; Libbie who knew more about it and has a passion for Meso-American history and art. Who knew? Whenever I try and further my education I become keenly aware of how much there is to learn about and how, after all these years, I am still just beginning.

Libbie shared her theory that the Jaguar babies and the curling upper lip was probably a cleft palate. After she said that I looked at the heads more closely and had to agree . But then I was struck at how African and Oceanic many of the heads looked. When I came home I Googled the origins of the Olmec and found there is much debate about the origins of the Olmec. Scientists blast the Africa theory because there have been no skeletons found that would support it and because, supposedly, Christopher Columbus brought the first Africans to the continent. I learned so much poking around these articles- maps, time lines, references to other pre-Columbian cultures. And I had some point of reference to tag these learnings onto. So it was like building a puzzle out, filling in a little more of the picture.

How great to come back to school from a field trip and spend the next couple of days pursuing follow up questions and deepening the learning. The debrief seems even more exciting as a jump off point than the pre-field trip study, because the kids are building on their seed of knowledge. The kids that are intrigued by the rocks used could pursue that, the students who want to know more about the language could learn about that...and then get back together and teach the rest of the class...

Sounds good in theory.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Waiting For Superman

I had heard so much negative about this movie from teachers and staff  in the lunchroom that I was afraid to see it. I generally avoid seeing movies that I know will make me SO angry, or SO sad, that I can't function for a few days, or even weeks. I am overly sensitive, and knowing that, I am careful. But the opportunity arose to sit in bed and watch it from the comfort of my nest. It was not what I expected; I heard a less critical message than I was led to believe.

 First thoughts:
Geoffrey Canada is amazing. He is so bright and so committed. Harlem is lucky to have him. His vision could save a whole generation of kids and turn their lives around. Wow. It made me wish, once again, there were more men of color in all levels of the educational system- particularly in the front of a classroom.

Michelle Rhee is arrogant- I once again can't fathom how she was ever given the authority or put in the job in the first place. When I saw her go into a classroom and ask a student, WHILE the Teacher was giving a lesson, "What do you think of your teacher- you think he is a good teacher?" I just found myself wanting to say How Dare You - I also thought of how when you get a new manager, in any profession, they should spend the first three months WATCHING before they change anything...and ask A LOT of questions. It is not surprising that she failed and that Washington schools are still picking up the pieces.

I did not hear the same message that many of my teacher friends had, that Guggenheim was saying charter schools are the answer. I heard time and again that reform was needed and that it was clear that some schools had found a way to make a difference. He (Guggenheim) was honest in saying that only 1 in 5 charter schools are seeing results.

A couple of key points that were not articulated, but make a huge difference in why these schools are successful. The families of these kids have made a choice to commit to their child's education by entering in the lottery in the first place. That support and commitment at home already sets these kids on a more hopeful path. The reason these lotteries are so competitive is because there are a limited number of openings BECAUSE THESE SCHOOL HAVE SMALL CLASS SIZE! A known key to success... and one of the reasons they attract good teachers, who know that the only way to TEACH effectively is when you have the ability to connect with your students.

My oldest son attends a charter high school. One of the most important things they have instituted at this school are "Student Success Days". Before the end of the report card period students who have missing work or failed assignments MUST attend a session after school to complete the work. The school and the teachers "WILL NOT ACCEPT LESS THAN SUCCESS". I am committed to adopting this in my classroom wherever I teach and whatever grade I work with. Parents need to buy in, but I also have to put in the time to insure all my students are at least given the opportunity to catch up and get on track.

San Francisco is not Washington DC or New York. Our system is in need of repairs, no doubt about it, but in my experiences in classrooms and schools around the city I see more amazing, inspired teachers than not.
One disheartening fact reinforced in the film was that one year with a bad teacher can keep a kid back 1-2 years for the rest of his academic career. That is not fair to the student, to the families, to fellow teachers who come after and have to spend that much more energy to bring a child up to speed.

I am not sure politicians will ever get it right. The one statement that Michelle Rhee made that I agreed with is that so long as they make it about the adults, we will be failing our kids.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

preparing the library

Spent some time yesterday covering my growing paperback collection for grades 4-6. Having recently read, and been deeply inspired by, The Book Whisperer I am excited to build a diverse and rich library. My problem is I have no idea what grade I will land in. So I continue to gather books aimed at K-2 and 4-6. I mostly buy hard backed books for the younger grades so they will last and because, generally speaking, they are books of beautiful illustrations which benefit from the larger format. I have not limited myself to Newberry Award winners, but after covering 6 or 7 books, I realized most of them bore the gold seal on the front cover. I am really enjoying reading them as well. Trying to categorize them by genre and make notes on who the book might appeal to. Sometimes I think about getting my masters and becoming a teacher librarian, but I want to spend a few years in the classroom first... getting to know the kids, developing the relationships, and becoming a really good teacher. 3-5 years. at least. I LOVE READING and really think all kids can get turned onto it- they just need the right book- for them.

Ended the night by finally watching Waiting for Superman...I am still processing and decompressing internally.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

After Months of Subbing

Well, I am happy to report I LOVE teaching. I love the kids...even the "hard" ones. I am learning a TON about myself. One thing I have recognized is that I am a "nester." I guess I already knew this at some level, but working in other people's classrooms I find myself planning what I will incorporate into my own. One of the greatest opportunities of working in so many different classrooms is the ability to chronicle what some great teachers are doing, and have created.
The frustrating thing about subbing is that I usually only have one day with a class- so I don't get to reflect and re-tact and try a new way with a teaching or a way of interacting and winning a particular student over. I have read it is not the job of the teacher to be the friend. I get that. But I also realize that unless there is some connection there is less motivation on the part of the student to be engaged. Especially true as a sub. I have put special effort on learning kids names. I think has been my most effective sub skill- the kids appreciate my effort to learn their name, and if I know their name I can quickly put them back on track if they are getting distracted.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Starting My Blog

I have just finished getting my teaching credential after a year and a half in classes and in classrooms. I have learned a ton, and I know I have SOOOOO much to learn. I am nervous about subbing in unknown classrooms in unknown schools. The world of education is complicated, far more complicated than the world of food production that I have recently graduated from.