Falling Flat on My Face

I turned the faucet at the back of the classroom and a brown liquid sputtered out, smelling of eggs. Fly paper swung from the ceiling when the air conditioner kicked on. My teeth felt gritty with dust from the twenty miles off the highway, through the orchards, past the dairy farms with their relentless clouds of flies. I smacked my hands past one another and put them on my hips, looking around the room like Mary Poppins. I had flown in just in time to help these sad children.

If you’ve ever been asked to complete an impossible task, you might know that at first it just seems very difficult, rather improbable… a thinker, you’ll have to look at it from every angle. You might have thought, like me, that it just needed a creative solution, a fresh pair of eyes. You notice the tangles on the outside first and tease them apart with a hopefulness inside until you get past them and see it’s a rat’s nest and you might not get out alive.

The class was comprised of 27 seventh and eighth grade students. Due to low enrollment, grades were combined and teachers instructed in all subjects. Five content areas, two grade levels of content, one day. It seemed difficult but not impossible. I became obsessed with time management, rotating my students around the room like a mad dance. This grade receiving instruction while that grade practiced independently. This group receiving remediation while the others worked collaboratively. The students were gangly and startlingly distractible. They were dazed at first, by my determination and the expectation that they would and could actually learn. Some fell in love, most fought back. After five weeks and a class novel they were mostly on board. They were thirsty after all. Their struggles and small victories were always on my mind.

As we studied medieval Europe, I wondered if they might see their reflection in the feudal system. Children of fieldworkers, they rode the bus home after school and let themselves in to the trailer with a few younger siblings following behind. Squeezing onto the couch with a bag of Taquitos and bad TV: the American dream. Their parents, pulling double shifts, would stay in the fields ’till dusk so that they could be at their kid’s volleyball match on Friday.

Interpersonally, I had a lot to learn about a career in education. I had a lot to learn about adulthood. I had a lot to learn about people. Like how dangerous they can be when they are given a position of power and lack the skills to succeed there. Naively, I went to my administrator with some questions that stemmed from genuine confusion on my part. I wasn’t in Chicago anymore and I couldn’t quite figure out why, for example, athletic competitions took place during the school day every Friday – reducing my classroom to four students, while the rest splayed on the brittle grass near the soccer fields or hustled up and down a painted football field. How was I to recover the years of instruction they’d missed from teachers who sat behind their desk, telling them to turn to page 74 in the text and complete the questions at the end of the chapter with a partner?

No, I shouldn’t have asked that question. I shouldn’t have wondered aloud why weekly staff meetings required early student dismissal, additionally cutting a full two hours of classroom time from my already shortened week. What’s that phrase, squeezing blood from a turnip? I was picking at the wrong knots. The administrator told me so. With a slam of his fist on his desk, he demanded I not disrespect him in such a way at staff meetings. I left stunned like a fly that had smacked against the glass; thinking I was soaring free and realizing I was woefully trapped.

Thankfully, I had a mentor here too. “Keep your head down, Adrienne. That’s how we get by here. Just nod and smile and then go to your classroom and close your door.” I became aware of a buzzing in my head at that point. A rising panic and awareness that I was trespassing and needed to tread lightly, but surely that was just my imagination. Surely, it really came down to the students and their needs. I pitched myself forward, wholly committed to them, to helping them find a way out.

Each morning began with P.E. Yes, I taught that too. First thing in the morning, before the air quality became a serious threat to their health – the sun shining against the fruit trees, green leaves aspirating pesticides. On a Monday in October, my students’ feet dragged against the pavement on our way out to meet the rest of the hundred-odd students for stretches. “Come on!” I shouted, smiling, desperate to make them care, desperate to continue caring. “Anyone who doesn’t beat me to the line has twice the laps to run.”

I laughed and broke into a run. Some of them laughed along and a few dozen feet slapped the pavement behind me. Then, in my slacks and my respectable leather flats, I felt my foot land a bit wrong on a weak ankle. My knee crumpled and I skidded against the pavement. So much weight hitting the hard, unforgiving surface. I had forgotten what it was to fall after so many years. The pain, the pride, it was excruciating. I pulled myself up, my students forming a half-circle around me. Concealing laughter, expressing concern… mostly just staring stunned at the unlikelihood of it all. Their pretty white teacher having to pick herself up from the ground, her pants ripped and bloody. “Okay, Carla, looks like you’re leading stretches today.” Baffled, bloodied, I limped to the office.

A half-hour later, all of us back in the classroom, I cut into my Algebra lesson by telling them to just go ahead and get it over with. “I know you want to laugh about it. Go ahead, tell me how ridiculous I looked.” Nervous chuckles gave way to exclamations and vivid retellings. “You see,” I said, “You see what I’ll do trying to get the very best out of you?” I’ll break myself in the process, I thought. Foolish, foolish me.

The next day, during Algebra, my administrator came to observe. Sitting in the back of the classroom, taking notes on a tablet bought with grant-money. All the teachers had one. As I had always done, I continued teaching as though he wasn’t there. Leaning in to address a student question, I didn’t realize until he was a few feet away that he had moved from his spot in the back. I tried to continue, moved to the next slide, then he caught my eye and motioned me to step aside. The buzzing started in again in my head and I stopped mid-sentence and stepped to the side as he walked to the front and continued my lesson, straight from my own slides. After a few minutes, he nodded to my students and to me and walked out of the room. Shakily, I wrote the practice problems on the board and slid into a chair. What could it mean? A critique? Feedback on my teaching style? Meant to be a teachable moment to me as a young teacher? Reminding me of my place? Somehow, the day eventually ended and I sat at my desk with hot tears streaming down my face. I called my Chicago-mentor. I said many things. I resolved to walk out of there and never return. “Now don’t be reactive, Adrienne. You have a tendency to do that. Think of the kids.” So I loaded my bag and got in the car and drove home. The experience wasted me. I felt like a husk, hollowed out and tossed around by a small breeze claiming to be a gale force wind.

Gains were made and warily reported during parent teacher conferences. If I was lucky, someone might be available to translate. My students were unreliable at this not only because of their incentive to bend the truth, but also because a number of them also did not speak Spanish. Older siblings bridged the gap and had, apparently, taught them to speak as a toddler using only English. Language aside, parents are parents. Flawed, well-meaning, hopeful. I committed myself to them, set goals, made promises. Silly, stupid me.

In the end I learned that I had been unsuccessful at keeping my head down. The administrator – burdened as he was with a school board dotted with parents of students in my class who had seen first hand the gains I had made with their children – had to get inventive. He gathered together a group of boys I had sent in for a referral and got them to make a professionally and personally damning complaint. He looked right into my eyes as he pulled the report from a file beside his desk. “The adults present stated that this report was untrue,” he said. “Of course it isn’t true,” I replied. And yet he replaced the paper into the file. Later a coworker recounted a man-to-man conversation with this administrator regarding my time at the school. “I just don’t do well with strong females,” he reportedly said.

The following week I handed in my letter of resignation. My students were told I was needed at home and assumed I must be pregnant. A few of the girls hugged me and cried, the rest of them looked back at me with dull eyes. I was doing just what they had known I would do all along – leaving them behind.The buzzing stopped, left me numb from all the promises I had broken. I packed my bag and drove away for the last time. Pomegranates rolled along the road. I had only made it to November.

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If You’ve Ever Wondered

If you’ve ever wondered why the school year doesn’t begin until after Labor Day in Chicago, the reason is that the buildings are so antiquated that few of them are outfitted with air conditioners. Starting after Labor Day is meant to spare the children of the City of Broad Shoulders the discomfort of August’s relentless humidity. Instead, we start off the year baking behind tall windows that open only as wide as absolutely necessary in a second story school building.

On my very first day of teaching, I wore a khaki shirtdress. A-line and tied with a sash, it was something out of a movie about a lovely young teacher setting out to make the world a little more kind, a little more grammatically correct. I don’t remember sweating at all. My students were bright-eyed and darling, except for a few misfits and one boy I most definitely didn’t like the looks of. Eight-year-olds have surprisingly defined notions of themselves and absolutely no way to hide them. The baddies are blatantly sneaky: shoulders sloped in, eyes shining with naughtiness as they shoot sideways glances, always laughing with their mouths shut tight. This boy’s mother would be a headache for the entire school year – passive-aggressive emails, insincere smiles, tests returned with little handwritten questions posing as statements: “Mikey doesn’t recall learning it this way in second grade.” Poor Mikey, I got off easy only answering to her for a year of my life.

I don’t remember sweating my first day of teaching, or very many days at all that first year. Ever the contrarian, I breezed through my rookie year seeing success at every turn, innovating just enough to interest administration while still towing the line. The deck was stacked in my favor, of course, but I wouldn’t know the extent of it ’till the following year.

My mentor was also my teaching partner. We had met over the summer in her northside home, bees buzzing around our iced coffees. She encouraged me to think up a theme for my classroom. She shared every last resource she’d gathered and used in the past several years. She split the curriculum down the middle and we planned it together. I have a wonderful picture of the two of us, head to head, on that first day with me in my khaki shirtdress. Our rooms shared a wall that could be folded and pushed aside, which we did to foster collaboration between the classes, but more often to keep an eye out while the other went to the loo.

There were a number of afternoons I stood at the wall red-faced and sputtering retorts to Mikey’s mom that would later be carefully whittled down and sucked dry of all spitfire, then punted back via email with the principal CC’d. Sometimes she couldn’t help me, though, like when I accidentally filled the tank of our beloved class Beta with water that was too cold and he floated pathetically to the top, flipping his tail a bit. “Just take him away from me. I can’t bear to look. It’s too sad.” The fish later recovered, so I learned to do some things on my own.

There is a special power wielded by teachers using a red pen and letters of the alphabet. Adults understand the limits of this power, but children with their magical thinking can take things much too far. For some, the letters came like coins from the tooth fairy. For others, they were a symbol of the world’s unfairness. A not-yet-understood example of the lie that trying your best is always good enough. Emily had a particularly hard time swallowing these letters. They were never the ones she wanted – the A’s with their pinnacle; their ascending, symmetrical grace. She was an average student. She believed she was trying her very best and so did I and so did her parents. She crumpled under criticism. But Emily had this incredibly fascinating capacity for cutting away the fat when she spoke. Also when she wrote. But she never got an A, so she “wasn’t a good writer”. Adults understand the limits of a rubric, but still we stretch the students out on them like a form of medieval torture.

In November we got two new students in our classroom. One of them was difficult with a capital D. We could even call him Defiant, only he never threw anything, so that might be an overstatement in this day and age. Our lengthy sidebars regarding his behavior became tedious to my other students, patiently awaiting their lesson (yes, stacked deck). Eventually, Emily raised her hand and spoke directly to Capital D: “You know, D, I have a lot to learn this year and every time you interrupt Mrs. Garrison you keep me from learning what I need to know.” I was so incredibly proud of her – for asserting herself, her goals. But when the honor’s reception came around she couldn’t attend. Not enough A’s.

On the last day of school I put my beloved green viney plant in the back of my car. The greenhouse effect was somehow unfriendly to the poor thing and when I returned a few hours later it was black. Just completely black. I was wearing the shoes I wore on the first day of school but that day the glue attaching the wedged heel to the sole came undone. I cleverly reattached it using my stapler and managed to get through that day okay. Some of the students in the grade below came to me wondering why they hadn’t been placed in my classroom. “I’m not teaching here next year,” I told them.

“Where are you teaching?”

“California.”

Five days later the wheels went up and my plane headed west where I would rejoin my husband. His residency had begun a few weeks prior, leaving me couch-hopping as I planned end-of-the-year reflections and read final essays.

Big News… I’m moving on up!

As the school year draws to a close, I have been waiting on pins and needles for confirmation that I will be rejoining this amazing staff again next year. Since we are a relatively new school, they add two new teachers each year as we grow, so I was aware that there were at least two new positions opening in 5th grade.

My principal scheduled a meeting with me and began by asking me what grade level I saw myself teaching… so I launched into poorly-articulated “fond memories” of my student teaching experience with 5th graders (which was anything but hey, a girls gotta eat – so let’s be flexible) She smiled in that enigmatic way that she does and explained that she very much intended to keep me on next year, that my performance as a long-term substitute had been noted by several as a job well done.

And… what would I think about teaching 3rd grade?

It’s a challenging year, she said. Our first year that students participate in state standardized testing, and a big leap from 2nd to 4th in independence level that all changes in the momentous 3rd grade year.

“I would like to see how you bloom with more independent learners,” she says.

And of course, this all sounds great to me! I don’t have much of a frame-of-reference for 3rd graders, but I am looking forward to working with the other 3rd grade teacher (a 10 yr. veteran and NBCT). I will miss the hugs and silly things that my littles say… and even more, my amazing teaching partner in Kinder.

So that’s the news! I’m movin’ on up to 3rd grade. Get ready for some intermediate teaching resources, gang!

Author Studies

This was my first experience teaching with Author Studies, and I am hooked! There is so much opportunity for rich discussion of texts, not to mention it’s like hanging out with your favorite authors for a week or so!

We covered four authors during our month of Author Studies: Mo Willems, Seymour Simon, Donald Crews and Amy Krouse Rosenthal.

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Mo Willems was an obvious choice, as our students adore Knufflebunny and Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus. I took a trip to the library to grab some of his lesser-known works and set up a text set in our library. We read one book by the author per day and compared and contrasted his characters and his illustrations.

ImageGood point, Mateo! Mo Willems actually shows students how to draw his famous pigeon in this .pdf – perfect for a whole-class shared drawing activity. His website has lots of great resources for kids and teachers! Our students explored the use of speech bubbles in their writing center. The week culminated in a “buddy read” with our 2nd grade friends (who just happen to adore Willem’s Elephant and Piggie early chapter books!) Check out these adorable hats that my teaching partner thought up! We made them using construction paper and sentence strips. It made everything so festive!

ImageIn an effort to weave some nonfiction into our unit, I chose Seymour Simon as our next author. His detailed photographs and broad topics made selecting books for the text set a snap. However, I can’t say that his books are especially primed for a read-aloud (read: loooong), especially running on a five year old attention span. 🙂 Gail Gibbons was also highly recommended, but I was pulled to Seymour Simon because of his real-life illustrations. In the end, I would recommend Simon for upper-grade author studies and stick with Gibbons for primary.

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The transition from Mo Willems to Seymour Simon did open up the perfect opportunity for discussing Author’s Purpose a bit (this doesn’t happen a bunch in kinder)…

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Donald Crews was also a fantastic choice for a primary author study. We had read his text Shortcut during our Personal Narrative writing unit, so the students were familiar with his style. This week we zoned in on what made Crews’ books unique and tried using similar features in our own writing.

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Our last Author Study came about in an unexpected way. A student in my partner’s class brought in several books from a family friend, including some original author’s manuscripts. I was delighted to discover that it was none other than, Amy Krouse Rosenthal, whose book Little Pea I had fallen in love with during my time teaching preschool. Apparently, she had brought them over to test-read to the children to see if they laughed when she expected. Amazing! I could go on and on about her illustrations, her witty little stories, ect. Let’s just say it was fate.

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Her stories lend themselves perfectly to a character comparison chart:

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At the end of the week, we took a vote and created a graph of which family we would like to move in with: Little Pea’s family, where they serve sweets for dinner; Little Oink’s family, where they keep things messy; or Little Hoot’s family, where you stay up late. I was surprised to see that the Hoot’s got the most votes. Good thing summer vacation is just around the corner. 🙂

What experiences have you had with Author Studies?