Sunday, February 23, 2014

Stuck in a Plasma Globe. Be Home Soon!

You know, today's kids don't get out much. I'm speaking specifically about urban kids; the children of the hood. The kids that live in small apartment complexes on the East Side with a slew of family members and friends, all sharing a one or two bedroom apartment with no yard. And even if they had a front yard, they wouldn't be allowed to go outside and play in it for fear of drive-by's, drug dealers and other various daily occurrences of their lives. Those children don't know what a dirt trail feels like beneath their feet.  Or what it's like to smell a freshly mowed lawn or run through piles of crunchy autumn leaves. Those kids spend a huge amount of their spare time inside. Those kids take care of their younger siblings. Those kids, the ones who have never splashed in a rain puddle because it's not safe outside or their clothes will get dirty, stay inside a lot and as a result, they feel uncomfortable out in nature.
Dr. Stephen R. Kellert of Yale University devotes a chapter to the subject of "Nature and Childhood Development." Combining his original research with well-documented references to the research of others, this chapter is a powerful synthesis of what we know, and what we do not know, about the importance of nature to children's healthy development. Kellert states, "Play in nature, particularly during the critical period of middle childhood, appears to be an especially important time for developing the capacities for creativity, problem-solving, and emotional and intellectual development." He includes research to indicate optimal learning opportunities at age-appropriate times and differentiates between indirect, vicarious, and direct experiences with nature — with the latter less and less available to children. He urges designers, developers, educators, political leaders and citizens throughout society to make changes in our modern built environments to provide children with positive contact with nature—where children live, play and learn.

This epidemic of keeping children inside and away from nature is also quickly becoming the norm in our public schools.  With standardized testing, fast-paced curriculum, newly adapted "Common Core" requirements, children working "far below basic" in Language Arts (I hate to even use the word "arts" in this way because the manner in which we are teaching language, grammar, writing and so on is the farthest thing from "the Arts") By cramming children inside all day; sitting them at their desks in order to "teach them" by teachers' ignorant lecture-babble... Aren't we actually robbing them of the essential tools to help them grow,develop, problem-solve, empathize, create, think critically and understand each other and the world around them?
Amy Barra, an environmental specialist for the Montezuma Audubon Center wrote in an article for the The Finger Link Times:

Children who spend time in nature are shown to be happier and have higher critical thinking skills than their peers who have not had access to natural spaces. A research article published in 2004 by Francis Kuo Ph.D., and Andrea Taylor, Ph.D. showed that children who suffered from ADHD had reduced symptoms after a short 20-minute walk through a natural area. Students who are exposed to nature also achieve higher test scores in math, reading and writing than their non-nature-exposed peers. Children who play together in nature are less likely to take part in bullying behavior and instead are shown to develop more collaborative skills and will demonstrate respect for others. All of these benefits come from time spent exploring outdoors and connecting with the natural environment.
Higher test scores? Less bullying? Collaboration skills?  You'd think we'd be outside every fucking day for most of our academic time!!!! But no! We give 'em 10-20 minute recess, tell 'em to use the bathroom and get water, and then hurry them back inside to their seats, for more lectures and more "learning", all the while, reminding them to be quiet.

At the site where I'm teaching, there's a huge lawn and a beautiful corner area shaded by a couple of mighty oaks and other foliage. The children aren't allowed to venture to this corner of the lawn "because there's too many bees" So I'm told. (Actually, there aren't too many bees thanks to the
Roundup being sprayed.)

I took my students to the 'forbidden' lawn one afternoon, two days after the most welcoming rain left it a rich, vibrant shade of green.  The sky was breathtaking and the clouds, plentiful. We had just read the book "It Looked Like Spilled Milk" and I thought it appropriate to lie on our backs, breathe in the fresh air and share a discussion about the various types of clouds (science, language arts), how they are made (science. For Katie, God), verbal discussion, (language arts, critical thinking, listening skills), counting the number of clouds, (math) and what each cloud formation looks like. (language arts, expanding the imagination, listening to and learning from peers)

We walked to the farthest corner. There were mustard colored dandelions and miniature daisies all around our shoes. I shared with them what little I knew about the healthy and healing properties of the dandelion root and we discussed how killing them with chemicals not only hurts them, but also goes in our water systems.  When we got to the perfect spot to lie down, they all, except Layla and her best pal Arianna, went ballistic!  Of the thirty kids that I was responsible for that afternoon, 28 flat-out refused!
"It's dirty, Ms. Fern."
"My mom doesn't want my clothes dirty."
"There's bees here."
"I'm allergic to bees."
"Me too."
"It's too wet."
"The sun's in my eyes."
"Mine too."
Ms. Fern, I don't want to."
"Me neither."

I ignored them, in a way that only a teacher knows how to do, and I proceeded to lie down
with the 2 girls and a small handful of  "reluctants" who hesitantly decided to risk it.
We had our discussion, took deep 'yoga breaths', breathing the fresh mid-day air into our lungs and enjoyed ourselves before heading back to our room.
Layla spoke, "My mom and dad take me hiking in the Sierras a lot and sometimes we make bonfires at the beach. We also go camping a lot."
"We go to Arroyo Seco and play in the river" shared Arianna.

Well, there's the explanation.
The girls' parents must value the great outdoors and the connection we humans need to have with nature. Not surprising, these two are well-balanced, attentive in class, are able to problem solve, read above grade level...Oh sure, there's a number of reasons as to why these two excel besides Mother Nature, but certainly their experiences in the great outdoors contribute to their language development and their fearlessness about getting a grass stain on their pant legs.

You know, first graders are whiners.  There, I said it.
It's actually, secretly, driving me nuts.
"Ms. Fern, she said mean things to me."
"Ms. Fern, he took cuts in line."
"Ms. Fern, my finger hurts."
"Ms. Fern, she won't be my friend."

I'm ready to snap at the end of the day. I pull all my tricks out of my hat: encouragement of problem-solving, conflict-resolution, class meetings, even humor. But there are days that I am at the edge of simply using good old-fashioned public humiliation.
On the whole, second graders have passed that stage in their development. Thank God half of my class has an element of maturity.
They are hilarious, though. The first graders.
One morning, one runs up to me, wearing her hot pink Hello Kitty winter gloves and holds up both her hands, 10 pink fingers open wide in my face. Well, 9 pink fingers. The middle finger, on the left hand, was all skin as it poked straight up through a hole in the glove. "Ms. Fern, I have a hole in my glove!" she innocently exclaimed as she (unknowingly) flipped me off.

So, I have 13 first graders and 17 second graders; a perfect, even number of fiery, kinetic energy balls.
If you've ever been in a room with thirty children, all under the age of 8, it's similar to one of those plasma globes, with electrical currents bouncing off the glass. Only noisy.

I'm stuck in the middle of this bold, spontaneous burst of fun. The truth?
It's not that bad. It's kinda growing on me.  In fact, I'm sort of getting the hang of it again and I'm sure, that when this gig ends on March 7, I'll actually have it down.
Most likely, I'll even miss it a little.
And them.

"Ms. Fern? Why is your nose so red today?"

(Oh, Jasmine, it's just from the bottle of Cabernet Ms. Fern drank last night.)

~tpg (aka Ms. Fern)

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Hail to the Teachers!

It's 5:37 p.m. and the cats and I are nodding off. The sun is barely beginning to set.
I take a sip of "adult grape juice" and my thoughts ricochet from "Did I say the 'right' thing to the speech teacher?" to "We haven't done reading fluency this week in grade 2" to finally, "I have to get up in 12 hours." And then, of course, there's a hundred others thoughts bouncing from wall to wall in my brain.

You know, when you teach, the word "multi-task" is no longer current. It's like a Gilligan's Island episode; a telling, interestingly descriptive adjective, but hugely out-dated. I used to use it, the word 'multi-task', when I was applying for teaching positions:
"I have many strengths, but one that stands out in my mind is I'm excellent at multi-tasking."
It could be my age. It could be the broken, out of touch, ridiculous system. It could be the kids.
But whatever the fuck it is, multitasking doesn't come close to what this job requires.

When you're swimming for your life in the sea of public education, it's the little things that get in the way; leaving your papers by the copier, leaving your lunchbox in the supply room, not locking the bathroom door, turning your key the wrong way 50 times, calling Angel Alex and Alex Angel at least a dozen times in a day and searching for crap you need. Where did I put my water bottle? What about the notes from the office, the homework packets, my keys?  It's spacey, menopausal amnesia times 1,000.  And you what? Every minute of your break time is precious, so when you waste it on the 'little things', the big things suffer and your day ultimately sucks.
I wasted at least 10 minutes scouring the classroom for my purple fork.
I finally located an old white one at the bottom of a large tub. I'm finally able to sit down, relax
and graze.

I'm teaching them yoga.  Did I mention that? It's not really for them, but I tell them it is. I tell them it will help them think better. I tell them it will help them remain calm. I tell them it is good for their muscles. I tell them whatever the hell I can think of, in a split second, that will shut them up and get them engaged and silent.
"Silence" is like the coveted, golden Oscar when you're trapped in a classroom of 30, especially on a rainy day.
When six and seven-year olds enter the classroom on a rainy, stormy morning, its like a stampede of bulls down the narrow streets of Spain.  Only louder.
Katie: "God made the rain because he knows that all living things need water. I learned that in church."
Nick: "Nuh uh."
Katie: "Yes, sir."

I'm with Nick, but I move on.  Because nothing says rain quite like poetry. And Nick is a poet, an artist and just about the coolest kid alive, under his beanie and baggie Transformer tee-shirt.

First and second graders love poetry and their ability to capture life, in a few lines, is nothing short of refreshing. It tastes of fulfillment.
Nick also lives in an imaginary world in his head. I spent a good 15-20 minutes teaching a lesson on base words and endings with my group of 1st graders. I was quite animated up at the white board.
I gave example after example. I had students come up and underline the base words and circle the endings with dry eraser pens. I did page 237 with them. Then we checked it together. Then they did page 238 on their own. Then we corrected it together.  "Give me a thumbs up if you understand what we're talking about, friends!"  All thumbs go up. I sigh a penny-size breath of accomplishment.
Then Nick raises his hand.
"Nick, do you have a question or comment about base words and endings?"
Nick doesn't pause, "My mom just got a new dog."  

Nick also was in the center of a large crowd at morning recess that gathered around a small mountain of dirt near the climbing structures. Being the yard duty aficionado, I moseyed on over to survey the situation...
"It's a mole in there, teacher!"
"No, it's a gopher!"
"No, it's not! It's a mole."

"Okay, boys and girls. It's a gopher-mole and we need to just go play and let it alone because it's in its own habitat just digging tunnels and minding his own business."  Nick lingers with his recess pal who looks up at me and says, "I know where his wife is."  
"Really. Where?"
"She lives in my backyard. My dad and I saw her."
Nick and his pal are serious as a heart attack and I hold back the burst of laughter that forming in my throat.
"That's cool." I say. "All families are different and some live in separate homes."

Kids are cool. But they're weird too.
I was in a restaurant recently with my partner and a kid, who was too old to make a decision like this, walked in waving a large purple balloon as he walked in between tables toward his booth.
Since I took this teaching assignment, I can't stand to be around kids when I'm not at school. I sit away from them in the theater, I ask for a booth at the other side of the restaurant, I change lines at the grocery store.
Listening to them whine and listening to their weird, inappropriate parents deal with them (or not) is almost too much to bear.
I watched this immature kid, waving his fake sword in his sibling's face and all I could see was a large, purple penis.

Obviously, I'm exhausted. Or have penis envy.  Or both.
Actually, I'm losing it.
That's what teachers really do, you know.  After a long day of holding it together, biting your tongue with the principal, smiling at jerk colleagues, teaching every subject over and over because nobody's listening, tying a shoe, cleaning up a dropped bottle of glitter, making copies, getting a key sucked in a laminator, reteaching, reteaching, writing lesson plans, introducing a new concept, addressing the needs of the parents...After all that and much more, teachers fucking lose it in the privacy of their own homes.
And they lose it in the confines of their own minds, imagining a large purple penis, while dining in a restaurant on their day off.

I saw Sweet Pea and The Cousin the other night at a basketball game. It took awhile for The Cousin to warm up to me. (Her punishment for choosing to make bank over her) But soon, she took my hand and we were outside the gym dancing and running through rain puddles just like old times.
I look forward to getting back to the "easy life".

Have a good week, pals. And hail to the teachers!


Saturday, February 1, 2014

Why Teachers Drink

This will be fairly short for a few reasons.
1. I'm so f!@*ing exhausted, my head is nodding into the keyboard.
2. The past 2 weeks are somewhat of a blur, therefore some details escape me.
3. I'd rather drink wine than talk to y'all.

Coffee in the cup holder.

I left the house yesterday at 7:15 a.m. and returned at 7:30 p.m. A 12 hour day of teaching, staying after school to prep for tomorrow, (teachers are always, always staying after school to prep for tomorrow), then an hour power walk around a track with my "teacher pals", wine, more wine, appetizers at a local bar and debriefing at a local bar because teachers need to debrief and debrief and debrief.

I told The Cousin and Sweet Pea I'd be back. That Wallery needed to work (not play) for several weeks in order to earn some extra money. Then, I took what's known as a "long-term sub position" in a combination classroom of 30 1st and 2nd graders. (you read that correctly)
If I've ever complained about a 1.5 year old and a 2.5 a half year old, shoot me now.

Every inch of my skin; every orifice, my feet, shoulders and head, all ache. My throat is on fire and I sound as if I've smoked a pack of cigarettes today. Sexy? Maybe. Demi Moore? You wish.
Gravelly sandpaper? For sure.
I took the 5-week position for the bank. $$$$$$. There, I said it.

Yea, there was a time, a long, long time ago in a far away land, that I taught for the pure joy,
the love of teaching. There was a time when I taught because I felt like I could make a gigantic difference and that my hands were the hands of change; molding, shaping, guiding children like an artist carefully and passionately shapes her clay.  I can honestly say, without an ounce of doubt, that those days are a colorful tapestry whose threads linger like a sweet song, but are no longer a part of my current tune.

When you're a sub, you're not a "real" teacher. Well, let me rephrase that. You're not a real teacher to the permanent staff. You are to the children, especially 6 and 7 year olds. They adore you no matter how many f!@*ing mistakes you make in an hour. But the "real" teachers, check you out, just like a bunch of high school Heathers and you put on your best face, use your most professional and positive language and avoid the staff lounge at lunch at all costs.  Most staff lounges, for the readership that are not in public education, are filled with gossipy vipers and Negative Nellies. Besides, if you're a sub, especially one that hasn't worked full-time in several years, you need to isolate. You need to prep. You need to pray. And you need, ache, crave and deserve the quiet solitude of your classroom for the 50 minutes you are allotted at lunchtime.
You sit there staring at lessons that need to be updated, stacks of folders that the real teacher left. You wonder not what's inside, but when the hell you'll have time to take a look. You breathe in through your nose and blow out, with exaggeration, through your mouth.
You're wiped and it's 11:40 a.m.

Noone. NOONE knows this state quite like another elementary school teacher.

You have to pee. You have to check your blood sugars. You can't recall who goes to speech after lunch. There's crap all over the floor. The phone rings. One of your students is unaccounted for.  You head for the cafeteria, but you can't figure out how to use the key properly in the lock. It's day 4.
Two girls come running up to you! "Teacher! Teacher! Isabella called me a cry baby and said she's not my friend."  You give the right answer and continue to the cafeteria. You see the kid. He's throwing spit wads in the bathroom. He sees you and runs into the stall. He knows you can't go inside. You scream his name from outside the boys' bathroom and you wonder where the fuck are lunch aides?
You still have to pee.

It is a blur, the past two weeks. Here's what I remember:

Establishing Routines:
Establishing routines, discipline, norms and gaining understanding of 30 small people takes time and exceptional talent. I have neither.
Noise Level:
Going from one day a week with toddlers and 2 days a week in a Japanese tea boutique where shamisen music drifts in the background versus a room crammed with 30 children all screaming, talking, laughing, whining simultaneously, all the while the phone is ringing, a parent has a question and there's an all-call over the intercom, is nothing short of hell.

Teacher Camaraderie: Fitting In
The look. You walk into the office and you are as sweet as summer apple pie. You introduce yourself to the principal, the secretary, the health aide, the custodian and every teacher that walks by you. They all have the same look in their eye: "If she's the sub, she better be good."

The Laminator:
I'm unsure if I've mentioned to y'all that I obtained a teaching credential in 1982 from SFSU.
(Go Gators!) I first subbed in Sonoma County, then later was a director of a state funded preschool in that area. Then, after years in the coffee industry, I finally found my way back to public education.
There was no gold medal waiting for me.
Since 1983 or 84, and what the hell does the year matter, I have used laminating machines.
Never with a problem. Fast forward to 3 days ago.
We had made bookmarks, after a firm and meaningful lesson on why we don't fold page corners of our library books, and I headed to the staff room to laminate the children's work.
Being the conservationist that I am, I tried to line up as many bookmarks as I could, as to not waste the plastic. The machine gave me the green light; it was hot and ready to go!
As I'm feeding the row of 8 markers through the two hot, plastic cylinders, I lean forward into the machine and without notice, my room key, which hangs from a lanyard on my neck gets sucked into the piping hot, oval pistons and I am in a serious adult jam.

Quietly, but with a sharp element of panic shooting through my veins, I search for the "stop button".
A crowd gathers.
By the time I locate it, I am 3" away from having my lips laminated. I can't move. Of course, the children will arrive at the classroom any minute.

The culprit

Notice the clip in the above photo. A good samaritan approaches, attempting to hold back the laughter, and unclips the keys from the lanyard, since my face is too close to the machine and I'm unable to remove it over my head.
Meanwhile, there's a secretary on a walkie talkie seeking a custodian. There's an all-call for the woman in charge of the laminator. There's teachers chuckling and, of course, there's the raising of eyebrows.
I feel a joke coming on...
"Well, folks, this will certainly give you something to gossip about when I'm long gone. Meet here, at the same time tomorrow, for my next act."
When maintenance finally separates the cylinders and removes the key, it's hotter that shit.
It's thrown up in the air like a hot potato and teachers are ducking. 
I'm late. And you know what?
When you're late for 30 kids under the age of eight, it's far more stressful than when you're late for the office.

First Graders:
I've only made 3 cry.
Come on! I forgot how sensitive they are! It's totally my fault and I take full repsonsibility. I moved too quickly that first couple of days. I gave them too many tasks in a row. I also forgot that Band-Aids were so important. When I taught 4th-6th, they didn't say a thing. But these rugrats tell you every single damn detail, right down to the imaginary, minuscule splinter that's in their right thumb that needs attention.

Second Graders:
Tattle Talers.

Sore Throat:

Know the Schedule:
So the regular school day begins at 8:15 a.m. and ends at 2:41 p.m.  And there's lots to share of the minute to minute detail that goes on between those times. But one day a week, due to meetings, leadership gatherings, grade-level planning and principal "wisdom" pow wows, the schedule is different... So, afternoon recess normally begins at 1:40 p.m. I bribe my class by telling them if they're organized and prepared and "show me they're ready" by quietly putting their heads down on the 1983 desks they're provided with, I will take them out to recess 15 minutes early. I figure, since I don't have afternoon recess duty, I can hold my pee until the teacher on duty relieves me (no pun intended) at 1:40 p.m. Bribery prevails and we're soon out running, jumping, climbing, building sand castles all by ourselves. I still have to urinate. I look at my watch and it's 1:50 p.m. I feel a slight irritation that the teachers are tardy. Time continues to pass. Play continues to happen. Then all of a sudden I hear a first grader's voice,"Ms. Fern! Today is short-day Thursday!" Holy crap! I now have 5 minutes to get 30 children, who are thousands of miles away from me and in their own worlds, off the playground, to the classroom to collect their things and then to the bus.
I still have to pee.

Teacher Bathrooms Lesson #1:
All the staff bathrooms can be opened with room keys, hence the slider bolt lock inside the door, which I neglected to lock the first time I used my new school's bathroom. Surprise!
I met another staff member.

Yes, it is a tiring profession; one that you never just "shut off." I'm experiencing long periods of sleeplessness, usually between 1:00 a.m and 3:00 a.m. where I turn on an old episode of Law and Order just to stop thinking about tomorrow's lessons, order of the day, what's due, and which children need special help. Teaching is not for sissies.

These two things are saving my ass:

So, in closing, I raise my glass to teachers! If there's a heaven, I'm positive there's a billboard with bright lights stating, "Teachers: This Way To The Bar!"