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Saturday, October 30, 2010


I love conferences.

Of course, at first, I hate conferences. Or rather, I dread them. Even though I regularly stay at school until 6:00, staying until 7:00 for conferences just seems so much later. The conferences themselves are exhausting. I speak Spanish well enough to conduct my own conferences in Spanish, but my mind goes into overdrive trying to think about how to say everything. I'm chatty with the parents, and so my conferences - even though I give myself longer for each conference than most teachers - tend to run over. For this reason, I try not to plan more than a few in a row. I give myself conference-free blocks of 30 minutes ever 3 conferences or so, so that I can catch up. Because of these buffer times, I have to schedule more long days than most teachers. But that's okay.

Because really, I love conferences. I wish I had more time for them. I wish we did them more often. I wish we had an opportunity for some sort of "pre" conference at the very beginning of the year. It would be great to have a time during the second week of school when all parents were supposed to come, talk to me for 15 minutes, and just tell me about their children and their children's family. I learn so much during these conferences, nearly 3 months into the school year, that would have been useful to know during the beginning months.

First of all, I just love to observe the family dynamic. I get to see this a little bit at "meet the teacher" night, before school begins. But, that's not in a one-on-one setting. There can be 10 kids and their families in the room at that time, and the kids are scared and quiet and the families are nervous and checking out the teacher.

During conferences, I was able to see that quiet P--- is so chatty and talkative with her mother - and when she is able to speak in Spanish. I couldn't even get P--- to talk at all during the first week of school. For the next two weeks, she would pretty much only speak when given the opportunity to talk into a microphone (oddly enough). Now, she talks to me and everyone else in the class, but her productive English is low, and she struggles. With her mother and me at conferences though, she was talking and talking, bouncing around the room showing her mother all our books, telling her mother what she's learned, begging and begging to read some of our favorite books to her mom. I also noticed at this time that in Spanish, she has a stutter. I've started to notice this in class a bit, too, as she speaks more and talks using multiple words (instead of one-word responses/questions). Without the opportunity to hear her fluently speak in Spanish during conferences, I may never have noticed this.

I was able to see R--- and his family. I didn't just get one parent, but I got his mom, his, dad, his big brother, and his little sister. R--- was so adorable throughout the conference. After he did his part (reading three notes to his parents about the things he had learned so far, and reading them a book he had practiced) he jumped up and asked me, "can I teach my sister how to count?" I told him that yes, while I talked with his parents about the boring things like "test" scores, he could teach his little sister to count. R--- called his sister over to a big 100s Chart and started counting. "Okay, listen to me" he commanded her, and he pointed to the numbers and counted. "One, two, three... Now your turn." I can tell R--- has been listening in class.

E---'s whole family came. I know that his mom and dad don't live together, and I told them that we could do two separate conferences, if they wanted, instead of just one, since I don't know their dynamic. They said one conference was fine, and E--- ended up coming with his mom, his mom's baby, his dad, his dad's new wife, their new baby, and another toddler. I've never had so many babies and parents in a conference. It was distracting to me, but wonderful to see so many people caring about E--- and his schooling. Everyone asked questions - his mom, his dad, and his stepmom.

During C---'s conference, I found out that she had started kindergarten in Mexico before moving to the US last year. I didn't know this, and it helps explain why her English is so low. I also learned that she lives with her grandparents, not her parents. Her parents still live in Mexico. They basically gave her up to the grandmother so that C--- could attend school in the US. C---'s grandmother (who C--- calls "mom") said that they are trying to help her, but that they don't know any English. I tried to reassure the grandmother that numbers are numbers and words are words. If they do all they can to help her in Spanish, I'll do all I can to transfer that understanding to English.

(In fact, I ended up reassuring a LOT of parents that same thing. It makes me curious - what are the kindergarten teachers saying? Are they telling the parents not to support the children's learning in Spanish? At this point, I have so many students who still don't know the numbers 1 through 20. I don't care if they know them in English or Spanish or any other language - conceptual understanding is conceptual understanding.)

My biggest shock was L---. L--- tells me about his mother a lot. I've never seen her before, but L--- talks about her being pregnant or something along those lines, so I assumed she was just staying home for that reason. It turns out that actually, she is dead. She died three or four years ago, I think with complications from the birth of a younger sibling. (And this is where I wish my "conversational" Spanish was stronger.) The father told me all this in front of L---, so it's not a secret. But, the father also said (again, in front of the child) that L--- doesn't really understand, that L--- thinks she is just in Mexico or something like that. It would have been nice to know this a bit earlier, especially since the mother is a daily topic of conversation for L---. Now I'm looking around to see if there is any therapist or counselor who can talk to L--- about this. At my school, the school psychologist doesn't work with children - all he does is test. But maybe he knows of an outside organization that does free child therapy...

I also love conferences because they help me make a point. People always complain about the apathy of parents. That "parents these days don't care anymore." Or that, "'THOSE' parents don't care." Despite the fact that I work in an "inner city" school, that my students all come from Spanish-speaking homes (and are English language learners), that most of the students qualify for free or reduced lunch, that most of the students are first or second generation immigrants - despite all that, the families come (in full force!) and they care, and they want to help. I had 96% of my students come to conferences. I am missing one student. I still plan on calling the parent and reminding them to come in. My goal is 100% attendance. I've done it before, and I can do it again.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Welcome to my 3rd Year Teaching!

This has been a really hard year so far.

It started the first week of school when students kept enrolling, and getting put in my class. More and more students. It got to be nearly a joke. I got 10 new students over the course of the first week of school.

The part that bothered me the most, though, was that classroom numbers were (and are) wildly unequal at my grade level. Some classes have 10 students fewer than me. The irony is, in my insane state, that segregates children based upon English language proficiency, I am working with the group of students that is supposed to have the smallest class size. Even the State Department of Education advises that classes such as mine have fewer students than I currently have. But, because "language levels" cannot be mixed, and my administration is not willing to find ways around the rule, I have 10 more students in my class than teachers in my grade level with less "needy" students.

I know it's not helpful, or healthy, but every day I look across the hall at the teacher who has so, so many fewer students than me, and imagine all things I could do if I had that number of students. I could actually meet the needs of my students! There would be room in the classroom to move around! I would have enough materials for all the students! It would be a dream!

Aside from the sheer number of students, this is the chattiest group of students I have ever had. So chatty. SO CHATTY. I have tried so many different things to try to get them to use the chattiness for good, not evil. Before we read any story, the students talk about their predictions of every single page with a partner. While we read the stories we have ample opportunities to share with a partner. At the end of the story, students talk with a partner. We're starting to figure out how read-alouds work.

Direction-giving time, though, is still a mess. I cannot for the life of me figure out how to get the students to pay attention to the directions/rules for games during math or literacy centers. This results in the direction-giving times lasting too long, (since I have to repeat myself so many times, since students aren't listening) and students getting antsy and bugging each other.

And that's another issue that I have not experienced before. Students are stealthily mean to each other. I have had so many parents talk to me, telling me that XXX student and YYY student are bothering their child, and why am I not doing anything about it. I see nothing in the classroom. If I see nothing in the classroom, I'm not sure what to do about it, since I don't know who is telling the truth. We have had "discussions" (which means we sit in a circle and talk). We have role-played. We have drawn pictures, written stories, taken photographs of positive models. I cannot get the children to be regularly kind to one-another, to keep their hands off of other people, to stop calling each other names or threatening to not be friends.

My current goal, in this area, is to figure out how to get students to differentiate between "tattling" and telling the teacher when someone is bothering them in a more serious way. We made a chart today that lists "cheating during centers games," "stealing my crayon" and "bothering me in line to get a drink" as things that do not require teacher interference. "Pinching, hitting, and pushing" and "if someone bothers me after I tell them to stop 3 times" were put under the heading "Tell the Teacher." I don't know if that's right, or not. We'll see if anything come of it.

Aside from teaching, I have spent the last month or so obsessively following all the Waiting for Superman controversy on the internet. For the record, I think the movie Waiting for Superman is a teacher-bashing, charter-supporting, privately funded, harmful piece of propaganda. I've read nearly every article posted by Not Waiting for Superman on their Facebook page. (As a result, I have a renewed love for Alfie Kohn, which is a whole different story...) I just don't understand why people aren't stopping to look at the community and socioeconomic factors that influence schools and the students who attend schools. Some day, when I have more energy, I will write more about that, hopefully...

I also am about 3/4 done with my masters degree. This semester I am working on an action research project, and have been taking reflective notes on some of the things I do in the classroom. I'm hoping I can take some of those ideas and turn them into blog posts, and maybe actually post on this blog! I really enjoy going back and reading my thoughts from student teaching and my first year teaching. I'm sad that I have practically nothing from last year. I need to document my development as a teacher, so I can look back on it in 10 years and laugh (or cry, I don't know which).