Month: May 2015


peaceplace2May 29, 2015:

P is for Peace Place.

IMAG0095One 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 IMAG0011regular teacher’s stuff was stored everywhere in the room, and wanted to minimize my expenses also.

peaceplace1One 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.

poster1_caps.inddThe 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.

peace signEventually 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.

peace dove


May 28, 2015

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.

OreoIn 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!

Counting Change
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 Imaking change 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 Oreos-bagchocolate 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!


May 26, 2015

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.

Gracias maestraIn 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 Teacher Pointing at Map of Worldprofessionals, 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.

This card says:
This card says: “Thank you, Teacher. God bless your labor.”
Anatomy of a teacher
                     Anatomy of a teacher

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.

Teacher Calling on StudentSo 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!”

teacher-kids hanging onMaybe I’ll write a book with that as the title.

Me with a 2nd grade student
      Me with a 2nd grade student


May 22, 2015
L is for Lesson plans.

lesson plan-kids

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.   lesson plan thought bubbles

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.

lesson plan-keep calmSometimes things happen that you didn’t expect or plan for. Then you have to just go with the flow.

lesson-plan-2Usually, 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.

'You could always say the dog ate your lesson plan.'
‘You could always say the dog ate your lesson plan.’

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.

lesson plan bookOh, 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!

lesson plan-overplanSome 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 lesson-plan-templatehad 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.

lesson-plan-no-aimIf 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.



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


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


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.


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!


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