Thursday, September 26, 2013

Race: Learning to See

Since Mark and I have moved into an apartment building where the residents are predominantly African-American in a neighborhood of apartment buildings where residents are more likely to be Asian, African-American or Latino than White and since I've been teaching at a school where all of my students are African or African-American, I've been thinking a lot about race and racism. Most of my thoughts about race and racism have been sort of in the back corner of my mind, as the front corners of my mind are taken up right now with questions of whether I'll be able to keep control in my classroom long enough for my students to learn the short /a/ sound.

My thoughts about racism have been a weird jumble. I think about the loud music vibrating our floors and how the picture I got in my head when I felt the first rumble was of African-American people partying in a poorly kept living room. I hate that about myself, that those were my first mental images, and what that says about racism that still lives in me.

It scares me too, especially when I think about my students. Because if the image I get in my head when I hear loud music is African-American people living in a dingy apartment spending all their time rocking out pointlessly to loud music, what does that say about my expectations for what my students are capable of and should accomplish? What they should be like when they grow up? I'm terrified that despite all of my best intentions I'm going to lower my expectations for my students and decide that the work they are producing is 'good enough' even if it's not nearly good enough.

Because, let's face it: in order for my students to succeed and thrive while living in the United States, they are not going to have to score as high as White children. They are going to have to score higher. They are going to have to prove a thousand times more often that they are capable and bright and able to contribute wonderful things to the world. Because the world is not going to believe it on first glance. Especially when they see my darling girls wearing their hijab or my boys wearing their kufi.

And when I start to think about my girls and their hijab and my boys and their kufi, I also find myself thinking about my nephew who was adopted from Ethiopia in 2011. Not because he wears a kufi. I just know that my nephew is a wonderful, brilliant boy who love to read books, has an amazing vocabulary, and loves to entertain people. But so many people will just see black when they see him. Just like people will just see hijab when they see my girl students.

Before I started teaching at this school, when I saw a group of Muslim women in the store I was shopping in, I would just see their long flowing dresses and their hijab. A few days ago, though, when I was out, I saw a girl in hijab, and I found myself searching her face to see if she was a student of mine or a sister of a student of mine. It struck me at that moment that before, I hadn't been seeing the women in hijab as women. I'd just been seeing Muslim. Or maybe even just the clothes. I don't know. But I do know that I hadn't been really seeing them as individuals.

I don't know if this makes any sense, and I know that I'm rambling, but the thing is, I want my students to grow up being seen for who they are, beyond their clothing. I want my nephew to grow up being seen for who he is, beyond his skin color. And I want me to really see people. I want to really see the neighbors who live below us and play obnoxious loud music; if not get to know them, at least acknowledge that their personalities, their joys and disappointments, have depth that I don't know. And I want to really see my students with all their gifts and potential.

This seeing. I can't make the United States at large see my students for the wonderful individuals that they are or see my nephew for who he is. Racism is so hard that way - I can't make anyone not think racist thoughts. And I'm still battling my own sneakily hidden racism. But I truly think that seeing a person is what begins to dissolve some part of the racism barrier. So, maybe the very best thing I can do is tell the stories - tell the stories of my students as individuals so that a few other people will see them as more than a hijab or a kufi. Maybe that's the best start for learning to see.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

A Breath in the Midst of Teaching

A stack of student papers is sitting by me, waiting to be graded, but for the first time since I started teaching on September 3, I feel like I might have enough time and enough energy to write a blog before I tackle the school work. I'm finally getting my feet back on the ground after reeling through the first few weeks of teaching. I'm beginning to re-discover that a pot of tea drunk all by myself with a book is an incredible delight, and I'm beginning to think about what book I'm going to read next, also an incredible delight. If I have enough time to think those thoughts, I decided I have enough time to write a blog. It's been a loooooooooong time since I've written anything here, though, to the point where I think to myself, Where to start? Where to start? 

We are adjusting to life in an apartment complex, surrounded by people who like loud music. Maybe not surrounded, exactly, but the neighbors below us vibrate our floors with their music on occasion and the neighbors next to us like their speakers too. I'm a woefully light sleeper, so our bedroom has become a white noise factory of late. The fan on overhead creates a pleasant hum. The white noise track Mark created for me sounds like heavy rain or clapping depending on what I'm dreaming about, and the bass track he added to the heavy rain white noise track makes me feel like a train is running by our window all night long. I'm just that neurotic about noises that I need different tones of white noise to effectively dull the various sounds we hear in our bedroom at night.

Teaching the last three weeks has been a roller coaster. I think the next time I blog, I will write a little bit about the personalities of my kids. That's the fun part of teaching so far: getting to know each of the kids and what makes them excited or frustrated, how to calm the impulsive ones down when they make bad choices, how to make them smile. But I'm only just starting to see their personalities. Up until a few kids were switched out of my classroom on Thursday morning, all it felt like I was doing was managing one large, loud, disobedient group.

Here is what my day looked like before my class was brought down to a more manageable size:

4:45am - Wake up before the alarm, worrying about today.
5:05am - Get up, shower. Get ready. Eat breakfast. Read the Bible. Say desperate prayers.
6:05am - Drive to school. Say more desperate prayers.
7:15am - Students arrive. No time for praying. Crowd control.
8:00am - Start lining students up to go to breakfast. Feelings of frustration.
8:35am - Return from breakfast, frazzled by the difficulty of lining students up who are hyped up on sugar from their 'nutritious' breakfast.
9:00am - Math. Technically. In reality, crowd control. Maybe yell a little. Finish about half of the math lesson.
10:05am - Oops. Missed science time due to crowd control and discipline issues. Line students up for lunch. Even more challenging than lining them up for breakfast.
10:35am - Late for lunch. Defeated, leading loud and energetic children down the hall to the lunch room.
10:50am - Take a deep breath. Begin to line up students who are done eating.
11:05am - Return to classroom. Spend a few minutes doing calendar math activities. Spend many more minutes managing the group, giving out consequences and trying to be heard.
11:30am - Reading lesson. Also, crowd control. Also, trying to get kids to work on reading and not get out of their seats.
12:00pm - Arabic or Gym class. If Arabic, leave classroom so Arabic teacher can come in and teach. If Gym, lead kids to bus. Take deep breaths. Cry, maybe. Try to eat. Fail to eat. Organize materials for the rest of the day.
1:00pm - Arabic or Gym finished. If Arabic, students are mentally 'done' and need an active sort of brain break. Try to finish reading lesson. Attempt 'silent' reading. Ha.
1:45pm - Recess time. Most likely miss most of recess time because students are too excited to line up quietly.
2:00pm - Put on 10 minutes of Magic School Bus video for students to watch while they collect their backpacks, homework, and get ready to go out to the buses.
2:15pm - Frantically try to keep track of 29 children in the crush of bodies. Try to get the right kids on the 13 different buses.
2:30pm - Hand last child off to parents. Take a drink of water. (Have I drunk any water yet today? Can't remember.) Head to one of many staff meetings.
3:30pm - Put classroom back in order. Begin to make plans for tomorrow. Maybe cry a little.
5:30 or 6:00pm - Head home. Cry on Mark's shoulder. Try to eat supper. Succeed slightly.
6:30pm - Work on planning lessons. Try to figure out what will work to get class to relax, stop chattering, and listen.
9:00pm - Go to bed, exhausted.
10:30pm - Fall asleep after tossing and turning. Music starts up through the wall. Wake up. Lie there feeling angry and exhausted.
11:30pm - Music stops. Fall asleep for real.

Thankfully, since Thursday, there has been a lot less crying in my day. And since talking to my neighbors, there hasn't been much in the way of loud music at 10:30 at night. And as I mentioned above, things are looking up for my class now that I don't have quite so many students. In my next blog, whenever that is, I will spend some time talking about my students!

Sunday, September 1, 2013

My classroom is ready for action!

So, it may kind of feel like I've fallen off the face of the earth. And that is largely true, except where my classroom and school-related work on my computer at home is concerned. I have never been this busy in my life. Not even during finals week of college. College feels like a walk in the park in comparison to getting ready to teach first graders. And I haven't even started the graduate classes I'll be taking this semester. But I'm not really complaining because, when I can muster up the confidence to imagine that I will be able to manage my first grade classroom, I am actually having a lot of fun. (If I'm having a less confident moment and imagining my students running around the room screaming while I watch powerlessly... then not so much fun.) 

I've spent the last week setting up my classroom and preparing lessons for my first week of school (gasp). School starts on Tuesday. I still can't say that without a few heart palpitations. But I am pretty excited about my classroom. It's nothing spectacular compared to some of the classrooms I've been ogling on other first grade teacher blogs, but for my first year of teaching with virtually no resources provided by the school, I'm pretty proud of it. Let me take you on a tour! 

This is the door to my classroom. I'm sorry the picture's blurry. This is on the inside of the door so kids outside can't pick at it. Other teachers recommended that I cover over at least the bottom half of the window on my door so that when other kids are in the halls they aren't distracting my little ones from learning.

This is the big whiteboard inside my classroom. (The door you just saw is to the right, just outside of this picture.) I'm planning on not using the whiteboard for teaching, as you may guess. I just didn't find this summer that when I was up at the whiteboard my students could pay attention as well. There's a lot here. So on the whiteboard I have a spot for Team Points. Students will be divided into teams (their table) and they will earn points for good choices and lose points for poor choices. Underneath is a schedule. Moving counterclockwise, next is the job charts. Students will have jobs and earn 'money' for their jobs. The money they earn is tied to their behavior management system and they will have to pay money for poor choices they make individually. They will get to spend money they make at a class store on Fridays. Above the job chart is the Friday Celebration box. Students will have 15 minutes set aside for a Friday Celebration activity of their choice at the beginning of the week. (Friday Celebrations could be things like more reading time, games, an educational video, a dance party, etc.) If they work efficiently, they will be able to earn more minutes for the Friday Celebration. If they waste time as a class, they will lose minutes. And finally, in the center top of the whiteboard is our Voice-o-Meter. I'm hoping to use this to help the kids know how loud their voices can be when working on a given activity.

To the right of the board is our Behavior Ladder. Students will have clothespins with their names on them that will start at the top of the ladder at the beginning of the day. For each poor choice they make, they will be asked to move their clip down. Each move down has other consequences, such as paying me one Scholar Dollar, spending a few minutes in the Spot for Thought, taking Thinking Laps during recess, and so forth.

Below the board are two posters: "Growing in math together" is where we will track our achievement in math as a class. For each objective we get 80% on (as a class) we will get to put one green leaf on the tree. "We show character" is where we will record the character traits we learn about and that we are trying to show as a class. Pretty much all of my students are Muslim, which is why the little girl is wearing hijab. It may look like the little boy is elbowing the little girl out of the way, but he's not. I drew the little boy first, intending to just have one child on the poster but then I decided I needed a boy and a girl and I didn't want to start over. So my new plan is that the words for the character traits that we learn will go to the left of the little boy on the poster. Students who show those character traits and get nominated by a classmate (or me) will get their name put next to the little girl under the "Look Who" sign. I might take pictures, instead of having their name go up. I'm not sure yet.

Over here is our Class Rules poster. On the first day of school we will brainstorm together as a class what each of these rules looks and sounds like and put those descriptors under the rule. The floating head is the beginning of our tracker for minutes read. For every 200 minutes read as a class we will get to add one length to the caterpillar. Since the students will be required to read at least 20 minutes a night and since I have 28 students, hopefully by the end of the year he will be one loooooong caterpillar winding his way all around the classroom.

This part of the room is also our 'organizational' corner. Students deposit their homework and Home-School folders here when they come in in the morning. The cardboard tray thing is for any mail that needs to go in the student mailboxes. Once the job system is up and running one student will have the job of checking that mailbox at the end of the day and putting mail in student mailboxes before we pack up our backpacks. I'm pretty excited about my student mailboxes too. They're made out of pizza boxes which I purchased from a Papa John's near my parents' house. (I say 'purchased,' but they were really cheap and the Papa John's manager who helped me was so friendly! I honestly left with a smile on my face.)

 Here's a closer look at the mailboxes. Students will each have a number. They will put that number on every worksheet they do. Their cubbies outside the classroom also have those numbers.

 This is our Calendar Time and Morning Meeting corner. I'll also be doing most of my large-group teaching in this area. Up in the left corner is a "Path to College" poster my sister helped me make. We'll talk during the first couple of weeks about how first grade is only the beginning and each grade they go through is a step toward college and what happens after college. I want to really stress the importance of doing your best in every grade so that you're prepared to move on to the next grade. Anyway, there's a lot going on by the Calendar Math Time bulletin board. There's the calendar (which I know is showing July in this picture), a weather graph, a pocket chart for yesterday, today, tomorrow, last month, this month, and next month, a hundred chart, a tooth-lost tally chart, a birthday graph, and a days-of-the-month tally chart. Oh, and the calendar itself and a clock. I'm still working through how I'm going to use each of these things and in what order. I won't start calendar time until the second week of school.

The rolling whiteboard cart is where I'll do most of my teaching. The students will be sitting on the carpet (which I know is a boring brown, but since I didn't have much to spend on carpets, I had to take what I could get). I'm not sure if I'll sit in the rocking chair all the time or reserve that for the read-aloud at the end of the day.

Oh, and the 80% Club is peeking through under the cart. Every time we have a test as a class, students who get 80% or more will get to put their names up on the chart. We'll see how this goes. I want this to be a motivational tool and not a source of discouragement. If I'm not a good teacher and am not giving my students what they need to succeed, then it probably won't be helping and will probably disappear.

This is in the back of our classroom and is our science tracker. Every time we master a science objective as a class at 80% we will add an animal or plant to this picture, so hopefully by the end of the year it will be a vibrant ecosystem.

Over here is my small group table and where students will pick up their pencils at the beginning of the day and deposit them at the end of the day. My teacher desk, file cabinet, and other organizational tools are back here. I love that open file box on the counter that I found at Goodwill. I'm using five of the spaces for each day of the week. So I can make my copies for the next week at the end of  the week and put them in the slot for what day we're going to use them. That's all assuming I can stay one week ahead. Ha.

 And over here is our classroom library. I've leveled the books according to DRA levels because that's what I'll be using to measure student progress throughout the year. A dear friend of mine got my church back in Iowa to put on a book drive for me, so I have more books coming today! I'm sooooo excited about that, as I really don't have enough books for 28 kids right now and our school has no library.

I realized now I didn't take pictures of my student tables and their chair pockets or my word wall. Oh well! I'll have to add those pictures later. In any case, despite being frightfully nervous, I'm terribly excited to start teaching on Tuesday!