Westward Movement

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.