December 9, 2009

First and foremost, MERRY CHRISTMAS!!! HAPPY CHANUKAH!!! HAPPY KWANZA!!! No matter what holiday you celebrate or don't celebrate, I hope you never feel guilty for saying the words that you believe in.
Secondly, I NEED MAILING ADDRESSES!! And I'm not talking about e-mail. I need good, old fashioned snail-mail addresses to send Christmas cards to. So please, e-mail or write me a note or a message and give my your most updated info so I can send out these cards pronto.
Now, back to the first point about political correctness- the school system is over-ripe with it. Oi vay. Like many good thoughts, it started off with the right intention and has taken on an attitude that effectively puts an embargo on any word or action that is not acceptable by our media controlled, law-suit driven, and consumerism loving society. Enter the catchall phrase 'Happy Holidays,' an excuse to forget the reason for the season and buy whatever we can and can't afford. Which brings me to my soap box of the month...
This Christmas, try not to buy into the whole buying attitude. Whether you believe in Christ or not, this season of giving is not about the next big gadget or the brightest toy, it is about family and love and self sacrifice. Whatever you do for the holidays, do something that won't burn a hole in your wallet. Make a gift, give of your time and talent, spend an evening with family, actually have a conversation on the phone with a distant friend using your whole concentration instead of checking your e-mail while talking (that's one I'm working on personally). And whatever you do, remember the less fortunate in this season and always. As Jesus said, the poor are always with us, a statement that will, I fear, never be out-dated. If you have money to spend this season, thank your lucky stars, and consider giving a gift certificate to a charity instead of a gift certificate to Old Navy. Here are some excellent charities that I enjoy helping out when I can.
Check out, a wonderful way to refocus your attitude for the holidays, and one of the programs that got me started on my high horse of charity and home-made gifts. This is an organization that helps entrepreneurs in developing countries start their own business. The cool thing about this website is that you can give money in someone else's name, and then that person can go on the website and choose which project to fund. When the loan recipient pays back their loan (which I believe nearly 95% do on time), you can choose another project to donate the funds to, and the gift just keeps on giving. This website allows teachers to post classroom projects that need funding online, and then do-gooders can browse the website and find projects that interest them. Many projects have photos and inspirational stories. No gift is too small when it comes to serving kids (they come in all shapes and sizes :-) is a personal favorite of mine, just because the laughter and smile of a child brings me great joy. This organization is all about fixing cleft palates in children born in developing countries and is run completely on donations and volunteered time. While I have been donating to this organization for some time, I would recommend making an anonymous donation, as I tend to get a lot of junk mail after I make a donation to the smile train. Just a heads up.
These are just a few of my favorites, but there are so many worthy organizations out there. Stepping off of my soap box now. Thanks for reading ;-)

Here's a teaching update: Every day I am reminded that I am surrounded by students who are in need: in need of clean clothes, in need of breakfast, in need of attention and love. I wish I could give them everything they need, but for now, I just buy breakfast bars and try to be supportive and caring and to teach them as much as I can in the short time I have with them. I am getting tired and canNOT wait until I get to fly home again and get a big bear hug from those who loved me from day one, but teaching is still what I love to do. The most challenging, time consuming and heart wrenching thing I've ever done, but still the best.
I took 50 students on a field trip to the St. Louis Holocaust museum yesterday and I learned two major lessons- never take that many students on a field trip, and never take a student who has had a referral before. Life is much simpler that way. On the whole, my students were wonderful- very respectful with excellent questions of the three Holocaust survivors we spoke to. It was a great hands-on experience for them, and no matter how many pieces of hair I lost over the stress of making sure I didn't forget the two students puking in the bathroom, or making sure my students didn't write on the walls, or making sure that everybody got to eat lunch, it was worth it.
I had a student come to school with chicken pox today because he didn't want to miss my test. Ah, the little sweetie pie without a clue (he's the same one that pointed out rather loudly that I have a lot of grey hair on my head). He was the cause of what I dubbed the 'scrub party' in which I handed out disinfectant wipes and just let the kids go at every surface my little sweetie could have touched.
Here's a funny story for you all- I have a particular 'favorite' in class, and those of you who know of whom I speak will know that 'favorite' is being very very sarcastic. Today, I decided that I would not argue with said student, whom we shall call Abe, but instead chose to ignore Abe. Completely. As if he didn't exist. Abe acts horribly in class, all to gain attention. It doesn't matter if it is negative, all Abe wants is attention. So, keeping the power on my side, I ignored him. IT WAS SO HARD!!! He was making incessant noise during a benchmark test, refusing to follow directions and in general being a nuisance by asking to go to the bathroom over and over again. The only thing I said to him was to write his question down, because if it was important enough to be written down, it was important enough for me to pay attention to. Wow, what a battle of the wills! I actually thought at one point, "Oh God, let him break, please, let him just write the question down, because I am about to break here."
Thank heaven above because, right after I thought that, Abe finally wrote his question down. First battle, done. Then, I kind of failed at the whole ignoring thing and things became as bad as they have before and I ended up writing him up, but that's not the end of the story. When I told Abe I was going to write him up for being a distraction, he actually mumbled back, "I'm going to write YOU up," which he did. It was the first time in my whole class that I have actually seen him write more than three lines. He was so impassioned that he actually wrote 24 lines! Granted, it was all one sentence, but now I have my writing diagnostic for him! It was a hilarious tale of woe and misery on his part, in which he simply told on himself and didn't make me sound bad at all, even if he miss-spelled every other word, and now I have a writing example from him and I am more than happy. The fact that I am celebrating after making him respectfully ask a question says a lot towards our current relationship. All Abe wants is attention, and he'll do absolutely anything to get it.

So, in closing, I love and miss you all, I can't wait to see some of you very soon, and I really need MAILING ADDRESSES!! Remember, spend money within your means and spend all the time you can with those you love.

October 8, 2009

Falling into significant gains

There's something about fall that makes me feel alive. The cold air, the smell of dried leaves, smoke from chimneys, the color that explodes like long lasting fireworks, exotic foods that only come out when the weather gets cool- it wakes me up and keeps my senses fresh. On the other hand, fall also reminds me of the end, and makes death so beautiful. It's mother nature's last farewell before the world gets covered in a blanket of renewing snow, waiting for the new year. I love fall.
I'm glad to be feeling like my old self again, as I was grumpy, irritable and tired when sick and on medication. Not the person I want to be. Teaching while sick is a nightmare that I do not wish on anyone. My room-mate is recovering nicely from the Swine Flu, but the virus rages on through the city of St. Louis, closing several schools in the bordering counties. I have a feeling that the inner city schools will not close unless 99% of students are out sick due to our obsession with attendance. 95% is the magic number that it all goes back to for Busch AAA, though some schools are struggling to meet a 75% average attendance rate (or lower). In fact, in some elementary schools students are withheld from any field trip or assembly if they miss a single day of school. I imagine they are small trips.
Anyhoo, here's a question to ponder in your spare time: what are significant gains?
Sometimes I feel like saying, "What kind of a question is that when I've got hundreds of papers to grade, meetings to attend, and referrals to write?" It's hard to keep the big picture in mind when the dirty little details drag you down, but it is OH SO IMPORTANT! Without focusing on the underlying philosophy of teaching- that it is a service for the children- it is too easy to get fed up with disrespectful or silly behavior. If you don't focus on the fact that without reading students won't be able to understand day to day activities, you might become frustrated with how your students misbehave when it is really a testament to the fact that they do not understand, have not understood for quite some time and are used to failing. They just cover it up by acting like they don't care (or like a pack of spider monkeys. That's a story for another time). If I forget that I am here to achieve significant gains with my students, then all the extra work and extra hours seem like torture, not a gift.
I came to a realization today after taking a look at my students SRI scores. The student who reads at a BR 21 reading level (that's Below Reading level 21. Pre-kindergarten) couldn't possibly write an essay. If you can't read you can't write. If you can't read you can't understand complicated instructions so it's no wonder he pretends to shoot imaginary monsters in class instead of focusing on a worksheet that could be written in Chinese for all he knows.
With the first quarter officially done as of this past Thursday, I'm going to be making some big changes in my classroom. We start our first class novel next week, Number the Stars by Louis Lowry. I hope this book about the Holocaust will help my students positively interact with each other and learn a little empathy for other human beings. Also starting next week, every student will read every day in class for 20 minutes and at home for 20 minutes. This will give me time to meet with each student individually and really hammer home the importance of reading. I moved all my desks around into groups and it is so true- moving furniture around is good for the soul. I feel like the freshness of fall has invaded my classroom and helped me turn over a new leaf (or perchance turn the leaf into a different color).

Highlights of my life:
*Caitlin (my older sister) is visiting in early November- yah yah YAH!
*I just bought my plane tickets home for Thanksgiving (cost me an arm and a leg, but I gladly pay it in order to go home)
*Hot chocolate on a cold day. Live music. Coffee shops. Warm showers with space heaters (in the bathroom, not in the shower). The smell of nutmeg and pumpkin.
*I have a student who told me upfront that he doesn't like to read and that all books are stupid (HA! I thought in my mind, a challenge!). I promptly introduced him to the book, Sir Fartsalot, which he has not stopped reading since, and I catch him giggling from time to time about the knight's (and his friend Sir Armpit) adventures in the Kingdom of Flatulence. Another class favorite is the Captain Underpants series. That series is a blessing for my students who can't read above a third grade level. They have found an actual book that they enjoy, a rare thing for many of them. Thank God for toilet humor.

September 15, 2009

My brain was on fire- sorry if this doesn't make any sense.

The worst of the flu is over and I am recovering nicely (though slowly). Thank you to everyone who called and thought good thoughts for me while I was ill. For a few hours on Wednesday, I thought I had the Swine Flu, as one of my students went home sick on Monday with the first diagnosed case of Swine Flu in the St. Louis Public School District. A quick trip to urgent care told me that I was simply suffering from an upper respiratory infection- in other words, a nasty cold with flu-like symptoms that made my whole body ache.
While I hated missing out on teaching my kids for two and half days, I must admit it was nice to take it easy. Teaching has reminded me of winter in the past few weeks: sometimes, it's like climbing a mountain without any air, carrying all of my worldly possessions on my back; and at other times, it's like sledding down a steep hill, barely dodging obstacles, exhilarating, scary, but laughing all the way. I've been exhausted and worn out, but I've never lost sight of the truth- I love teaching and it's what I'm meant to do. I've got hundreds of papers, worksheets, tests and quizzes to grade (amazing how that stuff piles up when you're not looking), data to enter on my TFA trackers, and a week of lessons to plan, but right now, I feel happy that I got to relax and put my health in the forefront of my mind.
I can't write for much longer, as my head is getting heavy with thinking too much ;-) I have empathy for my students who are sick in class now, and all I can do (since the nurse was recently let go due to budget cut backs) is let them put their head down or call home sometime during class.
Before I say goodbye (for now), here's a few things I've been jotting down in my great amount of free time. A few things to ponder about the teaching profession that nobody ever tells you, but are very important to know, and a few random thoughts as well.

Teaching seems to be ALL about paper pushing. If a student misbehaves, you have to record it. You have to record what you did, what was said, what you plan to do. If you call a parent, you have to record when you called and what was said. If a student is in Special Education, you REALLY have to record the modifications you provide for that student or else you cannot legally fail the student (even if they did nothing). If you don't modify the work, the lowest grade you can give is a C. And IEP meetings are not normally supposed to be similar to court rooms, but if lawyers get involved, that's what they feel like.

When I was preparing to become a teacher, I always thought my time off from school would be busy, especially in my first two years of teaching, but I always hoped there would be time for something fun, like reading middle school books, circling interesting passages that might engage my student's minds. For now, that day-dream has been pushed aside by all the other details that I must enter into their proper spots and fritter away at extra time. I must enter grades. Enter progress reports. Enter attendance. Enter who was absent when and who needs to make up this or that. Enter what books they are reading. Enter when the test is on the calender. Enter who looses participation points for talking. Enter who can't sit next to who. Enter who is missing what assignments. Enter an insane asylum for dreaming about paper cuts and swimming in a vat of hand lotion after paper has sucked all moisture out of you, trying to relax after a grading period when you are overwhelmed with students asking you every two minutes what their grade is. I hate, Hate, HATE paper pushing. It literally sucks you dry, but that is what a lot of teaching has become these days in order to cover our own tracks and protect ourselves from...well, whatever may happen.

There are a lot of things about teaching that I LOVE. I love telling my students they are doing great. I love watching students work hard just because I asked them to. I love seeing a class of students raise their hand like Hermione Granger for every question, then moan and groan when I don't call on every single person. I love watching students wiggle in their seats like five year olds, waiting to be called on, or told that they followed my instructions correctly. I love the one student who makes a point to hug me at the end of every day. I love that when students were asked to think of someone who is a role-model of kindness for an essay contest, some chose me. I love acting out a physical definition of vocab words and watch my students copy me. I love that my students got more excited when I let them listen to the 'Eye of the Tiger,' than when I pull prizes like chips and pencils out at the end of the week. This is what teaching is and always should be. It is about the CHILDREN. It is about their well being and growth as human beings and citizens of this world. I try to remember this every time I look at my watch and realize my prep period is over after only entering data and not working on my actual lessons. Just when I feel as if I'm being swamped by paperwork, a student always tells me something nice, or asks to tell me a story, or writes me a note, or asks if I need a hug. They are mind readers, my 70 or so 11 year olds. They read body language as if I were an open book. They are experts on when to push and when to hold back, when to smile, and when they can get away with pouting. I hate the paper, but love the students.

In closing, here's a funny story- one of my delightful students raised her hand on Monday, and as I approached her, expecting to answer a question, she pointed at her mouth and opened it wide enough for me to see a small white lump. I instantly said, "You need to throw that gum away. You know that gum is not allowed in school- go, hurry!" She looked at me as if I had just announced she had to do five hours of homework for the rest of her life. At first I had an gut reaction to just let it go, but I had been reminded by an administrator just that morning that there was absolutely no gum allowed in school. So, I gave her my 'look' and said, "You know the rules- I'm not going to ask you again." She got up, looking back at me as she walked to the garbage can, acting as if she was walking to her doom. She stood over the garbage can and asked me quietly if she could "Save it and put it in her pocket." I looked at her, flabbergasted, and just pointed at the can. I walked away, never taking my eyes off her, and saw her secretly put it in her pocket. "Put it in the garbage can now!" Thinking I had a battle of the wills going on, I stared her down until I saw her put the white lump into the garbage can. She sulked back to her seat and sat, dejected and unhappy. I shrugged it off, never having had trouble with her before, thinking she was just having a bad day. After the period was over, she came up to me quietly and asked, "Ms. Labrie, can I get my tooth out of the garbage can?" Yup. Her tooth. I didn't know 6th graders still lost their teeth...

I have no idea why she didn't just tell me it was her tooth instead of looking at me like I killed her dog, but this just goes to show, I can always have more patience, and things are not always what they look like on the surface.

September 9, 2009

What about Bob? and other life lessons

Now that I've actually got students reading, writing and taking tests, I'm finally seeing their true abilities. And, I'm laughing. A lot. Not at my students. Well, maybe at my students sometimes, but I hope you will laugh with me....Here's a writing prompt one of my students wrote. It is funny on so many levels.

"When I grow up I want to be a raper. I want to be the greatest raper in the world. I will also sell a multy platinum album. I am going to make as more as songs as I can. My nickname is going to be the billion dollar kid, unless I think of something better. Then, I am going to be the king of rap. After that I will rap for a couple of months then stop. After that I will have a huge return. Then finally I would make more albums. Then I would rap and make songs until I die. The End."

Besides the miss-spelling of 'rapper,' I love how this student has just described the life of every celebrity/musician that has come to be idolized by our society. Other students wrote about what super power they want to have and what they would do with it. For example, one student wanted to have telekinesis so he could walk the dog and cut the grass at the same time. Another said he would have super strength so when he gets caught in traffic he would just pick up his car and walk away with it. The imagination of my students is so delightful and their eyes shine so bright when I give them the smallest compliment- I love my life.

I am concerned at how petty my students can be sometimes though. They treat each other so badly, get SOOO angry when someone makes fun of them, and take no responsibility for their actions. The idea that their words hurt just as bad as the words of others is something that has not yet connected in their young brains. So, I borrowed an idea from my first cooperating teacher Sue Moore (good teaching is stealing) and introduced my classes to a friend I call Bob. Bob is a clean, unused piece of computer paper. When I held up Bob in front of my oh-so-mature 6th graders, half of them grinned and the other half looked at me as if a second head had just sprouted out of my nose.

As I introduced my great friend Bob, telling the piece of paper how beautiful, clean, and sharp he looked, my class started to play along, telling Bob how beautiful he looked, reaching out to touch the paper as I walked around the room. A few students continued with their disbelief, nearly yelling in frustration, "It's a piece of paper..." I just kept going, telling them all the wonderful things Bob does for me, but then suddenly, I stopped, proclaiming angrily, "Bob just gave me a paper cut! How dare you Bob! You are so mean!" After which I crumpled up a corner of Bob. Silence in the room. I then got really angry and called Bob names, crumpled up the entire piece of paper with each insult and threw him in the garbage saying that he wasn't my friend anymore. Cheers met with moans, the whole class completely involved in Bob's fate. I just walked around and let them react, remaining silent. Then I said, "Class, I'm starting to feel bad now- I mean, Bob was my friend. He probably didn't mean to give me a paper cut." I took the paper out of the garbage, tried to smooth him out, apologizing, but it was visually clear that no amount of saying 'I'm sorry' could take the wrinkles out- an outward sign that words leave scars. Bob would never be the same because of what I did.

The reactions of my students to this was both enlightening and disturbing. The first time I taught this lesson I gave each student a piece of paper, but they got so angry so fast that they ripped the paper to shreds, stomped on it on the floor, screamed at it, saying words that made no sense for the small 'paper cut' Bob had given. I knew some of my students had been told the words they were saying, using the tones that had been directed at them, doing everything to this paper short of body slamming it to the ground because they had been given permission to be mean. I revised the lesson for the next two classes to just me holding the paper, because I could barely contain the chaos that had erupted the first time. The other reaction that helped me see where my students are developmentally was at the very end, when I asked, "Is it my fault Bob looks all wrinkled and hurt- like a piece of garbage?" More than half said it was Bob's fault. More than half. I had to repeat over and over again that while Bob had 'started' it, MY words did that to Bob: I finished it by hurting him right back. I now have 'What about Bob?' posters around the room, wrinkled pieces of paper stapled to the wall. Maybe this will remind them of the impact their words and actions have, maybe not.

Life lesson number two- all sixth graders suffer from short term memory loss. What, that assignment is due today? We were supposed to keep that piece of paper? I did what yesterday? The less sleep I get, the more irritating these questions become. I have a feeling by the end of the year my sixth graders will be on top of it. The trick is getting enough sleep so I can keep my patience and understanding until then. On the other hand, if I have to keep a student for lunch, call him/her out for talking in class, or just have a bad day in general, the next day it's as if yesterday never happened. They're as good as new!

The next life lesson I have to share is that when you buy a mattress, make sure you buy the right size. Please see the picture below.

I spent most of my last weekend painting the bed frame (It reminds me of Easter now- very colorful. I got kind of paint happy) and was so excited about sleeping on a real mattress after two months on an air bed, but realized once the mattress had been delivered that my frame was in fact for a full mattress, not a twin. Ooops. Won't be making that mistake again.

August 27, 2009

No, the Table of Contents is NOT something you eat on

One whole week (plus two days) done- and I am still here to tell the tale. Honestly, I love my job and all of my students. My classes are full of 6th grade sweethearts- some who behave beautifully, and some who don't. All just want attention (some will settle for ANY sort of attention) and someone to genuinely care about them. I only just started teaching the content, but in this past week and two days several ideas have been cemented in my brain. First and foremost, students really don't care what you know until they know that you care. Secondly, if I ever tell a student to 'listen harder' again, I am going to whack myself. How do you 'listen harder'? After I said that I just wanted to crawl in a hole and hide from the Teacher Mistake Monster that eats people who make students feel stupid when it really isn't their fault.
I now have empathy for teachers who get frustrated with their students, but in the end it's really not the students fault (well, not all the time ;-). The teacher is in charge and students misbehave when they are bored, do not understand, or have something emotional going on outside of the classroom. The key is to remember that bit of wisdom (the fact that I am responsible) after select students decide to laugh, turn around, wiggle like a worm having a seizure, giggle wildly, hum, whistle, pass notes, make faces, make fart noises, actually fart, and pretty much do anything a middle schooler can think of that is not what I ask. I love my job!
That last paragraph makes my job sound much worse than it is. (Well, the flatulence is as bad as it sounds/smells) My middle schoolers are who they are- ten and eleven year-olds forced to sit still and be silent for seven hours, with two minute passing periods to go to the bathroom, get a drink of water, and open their locker that they can barely get to with a crowd with a lock that they just learned how to use. Do you remember the stress of learning how to open a lock? I do now...Especially after spending twenty minutes saying things like, "And now you turn to the left to find your second number...left is this way, honey..."
Downsides to teaching-
Asthma attacks in my classroom. Enough said.
Students with anger issues, parent problems, horrible troubles at home- the list of hardships goes on for far too long and it always manifests at school. How can a child learn when they are thinking about the death of a parent or the possibility of getting jumped on the way home from school? There are so many times during the day when I think of my blessed childhood and how lucky I have been throughout my life. Life can be cruel sometimes.
Some of my roommates and other members of Teach for America are having a tough time of it- and when I say tough I mean that no teacher should have to go through what they are going through. Threats of violence, unruly students that make raciest comments or simply exude disrespect, unsafe neighborhoods...When I decided to become a member of Teach for America I went in with the full knowledge that our placements were mainly in schools that weren't on the top of any teacher's preference list. I also knew that stepping into a classroom without much teaching experience (as most TFA members do) is not the best idea in the world. It's just hard to see the suffering of people I admire and respect and not be able to do anything but give advice. Please think good thoughts for TFA teachers everywhere. It's not an easy job, but it is a worthy service.
Highlights of the week-
My school is AWESOME! The staff is great, I have 70 sixth graders that I adore (so far ;-) who I get to teach for 80 mins EACH day, and the school is in a good neighborhood. My experience has been absolutely wonderful and I go to bed each night wanting to go back to work the next day.
I had a tough day on Thursday (yes, this is a highlight) and I asked my fourth block to cheer me up after third block got me down (lots of talking and craziness). One student raised her hand and said, "You are an amazing teacher, Ms. Labrie!" One student told me a joke- "What's the biggest pencil ever? Pencil-vania!!" (I'm a sucker for corny jokes). Another made me a cute note and handed it to me with a sweet smile. The note holds a special place on my teacher board. My students rock.
One student makes constant references to movies (a child after my own heart). The thing that makes this a highlight is that EVERYTHING reminds him of a movie. EVERYTHING. Such as me saying my family owns a dog- The Incredible Journey. Asking students to tell me who their heroes are- every single comic book movie ever made. I don't think I have another student who raises their hand SO much, or has the most random connections...
When I asked a student to sound out the words he didn't know how to spell instead of asking me every two minutes for spelling, he said, "Oh Ms. Labrie, that's OK, I'll just use my dictionary," After which he whipped out his very own personal dictionary that he carries with him everywhere....
And last, but not least, the look on my students faces when we did my very own personal motions that go along with the 'Plot Roller coaster' (or plot chart for those of you who learned it a different way). They LOVED pretending to be on a silent roller coaster ride, especially making the silent scream at the climax of the story. He he...I must admit that sometimes I do things in my classroom just because it's fun to see twenty-some children copy me.
Random ending-
If any of you are getting rid of your computers for any reason (besides them being broken), please tell me. A friend in the peace corps is willing to pay for shipping so that her students in Burkina Faso have access to the computers.
Thinking good thoughts for you, yes you: love lots, Jessie

August 16, 2009

Twas the night before school started....

This is my classroom!! Keep in mind I took these pictures yesterday, and did a LOT of work on it today, added six desks, and cleaned- so it looks a bit different now. But I love my room and my school and I hope that the kids enjoy my room too, because all of the hours and long nights were spent for them.

I just had to take a moment out of making assignment logs and parent letters to write to all of the very important people in my life and say OH MY FREAKIN' GOODNESS, I'M GOING TO BE A TEACHER TOMORROW! This is the last night of my life before teaching. When I wake up tomorrow, I will start a new segment of my life, taking the big step into a role I have been working towards for the past four and a half years. I could write a few key expletives at this moment to impart just how BIG this is, but I'll leave my choice words to your imagination.
I am very stressed (won't get much sleep tonight), but also surprisingly calm (which is awesome-I'm just not used to this sensation). I know those two don't really go together, but it sort of feels like this: I am scatterbrained and can't concentrate on conversations, yet I know tomorrow is going to happen and it will be OK. My mantra right now is that my 6th graders will be more nervous than I am...I hope.
Before the big plunge tomorrow, I wanted to update you on all of the very important things that have happened in my life since last I wrote. First and foremost- bugs. Not your ordinary, average, everyday fly or ant- I mean BUGS. Let's start with the most disturbing. Cockroaches. These unnerving things have very little going for them on the scale of being liked- a huge yuck factor, often equated with dirty, rotting things, they run in a fast zig-zag formation which means they KNOW you want to kill them, and even their name is rough and abrasive. I have never really experienced the joy of cockroaches before and have found more than I care to tell in my classroom, among other places. Don't get me wrong, my room is a clean place, cockroaches are just EVERYWHERE. Yuck.
Cicadas. Holy Smokes those are the loudest bugs I have ever heard! When I arrived here with Caitlin after our three day trek, the very first thing I said after getting out of the car was, "Oh, some one's alarm is going off." To which Caitlin replied, "No Jess, that's a bug." I have come to enjoy the clicking, multi-pitched hum (or wail) of the cicadas- especially since they turn off at night and don't disturb my sleep.
Silver fishes. As common as ear-wigs in the North West, but boy, do these things give me the willies! These aren't shrunken blast-ended screwts like ear-wigs, these are hairy, multi-million legged worms that move like really small snakes across the floor when you turn on the light (they scatter like cockroaches, which I have now had the pleasure of seeing with my own eyes as well). Normally I would be fascinated by the three inch whiskers on one of these guys, but when you turn on the bathroom light in the morning and a four inch long silver fish slithers under the radiator, just daring you to enter the bathroom with your bare feet so it can do something nefarious to your toes, well, the interest turns into horror. You just can't find these things in Washington.
Moving onto a much more pleasant topic- Bird Poop. Let's just say my street has been inhabited by the poopiest birds I have ever seen in my entire life. What do these things eat?!?! I swear, I would park my clean car under a tree for ONE night, and in the morning my car would have a new paint job. One person on the street has left their car under a tree for a month and it used to be red. Now it is completely white. I have started parking my car around the corner where there aren't trees because even the car wash can't get the poop off! So, not only is the poop plentiful, it's hardy. However, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. My neighbors have taken the situation into their own hands and instead of shooting the birds like some of the men wanted to do, they shot bottle rockets into the trees at dusk for three nights in a row. It was quite the party, with fireworks going off, people drinking beer and smoking on their porches (great combination), all watching out for the police because the rockets do sound like gun shots.
Changing course dramatically- if any of you have simple recipes that you'd like to share for diners, dishes or deserts, please send them my way. To my profound surprise, I enjoy cooking for myself and am not too bad at it. It only takes about five times of cooking it for me to get a dish right ;-)
To end on a VERY happy note- I get to cat-sit my landlord's cats for a month! And I get paid for it (a job I would have happily done for free). I miss animals SOO much it hurts. I think, once I have time (HA HA HA HA!), I will be a volunteer at the Humane Society, getting my weekly dose of animal fur.
Next time I'm sure I will have student stories to share...all of which I hope will be funny and delightful...not the other way around....Think good thoughts for me, and know that all of you are also in my prayers!

August 3, 2009

Following Lewis and Clark....only backwards...

Mom and Dad with Corey on opening night!
Nearly a month has passed since last I wrote and every single day has passed by in a torrent of activity, sort of like watching a river flow by, while walking in the opposite direction of the current, trying not to get sea sick because of that weird optical uncomfortableness that happens when something is moving next to you but the horizon isn't. To be quite frank- I have been hella busy.
Here's the big news/headlines-
*I survived Institute- no, this is not my ghost typing posthumously...though at times it felt that the lack of sleep and constant pressure was going to make my eyes pop out of my head, my teeth grind each other to dust, and my shoulders fall off. The kids were great and worth it, but I will never voluntarily sign up to be a slave to constant achievement again. I had forgotten what it was like to feel relaxed until I went home. In short, I did not really enjoy myself outside of the classroom. I still haven't heard whether my students passed the CRCT or not: think good thoughts :-)
*I have a job!!! Through several confusing mishaps that I won't bother to bore you with, I was placed at Busch AAA Middle School, teaching 6th grade Communication Arts (English, for those of you not from Missouri). I love the school- it's in a good neighborhood and has about 200 kids. I even have a classroom which I am SOOO excited to set up. One of my big projects this year is to have every single one of my students become published authors, but more on that later.
While it used to be magnet school for athletics (Athletics and Academic Academy is what the AAA stands for. Not a training camp for beer drinking insurance salesmen as I first thought...) it no longer has the funding to go bowling, rock climbing, ice skating and the like, but it is one of the only schools in the entire city to still have gym everyday. Woohoo! Get that energy out elsewhere- heck yes!

The start of the big trek, going much faster than Lewis and Clark
If you look closely you can see Mount Rushmore in my sunglasses
*I drove across the country in 3 days- after packing up my room at my parents house for the last time, I went out to see the US of A from a jam-packed car riding shockingly low to the ground. It was lovely to spend time with my older sister Caitlin (who was an angel for coming out to help me move), but after 36 hours in a car I went a little loopy. If you've ever seen me loopy- well, it's either very funny or extremely disturbing. Probably a mixture of both. (I still can't believe I fit all my stuff in my car)

*I moved into my beautiful home, bought furniture and have food in my pantry! My hierarchy of needs has been met. Now all I need is a paycheck.

*Corey was the star of Peter Pan- the role she was born to play, and my goodness, seeing her fly up there on stage gave me goosebumps every time (even the time when her shin was slammed into sharp edge of the poop deck on the Pirate ship- though those weren't good goosebumps). She was magical and amazing and I am so glad I got to see her perform, especially watching the little kids come to her for fairy dust afterwords- let's just say she has a fan club.
*I met the neighbors and have started job training- but not at the same time. Today's orientation was, well, interesting...and long...and I'm sure I have more wonderful information filled sessions to attend. I'll just have to put on my 'happy face!' ('Strictly Ballroom' quote for anybody who's seen that movie).

On the other hand, I'm very happy with my street- I'll try to paint a picture in your mind....imagine a wide road, bordered by huge maples and oaks that cover the street and the cars with shade and bird poop. The houses reside behind the neatly arranged forest, and are made of the same red brick that is ALL over St. Louis (it was the first thing I noticed about the city by the way), but each one has a unique design. The front porches are prime sitting spots to watch the neighborhood wander through the day, and I truly enjoy sitting on my porch swing (yes- a porch swing!) watching people walking their dogs in the afternoon, the fireflys giving off their short bursts of light in the evening, the kids racing each other down the sidewalks on bikes and scooters, all the while being eaten alive by freaking mosquitoes. I truly love the Midwest.

My room is a sea of green- the pale calming type- and while I am currently sleeping on an air mattress while I wait till I can afford an actual mattress, I feel so comfortable in my room and in the whole house. It truly is spectacular and gorgeous and way beyond anything I expected.
In other words, I have officially transitioned to St. Louis: it's my new home. Weird to say (or write) that. I'm in a very good place right now. My next entry will be somewhere in between the training abyss and freak out land near the first day of school, which isn't too far away...I just had the strangest mixture of joy, fear, anticipation, and a random memory of my first day in kindergarten. I feel just like a five year old getting ready to start the big kid stuff, with my backpack and my shoes tied, but without a clue as to what awaits me when the big yellow bus comes to take me away from home and happiness and nap time. Big adult world, here I come!

July 4, 2009

Happy Birthday America!

Happy Fourth of July family and friends! I can't believe that this year is more than half-way over and that Institute will be done in a week exactly- craziness!

I feel that my last post, while very informative, was slightly negative about my whole experience here. I can blame that negativity on two major things- a humongous lack of sleep and the fact that I am working hard for something that really matters and it's difficult to put forward so much effort and not see things change or get better. Then, Thursday happened.

The thing I've been struggling the most with is a strange lack of confidence that institute has created inside of me. I know I can teach, I know I can teach well, but well is not good enough for TFA, and it is definitely not good enough for my students. In other words, TFA has broken me down to build me back up into a better teacher. I hate the process, but love the product, though all the effort and hard work came from me.

So, Thursday was the first day I saw positive results from all my mental work. Everything seemed to click- I over prepared because the day before a three day weekend can be, well, mayhem classroom management wise. I didn't get much sleep the night before, but I was READY when I got to school the next morning. We start the last day of the week with a celebration of our student's achievement (always a good start to the day) by showing them how many tests they've passed and who has moved up our 'Valedictorian' wall (our big goal is to get these students to high school, so high school is sort of our room theme).

I transitioned the students into a learning attitude without them knowing it by playing silent ball- the students throw a ball to each other and try to not make a sound. The point is to go as long as you can silently and they LOVED it! Competition and moving around are their favorite things to do.
Then, oh, and this is the best part, I told them a story. I LOVE telling stories! The objective for the day was to learn how to identify theme in a text, and so I told them my family's 'Jack' story. If any of you have heard this then you know what an entertaining story it is and Dad- you were the star of my classroom for a full five minutes. I have never seen their faces so interested in what I had to say- they were asking me what happened next, what happened to Jack? They were giggling- GIGGLING- and it was one of the happiest moments I've had in the classroom ever. The theme of my story was 'Ravens don't make good pets,' and I know that stories will have a major place in my classroom from here on out. (as will learning by moving)

The rest of the lesson went swimmingly- they were focused and on task and did really well on the assessment. It was a great way to end the week and a real confidence booster. Here are some more happy moments- the shyest and quietest student was valedictorian this week, and when we announced that he had gotten the best scores this week he looked right at me and smiled with a grin that melted my heart. He reads at about a 3rd grade level, and while I'm not supposed to have favorites, he is my favorite. His home life is complicated and it's obvious school has not helped him as it should, but he comes every day ready to learn. He wants so much to succeed- if you could meet him I know you would all be rooting for him like the worlds best cheer leading squad.

We had a good time in class getting to know each other with a truth and lie exercise, though unfortunately we didn't define 'appropriate' well enough and I had to turn around so that the class wouldn't see me laugh at some of the lies the students told- not good to tell them to not laugh when I'm laughing so hard I'm crying. Another time this happened was in one class two weeks ago when I had students perform an action to represent the four types of conflict in a story, and the man vs. nature involved student raising their hands above their heads and yelling as if something were falling on them from the sky. It was so funny when students would do that motion and noise when it was a different type of conflict (man vs man, self, or society). I felt so bad for laughing but it was FUNNY. I have to work on my serious face. Ha, that's a laugh....
Moving on from the amusing classroom and onto Atlanta, the hot city in the peach state. Did you know that there are about fifty million Peachtree streets in this city? Not good for driving directions. Here's a short summary of the things I've been able to do in my weekend free time:
Body Works exhibit- gross beyond belief- real human bodies that have been plasticised. I actually held a lung that once drew breath in a person's body. Ughgughgh- shudder...
Dialogue in the Dark- An experience in the dark to help people understand what blind people have to go through every day trying to find their way in a world where sight doesn't exist. I recommend this highly.
Swimming in a public pool- it's been years and it was SO much fun!
Piedmont Park- Looks a lot like Central Park, but with ten times the humidity and a VERY green lake. When I say green I mean neon.
Georgia Aquarium- Not the best aquarium I've ever been to (reminded me a lot of Disneyland) although the tunnel under the whale shark exhibit was too cool. I also had the rare opportunity, well, horror, to witness whales mate. I never want to see that EVER again.
King Center- under construction, but worth seeing. It was strange to walk by the grave of Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife and realize that in that white tomb lies one of the greatest men that the world has ever known.
The movie UP- if you haven't seen it please do- it is so delightful and meaningful and Hollywood just doesn't produce that kind of quality very often.

In just a week I will be home and Institute will be done and I'm not sure my mind can wrap around that idea just yet. It will be strange to re-enter a world where everything does not revolve around teaching and closing the achievement gap.

Home away from home- my dorm on Georgia tech's campus, my spacious and decorated room, and a sign that looks disturbingly like a boy trying to look up a little girl's skirt....

Happy 4th to all of you- be safe and enjoy all the pretty lights!

June 22, 2009

Onomatopoeia. Onomatopoeia. Onomatopoeia- say that tongue twister five times fast!
I've got author's tone, theme, sound devices, character motivations and every other reading skill you can imagine on the brain right now. I dream about author's purpose. And no, these are not restful dreams. They usually involve some crazy, frizzy-haired author storming into my room screaming that, "NO! I did not write that story to entertain! How dare you teach that filthy idea!" all while my students sing 'Eye of the Tiger' in tandem. Maybe I should explain...
The last two weeks have some of the most intense days of my life. Here's a quick run down of the schedule
5:30 (lately been pushing 5:45) wake up, eat breakfast, pick up my lunch (yes, I have a lunchbox) and run to the big yellow bus before
6:30 At which time my bus promptly leaves (it has left people behind before).
7:00 Arrive at school after a warm drive through Buckhead- the land of never ending mansions that are 10 feet away from each other. Listen to my CMA Liz (Corps Member Advisor- TFA is in LOVE with acronyms) tell us how to improve certain trends she has been seeing.
7:40 Time to set up the classroom! I am working in a four person collaboration group- they are all good people and I enjoy their input, but sometimes it's hard to agree on procedures and the like. Anyway...
8:30 Students begin to arrive and keep trickling in until 8:45, 8:50, 9 o'clock...
I have 11 wonderful students who are so invigorating and exasperating at the same time. And no, they are not in the minority. I am.
8:45 Begin instruction in spite of late buses. This is a study hall period- lasts for an hour, we can teach just about anything right now.
9:45- I TEACH READING! (every other day that is) It's amazing how much I need to improve my instruction and planning even though I have a degree in education and experience in the classroom. I think that my student teaching experience was great in the fact that I 'found' who I was in the classroom, but this experience has actually tested the idea that I need to be able to teach to each student, not just a class. It is SOOOO hard to teach a student how to learn. You sit back and wonder, 'Why don't they get it? I get it! Why don't they get it?' and then you realize, oh, I didn't tell them how to get it, I just told them 'it.' Big help that will be to a student who reads at the third grade level.
Which brings me to the conundrum of the day- How did an eighth grader get to the EIGHTH grade without being able to read? Next question- How is four weeks, four hours a day, going to help said student on a state exam? And here's the kicker- If that student does pass the exam (and not one of my students was more than 20 points away from passing), how will they EVER survive in high school?!?! I mean, I may be a good teacher, but I'm not a miracle worker. I can't teach a student how to read in four weeks. But I can help them pass the test...
11:20 Run out of the classroom to get to my CS session (Curriculum Specialist) on time (which I have never done yet). Try not to fall asleep.
12:30 Lunch
12:50 Next session or 'work time' which always ends up being another session. Never stop training! These sessions cover everything from contacting parents to assessment to literacy to diversity. This continues until
4:10 When we gather to shout out the goodness we've seen throughout the day (big confidence and ego boost- woohoo!), then we get on the buses back to Georgia Tech, the city within the city. 5:00 Arrive, de-stress, maybe work out, watch a little Buffy...
6:00 Dinner
6:30 Either sessions, lesson planning time, observation review, or more lesson planning time. This continues into the wee hours of the night (depending on what's due the next day). I've been trying to get to bed by 10. Ok, 10:30. Which has not happened. Once.
Then it starts again, usually about five hours later....

I know that this is a really long and boring post, but the amount of work that goes into each day is enormous, and I don't have enough sleep to weave it into a story- I need that creativity for my kids ;-) I don't know if I would have been able to do this without an ED background like so many of the people here, I have pushed myself physically and mentally further than I ever have before, and honestly, the first week I was here in Atlanta I felt like I was going to strangle the next person who said, "Close the achievement gap!" But then, I met my students and I understood in a way that no presenter could ever explain that these students deserve so much more than the cards they were dealt. Take student #1 for example- he actually hugged me on the first day of class because I told him we were going to help him read faster. He reads at the 5th grade level. Or student #2, a sassy girl who tries so hard every class and it's starting to pay off. She reads at the 3rd grade level. Or student #3, who looks up at me and says, "I got a hundred on that test, didn't I Ms. Labrie?" every time he turns a test in. Even the little troublemakers are beautiful (and they only make trouble to be popular or because they don't understand) and I love them all. Even though I've only been with them for the past two weeks, I desperately want these kids to succeed. Whatever that word means...
Being able to read, to sit still, to pay attention for longer than five minutes- these are things that I have ALWAYS taken for granted- be thankful for your ability to read this post- my students wouldn't be able to. Thanks for sticking with me- I promise the next one will be more interesting.
Preview of what's to come- Stories from the classroom...Atlanta, Georgia- a land of humidity and thunderstorms...The King Center...and the strange presence of beer, everywhere....

June 7, 2009


I have great news! Not only have I found a house but I also have a job! The house is a gorgeous, turn of the century, 5bdrm slice of heaven (Please see the picture), located in Tower Grove Park. That is a safe and upbeat neighborhood in the southern-middle part of St. Louis where many TFAers live. My four roommates and I are still working on signing the lease, which against all advice is two years long, but hopefully we'll have everything set by the end of June. My JOB is at Fanning Middle School, about nine blocks from our beautiful house. It's a public school with a lot of other TFA placements, a very intense and supportive principal and great staff. Everyone I talk to with experience in the STLPS district says, "Oh, that's a great school!" so I have high hopes. I will be teaching either 7th or 8th grade English in a very diverse atmosphere with kids from Africa, Turkey, Russia, Ukraine, Vietnam, Korea, China, and America (in all different shades and sizes)- I simply can't wait!

There is one problem though- the job is not set in stone until my placement has been confirmed by the School District, which means I will not know for SURE until the first day of school whether this is my job or not. I really want this job and this house, so, again, prayers are always welcome. Thanks, because I know all your prayers and good thoughts make a difference. I really am on my own now- a grown up with a house and a job in a new city. Growing up is hard to do, though they never tell you that as a kid- it's all about being big enough to go on the rides at the theme park, or to wear the fancy clothes, or get to play with the really big toys. Once you have grown up you realize that being an adult certainly has its benefits, but responsibility is hard.

Sometimes I wish I could go back to being a kid and not have to worry about getting from one point to another without a car, trying to figure out a lease, or interviewing for a job. While I've legally been an adult for four years now, this is the first time I've ever felt grown up because I actually have to take care of myself. However, the dreams of growing up aren't all delusions- the freedom of choosing where I want to live, the joy of getting a job that I earned and wasn't given because I knew some body's uncle, and that promise of a first check from a first ever salary make all the new responsibility worth while.

I'm now in Atlanta, GA for Institute (training and teaching summer school), a huge city that is very pretty and, from what I've heard, has a lot to offer. I only arrived today, so I wouldn't really know, but I intend to do some serious exploring in the plethora of free-time that we have (sarcasm- every minute of every day for the next five weeks is planned out-I shall have to use my time very wisely). It was strange to see everyone from St. Louis again, because now that we're with four other corps cities, knowing each other among strangers has made friendships cement after only a week or so. No complaints there! Everyone I've met is so friendly, outgoing and supportive. I love it.

I start in the wee hours of the morning tomorrow with my bus departing promptly at 6:20 (it's left people behind before), and training lasts until 6pm. And yes, I am three hours ahead of west coast time. WOOHOO!!! Better finish up my laundry and get to bed.

PS- sleep is just wonderful. And now I know I need nine hours to function properly. Oi vay.

June 2, 2009

And so it begins!

I have arrived safely in St. Louis, my new home!

It's strange to think that this is the place I will be living for the next two years at least- I've always been close enough to home to never feel too worried. The midwest seems like a different country to this Northwest chic (although, when I was in a different country, studying abroad in London, I never felt homesick, oddly enough), but I do feel homesick right now. Not an overwhelming or debilitating homesickness- just an ache that won't go away.

Now, I don't want to sound melodramatic or make it seem worse than it is-I really am very happy to be here. I had a great day of traveling through the San Juan Islands by bus and ferry to Seatac airport, a non-stop flight to St. Louis, a quick taxi ride, and I am now comfortably set up on the campus of Washington University in St. Louis, ready to learn how to CLOSE THE ACHIEVEMENT GAP!! Everyone I have met so far has been friendly, helpful, welcoming and fiercely proud of their city and all that it has to offer (which, now that I've had serious conversations with Lu natives, I have come to realise the city offers quite a lot).

Induction (an introduction to Teach for America and St. Louis) started last night at full speed and we haven't slowed down since (and I don't think we will until Institute is over). I won't bore you with the dirty details, but it all boils down to the idea that there is an achievement gap in this country. We all realize it's there- it is a sad reality. What TFA is trying to do is close the gap by breaking the cycle of low funding, poor teaching and low expectations of students who are born into poverty and have every ability to learn but no opportunity to do so. I feel that, not only because St. Louis is a pretty cool and welcoming city, but because I have come here with a good purpose, that this is where I am supposed to be (even if I am a little homesick right now).

Thanks for all your prayers and good thoughts- I'm sure you're giving me the strength I need. I would really appreciate any prayers regarding housing- I'm visiting three possibilities tomorrow- and with job hunting- I have an interview on Thursday with Fanning Middle School.

I'll keep you updated on any interesting tid-bits and if I find a job/house!!

Love you all so very much,


May 27, 2009

Before the plunge!

Hello to all!

I hope this can be an exciting medium to keep up communication with everyone- we'll see how it goes! This is officially my first ever blog posting- never really thought of myself as a blogger- too easily mis-spelled as booger. Right now I'm sitting in an Internet cafe in Port Angeles, WA, trying to get everything done before I fly out to St. Louis for Induction and then onto Atlanta, Georgia for Institute. For those of you who don't know, Institute is a huge summer school program that last for six weeks that helps TFAers earn a temporary teaching licence. It will be pretty much review for me as I graduated on May 3rd with an Oregon Teaching Licence (Woohoo!!), but you can never get enough training or time with kids. A good teacher never stops learning!

I will also be teaching summer school classes during this time- get a feel for the area and what my students will be like- interviewing for a specific teaching position and trying to find a house (think good thoughts for me please!). My living situation seems good right now: I'm not too worried. Though the St. Louis Public School District has cut back on 350 positions due to their shrinking student population, I have high hopes that I will find a job before the first day of school. However, any prayers or good thoughts would be greatly appreciated.

Well, life has been great so far in my short summer, and I am so excited for what's to come I don't know whether to jump for joy or throw up...we'll see what happens soon!

Love you lots!