Thursday, February 22, 2007


Sunday, February 4, 2007 6:12 am

Dear Vanessa,

I'm sorry the space between e-mails has been great, but this e-mail has been incubating in my head for quite some time. (I suppose that's code for "this is going to be long.") Though, I'm sure you're busy enough without me prattling on about... everything. (Is it just me, or do I need to stop using self-deprecation as a defense mechanism and just deal with the fact that I'm e-mailing you whether you like it or not and-- *gasp*-- you might not actually hate it? Yes. Now would be an excellent time to start.)

[editted for relevance]

I most definitely should be in the bed at the moment, especially since my immune system hasn't completely recovered, but I finally picked up "Educating Esmé" this evening and I can't put it down now. It's a shame it's a library book, or else I'd be underlining and highlight and the like. (Oh, by the way, it was me who wrote in your books that were on reserve at the library. I decided it was okay because I did it very lightly in pencil. Originally, I was just making a few notes for myself so I remembered what to write down in my notebook when I went back to review the reading, but after I was all done I left them in hopes that they might help someone else. And then, of course, when I found out in class that week that I could somewhat direct the class's attention to certain points of interest in the text anonymously... well, it was all too much fun by then. I half can't believe I did such a thing in the first place, since up until about a year ago I would've thought writing in a book a sin. But, I've come to the conclusion that it's alright as long as it's in pencil. It makes sense, really. A musician would never place a piece of music they hadn't previously marked-up to high heck-- why should it be any different with a book? Always in pencil of course.)

I guess I was hoping I could get away scott-free since I'm only with the kids for 7-weeks-- but, alas, the germs got me. They put up quite a fight, too. I stayed home Monday, went in Tuesday and Wednesday, but was worse than ever by Thursday. Went to the doctor then, turns out I have an infection, but the good news is I can take (and am taking) antibiotics for it. And the doctor even gave me free samples-- which will always make a college student with no health insurance do a jig. Hopefully I'll be good as new by Monday. I know the kids are probably annoyed at me for missing out Thursday and Friday; we've been playing this Arthur trading card game I came up with for a few weeks now, and if I'm not there we don't do it. Admittedly, I'm pretty mad at myself for missing at all. I always feel lazy if I miss class/work-- even if I'm sick. And I'm convinced Mrs. H will think I have poor work ethic because of all this, especially since she wasn't feeling well on Monday either. But, I really shouldn't fret over such things. I know I have good work ethic, and the rest will fall into place, right?

I'm having such mixed feelings about coming back to Bennington in two weeks... For one, I'm going to miss my kids a lot. (I guess they're technically not "my kids," but... I don't know. I had this awful dream a few weeks ago about one of them getting hurt and now I can't stop referring to them as "my kids.") For another, I didn't get nearly as much reading and the like done over FWT as I would've liked (but, I tend to set unreasonable goals in that department). The big one, I suppose, is that I really don't want to return to certain situations... I've never once in my life been afraid or uncomfortable about not knowing what the future will bring, but right now, I am. But... there's a lot to look forward to. There are a lot of people I do miss, and there are new classes. New classes are always exciting. (Oh, which reminds me-- you don't happen to have a book list yet for Adolescent Literacies, do you? And if you do... could I have it? =3 Besides curiosity, it's mostly a matter of that I can't afford to buy them directly from the bookstore-- which messed things up pretty badly last term anyway-- so I need to get them online. And that can take a while.) I'm looking forward to all my classes... even if one of them IS at 8am on Mondays... Is not being a morning person a sign that one shouldn't become a teacher? Because if so, I'm beyond doomed.

There should probably be more point-getting-to.

Overall things have been going pretty well. I'm nearly done with the giant book project and I've been spending a lot more time working with the kids. They've had a way of really surprising me lately. Like this one girl who was out for several days and I was working with her one-on-one to help her catch up on the math. In the morning, she was pretty confused and going through the worksheet was like pulling teeth. But in the afternoon, we tried a different approach and she caught on immediately. Within a few minutes she was wipping through the entire worksheet by herself and doing it all perfectly. At one point even said to me, "You know... I kind of like math." It made me so happy I could've cried. That same day, I was working with my reader's theater group on our play, but it was just one of those days where no one was listening to a word I was saying. When I eventually realized we were just being outright counterproductive, we called it a day and went back working on writer's workshop. But later that day, they all came in during recess because they want to work on the play instead! I was floored (and didn't get to eat my lunch), but it was well worth it.

Another thing that surprised me is that there is a little girl and a little boy in my class who seem to think they’re dating. This confuses me. I mean, these kids are 7, 8 years old at most. Don’t girls still have cooties at that age? Apparently, the little boy was giving the little girl presents everyday, and the little girl was giving the little boy notes telling him how in love with him she was. Mrs. R got concerned about the situation and had a conference with the little boy’s mother. Apparently, the mother thinks the whole thing is very cute and is happily facilitating the relationship. She lets the little boy take whatever he wants out of her jewelry box, “it’s all junk anyway.” And that night she was taking them out to a movie and a fancy dinner. The thing is, I overhear enough of the kids’ conversations to know that they don’t think of dating as weird. It frightens me, really. Why are they in such a hurry to grow up? And what on earth are they watching on television?

I've been thinking a lot about what you said about sitting in chairs being about conformity... and it set me off on a whole other train of thought. I jotted this down about two weeks ago:

If sitting in one's chair is less about learning and more about conforming, is not most of how public education delivered about conformity?

That is, the way we talk to children, the way we punish and reward, is all about being a follower and seeking validation. When we use "I" messages as teachers ("I really like that," "I think you need to try that again," "I think you can do better than this," etc.), it suggests that what a student is really after is the teacher's validation instead of learning for the sake of their own knowledge. Hence, how we produce "teacher's pets" and "overachievers" in the school system. Both are about recognition and validation of one's work and one's self (or, perhaps, validation of one's self through one's work). No wonder we have children who breakdown and sob at the site of a "B." The idea of grades is somewhat archaic, but a long way from being outlawed or even replaced save in the few progressive higher education institutions that current practice learning and teaching without grades (e.g. Bennington College, Hampshire College, etc.). But, not only are we literally grading students, we've instilled in them early on that what they're seeking is the teacher's validation, and a "B" is not only a reflection on the student's work, but on their very person. A low mark suggests that her/she is a person of poor character.

Yet, if the purpose of school truly is to learn (since knowledge is the one thing no one can take away from you), then why is there such an emphasis on the black and white concept of "right" and "wrong"? Why do we discourage ways of thinking that are outside our teacher's manual? As a teacher it is our job to present as many ways to do something as possible, with emphasis on the most efficient, but it is ultimately up to the student to select which is best for them, even if in our eyes it's no the "best" or "right" way to do something.

We also talk to children in a way that says they should follow others. For example, when doing a math activity, one child catches on immediately and the teacher tells everyone to "Look at what [your peer] did, follow [him/her]." A better way to approach this situation would be to address the child who caught on quickly and ask them to explain to the group what they did-- that way knowledge is shared in a non-threatening manner, reassuring students that if one of them did it, all of them can, and leaves out the language that suggests one person is doing it "right" and everyone else should follow.

There is also a lot of threats coming from our classroom. Specifically, they are usually threats to call a students parents or send them to the principal. In the case of speaking with a student's parents, this can be an especially important tool in the goal of involving parents in their child's education, but it should not be used as a threat, especially when most teachers are unaware of the specifics of a child's home life. This language choice may also, inadvertently, label the child's parents as the "bad guys"-- i.e., if the child has "bad" behavior, we're going to call the parents to play police. It absolves the teacher of their duty, for one, and puts all parties, who could've initially be helpful, on attack mode, leading the child to be preemptively defensive.

Threats also do nothing to stop "bad" behavior, they only fan the fire. Especially if behavior is being considered "bad" or "wrong" because a child is refusing to conform. An angry reaction from the teacher will only encourage more like behavior from the free-spirited child.

I recently received the essay question we’re supposed to satisfy as prospective BA/MAT students for our FWT credit, which is:

Schools are cultures unto their own, with commonalties that encompass most
schools and unique characteristics specific to a particular setting. Please
provide a brief description of the school and/or classroom where you did
your FWT and then hypothesize about the nature of the culture of that
school, including concrete examples to support your observations. Be sure to
consider the materials that were or were not available, who interacted with
whom and the nature of those interactions, and the role of the larger

I’m a little afraid of writing an essay, though, that will suggest to Carol M---- that I’m actually an anarchist or conspiracy theorist, seeking to destroy our schools from the inside out. But… part of me is saying “run with it.” We’ll see, I suppose. I don’t even know if I’m on the right track with all this, though.

Ironically, I find my biggest area of frustration in the classroom is knowing what to say, but not necessarily how to say it. I guess I need to fill up a language grab bag of sorts for future endeavors.

I guess my whole “problem” with the wanting to teach children how to read stems from me not knowing what to do with it. That is, right now the formal title of my plan is “Music in Education.” (That was hardly my choice, but my plan committee insisted on putting something down, and that’s what they decided on.) But what do I do now? Do I just walk up to Carol Meyer and tell her I want to teach children how to read instead (or in addiction)? I don’t even know if Bennington’s BA/MAT program extends into that area specifically. The whole idea of teaching has been throwing me off kilter for a while, and I finally realized why. I want to teach, I’m supposed to teach, I feel that… but there are so many ways one can teach. And I guess I’m not sure if I want to be at the end of a classroom for the next 40 years. A friend of mine put it much more elegantly—“while you have found your calling, you have not yet found your niche.” But, if I truly am supposed to be feeling uncomfortable, than I suppose I’m much closer to fine than I realize.

I’m sorry if this e-mail is all over the place. It feels all over the place. But today I wrote down, “The perfection really is in the imperfection, the spontaneity of a thought that will only come once.” I guess I’m exercising that idea… or right. Well, now it’s time for more excellent books I’ve come across. I’ve been keeping a list, but I don’t have it in front of me, so a few off the top of my head:

“Bad Day at Riverbend” by Chris Van Allsburg (anything by him, actually)
“Stellaluna” by Janell Cannon
“Feather and Fools” by Mem Fox (I’m only now discovering the joy that is Mem Fox)
“Dear Mrs. La Rue: Letters From Obedience School” by Mark Teague
“The Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pig” by Eugene Trivizas
“Anatole” by Eve Titus
“Miss Smith's Incredible Book” by Michael Garland
“Anansi and the Moss-Covered Rock” by Eric A. Kimmel (there’s a collection of Anansi stories—based on an African fable—retold by Eric A. Kimmel and they’re all delightful)

Aaaaand, as requested, more pictures! I made a gallery online. You can see it here.

Well, now it is very late, and this e-mail is very long, so I think I shall go and read until I pass out. I hope this e-mail finds you well.

--Natalie Rose

Monday, February 12, 2007

D.W.'s Library Card

The play went so well!

I'm so very, very proud of them. :)

Thursday, February 8, 2007

One clumsy day...

The kids loved it.

Our madlibs story:

This is my fluffy friend, Arthur. Arthur is a gecko. Arthur has a slow sister named D.W. One clumsy day, Arthur and D.W. were singing down the street. Suddenly, D.W. exploded!

“Arthur!” she shouted, “What is that crunchy thing?!”

“I think it’s a McDonalds,” replied Arthur.

D.W. crashed at it. “Do you think it’s gooey?” D.W. finally asked.

“It looks sweet to me,” said Arthur.

“And pink,” said D.W. “Do you think Mom and Dad will let us keep it?”

“No way!” said Arthur. “Kate might fly it.”

“Aww, come on Arthur!” pleaded D.W. “I’ll name it Hanna!”

“No D.W.” said Arthur.

“But it’s only 553 years old! We can’t just leave it here,” said D.W.

“Let’s call a farmer,” said Arthur, “he or she will know what to do.”

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

"Does your teacher know...?"

The past few days have been absolutely exhausting. Three days in a row now I've come home and passed-out on the couch inadvertently. The chitlins are wearing me out. It's hard to imagine doing this everyday, 180 days a year, for year after year. The kids just demand and require so much energy. It's worth it, without a doubt. I've seen teachers who don't put any energy or effort towards their kids, and the kids pay the price for it. It's unfair. We need active teachers, not passive ones.

I love Mrs. R, but I do see her practicing some passive behaviors with the kids. Like having a conversation with another teacher when they pop in and ignoring the kids. Or not being their when they arrive in the morning to greet them. Or handing them an assignment or some busy work, and then going to check her e-mail or correct some papers instead of paying attention to and helping the kids. I've been jumping in instead, trying to remind kids to use their time efficiently (code for "don't talk/distract yourself and others") and help them where needed. My mom and I were talking the other day and we came to the conclusion that it's the quiet ones you have to worry about more than the "behavior problem" kids. My mom and I were both quiet students. In my case it was because school was easy for me and I was shy, so I'd just sit quietly and get my work done quickly. I don't know why, I just didn't really have a desire to talk to the other kids, I'd rather work. I talk to the other kids now, but I have the same work ethic. My mother was not so fortunate. She was the type of quiet student you worry about-- the type that sit there and nod and smile but don't understand a word you're saying. Apparently, it wasn't until my mom got to third grade that anyone realized she couldn't read. "At least the kid hanging from the rafters is getting some attention," as she put it.

I walk around the room in the morning when they're doing the problem of the day and try to check on everybody. A simple, "how are you doing?" will usually bring some kids back from space and/or find out if they need help. It's a little odd for me, because as a kid I always hated when the teacher would come and lean over my shoulder to look at my paper and check on me. Back then I looked at it as spying on me, distrust even. Or maybe it's just the action of something looking over your shoulder that makes me so uncomfortable. Now I understand, though, that it's well intentioned. Still, it's really only within the last year or two that I've stopped just saying, "Fine" when a teacher asks how I'm doing and tell them what (if any) dilemmas I'm having. I think it has a lot to do with the realization that I'm paying through the nose for this advice and learning experience-- might as well make the most of it. (The same thought caused me to get in a huge fight with the visiting drawing teaching my freshman year. It was totally worth it. The guy said, "I'm glad we had this talk" to me about an hour after I tore him a new one for not teaching worth a damn and only catering to the students who already had inherent artistic ability and forming training despite the fact that it was a beginning class, and I wound up getting a "B-" in the class. Go figure.)

Educating Esmé was truly inspiration (in a variety of ways), but I picked up my copy of Choice Words by Peter H. Johnson to reread just after I finished. I love that book. The subtitle is "How Our Language Affects Children's Learning." It was a reminder that while discipline and consistency are necessary, good communication can often bypass a lot of grief for everyone. And now I will share with you, my favorite table ever, from page 6 of Choice Words:

Implications of Different Teacher Responses to Social Transgression
Teacher Comment

Question Answered by Comment

"That group, get back to work or you'll be staying in at lunch." "When you are loud like that, it interferes with the other discussion groups and I feel frustrated.""This is not like you. What is the problem you have encountered? Okay, how can you solve it?"
What are we doing here? Laboring. Living in cooperation.Living collaboratively.
Who are we?Slaves and owner.People who care about others' feelings.Social problem-solvers. Normally admirable people.
How do we relate to one another?Authoritarian control.Respectful with equal rights.Work out our problems.
How do we relate to what we are studying?Do it only under duress.[no implication][no implication]

So I went in on Monday, Esmé and Choice Words inspired, and gave it my all. I tried to stay present, to be attentive to the kids, to show them respect with my language choices, but to firm too. It was, as the week has been thus far, exhausting-- but well worth it! I saw immediate results in the way the children responded to me. Right now I have to be particularly careful about my word choices, but with practice I think it'll become natural. Sometimes I say things that hit the mark, sometimes they're less than what I was looking for. At one point on Monday "Tyler, I don't see you using your time efficiently," just flowed out of my mouth without a second thought. I was most pleased.

Tyler is turning out to be the biggest handful for me. He gets distracted so easily. On Monday, I was in the back working on my on-going classroom library project and after catching him talking instead of doing his math three times, I told him to come back and do his math with me. It wasn't a bad deal, he got to sit on a nice pillow and do his math away from the other kids. I was interested in whether he would still get distracted while sitting away from the other kids, or whether he'd do it work. The former would indicate a more serious problem (maybe ADHD? Though I'm so very reluctant of diagnosing anyone with that), but he did the latter. I was pleased. He even got it don't fairly quickly. I talked to him about his talking to the other kids and he says he just gets distracted very easily. It's true, he does, but he has to learn some self-control. I'm thinking about talking to Mrs. R about moving his seat, it could help a lot.

I wore a bell to school on Monday. It's a Christmas bell necklace I got when I was in 1st grade. I grabbed it last minute off my dresser, thinking it might be useful to getting the kids attention. By midday I was certain I was going to drive myself crazy with the thing. It wasn't a terrible idea, but it ultimately wasn't loud enough to get the kids' attention. I brought the bell in again Tuesday, as per Brittany's request, but wound up retiring it by mid-morning.

Something I jotted down: Mrs. R has a habit of engaging the kids in conversation and then discouraging them for doing so. For example, they'll be working on their problem of the day, she'll bring up some benign topic of discussion, and then scold the children for talking and tell them to return to work. The mixed messages bother me.

On Monday, we also told the kids for the first time that I'd be leaving soon. They were all pretty sad... I was surprised, for whatever reason, and the whole display melted my heart into pieces. I had to promise to come back and visit (I should be able to, I get out of school before them). I'm resolved to send them some treats from Vermont once I get back to school (I know where I can get some delicious maple candy). The biggest question I got after this announcement, though, was why was I leaving? I explained to them that I had to go back to my school. TJ thought about this for a moment, then realized his hand and asked me,

"Miss A, does your teacher know you're here or is she marking you absent?"

I nearly fell over. I think that's my favorite kid-quote to date.

When we worked on the play that day, I set down the ground rules in the beginning. Explaining how real directors are very harsh because there's a lot of work to be done in a little amount of time. I also told them if I had to ask them to be quiet more than twice, I would replace them with any of the 12 other kids in the class who want to be in the play. Surprisingly, they were all very well behaved that day! I was very proud of them. The next day they were much more rambunctious, but they remembered all the blocking we worked on, so I forgave them. Today we worked on finishing up masks and props, and tomorrow we'll be rehearsing quite a bit since we perform for the class on Friday. I think it'll be great.

I also had a chat with Joe today, while I was working on putting the masks together. I made him remake is Buster mask because the first one he made was very sloppy. I thought I was being mean, but, I know he could do much better than that. He protested a little, but not much. I guess he know it was sloppy too. He remade it today and it looks great! After he was done I talked to him about the fact that he has the most complicated part in the play (not a ton of lines, but he has two parts and a lot of mask-changing and moving) and that the kids tend to follow what he does. Joe is somewhat of the class clown. He's smart as a whip, but he loves to act out. I told him that when he acts out, the rest of the kids do, but when he's working, they follow. I asked him to get on board with me and we high-fived on it. I think it was a good conversation. We'll see how rehearsal goes tomorrow-- most of the kids are eager to work on it.

I stayed after until 6:30pm on Monday to finish up sorting the rest of the books in the classroom library. I didn't expect it to take so long, but it was worth it. Pictures coming soon, but I have to finish making my little genre signs first, and then I have to complete the inventory list.

Apparently, the kids were responding so well to me on Monday, Mrs. R decided to give me the math lessons for the next week or so. We started probability on Tuesday, and the kids love it! Since we didn't have actually spinners in the classroom, I found this great one online that you can adjust to all your specifications. The kids just love spinning it and rooting for a certain color. They could do it for hours. The best part, though, is they're really understanding probability. We're even going a bit past what the book covers by introducing number ratios (thanks to BrainPop, my new favorite site).

The unit on Marc Brown, author of the Arthur books, is going well. We started the unit my first day and now that I'm only going to be around until next Friday, I'm working on closing it up. On my last day we're going to have a big party to celebrate the end of the unit-- we're gonna get pizza and the kids are going to wear pajamas. I have an Arthur adventure game that came with a book I bought (Teaching with Favorite Marc Brown Books), we'll read and all sorts of fun stuff. I'm also going to find a game we can play with a spinner, hence relating it to probability. Everything is still in the planning stages, though.

We finished up the Arthur trading card game I designed. The PBS Kids website has some Arthur Trading Cards to print out, so I printed out one of each, laminated them and created a survey of 75 questions based on the answers on the trading cards. Then, each day, I hid 4-6 cards for the kids to find. We've been doing this for about two weeks now, and on Monday I hid the last 6. Usually, the kids are determined to find them all by the end of the day, but they dragged out these last 6 for 3 days! I think it's because they don't want it to be done. Now that they found all the cards, they finish the survey, and anyone who hands it in to me will get a prize next week at our party. (I'm making them all do it because I bought them all prizes. The little buggers are all getting their very own Arthur book.)

Brian had been bugging me since we started to make a Marc Brown trading card, so I finally caved and put my photoshop skills to use. I made two-- here and here. They're super-limited edition. Hehe.

Tomorrow we're reading Arthur Writes a Story. The kids do writer's workshop everyday, and some of them are really not into it, so I didn't want to make them write their own story for a follow-up activity. The book I have suggests making a list of advice for writers after reading a few other books about writing a story as well. I was planning on that one, but ultimately came up with a better idea-- Arthur Madlibs! Here's what I have at the moment:

“My Arthur Story” MadLibs

This is my [adjective] friend, Arthur. Arthur is a/an [animal]. Arthur has a/an [adjective] sister named D.W. One [adjective] day, Arthur and D.W. were [verb ending in –ing] down the street. [Adverb], D.W. [past tense verb].
“Arthur!” she shouted, “What is that [adjective] thing?!”
“I think it’s a/an [noun],” replied Arthur.
D.W. [past tense verb] at it. “Do you think it’s [adjective]?” D.W. finally asked.
“It looks [adjective] to me,” said Arthur.
“And [color],” said D.W. “Do you think Mom and Dad will let us keep it?”
“No way!” said Arthur. “Kate might [verb] it.”
“Aww, come on Arthur!” pleaded D.W. “I’ll name it [name of person in the room]!”
“No D.W.” said Arthur.
“But it’s only [number] years old! We can’t just leave it here,” said D.W.
“Let’s call a [occupation],” said Arthur, “they’ll know what to do.”

There are 17 blanks, one for each kid. I left the story open-ended because I though after we do the madlib as a class, everyone will draw a picture for their madlib part of the story and then write their own ending. It might be a big flop, who knows, but I have a good feeling about this activity. I think the kids will be into it. Who doesn't love madlibs?

I feel like I've had so much more to say. But, the past couple of days have just condensed in my mind. I'm not sure if any amount of blogging, though, could account for the insane amount I've been actively thinking about teaching lately. I already know what I'm going to write for my essay (required to pass FWT)-- which I will discuss more later. (It makes me sound like an anarchist, but I think I'm on to something.) Vanessa would say I'm in a "deeply thoughtful space."

Reading Madame Esmé's book has been freeing in many ways. I feel like I have another teacher figure to look up to now, as opposed to Sasha. I picked up some of her other books from the library and am reading Sing a Song of Tuna Fish now, all about when Esmé was in 5th grade herself. Everyone should check out Planet Esmé, and most definitely watch the video on the front page (it's delightful!). I think I've got a professional crush on the woman, if that makes any sense. You know, in that little girl, eyes-glazed-over way where you look up at the person and go, "Wooooow. I want to be like you!" Except, interestingly enough, over the past few days my mind has gone from thinking, "I want to be Esmé," to "I want to be like Esmé," to "I want to be as creative and intuitive in my teaching as Esmé." I like where it has settled.

Alright, I really ought sleep. Tomorrow is going to be exhausting, but well worth it as always.

Sunday, February 4, 2007

Educating Esmé

I just finished Educating Esmé in a day. I couldn't put it down, Madame Esmé has such a fantastic voice and enthusiasm. The book was an inspiring read, but only makes it more obvious that I have a long, long way to go...

Sasha never told me you had to be mean. Harsh, disciplinary. Mostly importantly, according to Esmé, consistent. Sasha's way of teaching is rather Zen. She tends to answer one question with another. The idea is to get the children to think, to use their own powers of observation and deduction. I've never actually seen her in the classroom and I've only had brief glimpses of her with children... but the children love her. I know she's doing something right, but I know there's a lot she's doing I'm simply not aware of.

Unfortunately, Mrs. R hasn't been especially helpful in that department. During my first week she told me that she thought I was doing quite well, that she thought I would make a good teacher, but I needed to be tougher on the kids. And she's right... but I'm just not sure how to go about it. She yells at them when they're getting too out of control, but it only seems to slow the boil for a few minutes, at best. She has them put up colored cards for each time they're being rude or not following directions. Each color has a specific disciplinary action to go along with it-- Green is a warning, blue is a 5-minute time out at recess, yellow is a 15-minute time out at recess, and red gets you sent to the principal's office. It's not bad in theory, but Mrs. R never seems to follow through with any of the corresponding colors and the kids think nothing of getting a card here or there. The only thing they do affect, as far as I can tell, is whether or not the kids gets a smiley face at the end of the day.

The kids have folders they bring in at the start of the day to hand in and take home with their homework in it at the end of each day. They also have a sheet where Mrs. R will either give them a smiley face (if they had a good day) or leave a note (if they didn't). Then it's in the parent's court. I know one child, Tyler, tends to get very upset if he's gets less than a smiley face at the end of the day-- pleading, saying his father will be angry-- but he acts out worst than most kids in the class.

I think discipline needs to be more creative. His biggest offense is constantly getting out of his seat and walking over and talking to other students when he's supposed to be working. I'm thinking tomorrow, if I have to remind him to sit down more than twice, I'll take his chair away and ask him to work standing up. This for say, 5-10 minutes. If he's good, he'll get the chair back. If he's not, he'll lose it for the day. Just a thought...

The problem is, it's not my classroom. I'd do things very differently if it were. And while by my 2nd week it became apparent that Mrs. R was going to let me do just about anything I wanted... it's still her classroom and I've been trying to abide by the way she's organized it. Perhaps I should just jump in. Sometimes the kids are rude when I'm reading to them, and Mrs. R keeps telling me to have them put up cards... it doesn't do anything, as far as I can tell. Maybe I'll just have them go back to their seats and put their heads on their desk if they talk during reading time. And as for the reader's theatre... well, I've been in real enough theatre to know they all would've been fired for their recent behavior. Especially since it's apparent now that I'll only have time to do a play with this one group of kids and there are 12 other kids in the class dying to be in the play... it's a privilege that they're working on this with me. They need to understand that. And if not, I will replace them.

Esmé's right, though, consistency is the key. I've only been around 5 weeks, I'll only be around 2 more... is it enough time to change my methods? I won't change that much... only learning not to take any crap from the kids.

No one told me I had to be mean.

Well, now it's 2am and I should've been in bed at least two hours ago. Getting up is going to be a struggle-- it always is. I'm just not a morning person. But, hopefully tomorrow will be different.

Re: Teaching, Reading and Everything Related

My first reply from Vanessa came back, just like this:

Dear Natalie, I'm inside your email.

On 1/10/07, I wrote:
Dear Vanessa,

Happy New Year!

--and to you as well. I made it until 10pm.

I hope your holidays went well. I'm not sure if you recieved
my previous e-mail, but hopefully you don't mind my e-mailing you again.

---I did receive it. Admittedly, it got away from me and I forgot to
reply. My apologies.

I'm in dire need of someone to talk to all this teaching stuff about,
especially since I can't talk to Sasha anymore. Not that she'd necessarily
be much help, since she's never taught at a public school. (And, honestly,
I think she ought to. Waldorf, Reggio Emilia, Montessori, etc. are all
wonderful enactments of progressive education, but, if she really does want
to open up her own utopian K-12 school someday, she ought to know what she's
up against. Attending a public school and reading about one is nothing
compared to teaching at one.)

Yes, public and urban education provides a unique opportunity and for
some challenge.

Anyhow... In week two now of working at [an] elementary in a second
grade class room. The kids are darling and I love them to bits (picture

Great picture!

Mrs. R, the teacher I'm working with, keeps telling me about
"behavior problems" in the classroom and I'm just not sure out to interpret
that, ultimately (more on this later). The first week was a little rocky,
partially because I spent two out of the four days with a substitute teacher
who was more satisfied with pretending I didn't exist than asking what I was
doing there, and partially because Mrs. R herself hasn't always known quite
what to do with me. I was talking to my friend Nikki (do
you know her? She just transferred to Bennington last term as a
teaching/drama concentration. I think she's going to be taking Adolescent
Literacies next term.) who's in a similar boat. She put it best in saying
that as Bennington students we don't fit into the "student teacher"
category, but we're not strictly observing and our teachers just don't know
what to do with us. And when we explain that the school doesn't have goals
for us through our FWT, that each student has their own individualized goals
and requirements, it usually just confuses them more... it should. I'm confused that there are no written or named
goals for your cooperating teacher to review. At the very least,
he/she could create learning opportunities for you based on those

Mrs. R has been keeping me busy with two big projects. First there's the
author study I'm doing on Marc Brown (I mentioned this in the previous
e-mail), which has been going fairly well. Apparently, I'll be continuing
this study for the duration of my time here. But, the kids love his books
and respond well to me when I read to them. We wrote a class letter to Mr.
Brown, took a class picture to send to him, and are probably going to be
creating some artwork to send to him as well. I talked to Mrs. R about
doing a reader's theater with some of the kids of an Arthur book and she's
going to be giving me a group of kids to start working with on it next week.
I'm certainly excited about that. I also have some other fun
Arthur-related projects brewing... we'll see out they turn out.

Excellent. My Department Chair is Sean Walmsley is married to Bonnie
Brown who is Marc Brown's sister. I have a few interesting stories I
could share with you...Chief among them take a look at Arthur's Nose
(the book but also his nose) the first one and then look at Arthur
now. Ask kids, "How has Arthur changed?" "Why has Arthur changed?"

The other (enormous) project I've been working on is redoing the classroom
library. That is, Mrs. R has a plethora of books and reading baskets, but
many of them aren't very well organized, if they're organized at all. I've
been working at it relentlessly and am hoping to have it all done early next
week, if not at the end of this week. So far there must be at least some 80
baskets with anywhere from 5-25 books per basket. Of course, I'm trying to
combine/break-up where necessary, and when all is said and done some of them
will be put away because, well, that much selection is overwhelming for
anybody. I'm enjoying the project, it's certainly a good experience, but
sometimes it's a little maddening. For one, I'm creating an inventory for
Mrs. R so when I'm all done she'll have a list of exactly what books she
has, how many, and where they are. Then there's the problem of books that
overlap in categories... for example, The Magic School Bus books. Right now
they have their own basket, but they could easily be broken up and
distributed amongst the categories of science, animals, plants, etc... but,
what to do? I'm trying to figure out which way would serve the classroom
better, but, it's a toss-up. Then there's the fact that I'm supposed to
categorize the books, but not level them. In some places, it's so hard for
me not to just level them and sort them that way. For example, level A and
B concept books and all those bloody red books by Peter and Sheryl Sloan?
Ngh. I did, however, find Mrs. R's copy of Fontas and Pinnell's Guided
Reading, and felt relieved to know we were on the same page (no pun

Yes. You could use Guided Reading to help you organize the texts.
Rather than fuss over which way to organize, select several
organizational frames. Put a few samples of each book in each basket.
And so, you will find The Magic School Bus in Fantasy books and also
in Informational texts and maybe in Level "x's" (should Mrs. R repent
and allow you to level the texts.)

It's a great project, though, for a lot of reasons. For one, I've gotten to
read a mountain of new books, some of which are absolutely delightful. My
absolute favorites thus far (read them immediately if you haven't, they're
amaaazing, but you probably have): "A Bad Case of Stripes" by David Shannon,
"White Rabbit's Color Book" by Alan Baker, and "The Dandelion Seed" by
Joseph P. Anthony and Cris Arbo. Anyhow... I'm almost done with inventory
*crosses finger* and then I just have to type it up, make all new labels,
and re-label all the books.

David Shannon has some great texts...I believe he wrote, "No David!"
----read that.....and "Yo! Yes?"

Of course, this isn't all I've been doing. I've gotten a chance to teach
some math (some of the kids really got it!) and help the kids in other areas
when they're having trouble. Most of them have gotten used to me and some
of them have started approaching me for help before Mrs. R (maybe because
she's busy or maybe I'm more receptive to some of them?). Last week Mrs. R
said she could really see me being a teacher, but, I don't know. Right now
I'm just worried, I know. Somedays I think I'm really getting the hang of
all this, and somedays I'm completely aware of how I have no idea what I'm

If that's how you feel on some days and that's how you feel on
others---then I strongly urge you to think about becoming a

The thing is, over the past few days, I've realized that no one is going to
tell me what to do. In some ways, it's very useful, and in others it's
frustrating. That is, I was so nervous my first day because I'd been told
to prepare this author study and, being I'd never seen or read about one
before, was convinced I going to mess it up terribly. But... it went
alright. So, I've stopped being so nervous, but when I bring ideas or
projects or problems to Mrs. R to review, she just gives me the go ahead.
There are often days, too, where I feel like I'm more prepared in my lesson
plans than Mrs. R is. It worries me a little. On the one hand, I'm being
given so much room to move around that I can try things and see what works,
and see what doesn't. But at the same time, I'm getting almost no guidence
whatsoever and these are children-- I don't feel like I should be running
"trial and error" on them inside their classroom (while, I suppose that is,
in many ways, an inherant part of teaching... and life in general). I'm okay
with this all at the moment, but somewhere along the line, if I'm supposed
to be teaching, someone has got to tell me what to do. Or, rather, what I
could do. Or at least give me some recommended reading!

Hmmmm. Ask yourself, "What is the goal and purpose of what I am
trying to teach?" Then ask, "What strategies do I have for teaching
this?" When it comes to reading you have a beginning bag of
strategies, yes? So, what's your strategy bag like for teaching math.
What's working? Why is it working? What will you do differently?
Why will you do it differently?

It's just, that I've had no teaching theory or methods at all (which
surprised Mrs. R quite a bit initailly, she seemed... befuddled over it).

Did you not just take a class with me?

Granted, I should be absorbing a lot from just observing, but... well, I
don't even know quite what I'm looking for, and the few things I do know
what I'm looking for, I tend to disagree with how Mrs. R does it. I keep
going back to "Choice Words" and the idea that simply being mindful of how
we speak can denote our relationship with the students. Especially with
young kids, who take everything so literally. The sub yelled at a student
last week who was laying on the floor saying, "Why can't you just sit in
your chair like a normal person?!" and today Mrs. R herself said to a
student, who'd been working her nerves all day, "I think it's pretty
pathetic that you can't even listen to what I have to say." I just kind
of... cringed. Mrs. R is a very nice person, but, sometimes I just disagree
with how she chooses to interact with the kids. Somedays she scolds them a
lot. Maybe I'm being silly and idealistic to think that there is a way I
can communicate with the children that doesn't involve yelling that shows
them I respect them, but that I'm the head of the classroom and they need to
respect me as well. Somedays we got along famously and they listen intently
when I read and are very respectful. Other days they're climbing all over
me and ignoring every word I say.

Focus on what Mrs. R does well and why. Ask yourself, "How are those
other language choices working to change/ prevent the targeted

I think the biggest problem is, I don't know how a second grade classroom,
ideally, is supposed to run. Not only that, but I'm sure there are 10,000
different ways a second grade classroom could run efficiently and still be a
healthy learning environment.

Indeed. And so, you do know how a second grade classroom is "supposed to run."

For example, the kids are very often up and
out of their seats when, as per Mrs. R's directions, they're not supposed to
be. But, I don't know how to interpret this. My gut reaction, though, is
that there is nothing inherantly wrong with children getting up and
wandering about because forcing them to sit quietly in hard chairs all day
is impractical and, well, not very nice.

Institutionalized practice is full of regulatory and disciplinary
practices (read Foucault). Sitting in chairs is less about learning
and more about conforming.

I want to give them all T-chairs
to see what'd happen. Parts of the classroom are set up beautifully and
covered in print. Other portions confuse me, like the seating
configuration. Mrs. R has the desks grouped as such: A large group of 8, a
smaller group of 4, 6 desks in two rows facing foward, and 1 desk 'lone next
to her desk. It just, doesn't seem productive for such young kids. Why not
put them all in small groups?

Ask her. Try, "Mrs. R: I was noticing that you have the children's
desk set up in a certain way. How did you decide that?"

I'm glad to be here doing all this, but, I guess I'm just feeling a little

You're not lost. You've found a deeply critical and thoughftul space.
Get comfortable being uncomfortable.

Oh and (I swear I'm not just trying to make this e-mail longer) I'm having a
little "problem" and I'm fairly convinced it's all your fault. About two
weeks ago I went to the public library to grab their copy of "Guided
Reading" (you should've seen the jig I did when I found out they had a copy)
and came back with far too many books. In addition to "Guided Reading," I
couldn't help picking up the other Fountas and Pinnell book next to it,
"Word Matters," Marie Clay's "Becoming Literate," two Jonathan Kozol books
("Savage Inequalities" and "Shame of the Nation") and a book by Jim Burke
and Joy Krajicek called "Letters to a New Teacher." Mind you, I also grabbed
about 10 or so Marc Brown books, so the lady at the check out gave me quite
a stare... but, imaging how I must've looked walking through the parking lot
with said giant stack of books only made me happier.

And the problem is?

When I arrived home with the books and some groceries, I told my mother that
I think I have a problem. She looked at me curiously and I said, "I think I
want to teach children how to read." I'm not sure what gave her the glazed
over look... maybe that I referred to this as a "problem," or more likely
because I immediately pitched into a rant about reading strategies and the
like while proudly showing her my stack of books. Anyhow... I'm fairly
certain this is all your fault and I really don't know what to do, mostly in
context of the fact that I go to Bennington.

Still waiting to learn of the problem? We need more bright ideologues
to teach children to read. You have my vote.

So, there's that.

I'm fairly certain if e-mails had any sort of tangible mass outside of
kilobytes, this one would've long since crushed you by now. My sincerest
apologies for that... for the crushing, not so much the e-mail.

Long and refreshing. Keep writing, most especially the parts where
you talk about deciding to become a reading teacher and you ask good
questions related to instructional practices.

Anyhow, I really ought to get going and this e-mail is quite long enough. I
hope it finds you well, though, and that I hear from you soon (even just to
remind me I'm a nutter butter-- "Nutter butter" being the very scientific
term for it). Still missing my weekly dose of Vanessa.

And, I miss all of you. Send more pictures please.

--Natalie Rose

(and I am always), Vanessa

P.S. My sense of fashion is officially approved of by 2nd graders.

P.S.S. You're sense of fashion is officially approved by 44th graders
as well. (Victory continues!)

Saturday, February 3, 2007

Diving In

Originally, I had a different starter post for this blog. That's rather like me, to want to have a perfectly planned out beginning. Of course, the idea of putting everything neatly into categories and having each word fall perfectly into place is what's promoted so many failed analog journals (and likewise, blogs) for me. The perfection really is in the imperfection, the spontaneity of a thought that will only come once.

So here's my new first post. The other one was terribly formal and had a long, round-about explanation as to how I ended up in a classroom in the first place. But, for me, the pleasure in reading a novel or a diary is the mystery, the problem solving-- diving in to the text and characters and putting all the pieces together. I like to think I leave pieces of myself around for other people to find... very few people find them.

Esmé has certainly helped. I just started reading "Educating Esmé: Diary of a Teacher's First Year" by Esmé Raji Codell and I can't put it down. I love her. She's the kind of teacher I want to be. I knew I'd love her... Sasha did. I also connected instantly to Esmé because, like her, I've lost my teaching mentor, my guru. Esmé's is Ismene, mine is Sasha. Fortunately for me, though, Sasha is not deceased. I can only hope, when the moment of truth eventually comes, she will not have decided that she is dead to me, or the verse.

I can't explain what happened between Sasha and me, it would take a lifetime. Besides, the more I think about it, the less I understand. I love her so very much and watching her hobble away from me has been the most painful loss I have experienced to date (despite that fact that I've been losing friends and family members to the cold hand of death at the rate of one or two a year since I was 12 years old-- there are days it feels like I live in a war zone). But, people who've lost somebody important or many important people to something as final as death share a bond and an understanding. The bond is one of determination, a unyielding will to survive. The understanding is that to lose someone in life, especially over petty disagreements, is pointless and cruel. The vow, then, is not to hold grudges-- there is no place for them when time never slows down.

And so, I don't hold grudges. And I don't understand wants me to "give her space" for an unspecified amount of time. I do know that she is so full of fear and, consequently, anger... but I don't know why. And I do know, through much trial and error and foolishness, that I can't fix any of it for her. But this, really, isn't about us... While emotionally Sasha is still very immature, her intellect blows me away. I want to steal it and put it in a jar so that I might consult with it whenever need be (which seems to be often, nowadays).

She, like me, came to Bennington College to be an artist (she one of paints and pencils, I one of words and chords). But, very quickly, Sasha discovered her calling with "the tiny children" (as I often referred to them as). While Sasha specifically focuses in Early Childhood (in her mind, anything pre-Kindergarten, but legally covers up to 2nd or 3rd grade), she has an amazing mind for education as a whole. She wants to start a school someday, Pre-12, that will incorporate all the amazing progressive ideas now being applied to Early Childhood Studies (courtesy of Waldorf, Montessori, Reggio Emilia, etc.) to all grade levels. She has floor plans and curriculum guides drawn up for it already. I think she is brilliant and I would do anything in my power to help her see her dream through, if she'd let me.

So, like any great person with passion, Sasha emerged me in hers the first day I met her. And over the course of a year and a half, Sasha has carefully groomed to me be a teacher, to be her little protégé. Of course, now that the moment of truth (the first of many) is upon me, she is nowhere to be found. I feel much like I have been dropped into the middle of the Atlantic Ocean without a life preserver or even some well wishes, "Good Luck!"

Fortunately, one of the last kind things Sasha did for me was introducing me to Vanessa, a part-time teacher at our college. Our teaching program, the "Center for Creative Teaching" or CCT, is very small. And, for whatever reason, constantly fluctuating in terms of faculty. Vanessa has been with the school for 3 terms now, at least, and I'm about ready to start a petition for her to be on permanent faculty. The woman is amazing. Fortunately, she likes me too and is extremely accessible. I've been e-mailing her over the past month or so, while I'm out in the field, with questions and concerns that she has whole-heartedly replied to. She is, to me, at the very least, a Godsend.

The problem is I suffer from an extreme lack of confidence when it comes to teaching. Dozens of people have told me I'd be good at it, but that's hardly enough. One has to have the drive to teach, which I do, and I've wanted to teach since I was 11 or 12 years old. But I had just enough discouragement to make me think twice. My mother, for one, who encourages me in everything, was not so supportive of the thought of me teaching. My family is full of teachers (my aunt, my great aunt, my grandmother), and my mother is convinced that teachers are chronically under-appreciated and bullied by parents, the administration, etc. She's right, of course, but this hardly seems like a reason to give up on it. In fact, it's quite the opposite. The other that stands out in my mind is an experience I had when I was in 8th grade. I was in Earth Science, that year, an advanced class-- a year ahead of my classmates-- and we had a project to teach the class about a certain subject. Well, for whatever reason, the class was completely lost on an activity I was trying to do and we were running out of time. I guess I felt rushed and somehow this translated to my classmates that I was frustrated or annoyed with them. I was, of course, surprised when someone brought this to my attention. And for whatever reason, since, I've been convinced I can't teach. Despite the fact that I have the patience of a glacier. Despite the fact that I love teaching, that I love children of all ages.

But, at some point along the line, when I was changing over my major to music (even though I still wanted/want to study writing), one of my professors asked me if I had considered teaching music. I said I had... he said he thought I'd be good at it. It was enough. I decided to take a class in the CCT (with Vanessa) and began looking for an FWT (short for "Field Work Term"-- a 7-week internship period during January and February my school offers; everyone has to complete at least 3 FWTs to graduate) in education. I wanted to teach somewhere local, a public school but someplace familiar, and I wanted to work with the music teacher. I got half my wish. With my FWT deadline flying at me this past Fall, I took a job working in a second grade classroom instead of with the music teacher, but it was local and it was experience with the age group and I wouldn't trade my kids now for anything in the world. I love them to bits. Somedays they drive me nuts, but I love them just the same.

I dislike the fact that I have any trepidation about teaching, but it didn't help that my advisor and my plan committee forced me to formally name my major before I had an opportunity to get inside a classroom for the first time. Officially, I'm studying "Music in Education." (I wanted it to be "The Science and Psychology of Music," but they seem very similar in one way or another.) After taking a class with Vanessa, who's a reading specialist, I'm more unsure than ever because now I desperately want to teach children how to read. But music is my passion and I am convinced that the way we teach western music in this country is somewhat archaic and ineffective.

The past 5 weeks have show me that I definitely do want to teach, that this is what I'm supposed to do in life... but there are many ways to teach. I guess I'm not sure if I want to be in the classroom for the next 40 years. In a recently letter to my dear friend Sarah, I mentioned this and she put it far better than I ever could-- "while you have found your calling, you have not yet found your niche."

At least, I know, that I have potential to be a good teacher-- after all, I am a very good student.