My school does enrichment clusters, based on the research conducted by Renzulli and Reis. My cluster this time around is Natural Disasters, and of course the children asked immediately if we could build a volcano. They all knew how, and they all knew exactly what would happen. Even so, they wanted to do it.
Last week they built the thing out of sand and glue with a 16 oz. water bottle as the base. Fifteen minutes later I had twelve gooey hands and a table full of water to contend with, along with the expectant faces of children ready to witness the explosion. And
Fast forward to today. The paint came out so they could make the mountain look more realistic, and finally it was time for the eruption. The knowing voices chimed in: "Ok, let's put the water in. Do you think this is warm enough?" "How many drops of food coloring?" "What should we stir this with?" "Ms. M, can I pour the vineger?" "I want to put in the baking soda!!"
At this point I stopped the students. I had read about a different way to add the baking soda and I asked the kids if we should try it. One fifth grader was saying that all it was going to do was bubble over... we've all seen it 1,000 times. What was everyone so excited about? Let's just try it and see if it would make a difference. (I had no idea if it would or wouldn't.)
I explained the new process to the students and J got the scissors and kleenex. We made our little pouches, the kids popped them into the bottle, the requisite orange fizz started bubbling up and....
Orange spray EVERYWHERE! Two feet high, all over the table, all over our shirts, on the floor. Squeals of delight!
The custodians will NOT thank me for this stunt, I'm sure. And as for the parents, they had better hide their food coloring!
Last weekend some of my colleagues and I went to see the movie Water for Elephants. Three of us had read the book; two of my colleagues hadn't. We all experienced the movie differently.
Later at dinner we talked about reading. I am an avid reader. My shelves are full of books and I cannot walk into a book store without spending half of my paycheck. Seriously, I think I have problems. I use my library card to try to save money... and if I love the book I end up buying it anyway.
One of my colleagues said that she is so tired at night lately that she has been setting her alarm for 4:00 AM just so she can make the time to work through the book she is reading. She loves the book that much. Another colleague was shocked by this. She said she has never been so absorbed by a book. She has never stayed up all night to finish a book. Ever.
Never? The four of us were floored.
This particular colleague does not hold read-aloud as a sacred, untouchable part of her school day. Now I can see why. One who has never experienced a love of reading first hand cannot write it as a learning objective for students.
I've been thinking a lot lately about student engagement, because really that is the major piece that is missing in my classroom this year. It feels like a personal blow because engaging the learner has always been a strength of mine. Not so much this year. It seems that no matter what the topic, no matter how I present it, no matter what the activity... to the students it feels like gruntwork. They don't say it out loud, but the message comes across loud and clear. Our conversations lack depth and on some days it feels like I am pulling teeth just to get them to repeat the learning objective, or the instructions - let alone make connections to their personal experiences, to prior learning, or to the bigger world. Instead I hear groans of disbelief when I require a capital letter at the beginning of a sentence, or when I take them outside for a science investigation and don't allow them to run amok. Their confidence level is almost nonexistent, and I know that contributes to their disinterest. It's almost as if some have given up on school altogether.
It is so disheartening.
There have been some moments of excitement, of course. Here are a few that we've had in recent weeks:
We are writing folk tales based on traditional Native American and African animal tales (Why Mosquitos Buzz in People's Ears, How the Chipmunk Got Its Stripes). The students are publishing in the way that feels most natural to them, and there is a lovely productive buzz in the classroom during writer's workshop as some are rapping with Garage Band, some are designing comics, some setting the stage for their plays, and some choreographing dances.
I challenged them recently to turn the impossible into the possible, and they worked in teams to get across the gym without touching the floor with any part of their bodies. It tested their collaborative skills and their thinking skills, and though many felt discouraged their excitement and determination kept them engaged.
We are doing an author study about Chris Van Allsburg. I love his books, and have been reading a book a day aloud to the class. I started out by having the children sit back and enjoy his writing and added a new listening/thinking challenge each day. By about book seven or eight students were jumping out of their seats at the end of the story to talk about impossible happenings, time lapses, and themes.
Recently I began blogging with my students. They have been so excited about posting their thoughts online! When we're in the lab they are up and on one another's computers to show one another how to post and comment, and they are calling across the room, "I just commented on yours, can you see it?" "Ms. M, you didn't approve it yet, hurry up!" Some of the other teachers in my building have commented as well, and the students have been pleasantly surprised to find support in unexpected places.
I realize these are just small successes, and maybe the thinking should be so much bigger by now and the learning so much deeper. I guess for my own sanity I have to remember where we began as a class back in August and realize that while the successes are small, at least we have moved forward. Still I want so badly for them to LOVE school, and for them to see the bigger picture.
Last fall, I began working toward an advanced degree. The demands of academia have rocked my world this year, and the coursework itself is stretching my thinking and causing me to challenge my practice in ways I never imagined. It's exhausting, but pretty awesome at the same time. One of my courses this quarter is about finding a direct link between curriculum theory and practice. This week the assignment was to create some aspect of a curricular unit based on the ideas of the multicultural and critical theorists (Nieto, Ladson-Billings, Friere, Giroux, Apple, Banks, etc.).
When I thought about representations and student voice, my mind immediately went to banned and challenged literature. For years I have made a point of looking at the American Library Association lists and following the AS IF blogs and debates. I own a tall stack of commonly banned and challenged books, and I strongly believe that those are some of the most important books for young adults because they delve into the issues and identities that exist in real life.... and so I decided to create a list. A short list of books that represent contemporary life, to serve as a resource for those who work with young adults.
I included books that cover a wide range of topics and issues such as truancy, drug use, sexuality, privilege, victimization, racism, religious and cultural conflict, and family relations because those are the issues teenagers see and feel but are not always able to talk about. Books that explore the topics of eating disorders and date rape, while uncomfortable to read, can provide solace for a young adult who has gone through a similar experience, or information for a friend or parent trying to help a loved one. Books that touch on homosexuality show that it is a normal part of a person's identity and for a teenager who feels awkward and unconventional like Charlie in the perks of being a wallflower, that book can be a vital source of support. Especially with the adolescent suicide rates rising, I believe that it is crucial to put books by Brent Hartinger and similar authors into children's hands. The letters these authors receive from young adults are testaments to the importance of books that represent multiple identities and experiences.
I also included books that might begin to open a dialogue about stereotypes. The book Monster is about an African American teenager who is convicted of robbery simply because he was standing in front of the store when it happened (though as readers we never find out the "real" story of why he was there, which allows us to examine our perceptions). The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian not only shows a snapshot of life on a reservation, but also an insider's take on poverty. The other books on my list include characters from many different countries, cultures, religions, and faiths, and all different socioeconomic levels, urban, suburban, and rural communities, public and private schools, abusive families, cohesive families, no family, and even foster care. The perspectives and life outlooks portrayed through the characters are as diverse as the characters themselves, and I think it's important for children to see those representations in literature - not only to find connections in the stories they read, but also to gain a new perspective about those around them.
That said, it is important for teachers, librarians, and parents to keep conversations open in order to hear children's thoughts and opinions, and also to help them realize that one voice does not represent an entire population.
This class I teach is filled with children who live lives I will never fully know or understand. I have to accept them for who they are and what they bring as they enter our space - and be ready for anything on any given day: happy and sad and angry and confused, filthy and clean and hungry and unkempt and tired and alert and kissed/hugged and satisfied and filled with dreams and ideas and ready or not ready to face the day ahead.
The dynamics that play out in my classroom are as predictable as the day is long; these children have been together since first grade. The first grade teacher struggled, the second grade teacher nearly gave up, the third grade teacher left the profession, and now they are with me in fourth grade. The structure of my school is such that this group will stay together until they go off to middle school - and so here I am with this class I teach.
At the beginning of the school year I began as I always do: rituals and routines, community building, proactive social teaching. I tried to be more intentional than in other years, in response to both the reputation they arrived with and the issues that immediately presented themselves. My administrator's words were encouraging: "Don't be afraid to ask for help."
When the first patterns of nitpicking surfaced, I problem-solved in the classroom and role-played in morning meetings, talking with students about how to handle situations. When different situations began - work avoidance, bullying, minor disruptions - I continued to problem solve and document but a few weeks in I sought help. I was then called into the administrator's office, only to be told that the children were "taking advantage of my good will" and that I needed to stop being so "empathetic" and begin teaching. These kids were behind - they needed instruction, not all of this class meeting, social curriculum stuff.
And so I heeded the advice. I bucked up and taught - I did away with the morning meetings and buckled down to the business of curriculum and instruction. Fast forward to now, to this class I teach. To the extreme bullying situations, to the climate of distrust: so much so that I will not leave my room without locking it even for a moment for fear of having something stolen from myself or from one of the students. To the constant disruptions, the level of disrespect toward myself and one another and the nuances that exist within that disrespect. The learning lost, the discomfort I feel arriving at work each day. The fact that I feel there is no one to turn to in my building who can offer anything except for an encouraging (yet unhelpful) "hang in there!"
I am almost a decade into my practice and never have I felt so ineffective as a teacher. My frustration is transparent, I know I am visibly rattled, I cannot help but talk about it because I care so deeply about my teaching and especially about each and every student and I feel so defeated... and yet, I came to a realization last night. I know now that back in September when I asked for help and was instead reprimanded, I walked away from that meeting and took my administration's directive without question, ignoring what I know in my heart about teaching and learning. Ignoring my core beliefs about children. I spent half a school year allowing this class I teach to slip out from under me.
I have three months to get them back. All is not lost.