One of most interesting schools I worked at was a dual language school in Chicago. Besides having instruction in both Spanish and English at all grade levels, they emphasized student independence and problem resolution from an early age.
I worked there the first 12 weeks of school a couple of years ago, to cover a maternity leave for a 3rd grade teacher. So I was the one starting the year with the students, even though the classroom was not my own. I had to occupy as little space as possible because the regular teacher’s stuff was stored everywhere in the room, and wanted to minimize my expenses also.
One of the required things we were to have in our classroom was a spot called the “Peace Place.” This was to be a designated quiet, out-of-the-way spot where students who were having a problem with each other were to go to resolve their conflict. The students having a conflict would go to the teacher and ask to go to the Peace Place, or the teacher could tell students she observed having a problem to go there to resolve their differences. In the Peace Place, the students would sit together and quietly talk it out. When they were finished, they returned to their classroom activity. What a contrast from tattling, whiny kids who now constantly come up to me during lunch and complain about some small thing or tell me gossip about others!
The only problem with the Peace Place was setting it up before the school year started. The regular teacher’s stuff was everywhere. There was no extra storage space or empty spot whatsoever. I finally found a place in the coat rack area of the classroom, where I put a couple of cushions on a bench and put up a sign saying “Peace Place” which was partially hidden by backpacks and jackets. I showed the students where it was on the first or second day of school and reviewed its purpose.
The Peace Place was part of the culture of the school. The kids knew about it because they’d done it in first and second grade already, so admittedly, I didn’t even have to teach them how to use it, and unfortunately didn’t have the chance to observe how this was originally taught and reinforced.
One day two students came to me and said they had been arguing with each other at recess. They wanted to go back to being friends so they asked if they could go to the Peace Place to talk it out. I immediately sent them there. They sat down quietly and talked calmly for several minutes. When they were done, they went back to their class activities.
Another time two boys were having a really hard time getting along. One of them was writing nasty notes about the other, including the use of swear words. I found one of these notes on the floor. There was a lot of resentment between them. I demanded they go to the Peace Place and work it out, which they did reluctantly. I was very worried about those two, because there were hurt feelings that led to one of them calling the other one names and the other one crying. In the Peace Place they did talk quietly but didn’t really resolve their differences that day. I had to email one of the boys’ parents, who also talked to their son. I do know that the Peace Place was the turning point for those two, as well as the parents’ concern.
Eventually the two did resolve their problems, and just after I left, I ran into one of the parents who told me that the two boys were now the best of friends. Most or all schools have adopted some program to promote conflict resolution, which teach young students the steps they should take when they get into conflicts. About a decade ago, “I messages” were in vogue (one child telling the other “I feel sad when you do that to me”, etc.), then there were video programs that acted out possible scenarios, another was the the Seven Pillars program, and at my current school we teach them to say STOP, breathe, walk away. I have seen a variety of conflict resolution strategies both in schools where I have worked as a substitute and also on Pinterest, all of them good tools to help children know what to do when a conflict arises. However, I believe that the Peace Place is one of the most effective conflict resolution tools I have seen during my teaching career.
A few years ago when I was a bilingual 2nd grade classroom teacher , we were also doing an ABC countdown at school. O was Oreo Day. So today’s entry is called O is for Outside With Oreos Day, even though it is actually the story of an afternoon field trip.
In spite of my voice being a little ragged from sinus congestion, the morning went by as usual, with me checking the radar for rain coming in the afternoon. When I checked it around 10:15, the radar showed that the sky would be clear this afternoon, meaning we could take our walking field trip to the library!
During math, I tried to teach the concept of counting up to make change according using the problem suggested in the book. I have always been lousy at counting up to make change, where the cashier starts with the amount you owe and counts up with the coins and bills until he/she reaches the amount you’ve actually paid. I plowed through this but I was confused and therefore confusing. By the time we got to the activity we were to do, I was only able to get through the sample before it was time to go to recess. So when the kids went out for recess followed by lunch, they had left all their math books open on their desks. After lunch, we right away went on our group bathroom break, so they didn’t have a chance to put away anything. I figured they’d have time to do it when we got back.
. Bathroom Break
I had two chaperones – the moms of two of my students. I wanted to set out promptly at 12:30 but still had kids in the bathroom. One of the boys came out and told me Kevin had thrown up. I sent someone to the office to page the custodian, figuring it would be all over the floor, but apparently he did it in the toilet. Next thing I knew, I got reports that 2 or 3 others had also thrown up!! What was going on? I left the kids under the supervision of the parents and went down to the office and calmly said to the office secretary, “Several of my boys have thrown up in the bathroom.”. The school nurse heard me and said, “Oh, that happens – one vomits and then others see it and vomit also.”
What?? I’d never heard of this phenomenon, at least not with vomiting.
Anyway, the nurse decided she’d better come down and examine them. It turned out to be only 3 – Kevin, Andy and Jose. She took them all down to the office and examined them. Meanwhile, I had the kids sit in the entryway outside the boys’ bathroom.
By 12:40 she and the boys were back. She said there was nothing wrong with any of them. One of them told me she put a stick on their tongue. Jose still looked a little under the weather, but I told him: It’s okay to stay here, but then he would have to spend the afternoon in the nurse’s office and his parents would be called to take him home. No, he didn’t want that.
. The trek to the library
So finally at about 12:45 we set out, me with a bag over my shoulder containing my water bottle, a packet of tissues and a package of Oreos. I knew we’d probably be late, but had forgotten to bring the phone number of the library to be able to call them and tell them this.
I walked in front, Mrs. Ramos in the middle, Mrs. Gonzalez in the back. I tried to keep kids from getting too far ahead. Miguel had to help me by calling to them since I didn’t have enough volume in my voice to get their attention. We walked down Ridge, and I had to make sure they all stayed on the left side when a car would come. For some reason, this town doesn’t have sidewalks, (Probably too cheap!!) so we had to walk on the road and on the edges of lawns.
When we got to the intersection of Ridge and Oak St., I thought we had to keep going. The road curved a little bit, which I didn’t remember from our walking trip last fall, but kept going. I thought the library was on Main St., where there was a cluster of city buildings, or so I remembered. When we started walking down Main St. (again, with no sidewalks, we walked in the tall grass while cars zoomed by), I had a really sinking feeling that we hadn’t gone the right way. I didn’t remember walking on Main St. on our field trip last September at all.
I stopped my group and let the others catch up to us. I asked the other parents if they knew if we were going the right way. Mrs. Ramos knew we had gone too far. She said we should have turned right at the other intersection, with Oak. But she had been too far behind to get my attention, and I had walked on oblivious.
. Why didn’t I go in back? – that way I could see all the kids ahead of me, I cursed myself. But I thought I knew the way (and didn’t even check the library’s address before setting out?? Really stupid). I felt embarrassed in front of these parents who knew better than I did where to go. And now we were even more late and had to double back. It was hot and we were all thirsty. I had a water bottle but most of the kids didn’t and they kept asking when they could get a drink of water.
We had brought little cups, at Mrs. Ramos’s suggestion, to pour water into for them, so she did pour some of her water into these cups, which helped a little. I told the kids to hold on to these cups.
. At the library
By the time we reached the library it was 1:20! We were twenty minutes late for a ½ hour stay!! How embarrassing! Mrs. Jones was waiting for us and was very gracious, but she did inform us that at 1:30 another school group from Ike was due to arrive so it would get crowded. But since it was that class’s third visit, at least they knew what to do!
She showed us where all the different kinds of books were in the youth department, as well as the games. You can even check out video games if you have a public library card! Only three of my students had library cards, so they could also check out books if they wanted.
For the rest of our shortened stay there, most of the kids chose to play the games – there were giant checkers and chess sets and some other things. I helped kids who were looking for books, feeling a constant sense of urgency and self-anger. It was my fault they were being rushed and my fault that they wouldn’t have time to get free books today. I was glad that at least that morning, I had given them all a free book that had been donated by the district’s reading coordinator to all the kids at the PAC meeting the previous week.
At 2:50 we got the kids all lined up and went out into the foyer, where they took long drinks from the drinking fountains and we passed out 2 Oreos to each kid. With mouths full of chocolate and white cream filling and cookie crumbs on their hands, we had to rush them outside to head back to school. It was about 2:55 when we finally led them out and began our brisk walk back. Well, brisk as it can be with twenty 7-8 year olds in tow! I was worried about the kids missing their buses!
. Another wrong turn
Even on the way back, I turned up the wrong street – Hodges instead of Ridge, so that we came out onto the road the school was on a little south of the campus and had to walk once again in the grass next to a busy street. We got back just in time – the buses were all lined up in front of the schools! I told the kids that they would have to just get on the buses and go home without their backpacks. They were quite taken aback by this, but really, as I explained, do they really need them? The homework I had given thus far was only spelling which wasn’t due until Friday. This calmed them, so the kids going on the buses lined up already went immediately to their buses.
The majority of my kids, however, take what is called the “white” bus (it’s not white, but the cone placed on the sidewalk where the bus pulls up is white). The white bus is always late, because it has to go to another school to pick up special ed kids first. I did allow these kids to quickly go get their backpacks and other stuff if they wanted to, which some of them did – they had taken all kinds of stuff from my recycling that I had put there during the weekend when I cleaned out the big cabinet behind my desk. I had given Diana the cloud dry erase board that I had used at the beginning of the year before I had a Smart Board.
The two girls who were with their moms, of course, were able to go back to the classroom and take their time.
. Quiet at last!
After they were all gone, I relished the silence in my room. I was surprisingly not tired – the brisk walk (probably 2 miles total, since we’d taken a detour) had done me good. I thought about how I had apologized to the parents, and they of course said it was no problem, but seriously, WHAT must they be thinking of me?? This is the most disorganized teacher in the world, probably. No, I thought, just a teacher with ADD!
N is for No Child Left Behind (An educational initiative act). This law makes sweeping changes to the ESEA (Elementary and Secondary Education Act), which was enacted in 1965.
I admit, I have never actually read the text of the NCLB. However, I have felt its effects, which have been mostly negative. I would like to think that those who wrote and passed this law in 2002, during the administration of George W. Bush, were at least well-meaning. It was a response to the lowering of educational standards and the U.S.’s diminishing education status in comparison to other countries.
But it seems to me that it was more likely an excuse to cut funding to public schools. It certainly had the effect of penalizing schools with high levels of student poverty by withdrawing funds for badly needed programs.
The idea was supposedly to gradually increase student achievement over a period of years until, by 2014, all students would be achieving academically at grade level. The way to measure this was with standardized tests. It was expected that teachers would be better at their profession if they had this pressure to do well on standardized tests as a motivator. They would be more “competitive”, which was thought by the politicians to be a good thing, although collaboration is usually the best way to motivate and engage teachers.
I came into the teaching profession when this trend toward standardized testing was increasing. This was unfortunate and I am certain that it is one of the factors that kept me from being able to settle at one school or one district long enough to achieve tenure (which takes 4 years in Illinois).
Student bodies as a whole as well as subgroups, such as special education or English Language Learners, were expected to make AYP (adequate yearly progress) which would be measured by a test in literacy and math skills produced by the state with federal approval. Funding for various programs would be tied to making AYP. Schools that did not score well on these tests could have funding withdrawn for crucial programs, such as those providing support to low income students. Schools needed these funds – in fact, schools needed all the money they could get in order to hire enough teachers to keep class sizes at a reasonable level, to provide social workers, reading specialists, and other staff members that provide support to struggling and disadvantaged students.
There was a great deal of pressure put on administrators to make AYP every year. A low score one year would not be enough to withdraw funding, but it would make the school – and thus its administration – “look bad.”
Here in Illinois, the test that was administered every March was called IGAP, which was then changed to ISAT. This year, a new, more comprehensive test was created to align with the Common Core standards adopted by Illinois and many other states, called PARCC.
For one or two weeks every March, a test in either reading, language arts or math has been given to the students each day in grades 3-8 (high school students took this too, but it may have been called something else). To prepare for these tests, teachers would conduct extra study sessions during lunch periods, after school or before school. During these sessions, they would try to cram the students with the skills needed to be successful on the ISAT. They would include test prep also in their regular curriculum. For example, they would teach students how to read and analyze short passages and answer multiple choice questions by filling in a circle next to the correct answer or on a separate answer sheet. Teachers would switch math units around to make sure the most important concepts were taught prior to March (that is, “important” as measured by how many questions the ISAT would have in a given math concept). They taught students how to write “extended responses” in both reading and math. These were particularly difficult for younger students who are not prepared to explain what and why they take the steps they do to solve a math problem – this became very formulaic and teachers would have workshops to either create or learn about a new graphic organizer meant to be the new ideal for teaching how to write a math extended response.
In reading, besides the multiple choice questions, the students would have one or two passages they would read and then answer an open ended question, using information from the text plus their own ideas. In my ESL classes, we spent considerable time on these types of questions. I tried to make it interesting by choosing engaging topics and integrating it into our curriculum, but it still required the ability to synthesize information which students could take years to learn how to do. I still think that third graders for the most part are not developmentally able to do this well.
Administrators, meanwhile, would often go to extremes to make sure students were prepared, by scrutinizing everything the classroom teachers were doing in terms of classroom management (because without an orderly and quiet classroom, children would not learn the skills they needed), how concepts were taught and how the objectives for the lesson were met via informal or formal assessments. Although new teachers were told that administrators would “work with them” to learn their craft, they in reality were given little leeway or sympathy to learn from mistakes.
The social studies curriculum began to be given less instruction time, because social studies wasn’t on the test. Even writing instruction suffered when the state decided to remove the essay writing component for a few years.
In order to find out if students were sufficiently prepared for the ISAT, other standardized assessments were created as “predictors” of how they would do on the ISAT in March. One of these assessments which is still popular today is the MAP. Students in grades 2 (spring only) through 8 take this in the fall, winter and spring on computers which keep track of their correct answers and give them easier or harder questions accordingly. (In fact, there is a MAP test for children as young as kindergarten!) Every year teachers would get a chart showing the score ranges on the MAP that were expected for their grade level in reading, language arts and math. At the end of each MAP test, the student’s score would appear on the screen, a source of much vexation, frustration, or pride for their teachers. Dozens of hours during teacher meetings, workshops and teacher institute days were spent discussing these results and how the scores could be improved.
If a school failed AYP three years in a row, they would lose funding in crucial areas when in reality, those schools should have received more funding to get the help their struggling students needed! But the way it was set up, the withholding of funding served as “punishment” for poorly-performing schools. Another sanction for failing AYP three years in a row was to force districts to pay to let students transfer to better performing schools. And it was all based on a single standardized assessment! Of course, it would not be the students’ fault they were “failing” – they would do their best, in most cases. Instead, teachers would be blamed for not teaching their students the appropriate skills to be able to score well on standardized tests. It was a sign that the teacher was not doing her job.
Yet, for teachers who taught special education or English Language Learners, getting the majority of their students to meet the increasing AYP standards every year was a constant challenge. Students in special education classes are in those classes because they have learning disabilities, which generally keep them from achieving at the level of their peers. It was unrealistic for NCLB to expect allstudents to meet the same standards, no matter how challenged they were or what disadvantages they faced.
The same was true for bilingual and ESL teachers. If the students can’t understand the questions and the answers which are written for native English speakers, how can we expect them to do well? Each student learns at his or her own rate. Even the most motivated student may not meet the standard when doing her or his best. Of course, accommodations are allowed in certain cases (such as students are given a glossary of vocabulary words from the test translated into Spanish), but these are mostly ineffectual.
The NCLB is up for renewal by Congress this year. Teachers’ unions are advising their members to contact their legislators to vote no on renewing it. Maybe I should stop writing this and work on an email to my senators and representatives!
M is for “maestra”, the Spanish word for teacher. I’m used to being called this and actually like it. It is an expression of respect.
In my first year of teaching, a Latina who was the head of the bilingual department for the district told me (and other bilingual teachers) that we should discourage the students from calling us “maestra” or “teacher” and encourage them to use our title and last names (Mr. or Ms. So-and-So). She said this was the proper thing to do in American society. In our culture, use of a title plus a last name is the way you address someone to whom you should show respect and deference, such as your boss or some other older person you don’t know very well. I know this is true because it is what my parents always told me to call their friends.
Things have become more informal these days and in the workplace it’s now common to call one’s boss by his or her first name. Still, the formal address hasn’t gone out of fashion completely.
Here’s my counter-argument to the Latina administrator: In Mexican culture (and the majority of my students are at least ethnically Mexican) teachers are highly respected professionals, probably more so than in the U.S. Parents tend to believe what teachers say about their children, because they have gone to college and received the training to become teachers. Many parents in Mexico have not had that opportunity; the majority of my students’ parents never went to college at all. Many didn’t graduate from secondary school. Still, they value education and so they respect and admire what teachers do for their children.
I had a student once who had just moved here from Mexico and spoke no English. Yet there she was on open house night, clutching her mother’s hand with a determined look on her face, showing her around the school and her classroom. Later that fall, her father cried during our parent-teacher conference because he missed his homeland so much. It had been hard for him to leave his family, his friends and everything he knew to come to the U.S. But he did it so his daughter and son could have a good education, a chance at a better life. I fell in love with that little third grader, who grew in three years into a beautiful and confident fifth grader, by then quite comfortable speaking and reading in English.
So I am happy to be called “maestra” (or even “teacher”). One thing I will miss after retirement is hearing the voices of children crowding around me, trying to get my attention with, “¡Maestra! ¡Maestra!”
I had a love-hate relationship with lesson plans. On the one hand, I liked doing them because it gave me a chance to get somewhat creative. The important thing was to achieve the goals and objectives of the lesson. I would experiment with different online forms and fonts and add pictures to entertain myself. When I was in graduate school, it was fun to create lesson plans because we could use the passion we had combined with what we were learning to create wonderfully innovative lesson plans for a fictional classroom.
That was the problem: it wasn’t real. In real life, lesson plans can be a lot of work and not always a place for innovation. Real innovation – such as those “teachable moments” one looks forward to – is more likely spontaneous. Maybe something you’ve planned isn’t working out and you come up with something different on the spur of the moment.
Sometimes things happen that you didn’t expect or plan for. Then you have to just go with the flow.
Usually, however, lesson plans were a cause for panic. First of all, I greatly depended on them to guide me through the day, because otherwise I’d forget something I had to do. Because I have a tendency to lose things, it got to the point where I had to print out two copies of my plans each day, so that if one got lost, the other would be in a safe and obvious place.
Lesson plans were also very time consuming to produce. Some teachers are able to get by with filling the squares of their lesson plan book.
Oh, how I wish I’d been able to do that! Instead, I spent many hours every day writing detailed lesson plans for the following day, even after I’d been teaching for ten years. Usually, I knew more or less what the plan was going to be, and I also filled in the squares of my teacher plan book. Still, there were always organizational notes that I had to write out in order to fix them in my mind. I would be up late at night on my computer, preparing these detailed plans that were designed for me not to forget things, yet the next day, I would forget some things anyway, because I was generally tired from staying up too late the night before to get my plans done! It was a vicious circle!
Some administrators required us to hand in weekly plans, with goals, objectives, and the Illinois standard number we were addressing. It wasn’t usually a problem for me, because I had to keep up with preparing my lesson outlines in advance so I would be able to prepare specifically for a particular concept and date it was to be introduced, taught to or reviewed with the students.
Over time, I designed the most effective lesson plan for me. It had two columns: On the left was the actual plan – what was to be taught. On the right would be listed materials I needed to assemble and notes for me to remember, such as a certain attitude I had to take with the students (Be firm! Make sure all eyes are on you!) or the names of students who were supposed to complete a particular task or be in a certain group. At the top, above the columns, were miscellaneous things I had to do or remember for that day – making copies of a math worksheet, talking to someone about something, pay my social committee dues, etc. The problem was that I didn’t always remember what I had to remind myself of!! I tended to overcompensate for myself and make things way more complicated than they should have to be.
If I was going to have a substitute the next day, I usually stayed at school very late preparing everything. I wrote an even MORE detailed lesson plan for the sub, not leaving anything out, and rushed around gathering materials and books the sub would need, so she wouldn’t have to spend time looking for something. Sub plans took me even longer to do than my own. It was almost not worth taking the time off for the amount of work I created for myself preparing for a sub.
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.
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
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.
• 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)
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)
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.
Wednesdays they have salad choices (as a main course) – Caesar salad with croutons & chicken, all veggie salads. Again, few of the kids choose these.
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.
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.
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.
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. Also 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 this. 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 gave 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.
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 classroom “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. Each 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 class, 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.
• 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.
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.
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
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.
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.
Kids 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”!
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!
Classmates reach into the pumpkin to remove the pulp.
Pumpkin seed counting activity – a volunteer mom helps her son and classmates.2013 – 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!
Bilingual 1st and 2nd grade class, with their teacher.
2014 – Bilingual 1st/2nd grade
Students ‘bobbing’ for doughnuts!
The teacher with her current class of 1st/2nd graders.
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.
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:
On 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! . 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. . 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. . 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. . 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. . 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. . 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. . 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.
. 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. . 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. . 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? . In our classroom meanwhile, I signed memory books, took down bulletin boards and stuffed report cards. . 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. . 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. . 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.
. 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. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Back 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!
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.
Ducks, 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.