ABC COUNTDOWN TO RETIREMENT: K is for…

May 21, 2015

K is for Kindergarten.

Before I got a full-time teaching job, I worked as a substitute in several districts. I always dreaded being assigned to kindergarten – I wasn’t used to children that young. What if they knocked over something and got hurt? I imagined all sorts of scenarios in which disaster could befall one of the kindergartners in my charge. I didn’t understand what kindergartners were all about and how to get along with them.

Then a few years ago, I was assigned, as an ESL teacher, to work with the kindergarten classes. The teachers formed small groups of kids for me to pull out for ESL reading groups or to work on math concepts. When I wasn’t doing that, I was helping in their classrooms. And what I realized is that I really liked it! Perhaps it helped that earlier that year I had worked in a preschool, so I knew where kindergartners were coming from and began to understand what they were capable of learning.

You have to be a little crazy and silly sometimes to teach kindergarten. You have to be able to let loose. And working in a preschool had taught me how to do that.

I’ve had a lot of fun working with kindergarten since then. Last year I helped in a bilingual kindergarten three times a week, and had my own reading group. These were the advanced kids and it was amazing how much they could read and write!

But the best thing about kindergarten is having fun. So the rest of this post is a photo essay…of days in the life of kindergartners.

December: Making gingerbread houses
December: Making gingerbread houses

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January: Dance party in the hallway! (A whole school PBIS activity)
January: Dance party in the hallway! (A whole school PBIS activity)

Bilingual kindergartners in Mrs. Erdei's class

This girl can limbo!
This girl can limbo!
On St. Patrick's Day, kindergartners donned special glasses to help them hunt for leprechauns!
March: On St. Patrick’s Day, kindergartners donned special glasses to help them hunt for leprechauns!
Bug day - the children dig for worms and other bugs.
April: Bug day – the children dig for worms and other bugs.
Bug day - boys comparing what they've found!
Bug day – boys comparing what they’ve found!
Mother's Day Tea: A.M. Kindergarten sings a song for their mothers.
May: Mother’s Day Tea: A.M. Kindergarten sings a song for their mothers.
Children examine a barrel of garlic on a field trip to a supermarket.
May: Children examine a barrel of garlic on a field trip to a supermarket.
A pizza lunch at the supermarket topped off the field trip!
A pizza lunch at the supermarket topped off the field trip!
Bubble Day
May: Bubble Day
Bubble Day
Kindergartners having fun blowing bubbles!
Circus Day
May: Circus Day

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Animals and their trainers!
Animals and their trainers!
Beach Day - kids went out to play in the sandbox.
May:  Beach Day – kids went out to play in the sandbox.

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Art class
Art class
June: Kindergarten graduation
June: Kindergarten graduation
The teacher with the twins
The teacher with the twins holding their “diplomas”
Last day of kindergarten - the children stood in a circle holding hands. The teacher surrounded them with a string - when she cut it, they'd no longer be kindergartners!
June: Last day of kindergarten – the children stood in a circle holding hands. The teacher surrounded them with a string – when she cut it, they’d no longer be kindergartners!
The new future first graders!
The new future first graders!

Oh, the memories! Good luck in first grade!

ABC COUNTDOWN TO RETIREMENT: J is for…

May 20, 2015

J is for junk food (in the school cafeteria).

A lot of what school cafeterias serve, in spite of supposedly following national nutritional standards, is, in my opinion, junk food. Here are a few of the menu items at the school where I currently work:
• French toast sticks with maple syrup, sausages, fruit
• Nachos: tortilla chips and a small cup of processed Velveeta-type cheese for dipping, raw

Nachos - which food group is this in?
Nachos – which food group is this in?

or cooked vegetable (today it was overcooked broccoli which few kids ate), some version of apple sauce or fruit
• Bosco sticks – bread sticks that can be dipped into a tomato sauce. Side dish of vegetable is optional. Fruit – optional, but usually the students are supposed to get one or the other.

Bosco sticks
Bosco sticks

• French bread pizza: a half of a baguette covered with melted cheese and tomato sauce. This is generally not a popular lunch item and many kids get it but end up throwing it away. Side dish of vegetable and/or fruit (optional)

French bread pizza
French bread pizza

Milk is offered at every meal. Here are the choices, from most to least popular:
• Non-fat chocolate milk (contains added sugars)
• Low-fat white milk (1% or 2% milk fat)
• Non-fat strawberry flavored milk (contains added sugars)
• 1% vanilla-flavored milk
• Skim milk

Some of the menu items are better, such as chicken nuggets (in various forms and shapes)

heart-shaped breaded chicken nuggets on Valentine's Day
heart-shaped breaded chicken nuggets on Valentine’s Day

or chicken patties on a bun. These are always breaded. Some kind of potatoes are served with this – steak fries, tater tots, star or sun and moon shaped potatoes. Macaroni and cheese is popular. Occasionally they serve hamburgers or cheeseburgers. All the sandwich type items are served on whole wheat buns. Rarely, they’ll offer something “ethnic” such as “orange chicken” that comes in one of those little boxes you get at Chinese restaurants for leftovers. The kids take one look at this and throw it away without trying it because it doesn’t “look” good. OK, this is a typical reaction for children, but when I’ve occasionally challenged a few to try it before throwing it away, they’ve usually liked it. Another item that’s fairly popular, but very messy, is tacos – the kids put it together themselves, so they always leave bits of lettuce or meat on the table and floor.

Why have a roll in addition to the hamburger bun??
Why have a roll in addition to the hamburger bun??

Wednesdays they have salad choices (as a main course) – Caesar salad with croutons & chicken, all veggie salads. Again, few of the kids choose these.

Children eating salad in a school cafeteria
Children eating salad in a school cafeteria

There are alternate choices, too, such as “pizza power pack” – a package containing round pieces of pita-type bread with grated cheese and tomato sauce, or “Jamwich” – peanut butter sandwiches encased in wheat bread that is sealed all around, like an empanada.

Boys in the school cafeteria - some bring their lunch from home.
Boys in a school cafeteria – some bring their lunch from home.

There is an attempt to offer healthy choices, but in an attempt to be popular with kids, the menu items often resemble the type of food offered at fast food restaurants.

Another version of pizza - usually very greasy.
Another version of pizza – usually very greasy.

Desserts (different each day) are apple sauce, sometimes in different flavors, (can be chosen in lieu of fruit or vegetable), cookie, frozen fruit flavored icies, animal crackers, packaged cake that resembles Little Debbie or Twinkies.

school cafeteria lunch line

Breakfast is provided for students who want it and is free for low-income students. Usually there are a choice of cereals, all of them with sugar added, some kind of packaged breakfast bar or mini pancakes or waffles. There are cups of juice and the same kind of milk that is offered at lunch.

Because we share our cafeteria with a junior high, there is a snack bar open for the first fifteen minutes of every lunch period. I used to tell kids who asked to go there to eat their lunch first, and once I went with a girl to pick out a snack (she didn’t have much of a lunch) and strongly urged her to choose pretzels rather than chips. The woman who runs the snack bar didn’t like me doing this and complained to the principal. He talked to me about the snack bar, saying all the choices are “healthy” – because they’ve been approved by the state health department! (This only means they are not contaminated, not that they are healthy, I thought. Cheetos, Doritos and other chips – the preferred selection of most kids who go to the snack bar – can hardly be considered healthy.) He said I had to let kids go if they brought money.

So now when a kid asks me if he can go to the snack bar, if he has money, I let him go, no questions asked. Some kids even go there with their lunch trays before they even sit down at a table. Sometimes children who frequent the snack bar eat little else of their lunch, filling up with these snacks.  Just yesterday one of the first graders in my class bought Dorito chips and threw the Jamwich on her lunch tray away. She didn’t even eat a piece of fruit.
school food-tasty & healthyAlso at the snack bar are sold deli type sandwiches (which I’ve never seen any elementary student buy), chicken soup (always very salty), soft pretzels, cookies, fruit roll ups, water and milk. Except for the water and milk, I would generally not wish my child to eat most of the offerings at the snack bar. But many do bring money, presumably with parents’ approval to purchase something “extra” to supplement their lunch.

It’s too bad we can’t offer foods made with fresh ingredients – most schools are not equipped to actually cook anything, just heat up whatever the vendor sends to them, which is mostly frozen until ready for use.

More and more I’m seeing children who are overweight or “developed” at an early age – girls who are beginning to reach puberty in second or third grade. Childhood obesity has become a national issue. A poor diet consisting of processed foods is partially responsible for school food-obesitythis. Perhaps this is the kind of food many children are used to eating – tired parents take their kids to McDonald’s after working all day, once or more times a week – but I feel we could spend more time educating them about good nutrition in creative and engaging ways, and put it into practice with more fresh food offerings for lunch. Maybe nutrition should be a part of the regular curriculum.

Why does chicken always have to be breaded? Why are many of the lunch menus dominated by carbohydrates? Why have I never seen fish served at the cafeteria in the two years I’ve worked at this school? We need to rethink what we are giving our children who come to school to learn, not simply duplicate what they may be used to at home. If we gaveschool food-cartoon them fresh choices, I am willing to bet that many of them would like them – maybe not at first, but with time and education, many children would begin to prefer fresh foods and less carbohydrates. Everyone likes sweets – which are fine, on occasion or for dessert. Their whole meal doesn’t need to be catered to their sweet tooth or love of salty snacks.

school food-healthy

ABC COUNTDOWN TO RETIREMENT: I is for…

May 19, 2015:   I is for incentives.

A+ incentive

Incentives at school are now part of a required behavior “curriculum” – the acronym is PBIS, which I believe stands for Positive Behavior Intervention System. At the beginning of the year, students are explicitly taught expected behaviors for different areas of the school – in the hallway, in the classroom, in the bathroom, on the bus, in the cafeteria, etc. These expected behaviors are posted in each of these areas and generally there are two reinforcement rotations or “reteaching” sessions, when students are once again taken with their classmates to each area to discuss these rules.

Within PBIS, schools can implement any type of behavior plan they want, as long as it can produce measureable goals and results. Students are taught that whatever they do is a choice, because they have learned the rules or expected behaviors for that time and place. While the emphasis is on positive motivators, negative consequences come out of it too. Some teachers are very good at managing behavior in their classrooms through a firm but fair application of the system they put in place; others (like me) are either not firm enough or not consistent enough; some are simply unjustifiably strict.

Here are some examples of positive incentives:
• Individual sticker charts (this works well for small groups) – when the chart is filled up, the students gets a prize.
• Stickers or little prizes such as a cute eraser or a bright colored pencil. These are great especially for kids who need just a little extra motivation.
• Fake money or tickets which can be redeemed periodically at a moneyclassroom “store” .
• Group points: students’ desks are normally arranged in groups, and each group has a name or color.  Points are given to groups when all of the kids in that group have worked well independently, or done something exemplary.
• Schoolwide cards or slips of paper that use a theme: in my current school, the mascot is an eagle, so these slips of paper are called “Eagle Wings”. Students get them for various things, at the staff member’s discretion. At one school, each staff member had their picture on a card, and the kids tried to collect them all. These can either be accumulated for some sort of reward – either a prize or their picture taken as part of a “rock group”, say, or entered into a raffle with winners every week.
• Classroom behavior or clip charts – it’s good when this same incentive is used by all classrooms in the school, as it is at ours. clip chartEach student has a clothespin with her name on it and these are all placed on “green” at the beginning of each school day. The “clips” can be moved up or down. Up for good behavior or great participation: first to blue, then purple, then pink. Down for inappropriate behavior or bad choices: yellow, then orange, then red. When on red, a student’s parents are called or he might be written up to see the principal. The kids carry their charts around to their other classes – gym, art, music – that they go to as a whole class. The first graders even bring them to lunch!
• Eat with the teacher.
• Classroom “party” – this could be ordering pizza for the whole ice cream partyclass, or bringing popcorn, popsicles or ice cream bars, and if the weather’s nice, going outside to eat them!
• Whole school rewards – everyone participates in a special activity when a particular goal is achieved, such as low numbers of detentions or office referrals.

A PBIS schoolwide incentive was making paper airplanes. Then students would compete on how far they could throw them. The winners in each classroom got to be in the "finals" in the gym!
A PBIS schoolwide incentive was making paper airplanes. Then students would compete on how far they could throw them. The winners in each classroom got to be in the “finals” in the gym!

• End of the year rewards – often these are given out for physical education feats, attendance, etc. There’s usually a rewards assembly at the end of the year.
• Students having input in making up the rules for the classroom – if they have a personal stake in the rules, they will more likely follow them.

All of these are examples of “extrinsic rewards/motivation”, that is, working or behaving correctly to earn something special.

Door decorating in October was another PBIS reward.
Door decorating in October was another PBIS reward.

 

It would be wonderful if all students could be motivated by “intrinsic rewards” – the reward that comes from within, such as pride in a job well done.
motivation

But when you think about it, don’t we all work for extrinsic rewards, or incentives? Companies might institute certain incentives to achieve a particular target or goal that all employees work toward.

Even getting paid for one’s job is a type of extrinsic reward, as well as something we have a right to. How many people would honestly go to work every day if they weren’t rewarded with a

Money gift

paycheck? However, when one’s pay is low compared to the work they do, the employee may find more reward in helping others on their job or getting recognition or even cooperative and friendly co-workers.

I currently work as a program assistant (PA) – assistants are notoriously underpaid. One knows this when accepting a job like this, because there are other rewards: free time outside of school hours (unlike teachers, who must take work home), being treated with respect at work, or the chance to work one-on-one with students. Seeing the progress these students make is a great reward. However, it is very easy to lose one’s motivation if the PA gets a negative score on their evaluation, or isn’t treated with respect. No wonder these jobs have high turnover!

Administrators are mindful of this, so there are “teacher appreciation” days or other times when we get a reward from our principal.gift cards

I think volunteers are more likely motivated by intrinsic rewards. Their reward is to see something accomplished, to see someone they’ve helped to succeed, to gain recognition for their own effort or for their organization, or to further a social or political cause.

what am i doing this forKids are no different than adults in this way. Some need more incentives than others; some will work hard because they want to learn or to feel pride in a job well done; and some just need a little recognition: a high five or a complimentary “good job”!

great job thanks

A TEACHER’S ABC COUNTDOWN TO RETIREMENT: H is for Halloween

May 18, 2015

Halloween is the favorite, most anticipated “holiday” of most children I know. Everything about Halloween is geared to kids: candy and other treats, wearing costumes, telling scary stories, playing games.

In every school I’ve worked in, Halloween has been celebrated in a big way. Of course, there are always some families who don’t let their children participate due to religious beliefs, but these are relatively few, at least where I live.

What most school Halloween celebrations have in common is a costume parade around the school (outside if it’s warm enough and not raining or snowing), classroom parties during which treats are distributed and consumed and there are games or centers involving Halloween.

Early in my teaching career, I acquired the bare necessities for a witch costume: a pointed black hat with gray hair attached to it, a black cape, and scary spiders that I hang over my shoulder. I tell the kids in my best witchy voice that the spiders are my pets, and then, squeezing a bulb at the end of a tube, I make them “jump”. This scares some kids at first, but being naturally curious, they then want to find out how it works. Each spider has a inflatable rolled up rubber sac under its body, which, when the bulb is squeezed, forces air through the tube to inflate the sac and the spider appears to “jump.”

Part of my witch costume is playing the part: I speak with a witchy voice and cackle like a witch too! I have worn other costumes when a group of teachers all decided to dress in complimentary costumes, but usually I’m happy being a witch.

Most of the children bring their costumes to school in their backpacks, where they leave them during the morning, which is conducted like a “normal” school day, and a period of time is allowed after their lunch period to change into their costumes for the parade and afternoon festivities. Some kids don’t have costumes or don’t bring them because of school restrictions, such as: no masks, no “blood”, no “weapons”. With most of these kids, they don’t bring a costume because they can’t afford it. Therefore, the school collects second-hand or new costumes that staff members or parents donate in advance so that these kids can pick one out to wear for the parade and party.

Often we incorporate Halloween-themed activities into our curriculum. One big project is to give groups of students a pumpkin to carve and remove the innards. They then count the seeds and we do a math activity comparing the number of seeds in each pumpkin and finding the mean, median and range. Another whole group activity is test practice: create a two or three-step word problem to solve and write an extended response, such as:
Mary Lou wants to buy spider cupcakes for everyone in her class. The cupcakes are sold in packs of six. There are 22 students in her class. How many packs will Mary Lou need to buy? Ho9w many cupcakes will be left over? Explain your answer.

We might have math centers in which each station has an activity related to something we’ve studied, for example:
Measurement – use a tape measure to measure the circumference of a pumpkin, then find the diameter.
Also measurement – use candy corn to measure things, like the side of a book, a desk, or a picture of a ghost.
Word problems – students solve word problems related to Halloween.
Other centers could be:
Reading – read Halloween books and answer questions that have been previously written by other classmates.
Art – decorate a small pumpkin using the materials provided, such as markers, glitter glue, leaves, sticks, etc.

Making Halloween centers, though, is a lot of work and requires more than one adult to help out, so room parents are necessary. I created Halloween centers my first few years of teaching, but it was so much work that, after that, I just went along with whatever my colleagues had planned. Usually, we will just have a whole group Halloween-related learning activity in the morning and games or “rotations” in the afternoon. Room parents volunteer to come and help out, and usually parents will provide cookies, cupcakes, candy, and other treats also. There is usually a rule in the school prohibiting sugary treats for birthdays, etc., but this is always waived for Halloween and Valentine’s Day at least!

I always take lots of pictures on Halloween, including classroom group pictures. I’m posting several pictures below showing Halloween party games, parades and whole group activities that I’ve taken over the years.

I have always looked forward every year to having fun with young students on Halloween and I know that I will miss this when I’m retired!

Halloween 2009Classmates reach into the pumpkin to remove the pulp.

Classmates reach into the pumpkin to remove the pulp.

Kelly Funk cutting top of pumpkin
Teacher cuts top of pumpkin
Irais and her classmate get help from social worker Teri Bicok (in Sullivan shirt) and a volunteer mom.
Students get help from social worker and a volunteer mom.
They have to separate all the seeds from the pulp in order to count them.
They have to separate all the seeds from the pulp in order to count them.
The kids make piles of ten to make them easier to count.
The kids make piles of ten to make them easier to count.
Yecch!! A 4th grader shows her hands full of sticky, slimy pulp!
Yecch!! A 4th grader shows her hands full of sticky, slimy pulp!

Halloween 2010 – my 2nd grade classlimbo-Halloweenpartyclassroompumpkin DSCN4917-Daniela L & Valentina painting pumpkin 008 (2)

The superintendent and the principal in their matching costumes011
Parade – there was a cold wind that day!
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Bobbing for apples
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Group picture: me with my class062

2011 – Preschool paradeMadison preschoolers' Halloween parade

2012 – Group picture: me with 3rd grade classDSCN6746

Pumpkin seed counting activity – a volunteer mom helps her son and classmates.DSCN6761 DSCN6762 DSCN6769 DSCN67772013 – At my current school, every year there is a “Pumpkin Walk” – a contest to create the most original pumpkin. One winner per class & grade level, and a grand prize winner.These pumpkins look too delicious to eat!

These pumpkins look too delicious to eat!

Bilingual 1st and 2nd grade class, with their teacher.Sarahi Ortiz's 1st/2nd grade bilingual class

Lined up for the ball toss game.
Lined up for the ball toss game.
Playing Halloween Bingo in Ms. Moon's classroom
Playing Halloween Bingo
Making skeleton pictures with cotton swabs
Making skeleton pictures with cotton swabs
Daniela & Valentina play game.
Tossing game
Andy Tieman, the principal, dressed in some sort of devil(ish) costume!
The principal, dressed in some sort of devil(ish) costume!
The kids ask them questions or said things like, "I know you! You're the art teacher!" But the mimes said nothing in reply.
The kids ask them questions or said things like, “I know you! You’re the art teacher!” But the mimes said nothing in reply.
The students' pumpkins were left on the shelf to dry.
The students’ pumpkins were left on the shelf to dry.

2014 – Bilingual 1st/2nd gradeStephanie, Maria B., Virginia & Jose 'bobbing' for doughnuts!

Students ‘bobbing’ for doughnuts!

Elia & volunteer moms stringing doughnuts.
PA & volunteer moms stringing doughnuts.
Beatris & Alex choose a prize.
Students choose a prize.
Three witches, including music and art teachers, pay a visit to Amy Moon's classroom.
Three witches, including music and art teachers, pay a visit to the classroom.

IMAG2765_BURST002_COVERThe teacher with her current class of 1st/2nd graders.

2nd grade door decorations
2nd grade door decorations
Ortiz's door
Our classroom door

FLASHBACK FRIDAY: Ducks (& geese & loons): a story of growing up, loss, and saying good-bye

There is a female mallard duck that comes every year to the school where I work and settles in an enclosed courtyard, where she makes her nest, lays her eggs, and raises her young. Mallard ducks live to be about 20 years old and it is common for them – as it is for other birds – to return to the same nesting spot year after year.

Mama duck and ducklings in the grass in the school courtyard (May 2015)
Mama duck and ducklings in the grass in the school courtyard (May 2015)

One of the teachers at school looks out for the mama duck – she makes sure the ducks have water to drink and little pools to swim in.  It is a delight for the students, especially, to stand at the window of the cafeteria to watch the mother and her ducklings.

In some ways, this is a safe place for her to nest and raise her young – the only predators that can get to the ducks are birds of prey – hawks, eagles, owls – and she always makes her nest under a cement bench, where it is sheltered from weather and from aerial view.

However, sometimes a hawk does manage to capture one or a few of the ducklings, but there are still many left, since ducks commonly have 10 or more offspring.

Here are some pictures of the mother duck and her ducklings in the courtyard last year:

Ducklings on May 23, 2014 (about a month old)
Ducklings on May 23, 2014 (about a month old)
June 2, 2014: The ducklings are almost fully grown. Soon they'll be able to fly away!
June 2, 2014: The ducklings are almost fully grown. Soon they’ll be able to fly away!

IMAG2165On June 11, 2014, I wrote this journal entry (excerpted):

… Ceiling to floor windows frame two sides of the triangular courtyard so the students could follow the growth of the ducklings during lunchtime in the cafeteria. Being enclosed also means that the ducklings will not be able to leave until they can fly out, since they are not allowed passage through the hallways of the school!
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The duck has a human friend in one of the teachers at our school, who has provided two small blue plastic swimming pools for the ducks to splash around in. Being enclosed, the courtyard has no predators threatening the ducks during their development. It’s actually been quite amazing how well they can hide themselves in the plant growth and behind a cement bench that sits in the middle of the courtyard. Periods of a week or more would go by that I wouldn’t see them at all, not even the day I took three of my students into that courtyard to look for bugs.
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The first time I saw them, sometime in April, was when the brood was brought to my attention by a number of kindergarteners and first graders squealing with faces pressed against the windows. When I went over to see what they were looking at, I saw the mother duck waddling along the sidewalk followed by nine tiny ducklings. Whether on land or in the water, ducklings know instinctively to line up behind their mother and follow her wherever she goes. At the lake, the mother duck often stops to get food by putting her head into the water and catching a passing fish. While she fishes, the little ones stay near and play. I don’t know what the ducks are eating in the courtyard, since I don’t think the little swimming pools have any fish – perhaps bugs or plants.
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As spring has progressed and the snow and cold of winter have slowly faded away, I’ve seen the ducks periodically, each time a little bigger.
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Then for awhile, I didn’t see them at all. I almost thought they were no longer there, but I probably wasn’t paying enough attention. One morning in May, I caught sight of them huddled together with their mother, sleeping. I happened to have my cellphone on me, so I took a picture. It’s a little fuzzy, but the downy striped heads can clearly be seen.
Then, about a week ago, I saw the whole family again. I was surprised at how big the ducklings had become! In duck years, they are surely teenagers! I noticed their down had developed into adult feathers, but there were still some down-covered spots on their backs, where their wings meet their tails.
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A few days ago, I saw them again. They were still all together, but the ducklings were clearly nearly full-grown, now looking more and more like their mother. I thought, surely they will fly out of here soon.
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This morning, I attended the kindergarten “graduation.” I had never attended such an event before, and always found the idea of graduation from kindergarten rather silly. But two years ago when I began working with kindergartners, I began to understand the magic, the awe, that these children feel when they finish their first year of school. Kindergarten, as the principal said this morning, is the year that we see the greatest growth in our students. They begin the year often not knowing how to behave, how to follow rules, how to sit quietly. Many of them arrive not knowing any of the letters of the alphabet or any numbers. Some have not yet learned to write their own first name, especially if they have not previously attended preschool.
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At the end of the year, we see the progress: they can count sometimes all the way to 100, they can identify geometric shapes, they have learned their alphabet and many even have learned how to read simple stories unaided. They know the rules: I’ve noticed that often they are the quietest group of students in the hallway, walking with their hands clasped behind their backs. They’ve learned social rules, too, and how to share.
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So it was with tears in my eyes that I watched the two kindergarten classes sing songs and recite poems for their parents. Many of them had dressed up elegantly for the occasion: boys with their hair combed neatly wearing white button down shirts, sometimes a vest, sometimes a necktie. One little boy had on a beautifully embroidered shirt from Mexico. Many of the little girls were dressed in fancy, frilly dresses, with their hair curled or with elaborate hair pieces.
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The students also posed on the risers with their certificates of graduation held in front of them. It was a poignant moment, especially realizing that in two and a half months, most of them would form our 1st grade bilingual class.
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At lunch, hardly anyone showed up. Everyone was helping out dismantling classrooms. Afterward, as I went through the cafeteria to return to class, I saw the mother duck in the courtyard. She was alone (unusual – I looked for her offspring all around her, but they weren’t there), and standing very still, looking unusually tall with her neck stretched high. I stopped and said, “Well, hello! Where are your babies?” She peered at me through the glass, her beak thrust forward. I wondered, had her ducklings learned to fly? Had they all left?
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In our classroom meanwhile, I signed memory books, took down bulletin boards and stuffed report cards.
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The kids in both classrooms cleaned out their desks – they were to take everything home today and had emptied their lockers the day before. Their backpacks were heavy, carrying all their notebooks, math and reading workbooks, papers and projects from their mailboxes.
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At last the final bell rang and students filled the hallway on their way to the door. Kassandra was crying, her cheeks wet with tears. We comforted her, saying that in the fall, she’d be in the classroom right next door, and we’d see each other all the time.
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Tomorrow will be the last day – a fun day, with celebratory treats and gifts, the opportunity for students to buy things at our classroom store, preceded by an awards ceremony.
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Time passes and children grow up – each year they move a little closer to independence. I thought about the mother duck standing out in the courtyard this afternoon, all alone. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Mother duck with her eleven ducklings, May 13, 2015.
                                     Mother duck with her eleven ducklings, May 13, 2015.

2015-05-13 17.48.512015-05-13 17.49.37Back to the present: I have my mind on ducks right now because last year I watched the ducklings grow up and fly away just as the students were growing too, and going away for the summer. This year, there will be no ducklings to watch: although the mother mallard had eleven babies, yesterday there was a tragedy: an enormous bald eagle was spotted in the courtyard by the custodian and there had also been hawks circling above that day.  All the ducklings were GONE. The mother was still there, but all of her brood had been swept up by the eagle or hawks and now she was all alone – I spotted her on her nest under the bench and wondered, do ducks mourn? Maybe she doesn’t know what to do now. While last year, she stretched her neck and stood tall when her ducklings grew up and flew away, this year she stays hidden…

Saying good-bye reminds me of other ducks.  I have often observed the ducks who live and raise their young on the lake where we have had a cottage for 50 years. I have watched how they teach their young to fish and forage for plants just below the surface. I have watched a mother defend her chicks from a hawk swooping down toward the lake while mama duck raised her body nearly out of the water, flapped her wings and squawked to keep the predator away.

I have watched Canadian geese on our lake, traveling in a “floating flotilla” and dunking down into the water to catch fish – they look so funny with their rear ends sticking up out of the water!

Canadian geese fishing, their tails in the air.
                                            Canadian geese fishing, their tails in the air.

And finally, I have heard the calls of the loons on the lake, seen them from afar, but last year actually got close up to one on the rowboat.

It was wary and kept a watchful eye on us...but we just sat and watched and made no noise.
          The loon was wary and kept a watchful eye on us…but we just sat and watched and made no noise.

DSCN8923Ducks, geese and loons – I will miss them all this year, and in years to come, when we turn our cottage keys over to the new owners in mid-June. It’s time to say farewell to an era gone by.

G is for…gossip: The School Office

May 15, 2015: G is for gossip

When I conceived of doing this ABC tribute to teaching, I had vowed to keep it generally light and positive. However, there is a nastier side to this profession that cannot be overlooked and it is one of the factors that contributed to my decision to leave. Many people are basically competitive, in spite of being encouraged and mandated to be collaborative to do what’s best for the students.  And the pressures of teaching lead to more than just food binges.  I have learned that the principal and assistant principal (if there is one) usually set the tone in their school. If cliquishness is encouraged, there will be cliques. If a principal is a dictator, she can destroy the unity of a formerly cohesive staff. On the other hand, if cooperation and team spirit are encouraged and the principal is open minded, that will be the prevailing atmosphere at the school.  You are lucky if you get to work under one of these latter administrators for any length of time.

Administrators are under pressure also, especially in today’s culture of standardized testing for accountability and staff evaluation. Perhaps I will go into this more in a future post.

However, today is G day. To illustrate the nastiness of cliques and gossip, I am posting here a short story I wrote a few years ago, called “The School Office.” This story is almost non-fiction. I added and combined a few things and changed all the names in order to write a fictional narrative that is, however, an accurate, searing portrait of what some school offices are like today.

School-Office500THE SCHOOL OFFICE
(copyright 2013)

The school office is a busy place. People are coming and going all day long: parents, students, substitute teachers, staff members and more. There is one full-time secretary to handle the entire workload of the office, but another office clerk has been hired to work part-time. Even after the doors are locked once school has started, the buzzer rings frequently, and the secretary checks the camera to see who’s out there before she buzzes them in. At least sometimes she does; other times she lets in whoever presses the buzzer.

A busy school office
                                                                            A busy school office

Lately, the office has become a hangout for certain teachers during their lunch periods, teachers who are favorites of the principal, whose office is right next door to the main office. It started out innocently enough: one of the teachers went to use an office computer to enter ELL* student information, and noticed that the office secretary was overworked. She decided to pitch in and help by answering phones whenever she was in there. That generosity, of course, put her in favor with the secretary, so she was welcome anytime.
The conversations in the office can get rather loud. In fact, the faculty lounge is usually comparatively quiet because so few people use it; the ones who did use it most now have their lunch in the office.

The bell has rung and Shannon has accompanied her students to the door which opens onto the playground, where she turns them over to the recess monitors. She then heads to the office, where teachers’ lunch orders from the school cafeteria have arrived.
office_cartoon
“Here, Shannon, this one’s yours,” says the secretary, Bobbie, who has taken a few minutes to compare the orders with what was actually delivered and to set aside change for anyone who paid more than the actual cost.

“Hey, thanks,” says Shannon, as she plops down on the empty office chair, box of salad in hand.

“Is Kristen coming too? asks Bobbie. “Her order’s here.”

“Yeah, she’s on her way.”

The phone rings. Shannon grabs it before Bobbie can even get to it.

“Good morning, Roosevelt School,” Shannon says in her best receptionist voice. After a pause, she continues, “Yes, I think so – hold on…” Cupping her hand over the receiver, she asks Bobbie, “Is Sharon here?”

“Yup, she’s in her office.”

“OK…yes…yes, I’ll transfer you.” Shannon presses the transfer call button and dials the principal’s extension number before hanging up.

Lowering her voice, Shannon says, “Hey, you know who that was?”

“No, who?”

“Jason’s mom!” This triggers an outburst of laughter from both women.

The door opens. “Hi, girls!”

“Hi, Kristen!” the two answer in unison.

Kristen picks out the Styrofoam container with her name on it and perches on the empty desk. “So, what’s the gossip today?”

“Jason’s mom’s on the phone – she just called for Sharon.”

More laughter.

“So, what’s Jason been up to now?”

“Oh, you know that mom – she’s always complaining about something. Jason hasn’t done anything much – this week at least.”

“Say, guess what I heard,” Bobbie says with an enticing voice that indicates this bit of gossip is especially juicy.

Shannon and Kristen lean toward Bobbie. “What? What is it?”

“The list of the teachers being cut just came in the interoffice mail.”

“And…?”

“It was in a sealed envelope so I couldn’t see.”

“Awwww,” say both teachers with disappointment.

“BUT,” Bobbie continues, “after I gave her the envelope, I heard Sharon on the phone with

They revel in gossip.
                              They revel in gossip.

the superintendent. It sounded like she was complaining about something.”

Raised eyebrows and gasps. “Could it be one of – ?” Kristen couldn’t bear to finish her question.

“No, of course not! They can’t get rid of bilingual teachers!”

“Well, they could…what about you-know-who?”

“Yeah, that one, well – hopefully she’s on the list.”

“Oh, she’s gotta be,” says Shannon. “Sharon’s been hearing complaints about her all year.”

“Yeah, I know, she’s had her spies in that classroom,” Bobbie replies. “Shannon, you’ve been in there, haven’t you?”

“Yeah, I was supposedly there to help with math – Sharon wanted me in there every week during my plan time – but Ms. Superior Attitude made it clear that she didn’t need me at that time.”

“Really?”

“She seemed surprised that I came in at all – I think she knew.”

“What, that you were there to spy on her?”

“Probably.” Shannon pushes the remaining pieces of her salad around the tray with her plastic fork.

Nothing more to be said on that topic, Bobbie changes the subject. “So, how’re things going with you, Kristen?”

“I’m tired…Juanito is wearing me out.”gossiping women cartoon

“What’s he up to now?”

“He’s just so hyper all the time. Today he was making everyone laugh by tossing his head and then making faces when I was writing on the board.”

Just then, Janice, the art teacher, enters to pick up her lunch order. “Hey, gang! What’s up?”

“Hey, you! Why don’t you stay and talk to us?”

“Can’t – gotta get Who’s the Best Valentine contest ready.”

“I told you – I have the most awesome costume,” Shannon tells her. “You gotta let me win.”

“Well, we’ll see – you never know what some of these other ‘spoilers’ might come up with. But probably.”

“Yay!!” Shannon cheers as Janice leaves. “You’re my best friend, Janice!” she calls after her.

The three women turn back to their previous conversation.

“What about Atziri?” Bobbie asks Shannon.

“That Atziri is a mean girl,” Shannon says. “Seriously mean. No wonder she doesn’t have any friends.”

“But she’s so good at chasing boys around the playground and they’re all screaming,” Kristen adds. “Yesterday, I saw her in the halls with a couple of other girls. She –” Kristen gestures for the others to come closer. Shannon and Bobbie roll their chairs forward until their heads are nearly touching.

Just then, the door opens, and the women separate, bursting into loud, raucous laughter.

“God, can you believe it?” Shannon says loudly and deliberately. They laugh again.

The teacher who has just come in hesitates, holding the hand of one of her students, one of the new kids this year.

“What do you need?” Bobbie asks her, forcing a polite smile onto her face. Kristen and Shannon sit in silence, eating the last bites of their lunch.

“Vanessa needs to call home. She forgot to ask her mom who’s picking her up after school,” replies the teacher.

Bobbie waves her hand toward the phone on the empty desk. Shannon rolls her chair back to get out of the way, but bumps into Kristen. Laughter erupts. Vanessa, meanwhile, presses her body against the desk next to the phone and dials her mother’s cell phone number.

“Mommy?” Vanessa presses the phone closer to her ear as the conversation in the office continues.

“I saw her last night,” Shannon is saying. “You should’ve seen her clothes! Tight, tight jeans, high boots, tunic with sequins plastered all over it.”

“A woman her age shouldn’t wear stuff like that,” Kristen says.

“My niece is 35 and you should see her wardrobe,” Bobbie says. “She dresses like a slut, and her husband doesn’t even care.”

“…are you picking me up, Mommy, or is Lia?”

“Everyone dresses like that, nowadays,” Shannon says in mock admonition. “You shouldn’t be so old-fashioned, Bobbie.”

“…Okay. Bye, Mommy. I love you.” Vanessa hangs up the phone. Her teacher moves quickly to grab her hand and leave the office.

As the door shuts, Shannon, Bobbie and Kristen are all laughing loudly again.
Shannon turns toward the computer on the empty desk. “Bobbie, I gotta look for something.”

“Okay, no problem.”

“Don’t let Juanito get to you,” Bobbie tells Kristen.

“I know, but…” Kristen trails off as she sorts her thoughts in her mind, and rubs the outside corners of her eyes. “No, I know,” she continues. “He’s a nice kid, but he just gets SO silly.”
“How about that other kid in your class, Horacio? Is he doing okay?”

“He caused SO much trouble last year,” Shannon interjects without turning away from the computer.

“Yeah, he’s doing a whole lot better.”

“Sh—! I can’t believe it!” Shannon shouts suddenly. “That bitch sent me an email…”

“What bitch?” asks Kristen.

“Which one?” asks Bobbie.

Just then, the principal’s door opens. Her bronze nameplate printed MRS. NOWAK reflects the light from her desk lamp.

“Hi, Sharon!”

Sharon smiles broadly. “Hello, ladies! How’s your lunch?”

Kristen shrugs. “It’s okay, nothing special.”

“That’s what you get for ordering from the cafeteria,” replies Sharon. “I’m going out for lunch.”

Before she can leave, Shannon swivels around in her chair. “Sharon, Mrs. Navarro sent me an email. She wants a conference.”

“Oh? Did she ever show up for the fall conference?”

“No,” Shannon says pointedly. “But now that her little angel is bringing home behavior notices every day, she wants to see me as soon as possible – today, if possible.”

“So? See her.”

“But – !” Shannon puts her head down between her arms on the desk. “I know what she’s gonna say,” continues her muffled voice.

“Shannon,” Sharon says. “Don’t worry about it. You are a professional, and an awesome teacher. You can handle her.”

“Can you be there, or at least drop in?”

“Depends on when it is.” Sharon glances at her watch, then says, “I gotta go. I’m late for my lunch date!”

“Oooooooo!” tease the others.

Sharon throws a coquettish look back at them as she heads out the door. “Bye-bye!”

The three women are jolted by the sudden sound of the bell.

“God, Bobbie,” remarks Shannon, “That bell rings really loud in here.”

“You already knew that,” says Kristen, as she tosses her lunch garbage into the wastebasket next to Bobbie’s desk.

“Yeah, but it’s always so jarring,” Shannon says. “It jolts me awake!” she adds with a laugh.

“You need it. Did you sleep well last night?” Kristen asks as both teachers leave the office.

“No, as usual, I woke up after three hours, and then …” Shannon’s voice fades from Bobbie’s hearing as the two teachers walk down the hall.

Sign that should be on the door of every school office.
Sign that should be on the door of every school office.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
*ELL – English Language Learners

Al images downloaded from Google Images.

F is for Food (in the teachers’ lounge)

May 14, 2015:  F is for Food in the teachers’ lounge.

Teaching causes a lot of stress. For this reason, teachers have a lot of nervous energy which they fuel with an obsession for food. Never in my life have I seen so much food brought to the workplace nor that food disappear so fast as it does in schools. The picture below shows a pretty typical spread:

treats-1024x768Meetings often include food. Teachers help themselves, then find a place to sit for the meeting, being careful not to spill anything on their notebooks or handouts.

Teacher appreciation (from Google Images)
            Teacher appreciation 

When the PTA wants to give teachers a “thank you”, they often show their appreciation with a large spread of nibbly food items in the teachers’ lounge or work room. Also, every school has a social committee, and one of the things they sponsor is weekly or monthly food fests! They put out a sign-up sheet and generally teams of staff members will sign up for a particular date. It’s then that team’s responsibility to bring food on that day.

I worked in one school where it seemed teams of teachers were trying to outdo each other. Bagels, doughnuts, veggies and dip, chips and salsa, cookies and brownies plus gallons of orange juice weren’t enough – the next team began bringing home-cooked food – egg casseroles, potato strada, etc. – to please their colleagues. Then another team would make food AT SCHOOL and serve it up fresh and hot! These were hard acts to follow!

I gained almost 30 lbs. while teaching. When I was on the verge of collapse from exhaustion, a brownie, cookie, bagel or other saved item pumped me with instant energy and it was a reward for myself that I could look forward to. Any teacher that wanted food, however, had to get to the lounge as early as possible and pile goodies on a plate to take to their classrooms and save for later. By noon, most, if not all, of the food would be gone!
teacher-apreciation-week-685x320For two years, my classroom was across the hallway from the lounge. Every time I walked past, I peeked in the window to check for food. Sometimes goodies were brought to the lounge when it wasn’t even treat day. For example, someone had leftover birthday cake, Valentine’s Day candy, or other leftovers they wanted to get out of their house. Bring it to school – it will get consumed for sure! I think those were two of the years that contributed most to my weight gain!

Staff eating cake at one of my former schools
                           Staff eating cake at a bridal shower in the library of one of my former schools

Another occasion for food and beverages was during our after school reading group. The teacher that ran it tried to provide small treats and possibly tea that connected to the book we were discussing in some way.

The next year I was far from the lounge and didn’t even like to go there much, so it was easy to stay away. I had also joined Weight Watchers by that time so I didn’t need the temptations.

My success with losing weight improved when I had a less stressful job! Nowadays, I often forget all about treat day and by the time I get down to the work room to make copies, it is mid-afternoon and there’s nothing left. If I do happen to get in on it, I’ll take what I want and eat it for lunch, leaving the lunch I brought from home in the refrigerator until the next day.

treats in loungeNote: All images downloaded from Google Images except the one taken at my former school.