Westward Movement

Sunday, December 18, 2011


Last week, as we prepared to go on a three week winter break, I finished our read-aloud novel (Sarny, the sequel to Nightjohn ... brilliant), and read a few stories from Chicken Soup for the Kid's Soul. My students love the series, and we generally follow a story with a wonderful discussion. The story I read them on Thursday was no exception. A young woman wrote of a period during her childhood when her mom lost her job, and she and her two girls (the author was the elder of the two) were homeless. Sometimes there was a cot available, sometimes they slept on the floor of a shelter, sometimes they slept on the street. 

My students were noticeably moved. I asked them how many of them knew someone who was or had been homeless, and there ensued a conversation about being thankful for a home, for nourishment, and for the important people in our lives. 

One of my students, C, has been the topic of earlier postings. C is a very bright, underperforming student. I fight to maintain a patient attitude with him. Oftentimes, C acts out, calls out, performs in ways that bring negative attention. On occasion, C shares such a unique perspective on a topic, and we are astonished. This was no exception.

C raised his hand toward the end of our conversation about homelessness. He shared that he, his mom and sister had lived in their car for several months when he was three. His mom had lost her job, and they had been evicted. Part of his story included a tenant in an apartment building finding a bottle from which C could drink. He was so appreciative of this act, and spoke for several minutes about being homeless and how thankful he was now that his mom had a job at a car wash, and how seriously she took her responsibilities. 

The conversation moved on, and as we were getting up to prepare for dismissal, C asked us if we'd keep what he'd told us sacred. He actually used the word. He said he wasn't embarrassed, but proud. However, he'd appreciate (again, his word) it if we'd keep the knowledge to ourselves. 

Here I am sharing his story. As I'm using only first initials, I think it's okay. 

In the spirit of the holiday season, I appreciate the gifts my students give me ... among them, the willingness to be open and honest, to be vulnerable, and to ask their friends to appreciate the courage it takes to share those personal stories.

Monday, December 12, 2011

McDonald's or a Blood Draw?

I've shared several of my students' essays (green journal essays, as they are written in a green composition book, due each Monday). This week's responses were priceless. The prompt asked the kids to share a bad experience. 

At my request, four of my students shared their work with their classmates this afternoon. T wrote about having blood drawn, and the difficulty the medical assistant had attempting to draw T's blood. My favorite part made me laugh out loud, and had the same effect on my students.

"When she (the medical assistant) put the needle in, she could not take the blood out. It was so painful. My mom told them to stop. They told my mom she should take me to the lavatory. Instead she took me to McDonald's." 

T laughed when I explained the difference between a lavatory and a laboratory. She's so quick to catch the joke. She commented without prompt from me that she probably could have found someone better to draw her blood at a lavatory than the clinic! 

J shared his experience finding that he has a nut allergy, and had to travel by ambulance to the emergency room. His experience prompted several questions, and brought out his EPI pen for a quick explanation. Hopefully there will never be a demonstration.

C, my brilliant young man with difficulty producing quality work in readable penmanship, received his first score of a three. For all you "old-school" folks, basically a strong B. C generally sees ones and twos on his work. I had read and scored his essay during lunch, and while the kids were reading silently this afternoon, called C over to share with him his score. His eyes widened, he pumped his fist into the air, and threw his arms around me. He uttered, "I finally did it!" I told him how proud I was, that I recognized how hard he'd worked to earn that three, and asked if he'd share his work with the class that afternoon. He allowed me to share with his classmates his struggle. (Not that they didn't already know, but we don't tend to talk in group about individual academic struggle). His bad experience involved scoring a goal for the other team during a soccer game. I don't know if C recognized this, but not only did he produce a quality piece of writing, he made himself quite vulnerable in an arena he prides himself in excelling. 

C, J, and T are writing stars today. E, one of the sweetest, gentlest boys I know, blew us all away with his essay today, and with his willingness to have his work read aloud. E put a twist on the prompt, writing about something positive that happened to him because of the help he offered those less fortunate. 

E wrote about giving money to the homeless when others walked or drove on by, paying no attention. He shared the story of giving $5 to a man sitting on the road and of collecting a $1 bill thrown at the man and handing it back to him. His paragraph ended with the statement, "He was happy."

E's next paragraph described helping more people out, followed by his dad taking him to the arcade for changing the world. He ended his essay with the following paragraph, continuing the tale of the man on the road:

"The first poor guy was so happy. When it was another Saturday I went to see him. He was happy to see me. I asked him, "Why are you so happy? He kept smiling and then he said, "You want to know? I got a job." And then he started to cry.

And so did I.

Sunday, December 11, 2011


I shared the following story with a friend the other day. She insisted I post, although the group of students in the story are now in their early twenties.

A coworker and dear friend, Lisa K., and I did an in-depth unit on WWII and the Holocaust. While these periods of history are not covered in the CA state standards, there are several literature selections focused on the people and events of the time. We read picture books and an amazing novel, Number the Stars. Our students were so engaged, and begged to learn everything possible about the subject. We were able to take our fourth and fifth graders to the Museum of Tolerance. Normally, fifth graders are the youngest students allowed on field trips to the museum. We were given special permission to bring our fourth graders, but the third graders were not allowed to accompany us. 

While there, the rest of our students commented that the third graders could have handled the experience with no problem. Because of all their prior experience with the subject, and the fact that with a multiage class we all learn together regardless of grade, our older kids knew their younger peers were as prepared as they to handle even the most difficult of subject matter. In fact, the docents leading us on our tour commented on how knowledgeable, focused and mature our students were.

As a culminating activity, Lisa's father-in-law, Mr. K, a concentration camp survivor, came to talk to our students. We spent time beforehand brainstorming questions for Mr. K, and talking about being a good listener, a compassionate group participant, and one who is patient while listening to an elder telling a poignant and difficult story. 

We gathered in one of our classrooms ... all 64 students ... sitting on the floor and in surrounding chairs while Mr. K shared his stories and answered questions. It was one of the most touching and beautiful moments of my teaching career. We had to stop the questions as we could tell that Mr. K was getting tired. Telling this particular story was beyond an emotional drain, yet he would have kept sharing as long as the kids would listen. And listen they did - without incident. They'd have been content to sit as long as  Mr. K was willing to be share. 

The next day, our students wrote thank you letters to Mr. K. They were beyond beautiful, written with honesty and integrity, and with the compassion befitting a much older person. Their understanding of what Mr. K had shared was evident. These eight, nine and ten year olds shared in their letters and in their words to their teachers how much this experience meant to them. For the remainder of their tenure in our classes, the study of this period of history was one of the most important experiences they'd had. The kindness with which our students treated one another was wonderful to see. Over the years, students from my class at that time have come to visit. They have not forgotten a single element from our unit of study. 

I wondered why telling this story means so much to me. I believe it's because the direction of education as we approach 2012 heads toward a score on a test. All the children in our classes that year demonstrated their ability to read, to write, to listen, to speak. The story I tell is what we should care about - compassion. 

Monday, December 5, 2011

Balls, balls, balls

My classroom is located on the second floor of an old building with bare floors and thin walls. The softest of steps resonate below. Chairs scrape ... the sound is similar to elephants stomping (not that I've experienced living with elephants, but you get the picture). To protect the ears of the young and the sanity of the old(er), our chairs wear tennis balls, cut to fit over the feet. As the year progresses, chairs lose their tennis balls. They are eventually replaced, though often not for several days or weeks.

Lisa is in the classroom next door to mine. Her situation is exactly the same. Several weeks ago, her students were particularly loud. She asked them to write letters of apology to the class below. They did. Sufficiently apologetic, her kids had several reasons for their noisiness that day. My favorite is in quotes below:

"I'm sorry we were so loud, Ms. M. It's because our chairs have no balls."

Just makes you want to wait an extra few days to replace those ... balls, doesn't it? 


Thursday, November 24, 2011

Being Thankful

Yesterday my students, student teacher, teacher's assistant and I shared a few traditional Thanksgiving treats. The adults each brought a dish, and a few kids brought others. Before we ate, I asked the kids to write what they were thankful for. Over the years, I've had my student do similar activities in honor of a new year, Thanksgiving, the end of a grade, etc. I always have several students who write that they are most thankful for a PSP, a Wii, money ... you get the picture. Yesterday, not one of my students mentioned an object. One stated that he was thankful for enough money to put food on their table, especially for Christmas, his favorite holiday. A lump formed in my throat as several mentioned being thankful for their teacher ... because she cares so much and doesn't give up on them. The best paycheck ever.

I've shared in prior posts that most of my students live in conditions I can't even imagine. Many live with extended families totaling six or more in one-two bedroom apartments. A few have their only meals at school - the free breakfast and lunch provided on all school days. I worry about them over the holidays and summer break. They witness drug transactions and violence daily. I've had several students over the years watch someone die on the streets, and a few see someone die in their home. I'm constantly amazed at their perseverance, at their ability to find the joy when they face such adversity. What my students wrote yesterday brings home that very message.

Here are a few quotes from the kids:

  • I'm thankful for the food that I eat, the family I have, the school where we can learn new things. I'm thankful for the clothes we wear. I'm thankful that I play and for family that loves me.
  • I'm thankful for having a family and a place to live.
  • I'm thankful for honest classmates and a great family.
  • I'm thankful for the life I have.
  • I'm thankful that I'll be with my mom.
  • Finally, one that touched me so ... I'm thankful for freedom and for living in a good condition, for peace in the world, and for my lovely teacher.

We finished eating and sharing our thanks, and then I kept my students after school for 10 minutes - they were so incredibly talkative and were not paying attention to instructions. Ah the life of a teacher! I'm glad I had them write their thanks before keeping them after!

Happy Thanksgiving. 

Monday, November 21, 2011

The greatest gift

One of the most difficult aspects of my job is knowing that so many of my wonderfully bright, capable, enthusiastic students will not go nearly far enough in the educational world. They'll stop after high school, and many won't go even that far. 

A colleague of mine has been helping students at my school apply to a wonderful program called The Alliance.  Its primary goal is to help Hispanic and African American students obtain scholarships and meander through the process of applying to private schools in the greater Los Angeles area.  While I am a believer in providing the best public education possible, many of the students at SMBCC have little opportunity to obtain such an education via the public schools in the area. Thus, an opportunity such as that provided by The Alliance is a gift. 

I have two students on full scholarship through The Alliance. One is in 11th grade at an all-girls school in the LA area. The other, K, is in 12th grade at one of the more prestigious schools in the country. K is the youngest of four children. Her oldest sister was involved with gangs, and had her first child (of four) at 15. She did not finish high school. Her oldest brother was also involved with gangs, and was the victim of a drive-by shooting two years ago. He was shot in the hand. He did not finish high school. The shot was intended to kill. Her other brother was also my student. A wonderful kid then, he's a terrific young man now, with two young children. He did not finish high school, though went on to get his GED a few years ago, and holds a good job repairing electronics. K's mom and dad have raised their four kids, and their four grandchildren. The family was forced apart for two years when the four grandchildren were taken from the home they all shared and put in separate foster homes. They are together now, but it was a very difficult couple of years.  K's mom, M, has sacrificed her life to care for all the children. Her typical daily schedule involves driving K 30 minutes west on the freeway before 7:00 am, turning around and dropping the grandchildren enrolled in my school in time for breakfast and for the oldest to catch the school bus to a feeder middle school, heading to her job as a housekeeper a few miles from school from 8-2, then reversing it all to pick everyone up, take them home, make dinner for all, and start up again the next morning. She works weekends cleaning an office building. I have known this family over a dozen years, and I have never heard one complaint.

K and M came to see me late last spring. It was, hands-down, the most wonderful conference I've ever held with a student and her parent. K brought her list of over 30 colleges to share with me, asking me to help her edit her list. Her criteria was crystal clear - a school that was in or near a city, that had diversity, and that had a liberal arts focus. The community I teach often struggles to let its children move away. M gets it, though. She and K recognize that going away to school is K's ticket to a life different (her mother adamantly said better) from that of her brothers and her sister. She will be the first in a large family, on both sides, to go to college. She will graduate. She's on the honor roll of her high school. The school paid for her to go east with her mom and visit campuses. She's won a special award from The Alliance. It's one of very few awarded. She's amazing. Her mom is beyond amazing. I am humbled to be a part of their lives. 

This is a portion of the email K sent me this evening:

"I've finalized my list of schools so here it is:
1. American University
2. UC Berkeley/ Santa Barbara
3. Georgetown
4. Goucher College
5. Rice University
6. University of San Diego
7. University of San Francisco
8. Santa Clara University
9. Scripps College
10. Seattle University
11. Smith College
12. Stanford University
13. Tulane University
I've already submitted my apps for five of them and I'll be submitting two more before the end of the year. I'm soo excited!!!! As of now, I'm waiting for my latest SAT Scores, but I feel really good about my list of schools and I'm so happy! This year has been going really well for me and I just can't wait to embark on this next chapter in my life." 

I attended K's graduation from middle school, and will again be in the audience when she graduates, with honors, from high school. One of the schools from the list above will be a huge part of the beginning of her next chapter. I can't wait to visit her there!

K's two oldest nieces, two of the four grandchildren I mentioned above, have been my students. The oldest is in 7th grade, and doing well. The other, A, is in my class now. I see K in her everyday. She often says to me that she adores her aunt K, and that she plans to do what she has done. She writes about the school K attends in stories, and recently asked me to spend recess with her so that we could look up the student population and course of study at the school. 

One child, one mom ... and look what they've begun. To be continued ... 

Sweet dreams.

Monday, November 7, 2011


My favorite part of the school day is read aloud. There are so many great books written for kids. I often wish reading aloud to my kids was my only responsibility. I choose the titles we share carefully, attempting a balance of humor, drama, and intensity. I aim to build interest in history through amazing literary figures and brilliantly written historical fiction and nonfiction. 

I am not great with Eastern European accents, but I do a mean British, a decent Italian, and a bang-up little kid. My southern dialect rocks, though don't ask for a New England elder. Thus far, we've read Benjamin Dove, a story involving severe bullying, incredible friendship and sacrifice, Scottish royalty and death. (It takes place in Iceland, but I've no idea how Icelandic sounds, so did a very mild British), Second in line was a story of wonderful friendship, jealousy, acceptance and what it means to be blind titled Granny Torrelli Makes Soup. (Very fun Italian there). Nightjohn is our third read aloud of the year. We are about 1/3 of the way through this incredibly intense Gary Paulen novel. The story of two slaves ... Sarny, a 12 year old girl, and Nightjohn, a freed slave who deliberately reenters the horror of enslavement in order to teach others to read and write, has captured my students' hearts and minds. In order to ease them into the intensity of the subject and to give them an opportunity to share their prior knowledge of slavery, we engaged in a "tea party" a day prior to beginning the book. Students read from strips of paper on which were written phrases and short sections of text from the novel. They shared thoughts and predictions as they shared their strips of text, and anticipation was built. 

One of my students, T, had just finished reading another book on the subject of slavery. She was in the middle of explaining what slavery is to a couple of my third graders as we gathered on the rug for our first read of Nightjohn. Because there are some very difficult scenes in the story, I stopped several times while reading to check for understanding, to have students explain or retell portions, and to answer the many questions my students had. In the first 10-15 pages of the novel, there are brutally descriptive passages telling of the horrendous mistreatment of the men, women and children living on Master Waller's plantation in the 1850s. Our first read aloud was over 30 minutes. My kids had so many questions, and struggled to understand how anyone could survive such brutality. They didn't want to stop, but our day was ready to end. 

The next day, I continued reading. Nightjohn was introduced early on. He's brought to the plantation stripped of clothing, and immediately sent to work in the fields. That night, as most of the others sleep, he whispers into the dark that he'll trade for a lip of tobacco. Sarny berates him, telling him he was brought in naked, so what could he possibly have to trade. "Letters," he responds. "I got letters."

I stopped there and explained to my students that reading was punishable by dismemberment (explained that, too), and asked why there would have been a law against slaves reading or writing. T immediately responded that being able to read and write meant being able to tell your story and to pass along knowledge. Another student, J, said she thought that if you could read, you would be able to know how much you cost. She added that reading gave you information and that made you dangerous. "But good dangerous," J said. They are so smart ... so thoughtful!

A is one of my struggling students. He has a tough time with math, reads far below grade level, takes twice to three times the time necessary to complete a writing assignment, and would much prefer to be on the playground than do nearly anything else, although he often enjoys our read aloud time. He gets little to no support at home. He is a challenge for me. I am constantly looking for ways to motivate him.

A was sitting to my right as I was reading to them. He was mesmerized by the story. Little by little I noticed his chair creeping just a little closer to me, his head angled toward the book. I held the book out a bit so that he could read along. As the chapter continued, Nightjohn showed Sarny how to make the letter 'A.' He explained how it sounded, and promised her two more letters the next night. I stopped there, to groans and "Noooo - don't stop!" (The best, the best, the best)! As we stood to get ready to move on, A murmured, softly enough for my ears only, but loud enough to be heard clearly, "Wow, imagine not even knowing what letters are. That's terrible."

From any other kid this would draw from me simply accord. From A, it drew tremendous hope. My challenge took on a new dimension. 

I just ordered A his own copy of Nightjohn. I think he'll murmur his thanks. For my ears only. For both our hearts. 

Saturday, November 5, 2011


My math class is comprised of struggling 5th graders coming from all of my multiage colleagues (with an independent group of three students who went through the 5th grade content last year and are now doing special projects and 6th grade curriculum). A is an adorable boy who happens to be autistic. He is with me for math, and also for book talks. He and I have gotten to know each other fairly well. I forget, sometimes, just how literally he takes things.

Last week I suffered a tremendous sneezing attack during math. At the end, I laughingly commented that I must be allergic to the kids, and went on to continue teaching.

A returned to his own class a bit later, and pulled his teacher aside. With a very serious look on his face, he said to his teacher, "Ms. __, Ms. Stern is allergic to me!"

I have to decide how to play this on Monday.

Monday, October 31, 2011

My contemporary, Michael J.

On Friday, as my students were working on an art project, I played some Michael Jackson tunes. L, a 4th grader I've referred to in past posts, is a huge fan. I was singing along when someone asked me how I knew the words. "This is my generation of music, guys.  I danced to a lot of MJ in my younger days." There were a few nods, and all but one of my students returned to the project at hand. I was no longer of interest. L, however, looked at me with slightly averted eyes. "You know, Ms. Stern, Michael Jackson was pretty old when he died. Not saying you are really old or anything, but maybe just a little old."

I stopped by Nordstrom and stocked up on wrinkle cream. I plan to slather it all over L's head after I use it myself. 

Happy Halloween. 

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Update - Waste My Time

On Friday, my students were addressed by Mr. ___, who explained himself, and let the kids know he had not meant to ignore what they'd written, but that he wanted to get on with the planned activities and deal with the issue later. "Not an apology," T told me, "but at least he didn't ignore what we wrote." She'll be a lawyer.

As we walked across the yard a day earlier, my students noticed that the two staff responsible for psychomotor were actually running along with the kids. This was one of their requests. They were thrilled to see that their words had effected a positive change. Big grins lit up faces. Including my own. 

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

I'd just pull it out and play with it.

It's quite late on a school night. Our school governance meets on alternate Tuesdays. Although I'm no longer a member, having served my allowed two years through June of this year, I can't help but stay for meetings. The focus right now is revising and editing our charter renewal document. It's a huge task. When I left school at 10:15pm, the council was still in session. 

I sat reading and correcting my students' essays due this week. They were much improved ... my kids are really trying to better their content, mechanics, grammar and penmanship. I'm proud of them.

The prompt for their essay due this morning was You are stranded on a deserted island. In your backpack, you have 12 items (all must fit inside). Describe each item, and tell how it will be useful to you. The meeting was a rough one, and I was looking for a little escape. I found it in all of my students' work. Thanks, guys, for helping me get through tonight!

Here are a few things my students felt were of utmost importance should they be stranded on a deserted island:

  • hand sanitizer
  • a teddy bear
  • a pistol for those pesky wild beasts
  • a tent (small and foldable to fit in the backpack)
  • a towel and a change of clothes or two - being naked at any time does not appear to be an option
  • a pencil bag, a pen, a notebook or journal ... to write adventures and share experiences 
  • a book, a book, a book, a book ... you get the picture - nearly unanimous!
  • photos of family, especially mom
  • two little toys to keep the mind flowing
  • and my personal favorite, taken directly as it was written by a 9 year old boy, A
  • ... "I would bring a little ball because if I get bored I will just pull it out and play with it." 

My night was made. I can only imagine what he'd bring if allowed a 22" carry-on. 

Sweet dreams.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Please waste my time!

On alternate Wednesday afternoons, and also on every Friday morning, my grade level has a planning and discussion period, during which our students go outside for structured physical education. For the past several years, this has been run by a credentialed teacher, and has included dance (as well as some non-PE such as music). This year, due to budget cuts, the program is run by two classified positions (teacher assistants). There have been several complaints from teachers, parents, and particularly students about the "hard-core" focus of the PE. In fifth grade, students do the Presidential Physical Fitness test, recognizing students' ability to do curl-ups/partial curl-ups, an endurance run/walk, pull-ups or a flexed-arm hang, and a sit and reach. One of the goals of the school PE program is to prepare students to pass this test. Every child, from kindergarten to sixth grade, is expected to run laps, in addition to going through several stations over the course of an hour. One of these stations is a water/rest period. 

Friday morning, prior to going out for PE, my students began to give me every excuse in the world for not going, finally saying they hated PE. Two had written excuses from parents, asking that they not participate. One told me she felt nauseous, and needed to go to the nurse. Something was up!

My kids, along with four from another class, with us for the day as their teacher was attending a day-long meeting, asked me to say something on their behalf to the PE instructional team. Ah, teachable moment! I found myself in mini-lecture mode, talking about the US Constitution, and the first amendment. I told them that I could say something for them, but that they also had the right to say something for themselves. The kids asked to dictate a letter to me, stating their feelings and complaining about the program as it was. I told them I was happy to oblige, but that I feel if one complains, one must come up with an alternative or a solution. So, while their thoughts would go on paper, so must suggestions for change. 

Aside from a bit of word tweaking and sentence restructuring, this is my students' dictation:

To: the PE program
From: Debbie Stern’s students + 4 of __’s students

Last Friday, October 14, 2011, we lined up and waited patiently for you to arrive, as you were a few minutes late. Once you did arrive, we were instructed to run for 12 minutes, during which time we were not allowed a water break. We did not ask to get water, as we were told we’d get an orange card if we got water. The only water break we get is the water station, and for some of us, this is not until the last 10 minutes of psychomotor. If we stopped for a brief break or to tie a shoe, we were given an orange card.

This Wednesday, we again ran for 12 minutes, and instead of doing stations, we formed a square doing running exercises that caused us to run into one another. Several of us got hurt as we slammed into each other or were tackled, causing us to fall. We were jumping like frogs, bear-crawling, and doing a crab walk. If we stood during one of these activities, we were told to run additional laps of the school. All of these activities are quite strenuous, and we were not allowed a water break. Additionally, if we stopped and sat down, we were given orange cards. If we stepped outside the yellow line surrounding the fun zone, we got an orange card. Finally, we were not allowed any water until the school bell rang, and we were dismissed.

We are writing to you because:

1)   We are not having any fun at psychomotor.
2)   We feel the rules are very strict and unfair.
3)   We are concerned for our health.
4)   We would like to see a change in the psychomotor rules.

We’d like to have a water break on a more regular basis, in particular immediately following any running activity. We also ask that you participate with us as we do psychomotor. We would like to ask that you remember we’re kids, and are not yet ready for the army.

(Ms. J (the teaching assistant assigned to a colleague and me) was with us, and agrees with these statements).

Room 31 and a fraction of room 28

My students were nervous about delivering this letter. One of them, T, a resilient fifth grader, said aloud that even though she was nervous, she knew that being silent was the wrong way to go, and she would just have to swallow the butterflies. Some of them sort of hid behind each other as I walked outside with them, and handed the letter to the instructional team. I asked them to read it, then address concerns with the kids as they saw fit. I had a meeting to attend. As I walked away, I noticed they were beginning to explain certain parts of the letter to the kids.

During our grade-level meeting, our principal came in to discuss another matter with us. I gave him a copy of the letter. As he left the meeting, which was held in my classroom, a few minutes after PE had ended, my students were lined up at the door. The principal told the kids he'd seen their letter, told them he was glad they'd shared their thoughts and feelings, and assured them that he would investigate what had been brought up, and that something would be done. 

As they entered the room, T, the student referred to above, and two other kids pulled me aside. She told me that  Mr. __, the member of our staff in charge of the employees running the PE program, had come out to see what was being read, and what was being said to the kids. According to T, Mr. __ took the letter, gave it a quick glance-over, and said, in front of several of my students, "Don't waste your time with this." He then walked away. 

The kids were noticeably nervous and upset. T said to me, "Ms. Stern, that was really hard for us to do. We did what you said, complained but also gave suggestions to make it better, and it doesn't seem to matter." I assured her it did matter, that I would move forward on this, and that I was so proud of all of them for their willingness to speak out. I told the kids that many more opportunities would come their way as children and adults to take action, and that I hoped they'd never be scared to exercise their constitutional right.

I was noticeably upset as T delivered this news to me. As I dismissed the kids a few minutes later for recess, T went over to the little flip chart of emotions. The page showing stated chill. T flipped forward to find aggravated again. She gave me a little smile of a secret shared, reached around my waist for a hug, and walked out the door.

Waste my time any day.

Monday, October 17, 2011

I'm old

E, eight years old, turned in his weekly essay today. (This is the same student who wrote about chocolate donut snowmen). The prompt this week was to write a letter to me about a book they'd recently read. E chose to write his letter about Benjamin Dove, a book I read to the class and finished a few weeks ago. It's a brilliant book, and I'm delighted my kids like it so much. It's written by Fridrick Erlings, a very much still alive Icelandic author who has but one book published in English. At my students' request, I am constantly checking up on any other books Erlings may publish in English. 

Before I leave you with the final paragraph of E's letter, I want to remind you that I was born in 1962. 

"Why I chose this book is because of the author. The author was born in Reykjavik Iceland in 1962. But the author is dead by now. But as long as I have this book, he's alive for me. I wish the author was still alive so could make more of his books. I love his books a lot. His books should get an award."

I'm taking my pulse before I go to bed tonight. 

Friday, October 14, 2011

Just chill!

I received from my uncle a terrific gift - a small, desk-top flip chart of emotions. I stuck it on my desk this morning. A couple of my kids were looking through it. T chose the "chill" card, and shared with me that I was now "chillin.'" 

15 to 20 minutes later C arrived in the classroom. I wrote about him yesterday. This morning he had neither his book talks packet or his essay journal. Taking a deep breath, I spoke to C about my expectations, responsibilities, and where the heck his work was. I guess my breath wasn't deep enough, because T, standing nearby, said to me, "Ms. Stern, I'm changing you from chill to aggravated." She read the brief description of the word, looked up, said "Yep, aggravated is a good word for you right now. Maybe you'll go back to chill later. But not right now." And she flipped the chart. 

As I left this afternoon, I noticed the card had been flipped back to chill. Apparently something well well today.  I have to think about it a bit.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Why we do the thing we do

I am a tough teacher. I don't put up with b/s, I expect hard work from my kids. And I love them so much. They know it. Sometimes, though, I am super tough on kids I know have little to no support outside of school. There is nobody to help with homework, to check they've completed assignments or put things away in a backpack so they'll have them at school the next day. Many kids are at school from 7:30 - 6pm, then go home to a fair amount of chaos, finally getting to sleep far later than is healthy for an elementary-aged child on a couch or floor or a bed shared with one or more younger siblings.

If I haven't referred before in my blog to C, it's certainly not due to his absence from my mind. He's constantly there. C is BRIGHT, funny, tough and kind. He's also messy, absent-minded, angry (working hard to deal with that), regularly spending recess or lunch time catching up on home and school-work, and a struggling student. He fits the home description above. His single mom has a 6th grade education, speaks no English, is often unemployed, and has three kids ... C, his older sister and a one year old.

This week, C spent a number of hours during what should have been his free time doing work he should have done at home, after school, during school, etc. His penmanship is a constant battle between the two of us, resulting in double the time necessary completing work as he rewrites assignments. Today, C brought over a piece of writing during lunch. He and his partner in crime, A, needed me to look over rough drafts of a writing assignment before they published a final draft. He commented on my yellow highlights over misspelled words how he struggled with spelling and punctuation. We talked about strategies he can use, knows how to use, just needs to use. He nodded and turned to begin publishing. Then he turned back to me and said, "Thanks for caring about me so much, Ms. Stern."

Why we do the thing we do. 

Tuesday, October 11, 2011


As I stated in a previous post, my students write in weekly journals (green essays, we call them), responding to a prompt that varies from humorous to quite serious, with a focus on many genres. This week, my students had to respond to: "What do you worry about? Why does it worry you? How is your life affected, and how might you be able to solve the problem?

AA, an incredibly sweet, soft-spoken, shy little girl who celebrated her eighth birthday last week, responded with an essay that so touched me I had tears in my eyes. Many of my students wrote about worries children should never experience - thoughts of death from violence, a disabling accident, a single parent losing a job and thus a home - while several wrote regarding worrying about getting good grades, succeeding in school, making our school drill team, and so forth. Many wrote about worrying about their parents and other family members. Not one of them wrote about worrying about sharing a one bedroom, one bathroom apartment in a gang-infested building with seven family members, or needing a winter coat that wasn't three sizes too small, or wearing tennis shoes with holes until they literally feel apart because there is not one extra dollar for a new pair.

I generally write a few lines along with the score I give a student. Today I wrote over a page to many of my students, reassuring them of skills they possess, of the love of a parent in prison, of the beauty they bring to my life and to the lives of others, and that the world was not going to end in 2012 (I'm fairly certain of this, though one can never be 100% positive. This student was so terrified that she would not see her life beyond the age of 10, and I had to relieve her anxiety). I shared a few of their essays with a colleague and dear friend. She reiterated what I'd been feeling as I read my students' work - "I have nothing to worry about." 

Here is AA's essay:
     I worry about homeless people because they don't have food, water, money and a place to live. Every time I walk in the streets I see an old man sitting on the ground wearing old ripped clothes. He's always asking for money. I see people pass and not helping him.
     One day I was sitting in the park with my family and I saw the old homeless man getting food from the trash can. When we saw him do that we felt bad for him, so my dad got up and bought him food and gave it to him, but he didn't want it.
     I got sad because he didn't get the food. I think he didn't get the food because he didn't know us. Last time I went to the market to buy bread. When we were going home, I saw him and I gave him bread and my toy. When I saw his face he looked at the toy like he never had one. Every time I see him I ask my mom for money so I could it to him. When I give it to him I feel happy because I helped him.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011


L is a really funny kid. He makes all of us laugh, and though I do have a couple of "class clowns," he's not one of them. L has floppy hair I love to play with, big, bright eyes, a ready laugh and a wonderful sense of humor. He is often caught in his own world, and sometimes needs a little reminder to rejoin the group. He also takes things quite literally.

My teacher's assistant, Jessica (Miss Jessica to the kids) is occasionally with us during read-aloud. (I just finished reading Benjamin Dove by Fridrick Erlings to my class - one of the best books I've ever read to them. I highly recommend it). Whenever Jessica, a visitor, or any member of our group, has missed a day of read-aloud, we summarize the missed parts. I usually say, "Who can fill us in on what happened yesterday," or something of the sort. 

Jessica sat to join us for read-aloud on Thursday last week, and I changed my question regarding summarizing Benjamin Dove just a little bit: "Now where were we when Miss Jessica was last with us?" L looked at me like I'd lost my mind, put his hand on my arm, and said, "Ms. Stern, we were right here. We didn't move or anything. Are you okay?"


Saturday, October 1, 2011

From Pluto to Jupiter

Our storyline the first half of the year involves colonizing a planet in search of natural resources near depletion on earth, namely petroleum. The goal is to use this experience to build understanding of colonial America. The process builds on student experience - asking questions to solicit ideas, opinions, knowledge and further questions. I asked my students to choose planet for exploration. They chose Pluto - wanting to be unusual, wanting to go somewhere yet to be explored.

Groups were formed: a group would design the planet, another the space around the planet, another transportation to take us there, and a fourth would build structures we'd depend on once we arrived on Pluto. After some planning time, creating began, and for an hour or two, groups worked together creating the Pluto colony.

The next morning, with just a few hours of time available to complete the planet colony, C, an exceptionally bright, though struggling 4th grader, raised his hand as we discussed next steps and our need to be finished by the end of that day. When I called on him, he said he'd been thinking about our choice of Pluto as a planet on which to search for petroleum, a gas. He suggested we look at a gas planet rather than a rock and ice planet as a gas planet, even unexplored, would be more likely to have gas like resources. He told us the temperatures were far less extreme on Jupiter than they were on Pluto, and that although Jupiter had a big red spot deep within the planet, we'd be safe from harm - it is like the core of earth, he said. We don't go there - we know it's 
there, so we are informed. 

The whole class listened to C. Another student suggested choosing to go to Jupiter as it was much closer, and we wouldn't have far to go. Yet another student suggested voting to make a change. It was a split class - eight or nine kids still wanted to go to Pluto. C again brought up the point of going to a gas planet if we were going to explore gas resources. He'd gone on line during recess, and shared the range of temperature on Jupiter, as well as the extreme cold temperature on Pluto. The kids asked for another vote. This time, just two students held tight to Pluto, yet agreed they could live with the change to Jupiter. 

Two hours later, the planet group, with the help of my terrific new student teacher, created a new planet, the space group added a few elements, the transportation group finished the ship that would take us there and also created a land vehicle, and the structures group, after the class decided we'd build structures once we arrived, as had the original colonists of our country, created a prototype for a space suit we'd all need to wear on the planet. The conversations that took place were excited and focused. Aside from facilitating the conversation, I offered no advice nor suggestion. I fired up the glue gun, stood on a chair to do the "tall stuff" (that always makes me feel good), and offered another set of hands when needed.

My kids are powerful. They own our planet frieze, and are so excited they made the change from Pluto to Jupiter. C, a boy who self-admits temper issues and at times struggles getting along with others, was glowing as his peers and I thanked him profusely for his valuable suggestions. That alone is enough to make me glow, too.

Monday, September 26, 2011

chocolate donuts and world peace

Each Monday, my students have an essay due in their green composition book. The prompt changes weekly, sometimes deeply personal, sometimes humorous, sometimes fantasy, and so on. Last week, the prompt asked the kids to choose three wishes granted them by a genie who suddenly appears before them.

E is a very bright, very sweet third grader. He loves to write ... most of my students do ... and took to the above prompt with gusto. I read his response late the afternoon of a particularly difficult and stressful 12.5 hour day. E's essay was so well written, and brought an immediate smile to my face, reminding me, once again, why I do what I do. He began by letting me know that he'd take his time to choose three wishes carefully. While his first wish was world peace, and his third to be rich, his second was to have a "large snowman made out of chocolate donuts." 

I read E's essay, eager to discover the thought behind the snowman. He wrote, "The reason I would wish for a large snowman made out of chocolate donuts is because my favorite dessert is a chocolate donut. The snowman would keep the chocolate donuts from melting, and keep them nice and cool. Knowing that every time I want a chocolate donut I have it within reach. It's like every time someone would start building a snowman it would be turning into chocolate donuts. My wish is one of a kind because no one else would think to wish for a snowman made out of chocolate donuts." Yes, this is a one of a kind wish, E! You rock! I want a donut and a cold glass of milk!

My smile, however, turned misty as I read E's final paragraph. The prompt asked the kids to describe how one wish most affected their life. Here's E's: "The wish that affects my life would have to be world peace. Everywhere I turn in the street I see candles and flowers because someone got killed. In the news, everything that happens around the world, no one feels safe anymore. It affects me because I live in the world and want this to change so we can all feel safe to walk at night and not live with fear. I am the future so it starts with me to be a good role model and not to do bad things."

I wrote back to eight-year-old E, telling him I'd like to share his essay with the class. I'm also going to try to send him to Washington D.C., the middle east, and anywhere else in the world needing a role model for peace. Not only will he awe these leaders with his compassion and understanding that change begins within, he'll serve delicious treats, and they'll be ice-cold.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

What if you're dead?

I have been up since 4:15, (many of us are up at any given hour, with students in mind), thinking about T, one amazing, resilient little girl. She and her mom are one tough team, always smiling, always looking forward, even when life has dealt them many, many hardships. T is very bright. She's a struggling writer - not without ideas, but not yet able to format those ideas into a grade-level piece of writing. She's a candidate, however, for a wonderful program that helps children who qualify achieve entrance to private school, along with a scholarship. Sometimes that scholarship is a tiny fraction of the tuition, and sometimes it covers the tuition, uniform, texts and extracurricular experiences. (Two of my students are currently in 11th and 12th grade, having received at the end of their fifth grade year a full scholarship to esteemed private schools. When they run for president, I will let you know their names)! If granted the opportunity, these children, coming from impoverished circumstances, often with uneducated and limited English-speaking parents, have a chance rarely offered in feeder middle and high schools. That's not to say those attending local public schools don't go on to higher education and to success ... this is simply a path with guidance they otherwise would be unlikely to see.

I tell every one of my students that anyone who is valedictorian of their high school will have a meal with me at the Southern California restaurant of their choice. They ooh and aah ... I just want to build within my kids an appreciation for hard work and accomplishment. Graduating high school is the goal - achieving such high honor is icing on the cake. I hope they'll move on to higher education. I ask my kids to invite me to their college graduations, and that I will make every effort to attend.

All this said, as I prepare to help T begin her journey, I can't help but think of K, a student from my first K-1-2 class in 1992. She was tall, sophisticated, brilliant, wise, a role-model, and seven years old. Her picture is on the front of my portfolio. She is standing in front of the blackboard with a huge smile on her beautiful face, (yes, a blackboard ... I go back a ways) holding a piece of chalk. She'd written, "I have a great teacher. Her name is Ms. Stern." I wanted to keep that blackboard, but a picture sufficed. As teachers, these are the gifts we cherish. The notes, the words, the moment a child lets us know we've made a difference in their life. 

K was with me again in 4th and 5th grade. I switched grade levels, and several of those early kids remained with me for two, three, four and five of their elementary years. She came to visit over her middle school years, when she attended the local feeder middle school, and then during her ninth grade year at Hollywood High. 

I was invited by two of my students to the Hollywood High graduation several years ago. It's held at the Hollywood Bowl, a grand place for such an event. A fifth grader of mine was going on that same evening to watch her cousin graduate. She and her family held a seat for me in a front box of the bowl. I arrived late, just in time to see the graduating class take their seats on stage. A young woman stood to welcome us, and to introduce her friend, the valedictorian of Hollywood High School, K_____! I gasped, grabbed my fifth grade student's arm, and uttered with incredible pride that she'd been my student. 

K's speech was wonderful. I sat with tears in my eyes, remembering that little 2nd grader. I had known then, and was proven to be correct, that she'd do great things. That night, my newly culminated fifth grader walked with me as I went to find K and her family. Pride was palpable as I introduced my two students, telling the older one how proud I was, how I felt I'd come full circle, and letting the younger one know how like K she was. That was very true.

The next year began, and on day one I shared the story of K with my kids. I told them I'd taken K to lunch. One of my wonderfully bright, articulate young men, J,  asked if any of them would have the same opportunity as K to join me for a meal. I responded with a strong yes. He asked about being the valedictorian of his college. I responded that the restaurant choice would then extend to the entire state of CA. He asked about graduate school. The country, I told him. Pause. J cocked his head at me. "What if you're dead?"Pause on my end. "I'll put it in my will. Somebody will take you on my dime."

My father keeps telling me to get a will together. I don't have much, but I have several meaningful items. None, however, so meaningful as my promise of a meal for the superior effort and achievement of one of my students. I'm leaving a roll of dimes in my safe deposit box. 

FYI - K is about to enter medical school. J is near the top of his class in high school. (I ain't dead yet, buddy)! And I heard recently that the little girl I sat with as K spoke at the Hollywood Bowl has moved far from Los Angeles, and continues to follow in K's footsteps. 

Friday, September 16, 2011

Learning English

Teaching a group of second language learners often makes for interesting word choice. Students spell as they hear, and struggle with the rules of English. Next week, our kids will split into language level classes, and we'll focus on specific needs. As we were talking about individuals, I shared the 10 year old story of G, a new to the country third grader. He was eager to try, and gave it everything he had.

Our class was doing a unit on water. The first lesson focused on surface tension. The kids used droppers to place single drops of water on a penny until the surface broke. They then recorded the number of drops in their science journals. I had written on the board the following question: How many drops fit? I neglected to write the word "penny."

As I circulated the room, encouraging students and asking them about their experience, I notice that G had written in his journal, "I can fit 32 drops of water on my penis." I stifled my laugh. Of course I realized he meant penny, and had heard me mention pennies, thus spelling penny as he thought it was spelled, and adding an s. I encouraged G not to erase his error, but to lightly cross it out and write the correctly spelled word above.

Lesson learned, Stern. When we did the kit next, my question read differently. All the necessary words were on the board. 

I still have G's science journal. I smile every time I see it and every time I tell the story. 

Monday, September 12, 2011

From the world to the classroom

The writing prompt was as follows:
"You arrive to find a note from your teacher on the classroom door, telling you that she is unable to be there and has left you in charge. Write a note back to her, telling her about your day."

A, a third grader, wrote the following, verbatim:
Today I was in charge of the class. The class was very understandably and was nice also very respctfull. I diden no who was you helpers so I chose them for the day. Ther were no vilens and no unuproperyent words. Every body noo there area and was playing nice. I had no cumplands about any thing. The class was playing so nice that they all got a green card! When I ask them to open there book and read quieyetly they did it so quieyet that I didn't no they were evend here. When I gave instushens they dident ask what do we do?

I had several responses in a similar vein. A day with no violence or inappropriate language, a day when everyone stays in their area, and a day with no complaints is one I'd like to experience! Additionally, when I give instructions, I'd love to see everyone get to work so quietly I am able to close my eyes and imagine I'm alone. 

The truth is that I have a marvelous class. They are nearly always respectful, non-violent, and appropriate in their interactions. While they don't always earn green cards (basically a "caught doing something great" reward), they rarely receive orange cards (out of area, language, and other such warnings), and I will be quite surprised should one of them receive a red card for defiance or violence. They do, however, like to clarify instructions several times. For that reason, alone, I plan to ask A to take over tomorrow's class. I'll let you know how it goes.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Sapo Verde

Today would have been my mom's 72nd birthday. It was also B's 10th birthday. What began as an emotionally difficult day was eased as B walked in this morning with a shy grin. I'd been teasing her all week about entering the "double digits." Yesterday she had an off day, and I suggested it was because it was her last day of "single digithood." She agreed, and today told me she was ready to take on the double digits. She is more than ready!

For as long as I can recall, my class has celebrated birthdays in the same manner. The birthday boy or girl sits on the tall stool in front of everyone. He or she shares their new age, and also how they know how old they are. I tease them that their birth certificate may have errors, and they figure out their age based on the year of birth. A little math outside of math class never hurts! The way a child plans to celebrate is shared. More than one student has shared with me that celebrating his or her birthday in the classroom with me and with peers is the only celebration they've had. This saddens me, and also reminds me how important it is to take a few moments to celebrate. Those few moments last a lifetime for many.

My class speaks along with me as we present the child with a birthday pencil, stickers (this year a birthday rubber bracelet), and three candies to celebrate el pasado, el futuro y el presente. A special question is asked by another student: "If you had $100, tax-free, can't spend it on world peace, have to spend it selfishly, what would you buy?" They love it when, if they say shoes and clothes, I applaud, and if they say video games, I groan! 

My favorite part of this celebration, prior to my final act of air spanking each student, followed by a pinch to grow an inch, and a squeeze as I say "happy birthday, sweetie," is the singing of a very special version of Happy Birthday. When I first began this tradition, oh so many years ago, my class was filled with several newcomers to this country. Many had never heard the English version of happy birthday, and must have assumed the lyrics below:
Sapo verde to you
Sapo verde to you
Sapo verde dear _____
Sapo verde to you!

To this day, this is what we sing. The direct translation is "green frog to you." My mom loved frogs. She got a kick out of hearing this version. So ... sapo verde, mom. And sapo verde, B.