Westward Movement

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. 

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Tackling the tough topics

I spent the week contemplating discussing the 10 year anniversary of 9/11 with my students. I wasn't sure just what I wanted my kids to take home with them, knowing that several had never been exposed to the topic, and that many had tiny bits of knowledge of the event. Yet, as I told the kids this afternoon, I talk to them about everything, and I wouldn't feel comfortable if we didn't discuss this very important piece of America's history. My students have so much to say. They are so honest, so open, and so curious to know what happened, how it has impacted us, and what will come to be as they grow up. After a long discussion, I shared with them the Judith Viorst poem, "If I Were In Charge Of The World." Several questions followed as I asked them to write their own poems with the same title, keeping in mind the conversation we'd just had. Tomorrow we'll share poems, and I will be ever so amazed at their creativity and thoughtfulness, and ever more confident that if we turned our world over to 10 year olds, we'd be in a far better place.

During our discussion today, I shared my own 9/11 experience with my students. I woke that morning, as I do every morning, to NPR. The radio popped on with the words "A plane has just flown into the World Trade Center." I thought I was hearing things at first, and thought it might be a joke of some sort, however horrible. Obviously, this was no joke. As I prepared for work, I thought frantically of friends and family in NY. My sister was traveling through the city on business, and it took a while to get in touch with her. I also realized I was going to face confusion, fear and millions of questions from my students.

I arrived early, and turned on the television in my classroom. As students arrived, I turned it off. The images were so graphic. I knew most of my kids would have seen these already, and indeed, as students entered the classroom, many were crying and telling me they'd seen people jumping out of buildings. As a teacher, one plans carefully, and follows a particular course of study. Then along comes something so astounding, so horrifying, and your plans are for naught. Additionally, you have to think on your feet - addressing what comes up with not even a second's warning. 

Melvyn was one of my third graders. He'd just turned eight. He was, and still is, kind, considerate, and brilliant. His father had brought him to school that morning, and sat in the classroom with us as I brought all the kids to the rug in a close circle. With fifth graders, and sometimes "ultra-cool" fourth graders, getting them all to sit together on a rug, and to sit closely, is a challenge. On this day, they could not get close enough. The kids had so many questions, asking me to "explain things in kid language." One of my students asked why anyone would fly a plane into a building because he'd know he would die, too. Before I could open my mouth, Melvyn asked if he could explain. His father and I exchanged glances, and I told him to go ahead. I paraphrase here ... it's been a long time and I don't recall his exact words, but I'm awfully close. 

"The pilots were willing to sacrifice themselves because what they believe in and their hatred of America is more important than their own life." (At this point, a student asked what sacrifice meant). "To sacrifice is to give up something really, really important for something or someone else that's even more important. These guys are probably controlled by someone who tells them what to do, and they didn't care that their life would be taken, too." He said quite a bit more, explaining the events that had occurred that morning with all the presence and capacity of any adult. His father and I sat and listened to him in awe. He was invaluable as a source of support for his peers that day, and for many days to follow. (As the eldest sibling of then four, now six, he'd had much opportunity to demonstrate leadership qualities)!

For the rest of the day, my students drew pictures, talked in large and small groups, cried and hugged, and sat closely together. They asked question after question ... of Melvyn and of me. 

Ten years later, 9/11 and Melvyn are entwined in my memory. I can't think of one without the other. And on this, the eve of what would have been my mother's 72nd birthday, there is much sadness. I thank Melvyn for being a model of grace on that fateful day as he and all of us experienced grief, pain, and confusion. I thank him even more for those same lessons that that guide me, personally. This is for you, Melvyn. I know you won't mind my telling your story. 

If I were in charge of the world
I'd cancel oatmeal,
Monday mornings,
Allergy shots, and also Sara Steinberg.

If I were in charge of the world
There'd be brighter nights lights,
Healthier hamsters, and
Basketball baskets forty eight inches lower.

If I were in charge of the world
You wouldn't have lonely.
You wouldn't have clean.
You wouldn't have bedtimes.
Or "Don't punch your sister."
You wouldn't even have sisters.

If I were in charge of the world
A chocolate sundae with whipped cream and nuts would be a vegetable
All 007 movies would be G,
And a person who sometimes forgot to brush,
And sometimes forgot to flush,
Would still be allowed to be
In charge of the world. 

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Tie your shoe and pick up your sweater!

Most teachers like to post some sort of class motto or set of behavioral expectations. Each year, even though the majority of my class is with me for a second or third year, I ask them to create guidelines by which we'll live. I edit only spelling and grammar, and, unless it's completely unrealistic, I veto no one's idea. (One year, a student suggested I bring breakfast for everyone every Friday, and that it must include homemade cinnamon roles. I vetoed that one).

I expect the usual ... set the example, treat others with respect, keep our space clean, etc. My favorites on this year's list are "tell someone if their shoe is untied" and "pick up sweaters so nobody falls." To me, developing a young person's care for others is as important as teaching someone to read. What good is reading if you don't care if someone trips?

Yesterday, as we were cleaning up after a fantastic experience creating Cubist self-portraits in the style of Picasso, L, an almost always happy, enthusiastic, spirited student, picked his classmate's sweater up off the ground. He handed the sweater to A, and commented, "Here you go. You should tie your sweater around your waist or put it in the closet. If you leave it on the chair, it usually falls, and gets dirty. I know because last year mine fell all the time. This year we have a reminder on our circle map. See? (He pointed it out to her). That's going to help both of us. But I'm more experienced, so I'll help you remember, and you can look at the circle map. Okay?" She nodded her agreement, thanked him, and went on cleaning up. Sigh. Great end to an exhausting, but wonderful, first week of the 2011-2012 school year.