December 4, 2010

Setting my Hair on Fire and other Fun Stories

READ THIS BOOK. Really. I mean it. READ it. 

Sometimes a book captures you, draws you in and makes you want to read and only read. Eating, sleeping and other necessities become less important. Talking to real people seems less real than the characters that have come to life in your head. Harry Potter was the first book/series that did this for me. I didn't just read those books, I devoured them. I ate them up like chocolate- it sure didn't last very long but the experience was absolutely wonderful. When I was finished, all I wanted was more. Life seemed a little less exciting when there wasn't another Harry Potter book to wait for. I watch every day, with a tight throat and happy smile, my students get into books like these (see the end of this post if you want some recommendations) and I remember the sensation of never wanting the story to end but being desperate to know what happens. Some loose sight of the world, completely immersed in a story that seems to be written just for them. These are the moments that I can feel confident I'm looking at a life-long reader.

Then there are some books that are too powerful and packed too tight with knowledge to read in one sitting. Dense and heavy, the vocabulary stretches your brain, the images and thoughts make you think too much to concentrate on the words. When I read these sort of books, all I want to do is talk to somebody, to tell them the ideas that are making my mind go in every direction, reflecting on and analyzing my own life. The book, Teach Like Your Hair's on Fire, is one of these books. Instead of creating its own world, it expands the real one. This book makes our world a better and brighter place because it gives me hope and SO many ideas for teaching. In fact, I don't think I've ever read a book that captures so well the way I think about education and children. Books like these are as special as the ones that I devour in one sitting, but as I have moved into adulthood, I appreciate a novel that can help me become a better person, not just take me into a different existence for a time. It's always lovely to escape every once in a while, don't get me wrong, but I feel awake when I read this book. Awake, ready, and excited to go into my classroom and change things for the better.

For those of you who have never heard of this book before, it is written by Rafe Esquith, a 5th grade teacher in Los Angeles. Besides the fact that he has taught for over 24 years in one of the worst school districts in our nation, and besides the numerous awards this man has received, I respect this teacher for the way he writes about children. There is a deep respect and love for his students, and a faith that they will rise to the high expectations he sets. He is right. For example, I love the environment he describes for his classroom- a classroom built on trust, not fear. The idea is simple- there must be a strong relationship between the student and the teacher before true learning and effort can happen. I can tell my students to do something, and they will do it because they're lovely, but to get them to want to do it...oh, there's the icing, sugar and everything sweet. It's important that they want to do it for themselves, not to impress me, because that will only last a year. I want the lessons I teach to last a life time. It wasn't until I read this book that I realized the key to life-long lessons is trust. I work my butt off for them, I stand as an example, I show the way, for they are children, and need to be shown what goodness and hard work and patience look like. I serve as someone they can trust, and I show them that I trust them. They have to earn it, trust can be lost, but the fact that it's there, without fear, well that's what will get a child to work hard and get smart. It's seems like such a simple idea, but in fact it is SOOOOO hard. And some teachers just don't think this is the kind of classroom we should be working for.

So many teachers yell for seven hours a day, five days a week, and then rest their voices on our holidays so they don't go hoarse. They think a classroom that is quiet is a well run classroom. All child-like behavior must be tamed. The textbook must be followed. (Not bad in certain situations, but very bad if seen as the be-all end-all of classroom management) The administrators and district office people who come into our rooms to observe and dissect also work on the underlying philosophy of fear and threats. If management is not in control, then your job is at stake. If your test scores are not going up, then your school will be closed. If you don't follow every contradictory district policy that comes through the line then something bad will happen...watch out! I always go tense when an adult is in the room, my feeling of comfort and confidence gone because they are watching my every move, looking for things that are wrong. I am not afraid to stand in front of 28 brutal, lawyer-like, loop hole finding, squirmy, stinky 12 year olds, but one of my peers is enough to make me stutter.
Esquith compares the school district to the 'Ministry of Truth' from the novel 1984. This comparison is PERFECT, and his descriptions of this teacher-torture are too good to not pass on. Here you go:
"It is 2:00 pm on a Tuesday, which means I am about to endure from one to two hours of torture. No, not thumbscrews and the rack- worse. It is time for the weekly staff meeting. I have struggled for years to convey to outsiders just how horrible these sessions are. Recently, a fellow teacher and friend helped me make the nature of our meetings understandable to others. He is battling cancer, and his chemotherapy treatments take place each Tuesday after the meeting. He told me he looks forward to chemotherapy because, he says, after the meeting , 'the worst is over!'"
It's not just the staff meetings. Some of you who work in businesses that have to actually produce a product that makes sense will wonder how the school system has survived this long. Last year we were actually told NOT to teach grammar, spelling or parts of speech (pretty much writing). Focus on reading, only reading. Our students were then expected to write essays on the standardized tests. This year, with our writing scores at a new low, the powers that be had the audacity to blame it on us for not teaching writing. Rafe Esquith's comparison to the Ministry of Truth gets closer to reality all the time. "No, we have never been at war with Oceania..."
Sometimes, its hard to decide who to listen to when I choose what to teach. My background- the way I was taught? The school district that keeps changing its mind? The principal, who's job is on the line and who controls whether I have a job or not? The testing data (if and when it actually comes and assuming the test was well written and scored correctly)? The other teachers at my school? How could I (or any other teacher trying to do a good job) possibly be consistent with all these voices telling us to go in so many different directions?
The school district and the government standards do have a point. Every school-wide policy was at first a good idea. Making it a blanket requirement for everyone is where it goes wrong. Teachers are as unique as the students we teach, and I know at least I need to be able to bring my creativity into the classroom or I get extremely cranky. In regards to the current of fear that pushes and pulls us all, threats get the short-term job done. Knowing someone is watching and that there will be consequences does help people work when they just want to float. Some teachers (myself included at times) need that extra push to go the extra mile. But...oh, but...if I get that uncomfortable every time a boss person comes into the room, imagine what the children feel everyday with these adults staring at them, yelling at them, punishing and disciplining them. I hate being watched. I hate being told I'm wrong or receiving criticism. Some people teach like that. No wonder some kids hate school. I want my kids to love school (and hey, my two classes are the only ones with consistent perfect attendance! Yeah for us!) and want to come. I want my love of everything to be passed on to them. Trust is the key. And this book, Teach Like Your Hair's on Fire, is going to take me there.

In the mood to devour a good book? Here are some of my favorites.
ANYTHING by Rick Riordan, especially these three:
Percy Jackson and the Olympians- Excellent series of five books that follows "Half-bloods," or young heroes with one Greek god for a parent. It really brings Greek mythology into the modern world. Literally. While written for children, it is an exhilarating, fun, and fast read for adults as well.  
Heroes of Olympus- The continuation of the Percy Jackson series (only one book has been written so far) that starts off exciting and never stops. I think this was the best one Rick Riordan has written so far. I recommend reading the Percy Jackson series first because this one gives important plot details away from that series.
The Kane Chronicles- Similar to the series above, only this time with magic and Egyptian gods. This series follows the descendants of Egyptian sorcerers and Pharaohs who kept the Egyptian gods in check, and guess what? They're waking up again. Only one book has been written so far, but it's worth getting into early!
The Diary of a Wimpy Kid series was actually written for adults originally. There are five books so far, each a different color and they follow the entries of a kid who has just entered the wild jungle that is middle school. A laugh a page, guaranteed.

Read Everyday!

November 8, 2010

Alternative Ways to Spend this Holiday Season

Warning- I'm about to get preachy.
As the holidays approach, please keep in mind those in need. Instead of getting stuff for the ones you love, donate that same amount of money and present them with a receipt of the good that was done in their name. Or better yet, give them a gift certificate so that they can go to the charity and donate to a cause of their choice. There are several websites for charities that allow this to happen, and here are a few of my favorites:

http://www.donorschoose.org/?return=true
This is a website where people can donate any amount of money to specific projects for specific classrooms. I like this one the best because, hey, I've got two projects on there right now!
(Here's my specific link-http://www.donorschoose.org/mslabriesclass )
I've gotten a literature circle (books) project fully funded already and I'm about to post more. But I'm not asking you to donate to me, just that you look on the website and choose a project that speaks to you. This is an amazing resource for teachers at low-income schools and a chance for the general public to directly help a student.  Because who know where all that tax money goes...

www.kiva.org
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.

And my personal favorite- homemade gifts, made with love. Hope you like them too (nudge, nudge, wink, wink ;-)

Alright, now to the teaching. What better way to teach then to get the kids out of school?
Yup, that's right, FIELD TRIP!!
 
  
We went to the Holocaust Museum in St. Louis, heard from a Holocaust survivor, ate lunch outside without jackets in 36 degree weather and witnessed a heart attack (I hope and believe the older gentleman was alright- my kids handled it beautifully without freaking out. Big accomplishment for 6th graders!). Just goes to show anything can happen on a field trip. I'm sure they each learned something or other, even if it was as simple as 'I should bring a jacket when Ms. Labrie tells me to.'

I am so much further into the subject matter than I was last year at this point. Hallelujah and praise the Lord, my kids might actually learn something this year. In class we just wrapped up a unit on Non-Fiction and are moving steadily onwards to the novel, The Girl who Owned a City, which is all about survival and learning to live in a world without the comforts of today's society. It's got a big girl-power element in it too, which I'm all about :-) We're writing pen-pal letters to LA, reading every night (or so they tell me) and we are creating some inside jokes that have to do with monkeys, aliens and cheeseburgers (don't ask- it's too strange to explain). If I mention any of the three things above in any passage, book or story, I've got my kids' rock solid attention. Considering it's a rare occasion that I was actually on the inside of an inside joke, it's nice to have a part in the creation of some. 
I also love that I love what I'm teaching. It makes it SOOOO much easier to get kids excited. I mean, I get to do a book talk each week on a book I found interesting at their age (or still find interesting in the case of the Rick Riordan fan group of ME). I get to wrap their minds inside stories and watch their imagination take off. I get to talk in voices when I read and call the class to attention (which caused one little sweetheart to ask me why I didn't become a comedian. So sweet. So naive and innocent and sweet). I also get to smile at kids and watch them lovingly smile back. Ahhhh...sigh of contentment. Then of course there's the crash or bang in the background, or some kid steps on another kid making them scream a 'toxic' word during sustained silent reading, or I get a sneeze in the eyeball or a great variety of things that bring me back to reality. I love my life. Happy November!

October 9, 2010

Ask not what this country can do for you...

My ever growing  class library
A few days ago I almost cried in front of my kids in the classroom. It wasn't because I was fed up or frustrated- quite the opposite in fact. I had just finished teaching a lesson (which when it goes well is a real high point in and of itself) and was watching each student work in groups, talking with fervor about the character traits of people in a novel, discussing passionately with each other, not about who stole whose pencil or which kid touched whom, but about ideas and opinions and thoughts. They were discovering, with a little push from me, the beauty and excitement of reading. It is in these moments, when tears spring to my eyes, that I realize just how much teaching means to me, how much I love being a teacher and the fact that I am in the right place. It was a beautiful thing.

And yet...and yet. Everything I do, all the planning, reacting, hours, phone calls, meetings, grading, all the endless work...it is not nor will it ever be enough. There will always be a thing I could have done better, a different way of saying something that would have reached that one kid, that extra moment of whispered conversation instead of semi-public humiliation, making this assignment just a bit harder, pushing my kids that much further. No matter how long I teach, I will never be the best teacher I can be. And I'm alright with that. The idea doesn't frustrate or dishearten me. On the contrary, it is the whisper in my head that pushes me on, keeps me interested, constantly telling me, even in moments of pure joy, "Yes, be content in this moment, be pleased with right now. Take it in, let it fill you. Now the moment has passed. Look forward, keep moving, keep changing, do even better next time."

It is in this thought that teaching is saved from being routine, but is instead a rigorous workout that never flat-lines, a steady climb towards the lofty goal of making a difference. Instead of thinking that my students are doing alright if the class average on a test is 86%, I think, "How can I reteach for that 14% and should it have been harder for the kids who did well?" Instead of looking at a child, a CHILD of 11 or 12 years that annoys the s@#+ out of me and thinking, "Well there's a lost cause," I force myself to think, "What more can I do?" No one should give up on a person who has only lived on this earth for a decade. No one. That is too young for all of their personality to be their fault. Even if they ARE the most annoying person on earth.

On a Thursday afternoon, after working seven hours to keep fifty-three 11 and 12 year-olds quiet and productive, it is HARD not to yell or freak out or go ballistic on a kid who lies to your face, replies back in a tone that implies 'make me,' pushes their books off their desk, makes faces behind your back, says something mean to their classmate, or couldn't care less about what you are saying in your lesson that you prepared on your weekend and put the finishing touches on Monday morning at 5:30. Yes, that is hard. It's even harder to hear about some of the things my students have had to live through. But the HARDEST part is looking at yourself and thinking- 'WOW, bad choice on the student's part. I need to get over that and not take it personally. Now, what can I do to prevent that from happening again?' That taking hold of responsibility for everything that happens in the classroom is the HARDEST part of teaching, and it is what separates the bad from the good from the great.

Moving on now from my personal realization to a personal rant...I truly believe that if every student had an excellent teacher every year for every subject, our educational system would be different. I don't mean good teachers would solve every problem: there are just too many factors for that (problems at home, mental illness, poverty, lack of parental involvement, funding, belch, blech, blah), but my God it would make a difference! If you don't want to help students succeed, if you couldn't care less about children, if you consider teaching to be a pain and a chore, then GET OUT of education.

I recently watched the documentary Waiting for "Superman," which is what got me fired up and righteous. There are many controversial topics talked about in the film (ranging from the ineptitude of Teacher Unions to the hope placed in charter schools, which while portrayed positively in the movie are currently factories of failure in St. Louis) and many teachers wouldn't agree with much of the film, but it spoke to me. First and foremost it reminded me that I am lucky to be in such a wonderful place teaching on-level students, and that the rest of the country is not so fortunate. Secondly, it made me feel appreciated. It's nice to hear someone tell you "Good job" every once in a while. The documentary gave me that wonderful sense that someone out there knows how much work and dedication I put into my profession everyday for the children.

Because that's the whole purpose and reason of schools. It's the reason I moved away from my beloved family and beautiful Northwest. It is why I spend six days a week completely focused on lessons, materials, and what I can do better to reach all my students. It is for my children. They are mine. For a year, one shortened year, I have the privilege of teaching these gorgeous kids. I teach for them. They are worth it. That statement is my calling.
This movie, amid its humor and politics saw the true problem with our educational system. Among the buerocracy and stupidity and lack of responsibility, the adults have lost the mission. America's education, the free and public school system open to all isn't about the kids anymore. It's about the adults. This swollen, man eating blob of paperwork and bosses and funding, all telling each other what to do again and again with no one left to listen or do the dirty work, holding everyone back so that no one is left behind, this is the problem. The adults of this world who are in charge of things need to take responsibility, sacrifice their own personal vendettas and tenure and comfort and make a damn difference for these kids who come to school for a way out. We don't need to make them feel good about themselves and cheat them from ever earning something, we need to TEACH them and prepare them so that THEY can make their own choices, so that THEY can lead this country better than it has been led before. Right now, we're just teaching them to be us, and that is not good enough.

September 15, 2010

This is why it is not OK to call each other Nazis...

It is the perfect time to visit St. Louis right now (hint, hint). The humidity is gone, the rainy season hasn't started yet, the smell of BBQ still lingers in the air, the mosquitoes have gone into hibernation or whatever they do, and the leaves are turning ever so slowly, leaf by leaf, into their majestic shades of fall. If anyone reading this ever decides to make a visit out here to the middle earth of America, make sure you visit in September or May: these are the months of pleasant comfort and ease here in the Lu. Otherwise, it is a land of extremes. Extreme heat and sweating in a humid state of consciousness where no amount of water can cool you down or uber-extreme-freeze-your-nose-off cold. The mid-west is such a wacky weather wonder land.
The school year is in full swing, with four weeks in the bag and a fifth one on the way. We have started reading the novel Number the Stars by Lois Lowry, an excellent story that describes how the one country in Europe to save the great majority of their Jewish population during the Holocaust (Denmark) went about this grand resistance against the forces of evil under the banner of a swastika. While this topic has led to many interesting conversations about racism and just how much a million really is, it has also led to a select few students calling each other Nazis. While this may be disheartening, they are still young enough to be chastised and frightened into never doing that again. In other words, those students got a "Feel my WRATH" talking to.
If I have realized anything as a 6th grade teacher, I have realized their need for structure and constant direction. It's great to let my students be creative, drawing beautiful, squiggly pictures of what they see in their minds while reading, or amazing paragraphs about inventions to keep you dry if rain sprayed up from the ground instead of falling to it. However, if I let them go too much, they will go in directions I never even thought possible (for example, my Twitter board for random questions sees things like 'If I jumped out the window and used my sheet of paper as a parachute, would I survive the fall?' This is extremely funny because I work in a one-story building). If I let them know my expectations consistently (as in every five seconds), they behave and do their work and learn and show me I can have faith in the future. They just need to be reminded of what is appropriate, and once they understand that, oh the places we go...
I can literally see their minds growing out of a concrete, self centered stage, into an awareness of the world, their effect upon it and all the wonders in it. It is glorious. I am truly excited for this year, mostly because most of my kids have an innate desire to read, but also because of the concrete data I have collected. My students took their first test, mastering with well above 80% on all the standards for the first unit, their reading scores are extremely high, and I have three times as many Advanced/Proficient students on the fifth grade MAP in my classroom than I did last year. Things are looking up my friends. I think I can make leaps and bounds with this group of academic whizzes this year, and while I know most of it will be coming from the students, I feel really positive about myself too (though there is still far to go, I think I have an idea of how to get there). Even if I still have a gaping hole in my bathroom ceiling. See below.

Ah, the fun of renting. My own personal water feature- a waterfall right next to the shower. Just what I have always wanted. Someday, this will be fixed, and I would like to take this time to thank my entire immediate family for listening to me complain, moan, and groan over the phone as I dealt with yellow water dripping on my head and maintenance guy telling me "It's not like it will hurt you or anything" when I called to report the problem. But hey, at least I've got running water right? In fact, I've got many different types of running water...I'm very lucky to have the home that I have, even with the inconvenience of a black hole over my toilet. Gotta love those moments of clarity that only an upside down water fountain in your bathroom can bring.

September 5, 2010

Starting my Second Year!!

Three weeks into the school year: memorized my students names; classroom procedures are getting to be more familiar (at least to me); I finally have my classroom set up; already got a cold from somebody at school; my apartment looks more organized now that I have purchased book shelves; and my cat attacked my face (That last part was due to me rolling over her while I slept).
It’s been quite a while since last I wrote and many, many, many, many things have happened, all of which are extremely important to me, but which might put you to sleep should I list them all ;-) Here are the drop-your-jaw-too-cool-to-pass-up things. I am now an aunt and my niece Monica Rose Elder is the cutest little, or rather large, baby. I traveled 7,653 miles from one coast to the other, to visit family, friends and beautiful places. And now, in my 23rd year of life, I am teaching for my second year.
So far it has been a year of big changes and a reassuring sense of ‘I know what I’m doing more than I did a year ago.’ I now teach 53 students (26 in one and 27 in the other), which is less than last year, but strangely, I teach more. I teach two 100 minute reading classes, and then the same students for 50 minutes of writing. I believe that this schedule will REALLY increase the students’ scores on the MAP (Missouri’s standardized test), and I’m enjoying teaching the same students twice. I really enjoy my classes this year, and so far, have only had two major problems. Out of 53, that’s pretty good odds.
Speaking of MAP scores, in August I received the scores of my students from last year (cause getting the scores 5 months after they take the test makes a whole lot of sense ;-). While my students gained an average of 1.4 years of reading growth, the MAP scores were kind of…depressing. Two years ago, 20% of the 6th graders at Busch achieved an advanced or proficient score on the MAP. WHAT?!? 20%!?! Well, thinking to myself, my students must have done better than that right? Um...I can say honestly that the score did grow, but it makes me grimace to acknowledge that they only grew 6%. Yes. Only 26% of my sixth graders passed the state standardized test, and I was told that I did a good job. Ugh…ugh…ugh…
Who knows how much my students actually grew from last year, because they all came from different schools and data does not follow students. There are no files. So, honestly, the MAP average I received only tells me that I did 6% better than the 6th grade teacher from two years ago. Whoop whoop. On average, the entire school of Busch did better and we actually met AYP (Annual Yearly Progress) this year in every subject except special education (we’re working on that). However, if 26% is considered ‘good enough’ then I am sorry, there is something wrong. This year, I KNOW deep within that this score is going WAY up this year. I’ve got a great group of reading loving students and a huge amount of time with them every day, so there are no excuses.
For every good change (such as more time with students), there has to be something given up. Art, music, shop and computer classes don’t exist anymore at the elementary and middle school level and in only limited amounts for high schoolers. Students simply have to supplement their education outside of school, if they can. The staff this year is awesome and very positive though moral in the district is pretty low due to budget cuts and layoffs. Out of the entire St. Louis Public School District, Busch Middle School of Character and Athletics (yeah, yeah, the name is interesting to say the least) is the BEST place to be teaching. There are many days when I stop in my tracks and thank God for my job at my school. It really is, amid all the bad, a very great place to work.
I’ve included a few cartoons with this post that seem to capture everything I’m feeling right now. A picture says a thousand words, but a cartoon says it with a smile. I just made that up myself.

May 18, 2010

The End is Coming

This is what it's all about

With the official countdown at 9 and a half days, I'm feeling pretty good. Here's nine reasons why...
1. My kids made an average of 1.3 years of reading growth from the beginning of the year until now. They are also really into the book fair right now which is awesome. "Ms. Labrie! I have my money, can I go buy a book? Please?" Music to my ears I tell you.
2. I got a wonderful review from my principal (and that goes on my official record, he he!).
3. I am in the process of moving into a new apartment, and after scrubbing every inch of it, I love it more and more. It's in an eleven-story apartment building about five blocks from where I'm living now. I'll be living on my own for the first time in 5 years of varying room mates, which makes me uber-excited. I love cleaning and organizing and decorating!
4. Even though the end is near, my students are hooked on Holes, a wonderful novel by Louis Sacher. It is so awesome that I can get over-excited children to calm down by just reading out loud. And even though they've ALL seen the movie, they are so immersed in the book with its twisting plots that when new clues or revelations pop up they squeal with delight and bounce up and down in their seats. I love my job. I get to see kids enjoy reading and I get to read in accents. Booya.
5. My sister is having a baby next month and I get to be there. I also get to buy stuff for the baby. And sing to the baby. And hold the little sweet baby....(imagine my voice getting higher and higher, less understandable with each word- yeah, that's about right)
6. I'm going on a road trip throughout the Northwest to visit family and friends after the baby is born. So if you want to see me, give me a ring or a letter or a smoke signal and we'll set something up.
7. Las Vegas, the city without a soul, sure knows how to have a good time. My family vacation there a few weeks ago was fantastic and just what I needed after the MAP testing frenzy.
8. There are only NINE AND A HALF MORE DAYS OF SCHOOL LEFT!!!!!
9. Oh yeah, and the last day of school is on my birthday. How awesome is that?!?!

I still have to give a test, grade a project, hand out books for summer reading and make sure all my kids have library cards, but other than that I am almost done. Wow. A year has just flown by. I feel so exuberant about next year because I get to teach the same subject and grade level, which means I know where to start, what works and what to never, ever, EVER try again (like telling my kids I was on drugs after getting my wisdom teeth removed. That was a not-thinking moment). While I feel wiser and more experienced than I did a year ago, I am also thankful to still be alive (there were moments) and I know next year I will be able to do so much more. So much has changed since I started writing here, since I moved to St. Louis, since I graduated from UP.
I am not the same person I was twelve months ago. I don't laugh as much, but I appreciate laughing so much more. I remember every unkind thing a student has said to me, but I have a wall full of cards, poems and pictures from students who love me. I have seen children who come to school in dirty clothes, no food, no supplies and no manners, and they don't want to go home because school is the one place they are safe and cared for. I have been delighted, disappointed, horrified, made speechless, surprised, angry, sad, happy, ecstatic, and most of all proud of all my children. I will be sorry to see (most of) them go.
I have realized that while there are students I can't stand, each and every one of them deserves a chance. I thought I believed that when I started teaching, but it was just a philosophy, an idea. That idea was challenged this year many times (usually by the same students). Now, I am proud to say, it is a practice. That was my greatest challenge and most awesome triumph. Thank you for all your support and for reading. Until the next update...

March 30, 2010

The MAP is almost here...can you feel my nervousness permeating from my keyboard? This is the big standardized test that decides my students' fate. What class they will be in next year, how much funding the school gets, if the school will get funding next year, how many teachers the school will hire, how my future resume will look. It's a big test. If the visiting observers find that I break the very strict rules about timing or giving directions (read exactly what is there, do not paraphrase or even explain words the students do not understand), I could be fired. While the debate over teaching to the test is quite hot in educational theory courses, the reality is that I HAVE to teach to the test. Take that as you will. Maybe I'm blowing this out of proportion. Or not.

For those of you who didn't know, I had three wisdom teeth removed two weeks ago (to the day tomorrow) and let me just say that being able to laugh, smile, sing and chew makes all the difference in my life. I had no idea what a humongous effect not being able to talk properly would have upon my mood (and teaching ability), but I feel as if the world is brightened and spring is coming and happiness and lollipops and all other good things in life are coming my way. The kids were extremely respectful, considering I mumbled for a week. Thinking back, I realize that my kids were actually really awesome. They were genuinely concerned and didn't freak out as much as they could have when I told them I was on drugs (not really thinking in that moment). In fact, they were happy to see me after I took a day off to recover even more and I was happy to see them too. Oh, life is wonderful!
I don't really remember the last half of my spring break due to my tooth extraction, but the first weekend was FULL of happiness with my mother in town for the first time. It was impossible to see all the sights, but I feel that St. Louis impressed her, as it did me when I first saw it. St. Louis really is a classy town with a lot to offer, much of it for free. And the food was amazing. Ahhh, food. I love being able to chew. Those of you who have had any wisdom teeth out can empathize, though I have nothing on anyone with a four wisdom tooth tale ;-)
Not so proud teacher moments-
Catching a student skipping school after seven days. The worst part is not that it took me seven days to call home (which is very, very bad); it's that no one else noticed. No one.
Getting extremely angry at a student who I believe is emotionally disturbed and pretty much yelling, "If your Mom doesn't come to parent teacher conferences, I swear, I am going to go to your house to make a home visit!" I found out later that day that this student is homeless and living in a shelter. Wow. Wish I had known that a little bit earlier.
Deciding whether to talk to a student about his serious nose picking problem. I mean this kid digs like a miner in search of gold in the rush of '49. Still don't know if a private talk would traumatize, embarrass or help him...
Great teaching moments-
I have a student who is so delightful he can almost be annoying sometimes because he won't stop talking. During lunch one day (which I have in my room, open to any student who wants to come), he just got out of seat, and though there was no music, he decided to start a dance party. It was so funny I spit my drink all over my face, which made everybody laugh. Imagine a skinny little black kid, shaking his hips like a Brazilian belly dancer as he is walking around the room like a duck and proclaiming loudly for anyone to hear, "I can feel the music! Come on everybody, let's DANCE!" Keep in mind, there was no music playing, but he successfully started an impromptu dance party with about 20 students. I laughed so hard I cried.
Brightening a student's day by making her yell, "I am smart!" over and over after she came crying to me, telling me she was retarded. She hasn't stopped smiling since.
When my students read the story, "A Sound of Thunder" by Ray Bradbury, which is about traveling back in time to hunt dinosaurs and changing history after stepping on a butterfly, I came close to tears because the students in my notorious third block were SO into it. Asking questions, making connections and inferences and conclusions and being genuinely excited about reading. You have no idea how wonderful this is to experience until you have spent seven months trying to get these same students excited about reading in any way. It was a little slice of heaven, let me tell ya.
As it is Holy Week, I thought I might start up a religious discussion for those of you who are up for it. Here's my question: If I do not believe in Adam and Eve, how does original sin work? Here's my opinion: It is impossible that two people began the whole human race and has been proven to be untrue. I believe it is a legend written by people trying to explain the mystery of where we all came from, and think of it as a parable instead of gospel truth. But if Adam and Eve did not exist, and never ate from the Tree of Knowledge, therefore disobeying God's direct instructions, how did original sin originate? I believe that Jesus' sacrifice was to reverse original sin, to forgive us all and prove God's immense love, but why is there original sin in the first place if the bible story of Adam and Eve did not happen? I do agree that humans, because of free will, have the propensity of making evil choices, that we are flawed and need help in order to live good, holy lives, but I would like to know your views on my personal conundrum.
Thanks for reading my beloved friends and family. Thinking of all of you always.

February 13, 2010

Anything for the kids!

So, my hair's pink. Very pink. So pink in fact that I might glow in the dark a little bit. Why, you ask? Well, it's because my kids are AWESOME!

For some reason, I thought I wasn't busy enough and decided to take on a fundraiser called, 'Pennies for Patients,' which raises funds for patients and families of those with Leukemia or Lymphoma. Although the students at Busch AAA Middle School might not know anyone personally with this type of blood cancer, they took on the challenge of raising $300 and ran with it. Then they kept running. It was a two week long drive, and I thought, "Yeah, my kids may be on free and reduced lunch, they may not wear the best clothes, they may never have a pencil or a notebook, but 300 kids can raise 300 bucks. That's only $1 per person. They can reach that goal." To excite them, I told them that if they raised more than $300, I would dye my hair pink for a week. I should have held out for more.

Within THREE days, the school had raised over $300. Even though we had a snow day the next week, and I'm sure some or my fellow teachers were contributing some of their own money (I know they want to see the fresh blood dye her hair), the kids surpassed my expectations by earning three times as much as I thought they could. The end count? $924. I mean, my kids are AWESOME!! Two other teachers joined the challenge (Mr. Hansen will shave his head and Ms. Ganley will dye her hair purple next week) to keep the kids excited after our first goal was met, but what impressed me the most was the fact that during lunch, twenty or more kids would come into my room, offer to count coins, then sit there, more focused than in class, counting penny by penny (we counted over 22,000 pennies alone).

A lot of money went through my room and I'm sure the temptation was there, but my students, and the students who brought the money to school, showed an amazing amount of character, honesty and charity towards their fellow man (though it probably didn't hurt that teachers were going to forsake their vanity). The kids may not be able to sit quietly on a bus or in a classroom, but their actions in this fundraiser made me feel a great deal of hope and pride in our next generation.

Now, I've been rather visually silent about how my classroom looks, so I uploaded a few photos for you all to see me in my natural habitat. No kids though- got to protect their privacy.

The Reader's Wall
    My messy desk. It's an organized chaos.
The classroom library.
 Back of the room, complete with chalkboard and desk group.

I look rather small in this photo.

The score board for the penny compitition.        
Before                                                        
After
Letting a little bit of my wild side show.

January 10, 2010

A message

Oh, where to begin? So much has happened I feel as if I have too much to write in a 'short' blog post. While the holidays have come and gone, I still am glowing and my Christmas lights are still up (they probably will be for a while). Here's a summarized version of the past three weeks- went home to Port Angeles by way of plane, spent a few days seeing Mom, Dad and Corey, the new and totally sweet Hot Shop (still in the works, but open!), the mountains and the ocean. We celebrated Christmas two days early, and then it was off to Grandma and Pa's house in the Tri-Cities. It was packed to the rafters with family, food and large dogs- I love it! As if this wasn't enough, we were then off like a shot to Logan, Utah to be with Caitlin and Andy, the expecting PARENTS!! and we spent the days before the New Year in a Cabin up in the mountains. So nice. The New Year was brought in with pots and pans and screams of delight, and then I flew out of Salt Lake City to get back to St. Louis last Sunday. But, that's not all folks- instead of having a full week waiting for me, I was delightfully surprised by a four day weekend due to, get this, three inches of snow and 'extremely cold weather conditions.' WOOOOWWW!!

So here I am, back in St. Louis again, caught up on sleep and re-energized with family goodness. I was so exhausted before the break and I'm sorry to say I kind of took out my suppressed frustrations with school and stress on my family over the break. I am so lucky to have people who love me enough to deal with that kind of stupidity. My kids, in the two days that I saw them, have successfully forgotten how to act at school- woohoo! and I'm sure attendance is going to be awesome tomorrow- HA!

Well, now I get to the nitty-gritty part of this blog, and I would really appreciate your prayers about this. The entire time that I have been in St. Louis I have felt safe and grateful to be in such a wonderful school with such great kids and such a supportive staff. However, I have found the St. Louis Public School system extremely wanting in many respects. To put it mildly, many of the people in power have their priorities twisted in a messed up, complicated knot of funding, stupidity and backwards thinking. And that's mild. There are many problems here, and while I feel that I am doing alright with my kids, I feel a great hopelessness for many of the students who attend public school in the city.

The reason these feelings of inadequacy are surfacing so passionately right now is because one of my roommate’s students was shot and killed over the holiday break. It happened in north St. Louis, and while it was a drive by gang shooting, and while the school had nothing to do with this horrible act of unnecessary violence, the school handled this student's death very badly. In fact, they did NOTHING. My roommate was pretty shaken up by this, and when she had her students do an activity to say goodbye to the student who died by writing on sticky notes, which they then put on the student's locker, she received a blow from the administration that I would have a hard time forgiving. The assistant principal actually came into her class, told the students that what they had just done was pointless, silly and that they should take the notes off the locker. Then, she was called into the principal's office and told that she should 'handle this better next time,' that crying in front of the students was a bad idea, that she really "shouldn't get so attached," and that the school had sent staff to the funeral, just like the other seven students who had died.

Wait a minute...SEVEN? My roommate knew nothing about five of the other students who had died and there was next to nothing said or mentioned in the news, except for maybe a little blip on pages 5 or 6 in a newspaper that nobody reads. It was as if these children, for that is what they are, had simply disappeared from existence, without any trace of them ever having been here, reduced to just another tally mark on the long list of gang warfare fatalities. The run-by shooting that occurred at her school last year was not even REPORTED and the police didn't even show up. I can understand a school not wanting to glorify gang violence, but COME ON! It doesn't matter how much death a person has been around, they still need an outlet to grieve. That grief is going to come out in some form and more often than not, it will be in retaliating violence, a continuation of what has been going on for far too long. How is this OK? When did things become so screwed up that a person is made to feel embarrassed and shamed for crying over the death of a freshman in high school, a fifteen year old kid with the potential to lead a fulfilling and productive life?

So please, family and friends, loved ones all, please say a prayer of thanksgiving for the education you received, for the place that you are living now, for feeling safe when you sit on your front porch, for knowing that if you were to move on from this world, there would be those that would grieve your passing, those that would miss you. And, while I know that this student, and all the students who have died, are missed terribly by the family and friends they left behind, please say a prayer for them too. Pray that this student is at peace and that his/her death will not be a cause for further violence, but instead a message. A message that dying young is not natural. A message that being in a gang will not protect you but bring you down into a dark place that few escape. A message that things need to change and that death must be addressed and not ignored. Ever.
Remember always that I am in a good place here- that I am safe and feel that I am doing important things and making progress with my wonderful kids. There are just things that need to be said. I love and miss you all.